Preparation for this topic suggested that we remind ourselves of other overviews of human psychological development than Erikson and with particular reference to Freud and Piaget when reengaging with our memories of Erikson.
We asked ourselves what was the value of overviews such as that of Erikson, perhaps meaning its helpfulness or otherwise for our clients ,and for our work with clients, as well as for understanding ourselves. Erikson has been criticized for developing his scheme from biological material. This is surprising given that qualitative research has an excellent pedigree! (For example in participant observation methodology, a researcher is a participant who is qualified in the same field as those s/he is observing ,is a legitimate methodology for research). So from within so to speak his material he was able to recognise characteristic psychological and behavioral developmental patterns and gift to us terminology that captures them. Thus we are given by Erikson a narrative about human development which ‘feels’ true, and provides a story in which we might be able to locate ourselves or assist our clients to do so. Peter remarked that he had found this to be helpful in client work although that had meant in practice use of the eighth state, the integrity v despair spectrum in particular, and he had not to his knowledge shared that within the context of the full eight stages. Nevertheless, the idea that if you could not integrate the experiences of life in some sort of personal story then despair going on to one’s death was more likely to be coloured by despair, a way of thinking that clients seemed to find helpful
The relevance of the poles of each stage spectrum was recognised as neither good nor bad but gained meaning mostly by the recognition that all of us find ourselves somewhere on the spectrum concerned and can sense and make sense of what it feels like and means to experience the pull towards one pole or the other. The more one is aware of one’s own narrative with respect to the integrity v despair spectrum, the better the therapist is able to contrast and compare with what is learnt from the biographical material offered by the client by report and by responses in therapy.
Another of the criticisms made of Erickson work is that he worked in an era apparently in which he was freer to observe that he recognised in his research biographical material that there were differences to note which were gender specific. In the ‘non-bianry’ world of today, those statements feel at risk of challenge and perhaps feel’unsafe’. Yet it is scarcely surprising, borrowing from Freud, or using one’s own commonsense, that the requirement for the male to gain an erection and perform promotes a different way of being in the world to that of the female who must ‘receive’ the male approach. The psychological challenges are different and inform and shape the polarities of the developmental stages much as Freud observed.
Another of the criticisms which brand the responses to Erikson somewhat churlishly, is that he does not appear to have incorporated into his writings how change in our developed place on the spectrums can take place, nor how such change occurs psychologically or neurologically for example. One understanding of how change takes place is wrapped up in the complexities of what may occur when first one becomes aware of how we are functioning and the conscious and unconscious constructs in use to maintain our view of ourselves, others and the world. That awareness is necessary before change can be considered and the motivation for change is engaged, or not. Changing the story we live in brings about change. “I never realized that I could do that, and it changed my life”. Discussion brought to awareness once again that all of us are shaped by schema that shape the meaning we make of what happens, or our understanding of ourselves, others,or the world. Such schemas are both conscious and unconscious and involve affect/emotion. Indeed it is a recurrent theme in this group’s discussions that the primary emotions (see Panksepp, for example, or Solms), come first and then are given cognitive description. Using Erikson’s descriptions of our developed way of relating to ourselves, others and the world, it becomes clear that the cognitive labeling of our inner world, whilst they are routinely challenged by our own mature reasoning, nonetheless are ‘lies’. Overall then, Erikson says that our perception of our position or perception with respect to each stage can and does change and thus each stage is not finished before moving on to the next but all stages are in play throughout much of our life.
Piaget however, is clear that each of his stages has to be complete before moving on is possible. What this means probably requires discussion and does seem difficult to argue at first. However, each of his four overarching stages, although they are initiated by the reflexes or ‘senses’, have as a focus, the cognitive capacities that develop from engagement in each stage. This ‘tight’ claim finds an echo in cognitive behavioral psychology where the insistence that it is the cognitions that must be addressed and corrected. Such claims are redeemed however by another of Piaget’s formulations, that of the schema which is the way in which the human being develops to hold together the learned understanding of each experience. It is widely recognised that such schemas include much more than the cognitive component. The psychological world may be said to be divided between those who believe therapy works top down or bottom up in this respect. The group were then gifted the experience of one member who had personal reason to know how Piaget’s understanding is in use today. It is a reality that for some individuals, that the senses that are at the heart of the reflex mechanisms, are not fully engaged with as the environment is explored and the ‘stage’ is not completed leaving that individual at a significant disadvantage as their development continues. We were able to see that exercises exist that enable that underdeveloped work on the early stage development responding to the reflexes or senses, to be recovered such that other aspects of an individual’s overall capacity and capability are not compromised permanently.
It was on this note that the morning finished, enriched as always by the open and trustful sharing that happens and in this instance, was an encouragement as we journey on to Christmas and gave reason to focus not on the Omicron virus but on human hope.