Shielagh Shusta Hochberg, Ph.D. - Personal Growth Throughout the Life Cycle
Meditations and Reflections

The Development of the Self

We have no sense of self at birth.
We simply are. We perceive sound, light, touch and the inner experiences of pain, hunger, cold and wetness, but not much else. We cannot tell, for example, where we end and the rest of the world begins. A foot waving in the air can be intriguing, something to grab at, tether and taste. A face looming close may represent relief from discomfort, or not.
 
As we grow, we begin to understand that we are separate beings from the owners of the looming faces. We cry and they come, hopefully, bearing food or dry clothing, or a loving touch, although we do not yet know what that is. We do, however, like it.

Somewhere around the age of two, we begin to exert some control over our world, hence the typical “No!” of the two-year-old. “I’m me, not you,” we say. And the wise parent offers choices so we can assert that new control. The red shirt or the blue, the chocolate ice cream or the orange ice, the teddy bear or the blocks.
 
When our parents or primary caregivers are able,  healthy enough mentally, emotionally and physically to be adequately present and responsive to our needs, the process unfolds quite predictably, and we grow in all ways appropriate to our stages of development. They praise our accomplishments, be they skills such as toilet training or shoelace tying, or milestones of maturity, such as speaking intelligibly, sharing our toys with other children, or waiting our turn in a group. They celebrate our moments of happiness with us, and embrace us in our misery over skinned knees, hurt feelings, or major disappointments.
 
We learn then that, regardless of our confidence or timidity of temperament, the world is a safe enough place. If hardships come, the holding environment of our parents helps us through. We grow in competence and move through the stages of our childhood, learning the tasks of those years and moving forward.
 
Then adolescence hits us in all domains of our lives: 
socially, physically, emotionally, and even mentally. The surge of hormones that change our bodies throws us into chaos at every level. The parents now have new challenges with us, because we revert to that rebellion of those “terrible twos” and declare, “I’m me, not you!” with a vengeance. We push the parents away just when we need their guidance most, and it is a difficult time for all concerned.
 
Just as before,
when our parents are capable, healthy enough mentally, emotionally and physically to be adequately present and responsive to our needs, the process unfolds quite predictably, and we grow in all ways appropriate to our stages of development. They praise our accomplishments, be they skills such as mastering  math or soccer, or milestones of maturity, such as asking friends to a social event, making friends of a romantic nature, or getting and holding down a paying job, be it babysitting or mowing lawns. They celebrate our moments of happiness with us, and embrace us in our misery over acne, hurt feelings, or major disappointments. In short, the process is much the same, and we emerge with a sense of identity, and a whole sense of self. It is such an achievement when the adolescent can say with conviction, “I am...” and “I believe...”, even if the words change later on. The parent may not share these new convictions of identity, but hopefully can recall their own process and have faith the outcome will be adequate for adult functioning.
 
If the parents or primary caregivers are broken
by life’s injustices, mentally or emotionally impaired, or addicted or in some other way rendering them unequal to the tasks of responsible parenting, they may be incapable, not healthy enough mentally, emotionally nor physically to be adequately present and responsive to our needs. Then the process unfolds quite unpredictably, and we are thwarted in many of our attempts to grow in all ways appropriate to our stages of development. They may fail to understand or even belittle our accomplishments, shame us as we try to master crucial tasks of development, ignore our milestones of maturity, or resist our attempts at independence so necessary for adult functioning. They may be unable to rejoice with us in our moments of happiness, and embrace us in our misery, salve our hurt feelings, or guide us through disappointments.
 
This fragile self
that begins to emerge in infancy and assert itself boldly at two may be beaten back, frightened into regression, or dragged into more adult roles way too soon, leaving us with demands placed upon us that far exceed our abilities, forcing us to act as if we can do things until it seems we can. But we are still children.
 
And then the recapitulation of two comes again at adolescence and we may act out, or we may be too afraid to rebel at all. The many possibilities vary as much as the individuals involved. Some make it through in spite of challenging childhoods and/or adolescence and others emerge as broken as their parents.
 
So psychotherapy 
at times is a holding environment for learning about ourselves as much as it is making sense of what we have experienced in our families. We work together on the puzzle that is our history,  our milestones of development, and our strengths as well as our confusions past and present. We find that the prejudices of our parents distress us and we swear we will never shame our own child or speak unkindly of people of another class, ethnicity or race, but then some of the early programming erupts and the very things we thought we would never say or do are said and done.  Often it is this paradox that drives us to seek outside help to address it. In therapy we can at last explore how that early programming occurred and how to move forward from it.

Sometimes therapy is the place where we try 
out the words and actions that fit the stage where social or emotional growing was thwarted.  We say the hurtful word or voice the toxic sentiment and the therapist responds, imperfectly perhaps, but responds as a capable enough adult and helps us figure out what it means. Some may even stage tantrums or act out in session in an attempt to work through their issues, and the wise therapist tries to confront and redirect that energy so that our words frame the frustration previously so difficult, or even so unsafe, to express.  
 
The self needs nurturing, and if we have never had any, or never had enough, we may not realize that the nurturing we need in adulthood must first come from ourselves to ourselves, acting "as if" until we mean it, taking healthy self-caring actions awkwardly until doing so is familiar.
 
Our therapists celebrate our moments of happiness with us
and sit with us us in our misery over illness, hurt feelings, loss and major disappointments. In short, the process of therapy is similar to the good enough parenting, and we emerge with a more complete and authentic sense of identity, and a more whole sense of self. It is such an achievement when a patient can tell the therapist with conviction, “I am...” and “I believe...”, even if the words change later on.
 
Just as no parent is perfect, and each brings the scars and botched lessons of his or her own past along into the mix, neither is any therapist perfect, bringing him- or herself along into the therapeutic alliance.  As we practice the human interaction in session, trying out new skills of enlightened self-interest and assertiveness, as well as revisiting  the painful lessons of childhood and adolescence, the better equipped we become to live wisely in the world. The healthier we become, the better able all of us will be to accept the human entirety and good will offered and forgive the imperfections in others and ourselves so very evident along the way.
 
 

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