Every so often I try to introduce, and explain, theoretical models I find useful via my love for the radio show the Archers. If you are also a fan you will know Lillian has been through the wringer recently. Deserted by her partner, who also took most of her money, and left wondering who exactly she is. A recent trip to London led to an attempt to recreate who she is by having botox injections. Not all plastic surgery is negative, people are not that simple. Sometimes it is exactly what they need to feel the boost to their self esteem. However Lillian has confessed that when she looks in the mirror she sees a sad, desperate, aging woman, a feeling that the botox has just emphasized.
Tasks and Resolutions.
One of the models of human development that may well apply to Lillians situation, and help to promote understanding is Erikson’s 8 Psychosocial Stages of development. Erickson seemed to understand that our attitudes to life are largely formed by our attitudes to choices we have made, or had imposed on us.
These models can influence the counselling process either negatively or positively. As a framework to understand why people may be behaving in a certain manner, in reaction to certain events, they can be incredibly useful. If for example someone reaches middle age and does not feel they are growing, passing things on to the next generation, spreading their wings as a mature adult, there may be depression and other symptoms of discontent. This seems to be exactly where Lillian is. This depression may be because there is not a resolution of previous stages, they may still have role confusion over who they are, or perhaps never achieved independence as an adolescent. Or a sudden event, such as Matts departure may lead someone to question things they believed were certainties about who they were, and what their role is
The models of human development allow us to look beyond the idea that only those who have experienced “trauma” in their lives can benefit from counselling. Although of course trauma is itself a judgmental term, what is traumatic for one person is not for another.
People often seem to assume that their problems are not important enough, this may be partially cultural, not just the English pride the stiff upper lip mentality. The various models of human development allow us all to see that life may be a struggle, or leave us with issues that need to be resolved without there having had to be some dramatic event necessitating counselling
Building on Freud.
Erikson’s model grew out of Freud’s. However, the Freudian model was expanded on for a number of reasons. Freud’s model of human development is focused very much on the early years, and a white, eurocentric view of child rearing. It posits that the main relationships in a child’s life in childhood will be the parents, ignoring the wider family communities who may be responsible for raising a child. It is a late Victorian middle class view of life. He saw the separation from the family as the goal, which is alien to many non western cultures.
He also saw homosexuality as a result of a failure to fully integrate the anal stage of developments, seeing it as an aberration, which is of course unacceptable to modern eyes. He failed to consider female homosexuality or bisexuality at all. His desired outcome was a hetrosexual relationship and all others were seen as results of failures to progress adequately from one of his stages of development.
Erickson saw the various life stages as crossroads, where an individual could either develop positive or negative self views according to the way others treat them (in childhood) or the choices they make (adulthood and old age). Up to the age of teenager his stages are relatively universal
His definition of the 20’s as the age in which we form intimate relations with others may also prove problematic for many. As the age at which people are leaving home is rising, and non monogamous lifestyles become more acceptable, it may be overly prescriptive to assume everyone who is not in a long term stable relationship by the age of thirty is in some way going to be troubled by this. However, his focus on the importance of intimate relationships and the ability to form them is universal and useful for many different cultural backgrounds.
Where is Lillian?
Erickson’s views on middle and old age (Generativity versus Stagnation and Integrity Versus Despair) He sees being part of a community, being able to pass on wisdom, being respected for your wisdom as factors which will lead to mental health and contentment. He reminds us that ageism is a relatively modern concept and alien to many non European cultures. Across the world, the oldest are the most respected, and accorded a special position of honour. Again however, there may be a need to be flexible with the ages given as life expectancy rises, and we now consider being 60 very differently to when Erickson devised his model.
There may well be many people who would benefit from counselling as their internal ideas of what old is, and the reality meet. Divorce for the over 60s is on the rise as people realise this is their last chance to be who they want to be. Retirement is movening ever upward, People who growing up might have considered their 60s their twilight years are now discovering they have 10 or more years of work ahead of them.
If we look at Lillian it seems likely that she saw herself at the second to last stage, generativity is a big word for giving to others from our wisdom and experience. Errickson believed if we reached this time of life having resolved the tasks of previous stages, we would be ready to become the wise elder, passing on our experience and knowledge. Lillian had just become a grandmother, and after some initial resistance (her self concept was as someone who was not old, and old was wholly negative to her) she has grown into this new role.
When, without warning her life came crashing down around her. She has been left wondering not only who she is, but what the point is, questions which can shake us to the core. I wonder too if it does not help that her two contemporaries, Jennifer and Linda, seem to have settled into their roles, content with the choices they have made in the past.
It is important as counsellors that whilst these models can be useful tools they never replace seeing each individual as unique and more than something to fit into a preset model. To keep with the goals of being client centered and intersectional the models must never be prescriptive and their limitations remembered at all times. It is also important to remember that any model of human development will reflect the concerns and prejudices of the person who devised it.