Trust vs Mistrust
A Spiritual Look at Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Personality Development
“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” ~ Benjamin Spock
“Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” ~ Golda Meir
Erik Erikson, a renowned developmental psychologist, was best known for his theory on the eight stages of personality development. The 1st stage, Trust vs. Mistrust is defined as the infant stage, ages 0-1 year old. Essentially it reflects whether you feel as though you have reliable caregivers. For instance, if you are not fed in a timely manner or soothed and nurtured when you cry, you begin to conclude that you do not have reliable caregivers. In the last 30 years, it has been proven that the “cry it out” method is more harmful than effective and has no value in teaching children self-sufficiency. That is a lesson for later in life and something Erickson demonstrated long before it became widely accepted. Whether or not you feel you have reliable caregivers carries over to whether you feel other people and the world in general is reliable and safe. If your basic needs are not met through your caregivers, then a general feeling of mistrust in the world is developed.
Spiritually speaking, as children, our parents are the only physical symbols of Spirit/God/Source we really have. Therefore, early on, our concept of Spirit/God/Source is formed through the care, comfort and consistency we receive from our caregivers or do not receive. Another word for trust is faith and therefore, our sense of faith is formed quite early, pre-verbal in fact. Of course, we have no complex cognitive skills at that time. However, when we reach the stage of cognitive development that allows for spiritual concepts to be introduced and understood, the choices we make and the beliefs we already hold have a lot to do with what has been encoded in the cellular structure of our body based on pre-verbal experiences.
Erikson further demonstrated that each stage of development assists in the development of a specific virtue. In addition, he noted that both the negative and positive aspects of each developmental stage needed to be experienced in order to develop the virtue to the fullest. In other words, we need to experience Trust AND Mistrust for the fullest development of the virtue of Hope. In this way, without knowing it, Erickson made allowances for individual soul paths and life lessons along the way. Although Hope is a virtue common to all humans, their individual spiritual path to experiencing that may vary due to soul lessons and contracts, not physical, earth-rooted developmental stages.
Ultimately, one of the most important aspects on our spiritual path is the development of Faith. Faith grows from the seed of Hope. Deep Faith in a higher power and trust in yourself is essential in creating a happy, peaceful and abundant life. If you truly trust in God to take care of you, what is there to fret about? Our mistrust does not need to project outwardly to those in our reality. By doing so, we put the source of our faith in the hands of other human beings instead of Spirit and then are surprised when we feel betrayed. Any betrayal we are experiencing externally is reflective of a belief we hold or a lesson we need to learn. When we can accept that responsibility, trust ourselves to respond successfully and have faith that God will guide the way, then mistakes become learning experiences instead of failures and we always know our hand is being held by spirit regardless of the circumstances.
I’ve often circled back to “well I just don’t trust _____________, during my process. You could fill that blank in with almost anything and anyone I’ve come in contact with at one time or another. The truth is, my sense of trust was damaged very early on. Regardless, it became my lesson and my responsibility to heal that breach and place my faith in a higher power and in myself. I cannot look to other people to demonstrate trust. I can look to other people in my reality as reflections of whether I am in alignment with Faith and trusting my reality and myself. If what is being reflected back to me is untrustworthy people and situations then it’s clear I have work to do.
Several key factors have lent itself to my damaged sense of faith or as Erikson would characterize, “mistrust”. First, I was not a wanted pregnancy. Second, I was born with a serious case of bronchitis and was in intensive care for eight days under an oxygen tent with little human contact. That lack of human contact and touch was further exacerbated due to my being bottle-fed and not breastfed. In those days, formula for babies was new and “all the rage”. It was touted as better than breast milk at the time and the hospitals were in partnership with companies to provide their product and encourage mothers NOT to breastfeed. It seems criminal now, but back then it was completely accepted. My mother received her shot to “dry up” her milk and fed me formula. She admitted to just leaving me in my crib with my bottle much of the time. Lastly, I was originally to be given up for adoption, with a social worker at the hospital ready to pick me up and deliver me to a new family. My mother, however, decided she wanted to see me first, which was not advised, and changed her mind at the last minute.
The sequence of events is certainly no ones fault and of course part of my soul’s path. I don’t illustrate it to judge my mother or other caretakers or pity myself or paint myself as a victim. However, it does make it sense that because I wasn’t tended to and nurtured in an ideal way, certain beliefs formed in my body and cells about the outside world. It was not a friendly place. This awareness without judgment becomes very helpful in healing the belief system formed early on. It empowers me to care and nurture myself and build my own intimate relationship with Spirit. Through that empowerment and relationship with Spirit I can make more conscious aware choices about my life and what I want to do with it. Life is not happening TO me; I am an active participant. Without the initial awareness, however, no healing can take place.
That awareness has not only brought me healing, but it touches the lives of those I connect with. When we share who we are and our stories with one another from a place of healing instead of victimhood, it inspires, invokes and initiates a healing process for others. Our service in the world not only consists of demonstrating our gifts and talents but also in sharing who we are and the experiences that helped form us.
So take the time to reflect today on your infant experience. Do some research, talk to some family members, scan the photo albums and your own memories. Do so as if you are researching another party and not yourself. This will help you stay out of reactionary emotion and judgment. When you find “evidence” that may illustrate where some pre-verbal trust issues were breached, have gratitude for the awareness instead of blame and pity for what “should have” been. Once you’ve obtained your awareness, do the meditative process that follows to empower yourself and heal your infant. This awareness and healing will have a domino effect in your life.
EXERCISE TO REBUILD TRUST WITH YOUR INFANT:
You are the caretaker now of your unhealed infant. First prepare to meditate by going to a quiet place where you will not be interrupted whether outside in nature or in a private room indoors.
Take several deep breaths to alter your brain chemistry and nervous system. Quietly or silently tell your mind, body and spirit it’s time to meditate.
Close your eyes, count back from 20 and go to an imaginary “safe place” in your meditation. Anywhere you feel safe is acceptable, however, I recommend creating a place out in nature that feeds your soul’s sense of safety: a meadow, a forest, a special spot next to a river, waterfall, etc. Ask your Guides, Higher Self, Angel or Ascended Master of your choice to come be with you to assist in your meditation and hold the space for healing.
Once settled into your safe place with your “assistant”, you can then ask for your “wounded” infant to come to you. Your “assistant” will bring your infant to you and place her in your arms. At that point you can begin talking to her and nurturing her. You can tell her that although it wasn’t safe at one time to trust, that she is safe now in your care and will be cared for and nurtured in the way she’s always wanted and needed. Stroke her head, rock her, kiss her, rub her back. Tell her she is safe and can let you know whenever she needs anything and you will provide it for her. Affirm to her with clear statements: “You are safe”, “You are loved”, “You are wanted”, “You matter” and anything else you feel guided to say.
Then, invoke the help of her Higher Self, Guides or other unconditionally loving friends and ask them to work on her for her highest good. Ask them for healing for her and for the highest good of all concerned. When you feel complete in this intimate exchange you can place her in the care of your “assistant” and come out of meditation, knowing she will now let you know when she wants or needs something and you will be able to discern that and act appropriately. Further, you can know that healing on levels you can’t see or even understand are taking place just through the simple, loving request for it.
Some clues to when she might be in need of something are “trigger” situations that might cause you, as an adult, to act “infantile”. For example, I have an extreme fear of heights, sometimes to the point where I can’t climb a flight of stairs that’s too high for fear of plummeting to my death. It’s not rational. The infant within me did indeed fall once. I rolled off my changing table and “plummeted” to the floor with a crash. An honest mistake almost any parent could make, but nonetheless, it lives in my body. I have worked with this fear and now can use self-talk to that scared baby inside and explain that I, as an adult, am capable of caring for her and she is safe on this staircase, elevator, amusement park ride, etc. Therefore irrational emotional reactions in any given situation are a clue that another part of you is in need of love, nurturing and assurance.
Stay tuned for a spiritual look at Erikson’s next stage of personality development:
Autonomy vs. Shame in the next issue of Awakenings Magazine.