Identity vs. Role Confusion
A Spiritual Look at Erik Erikson’s Theory of Personality Development
Part 5 of 8
March 20, 2011
“I’ve grown certain that the root of all fear is that we’ve been forced to deny who we are.” ~Frances Moore Lappe
““The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.” ~Richard R Grant
As we examine Erickson’s fifth stage of personality development, we enter into the adolescence stage of 12-19 years of age. Just the word adolescence conjures all sorts of feelings and images for most people given the volatile time it represents and rightfully so. Erickson named this stage Identity vs. Role Confusion and this period of time is defined by confusion within the mind and body in a quest to find out who you are in this world. The corresponding virtue developed at this stage is fidelity, also known as commitment not only to relationships but causes, morals and ideals particularly around religion and politics.
From our developing identity or lack of identity we will either choose our loyalties and commitments or we will steer clear of them, confused about what we truly believe in. Therefore, once we’ve reached this stage, a prior foundation in previous stages can determine our level and clarity of fidelity. Being able to discern our own wants and needs from those of others proves difficult since we are constantly concerned about how we appear to others during this stage.
The philosophical question at this juncture is: Who am I and where am I going? During adolescence we begin to play with our identity in a “grown-up” way. We rebel against our parent’s way of being to prove we are separate from them. It mirrors the terrible twos and Erickson’s stage of Autonomy vs. Shame. We test out different personas, choosing our friends accordingly, attempting to determine who we are. If I’m not like parents, then perhaps I’m like… This leads to engaging with groups whose personas match our perception of ourselves. In addition, whom we think we “should” be butts up against who we think we are and we strive to attain balance in that area.
With the intense physiological changes with hormones, developing a sexual identity emerges here as well. We begin “dating” and playing with different roles within a romantic relationship. In a spiritual sense, we begin experimenting with our role in relationships ultimately mirroring what our relationship up to this point may be with Source and the physical reflection of that “connection”, our relationship with our parents. Therefore, we often play out what we’ve learned or choose the exact opposite in an attempt to heal. Again, levels of health are significant here. As adults, we can, without judgment, examine where we’ve been wounded and how it affected this stage in our development creating opportunities to shift the pattern where needed.
This stage acts as a cross roads of sorts since it represents the bridge from childhood to adulthood. As such, this stage is categorized by ending at age 19, but that is not necessarily true. Each society has different values and expectations of their growing children and this can either support or hinder the “moratorium” period of finding oneself, your identity and your place in the world. Wounds, trauma, and abuse can also cause this stage to extend for years where the time needed to experiment was interrupted. In the world of Spirit, there is no time and this sense of experimentation and experience is necessary to find our true connection to Spirit one that comes from within not from an intellectual understanding of what others tell us.
Whether or not Erickson realized it, he tapped into the two ways that Spirit is present uniquely at this stage. With the development of the virtue of fidelity, the commitments and trust we are building outwardly, truly mirror our relationship with our own internal fidelity. When we come to a place of trust and commitment to ourselves then we can have a healthy relationship with Spirit and therefore other people. Secondly, how we build that healthy relationship is by listening to our internal guidance system. This intuition is not only helping guide us to make higher life choices for our future, but it serves to keep us safe during a time when “thinking we know it all” can be pervasive. We are truly being “watched over” during this vulnerable stage. By becoming conscious and aware of it or helping others to develop that guidance and connection, the road into adulthood can become less bumpy and more of an exciting adventure.
Building character and honesty during this stage can mitigate long-term affects in adulthood. With the confusion of identity and finding your ”true” self, the search can turn to self-indulgence and cause negative impact on those around you as you search for yourself. Fidelity turns to infidelity and thus threatens the trust in your relationships including with yourself. Erikson notes that up until this stage our development is based on “what’s been done to us” but now it becomes based on “what we do”. Doing things that are in alignment with our spiritual self creates the potential of reconnecting us to the lost sense of Source, which was necessary in establishing our physical safety and ego structure. Although developing an ego identity is important in making choices toward a career, marriage partner, etc, our truest sense of self will always arise from our Spirit within and our daily relationship with Source.
Healing the Wounded Adolescent in the Adult Writing Exercise: If you had difficulty, trauma, wounds or abuse during the adolescent stage. Here is a writing exercise to help healing in order to more fully integrate your true identity as an adult.
• What was expected of you as an adolescent? By your parents, peers, teachers and other role models?
• Were you happy with these expectations or did you feel misunderstood? If yes, how?
• What spiritual influences, if any, did you have during those years?
• What was your first romantic relationship like? What memories does it conjure? Emotions?
• Do you recognize any patterns still inherent in your life, which were born during this time?
• How would you describe your identity at that time? Now?
• How do you react to adolescents now? Are you triggered? Amused? Your feelings and reactions are a clue to where you are unhealed.
• What was the best memory of your adolescence?
• What was the worst memory of your adolescence?
• Reflect on what you think you knew then and what you actually know now and do a forgiveness and/or apology ritual to your caregivers, parents, etc. You don’t have to speak to them directly; this exercise is between you and Spirit.
• When you complete the writing exercise, do a ritual where it is safe to burn what you’ve just written in a fireplace, fire pit, fire safe pot, etc. During the burning, as you see the smoke rising, speak to your higher self, god/goddess/all that is, angels or ascended masters and request healing for the wounded parts of your adolescence.
• Choose a totem of some kind that represents this healing and your favorite part of this time of your life. Keep it on an altar or someplace visible on a daily basis to further remind your subconscious of the healing and gifts of this period.
HELPING THE ADOLESCENT YOU ARE PARENTING:
• Honor their individual identity but be clear with your boundaries.
• Insist they honor their commitments.
• Encourage meditation, yoga, and prayer.
• Encourage self-expression such as art, singing, acting, and music.
• Trust them.
• Model what you want to see them do.
• Youth groups of any spiritual background are exceptional during this time. When there is a peer group mirroring preferred ideas instead of a parent lecturing, the adolescent is able to be more open to hearing it and forming their own identity around their thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
• What freedoms are you willing to give in the search for identity? Can they wear what they want; have any hairstyle, color, etc? Spend their money and time on what they want in exchange for following the rules, getting good grades. Will you let them choose their future career or steer them in the direction you think they should go? If their choices are not troubling, self-destructive, etc. it’s wise to allow them even if you don’t agree.