Change is Always Possible
In ancient times the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, famously said, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’ and woman, (my insert). Something similar was reflected in more recent times by Freud, who was often described as the ‘father of psychiatry.’ Freud believed that as an individual passed through various stages of childhood development, their personality emerged; a composite of these early experiences. If these stages were not satisfactorily completed, a child’s future coping and functioning ability as an adult would be compromised. In a similar way, the work of child psychiatrist and psychotherapist John Bowlby emphasises the importance of childhood in the development of the individual. Bowlby, along with his colleague Mary Ainsworth, believed that how we behave in relationships – our ‘attachment style’ – is established when we are quite young. The main attachment styles they identified were: Secure, Anxious-Insecure, Anxious-Avoidant, Disorganised and Ambivalent. A securely attached child views their relationships with parents, teachers or friends as ‘safe’ places where their needs will be met. A child with an attachment style from the other three categories is likely to be more anxious and mistrustful of relationships, and will have experienced their needs as not being heard, or met. As adults, this latter group may fear too much close contact, rejecting others to protect themselves from pain, their resulting loneliness preferable to feelings of rejection and abandonment.
The above theories imply the importance of things being right in our early years. If not, there is an implication that we are destined to have unhappy lives with difficult, frustrating relationships. Yet the psychologist Erik Erikson developed a more flexible view of development, one that continued over the life-span. It is true that Erikson claimed that by the age of seven, a child has crossed three stages of important psychosocial development. However, he proposed that human development doesn’t stop after this age, but rather continued through what he described as ‘the eight stages of man.’ Each of these 8 stages is defined by a pair of opposing emotional forces: trust vs mistrust; autonomy vs shame/doubt; initiative vs guilt; industry vs inferiority; identity vs role confusion; intimacy vs isolation; generativity vs stagnation, and integrity vs despair. We need to resolve these tensions at each stage if we are to maximise our potential as human beings. Depending on our age, we can probably all recognise at least some, if not all of these developmental challenges.i
Happily, for those of us who did not have ideal childhoods and/or attachment figures, Erikson’s eight stages provides us with more hopeful possibilities as we go through our lives. Our identity doesn’t have to be set in plaster. We can change. Erikson argued for neuroplasticity long before it became a mainstream area of research.ii Since then, there are many people who argue that even with childhood adversity, you can develop to become a positive adult, one who contributes to society. This is supported by research.iii There are many examples: Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, Charlize Theron, J-Z, Malala Yousafzai to name but a few. I’m sure you could add several of your own. There are many resources that could help in overcoming difficult early years. It is not easy, but therapy can be helpful, as can other approaches including mindfulness, developing your spirituality, knowing your values, challenging negative thoughts and learning how to negotiate conflict.
So, the message is don’t despair, you can always make changes in your life for the better. Even Aristotle himself believed that if we are able to learn from our experiences, we can develop strength of character and live a life of ‘virtue, purpose and meaning.’ iv
i. The interested reader is encouraged to obtain work by Erik Erikson, e.g. Lifestyle Cycle Completed
ii. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain (once believed to be fixed) to change continuously through life
iii. Jude Miller Burke
iv. John G Messerly a philosopher who writes about the ancient philosophers, including Aristotle