Sense of Self: Stage Two

*Sense of Self is a blog series about learning to develop a strong sense of self. View the first post in the series to gain more insight about human development and how your sense of self might be effecting your everyday life.

Welcome back! As we consider together what makes a person strong, resilient, and well-adjusted, we come Erickson’s second stage of human development. The crisis here is autonomy vs. doubt and shame. Basically between ages 1 and 3, humans begin to reach outward to their environment and start to discover that they have agency in their environment and can affect it. The outcome of that affectation will either result in self-confidence and independence or self-doubt, shame, and low self-esteem. This is where those wild processes of socialization and observational learning begin.

Stage Two: Autonomy vs. Doubt and Shame

The child tries something, gauges the response, and stores that response away to inform future behaviors and choices. This process - as most - can result in either bad, neutral, or good outcomes for the small, developing soul. If we take, for example, a child that wants to tie their shoes on their own for the first few times. This can go one of a few ways.

Good: The child does a good job and is praised for their endeavor, therefore they learn that they can affect their environment for good on their own with a good outcome.

Neutral: The child does a bad job, trips and falls and is compassionately retaught how to tie their shoe and told to try again next time, therefore they learn that they can affect their environment with both painful and hopeful/loving outcomes.

Bad: The child does a bad job, trips and falls and is ridiculed and berated for the bad try, therefore they learn that affecting their environment has painful physical and emotional outcomes (All three outcomes are examples of the process of socialization).

No matter the outcome, the child will store the “outcome file” in their memory and learning to be accessed next time they attempt something similar (observational learning). The child with the good and neutral outcomes will have confidence in trying again and will know the value of trying. The child with the bad outcome will be hesitant to try again and need extra encouragement and support.

Now, this seems small and insignificant in the case of trying to tie shoes for the first time - and honestly, it is! A child will store hundreds of memories to be called upon in these situations, so one time doesn’t matter as much as the whole sum of the memories. However, you can imagine that if a child tries to tie their shoes, eat, play on their own, and continually finds themselves not only failing, but berated for failing, it will have a negative effect on their development as a whole. It will begin to change the way they see their ability to relate to the world.

Over time, a being will see themselves as able or unable. They will begin to develop either a sense of self-confidence and strong autonomy, or they will begin to wither a bit and develop shame and self-doubt. Whichever of these wins out, they will bring it to any and all challenges they face in life from filing taxes to changing a tire to relationships and life goals.

*Note: It would be remiss here not to mention that societal systems of oppression have a part to play in this type of development. Those who suffer from stereotyping and any of the many “norms” of society are more likely to be conditioned to believe that they are unable (these groups include gender, ethnicity, low income populations, LGBTQ populations, disabled populations, etc.).

The Ideal

The hope for healthy development here, according to Erickson, is that the child learns first that they can trust the world around them (Stage One of this series), and then, that they can affect the world around them with a good outcome. This time, I sit with Erickson there - for the most part.

Explanation: I believe that just about anything can be overdeveloped. If a child only ever experiences attempting and experiencing success (this can be accomplished by over-protective parenting), they can learn to walk around in the world with a false sense of invincibility. This is neither healthy, nor true. Humans prosper under a balanced perspective of their mortality. This can also set the child up for massive failure in life if they do not learn the resilience of overcoming small failures. This is why the neutral outcome is sometimes helpful - never berate them for failing - but come alongside their failures, reteach, and allow them to retry. All this to say: allow failure and teach children how to overcome failure.

But, hopefully, the small being will feel that they are able to try new things, and bring a healthy level of self-confidence and autonomy to each try.

So What?

Now, we get to the good part: What to do with this developmental information? Well, first, take a minute to - without judgment or shame - take stock of yourself. When you were small and up to now, how did you/do you feel about attempting new things? When you set out to start a new project at work or a new relationship, do you feel hesitant and anxious, or able and willing?

Once you have your answer:

If you feel hesitant and anxious: Begin to notice when these things (anxiety and hesitance) come up for you. Just notice. Take stock of where you are, what you were asked to do, who was around when you felt the worry. Also, in a quiet moment, ask yourself if there’s an important time in your past that you’ve experienced these same feelings. In the biz, we call this - developing awareness and, while this process is usually most effective when guided by a therapist, it is something you can start doing on your own. I recommend that clients keep a journal to track their feelings and surroundings. Just this learning exercise is a huge step toward a more healthy self image and a stronger sense of self.

Once you’ve developed awareness around these negative feelings, begin to ask yourself - again, without judgment - if you are truly incapable of whatever is before you. This works to fight the learned feeling that you are always unable. Because, sure enough, you will find that sometimes you’re up to the task, sometimes you’ll feel that part of the task feels great while another part feels difficult, and sometimes you’ll find that you don’t feel up to the task. But, it is very unlikely that the truth of the situation is that you are always incapable. More likely, you are sometimes very capable, sometimes mostly capable, and sometimes incapable. Good news: what is learned can be unlearned!

If you feel able and willing: Amazing. Make sure that those feelings are grounded on having failed and worked through failure every now and again. If they are built on never having failed, this can still work to your advantage, but so could trying something that you know you won’t be great at at first - a painting class, a cooking class, roller derby, etc. What we are reaching for here is balance and not being controlled by what our development conditioned in us. This means that we want a healthy mixture of both accomplished successes and overcome failures, not either or.

So, in conclusion, the purpose of this discussion in sense of self - as well as all of the posts in this series - is to say that no matter where you find yourself on the spectrum of autonomy vs. shame and doubt, there are things to consider, awareness to develop, and new truths to find. If you’ve not failed, go do something difficult! And learn more about yourself. If you feel incapable all or most of the time, begin to teach yourself that human life is rarely that black and white. There’s not a lot of “always” in our existence. And, of course, if you have more questions and interest in understanding yourself and how you could move forward differently, reach out to a therapist!

Thanks for taking the time to read! Watch for Sense of Self: Stage Three - Initiative vs. Guilt coming soon.

About the author: Krista Wilson is a registered psychotherapist at Restoring Lives Counseling in Colorado Springs. She is pursuing her MA in Clinical Counseling at Adams State University. She loves being herself as a therapist, a writer, and a musician. To schedule a session with Krista or one of the other passionate therapists at Restoring Lives, please call 719-433-1407 or email jeff@restoringlivesproject.com.

(The information included on this site/article is not an attempt to provide counseling/therapy or any other form of professional treatment, not even a bit.  In no way is it intended or implied to substitute counseling/therapy or any other professional services.  Also, while the content of this site/ article could be based off of real life circumstances, people (clients), names and situations have been changed to protect the identity/confidentiality of the person.  Each client has also signed a release to allow the therapist to write about their situation for educational [not therapy] purposes only.  If you need professional help, and/or have mental health questions, by golly, seek out a professional counselor... you and your family deserve it!)

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