In my sessions, one of the inescapable issues that arises is a client’s sense of self. This is our clinical way of saying: how a person views themselves and walks around in the world as themselves (relationships, beliefs, societal engagement, etc.). Because there are many facets that make up our “sense of self,” it can be tough to identify which one is lacking or out of balance or causing problems in our everyday lives. This blog series (Sense of Self: Stages One - Eight) will explore where we can find what may be lacking within ourselves that might iron out some of these issues.
I’ll be using Erickson’s Eight Stages of development (link included below) as an outline, as his understanding of how human’s develop into stable and flourishing individuals is creative and thorough.
A weak sense of self can lead to irrational mood swings, relational issues, and emotional exhaustion. Whereas, a strong sense of self means enjoying yourself and the world around you in relative balance and stability (even the healthiest still struggle).
In each blog in the series, I’ll consider one of Erickson’s developmental crises (stages of development) and how it might relate to or play out in life. Then, I’ll work through an “ideal” outworking of someone who has a strong sense of self which leads to full living. I’ll end with a “So What?” section which will be the attempt to say, “here’s where we go from here.” Many times in therapy, we would like to consider how if others changed, our lives would be better. While this is sometimes valid, we often need to consider ourselves for true, positive change to occur. So join me!
Stage One: Trust vs. Mistrust
This stage ideally develops within the first few months of life. Amazingly, it can actually begin development within in the womb. This stage is vitally important as it is settled before aspects of language and cognition develop. Basically, if an infant is cared for and its needs are met, it develops a simple sense of trust. This is then applied to their outlook as they grow. People who grow up in a caregiver environment of trust see the world as a positive place where you can count on the people around you. It feels full of possibility.
However, if an infant is neglected and goes without its needs met, the child develops a sense of mistrust for its caregivers, the people around them in the world, and even themselves. The world becomes a place of fear and anxiety, as they are sure it will let them down at some point.
So, in stage one of self development, we have the two main outcomes: trust and mistrust. The world is honest and full of possibilities or the world will let you down and is cause for suspicion.
Obviously, it sounds best for all of us to have been well-loved by our caregivers and see the world as trustworthy. However, I take a different stance here. I feel that the world can be equal parts trustworthy and untrustworthy. Because we all have our issues, we’re not always looking out for our fellow humanity, but that’s not to say that sometimes we actually are working for the good of others. I think the ideal is a balance of both trust and mistrust.
To say it another way, the ideal is discernment and the development of sharper discernment. The ultimate hope is that, no matter our upbringing, we become balanced humans who can walk into any situation, discern whether or not we’re safe - whether or not we can trust - and respond accordingly. It’s so much tougher than saying “just trust!” or “never trust!” It’s saying, know yourself, be aware of your surroundings, and trust sometimes.
This is for those who read about this stage of development and think: Man, that sounds just like me. If you know that there was neglect in your past, especially in those first few years, you will most likely see the world as a place that is going to let you down - or even more - a place that is actively against you. If that’s the case, don’t panic! It actually makes sense. It’s normal. But, that doesn’t make it true. You might really find some grounding and balance by talking with a therapist.
You can also practice a couple of the tenants of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Redecision Therapy. In CBT, we learn that there are beliefs and emotions underneath our actions. The main idea of CBT is: Change the thinking to change the behavior. In the case of trust vs. mistrust, changing the thinking can look a lot of different ways, but one very powerful one would be: “Just because I have been let down in the past does not mean I will always be let down. My past can make me think that the world is trying to hurt or, even, destroy me. The truth is, sometimes the world may hurt, sometimes it will help, and sometimes it will just act simply neutral toward me.”
Then, in Redecision Therapy (RT), you learn to recognize the decisions you’ve made, or the ones that have been made for you, and go back to important moments to make those decisions again based on who you are now and what you now know. In this case, that might look like: “In the past, I’ve been conditioned to think that the world is not safe for me, and that I am not really worthy of being cared for. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are places in this world that are safe for me. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am worthy of care and having my needs met.” You can then, even go back to those moments you remember experiencing neglect, and tell little you that what you’re being told in those moments is not actually true. Then, the challenge is to live going forward in the new decision you’ve made: Sometimes the world is safe for you, and always you deserve care and your needs being met.
So, in conclusion of the first post in this series, as we grow into our strongest selves, we need to do the work necessary to greet ourselves, our relationships, and the world with balanced discernment. Willing to trust when we feel safe and willing to see possibilities when they come.
Thank you for reading.
Watch for Sense of Self - Stage Two: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt coming soon!
Krista Thomas is a therapist at Restoring Lives Counseling Services. You can contact her for therapy or questions about this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(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!)