Can I Change? Psychological Perspectives on How we Develop: Part I
Updated: May 10, 2018
When we get to the point we’re fed up with something, we sometimes try, fail, and try again, to change. Being in this frustrating place might lead us to wonder whether change is even possible. It’s a place where we can lose hope for the future we envision.
In therapy, we often look to change something about our lives (e.g., habits, relationships, mood). In the course of doing so, we may find we are changing and becoming more resilient and resourceful in dealing with challenges. Change requires learning. Learning requires repetition. Just like anything we learn (e.g., walking, talking), change is possible.
Psychology and therapy, like people, change. Psychotherapy’s theories have branched many times to include new ideas and improve on what we think we know. This short article highlights some of the theories that therapists and counsellors still use to help you understand more about the factors that may influence your development and sense of self, as well as your patterns in relationships with others.
Am I hard-wired to be the way I am?
In the beginning, psychoanalysts viewed humans as products of innate, biological drives. We were advanced animals driven by primal drives. Libido was the innate drive used by Sigmund Freud to explain how we mature. Freud’s psychosexual model of development was based on experience of body parts and pleasure. It included five sequential stages of maturation that began at birth and ended in adolescence (briefly outlined below):
Oral Birth to 18 months
Anal 18 months to 3 years
Phallic 3 -6/7 years
Latency 6/7 - to puberty
He called the drive to fulfill our innate, primitive desires our ‘Id.’ According to Freud, we experience a normal level of anxiety in childhood development. Yet, Freud hypothesized that if we repress emotions or wishes, or get too much gratification or too much frustration, we might develop psychological problems. We might also regress to a younger ‘stage’ in life.
Freud proposed that from the world around us we are given a social sense of what is acceptable, or right and wrong. This is our Superego. Seemingly, our primitive urges (Id) and the social rules (Superego) conflict with one another. He proposed that it is our ‘Ego’ that develops and moderates the two.
So what role does environment play in who am I and how I interact with others?
A number of theorists (e.g., Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Daniel Stern, Mary Ainsworth) propose that our ability to interact with others in later life is influenced by how we were interacted with as infants. Developing a sense of our self is linked to our infant experience with our caretakers. If our caretakers are not responsive to our infant needs, development of an individualised, healthy self may be compromised, and we may experience difficulty with relationships.
How we attach to others is a partly a product of our upbringing. John Bowlby proposed the process of ‘attaching’ had an evolutionary advantage. A strong attachment between a primary caretaker and a child meant the child was more likely to have its needs met, and thus, more likely to survive.
In psychology terms, children whose caretakers provide their needs (both survival and emotional) may sense the caretaker as a being safe and reliable. This creates a ‘secure attachment.’ As children become more mobile and exploratory, a reliable caretaker is a ‘secure base’ from which it is safe to explore the world. Being in a relationship with the caretaker is positive, but separation from the caretaker is also tolerable. This can build the foundation in adulthood for a healthy sense of security in romantic relationships, but also the ability to withstand separation from one’s partner(s).
On the other hand, if as an infant we experienced a caretaker that withholds what we need, we might have become distressed and learn to distrust that others will provide our needs. We adapt to take care of ourselves. As adults, we may present as independent, self-sufficient, and dismissive or avoidant of close relationships.
Children who could not predict whether their needs would be met (sometimes yes, sometimes no) become anxious and experience an ‘ambivalent’ attachment with their caretaker. As adults, this may translate to Hazen and Shaver’s (1987) ‘anxious-preoccupied’ attachment style in which the person has a strong need for validation and staying in connection with another. Thy may appear dependent upon another in a relationship and have a poor view of themselves. Separations can be distressful.
A fourth attachment style, ‘disorganised’ was used to describe infants whose reactions seemed incongruous and were thought to be the result of extremes of emotion rooted in fear. This is often associated with traumatic experiences of caregiving. As adults, we may be fearful of relationship, mistrustful of others, though still desire to be in a relationship.
Do Adults ‘Develop’? Or Does Development Only Occur in Childhood?
Erik Erikson added young adulthood, adulthood and old age to Freud’s psychosexual stages. Carl Jung proposed that in addition to youth, humans also have phases of development in mid-life and old age. For both, humans, whether children or adults, aren’t just driven by biology. Nor are they just passive recipients of social mores. Instead, we interact with the environment throughout our life. There are key experiences (e.g., family, career, death due to our older age) that someone in later life has that are not experienced by children. These experiences contribute to our development and sense of self.
Daniel Stern proposed that innate influences are at play at birth, (e.g., smile reflex, crying). Further growth is in part determined by our genetic readiness to do so but is facilitated by our interaction with others. We move in discrete phases from trying to organise all the unfamiliar stimuli immediately after birth, to being able to recall those patterns of experience with the environment and our caretakers. At around 7 months, we develop a subjective sense. We recognise we are independent from others, but can also be in a relationship. Ultimately we learn how to verbally communicate in relationships. During these sensitive times of development, injuries (traumas) can significantly impact our sense of self and our ability to be in a relationship. Stern thought that as adults, we naturally revisit these domains of recalling new patterns of experience, identifying our sense of self, and communication in relationships. Development continues during adulthood.
Neuroscience supports the idea of a ‘plastic’ brain. Our brains strengthen certain circuits of connection with repeated stimuli and experience. Yet, new connections can be formed. Our ‘habits’ and rituals of behaviour can change if engaged in new experiences, and new learning. This ability seems to continue through or life cycle and is not limited to the developing child’s brain.
So, Can I Change?
So the answer to the question has a great deal of hope and one that leans towards “Yes!” Each person is unique, as are their experiences and development. The degree to which change is achievable is also varied. Yet, alongside your therapist, you have the support for self-discovery and reflection, and the tools to change those things that may feel rigid, even habitual.
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