When I want to make sense of my past, present, and future, I consider my life in terms of Erickson’s eight psychosocial stages (as cited in Kail & Cavanaugh, 2014, p. 10). These stages bring a sense of clarity and order to my journey, making it more understandable to my psychology-oriented mind. My white, middle-class, relatively carefree childhood provided the framework for me to work out my first few life tasks unobstructed. My caregivers met my basic needs for food and affection, and I learned to trust the world.
Prodigious playing and independent learning, as well as kindergarten attendance and family trips (for example, when I was six, we attended the 1964 New York World’s Fair), encouraged my early childhood development. As a young child, adults told me that I was bright and could accomplish anything, and, up until about the fifth grade, I excelled in school. According to Erickson’s theory, I had thus far successfully accomplished the first four psychosocial tasks of trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus doubt and shame, initiative versus guilt, and industry versus inferiority.
When I was around 10 years old, however, my father molested me, obstructing my ability to successfully master the next stage of identity versus role confusion. My experience of abuse, and the following years of secrecy and internal torment, saddled me with shame and low self-esteem as I entered adulthood. Instead of successfully achieving a strong sense of self-identity, the primary task of adolescence, I entered my adult life in a state of confusion and depression, evidenced by numerous suicide attempts and unhealthy relationships.
In my 20s, I attempted to master intimacy by taking on the role of silent woman. I believed that keeping my thoughts and feelings hidden would allow me to be someone else, someone more beautiful and attractive and likeable than I considered myself to be. I wanted to be the perfect woman for my ideal man of whom I had literally dreamed. In my dream, he wore a white T-shirt and jeans, was ruggedly handsome, and, in the end, left me feeling sullen and abandoned.
When I met this man in real life, his likeness to my dream was uncanny. He was handsome, worked with his hands as a mechanic, and drove a classic car that he had rebuilt himself. He wore white T-shirts soiled with car grease. He smoked marijuana, drank beer and whiskey, and was emotionally unavailable. I was immediately attracted, and my attraction grew to deep attachment and fear of abandonment. I saw him for three tumultuous years. When my mother died, we finally broke up, and I moved to San Diego.
I spent the next ten years of my life grieving my losses alone in the warm Southern California sun. As a young adult, I embarked on a journey to heal my broken self, first by turning to religion, and then to psychotherapy. Since I was a child, spirituality has always been an important theme in my life. In the small coastal town in Massachusetts, where I grew up, my family attended a local protestant church, built in the 1600’s. Throughout childhood, I attended Sunday school and Bible School for two weeks in the summer.
When I was 12, every Sunday morning I rose from bed by myself, dressed, and voluntarily walked to the church, which was a mile from our home, to sit and listen to the minister. It did not much matter what he said; I simply enjoyed the ritual of sitting quietly, standing to sing hymns, and taking communion. Perhaps I enjoyed sitting in a safe place away from home and alone. At age 16, in the depths of the confusion caused my father’s abuse, I read the book Be Here Now (Dass, 1971), which introduced me to Eastern philosophy, meditation, and yoga, and Texperienced a rudimentary spiritual awakening.
A year later, my mother introduced me to Christian Science, which she had been involved in as a young woman; I found the message of hope resonated with me and I quickly became a member. The church gave me a sense of community and security as I entered adulthood, and I remained a member for 20 years. However, after so many years of studying and praying, I was still unable to find the healing that I needed to move forward with my life, so at the age of 36, I turned to therapy.
My primary concern, in my 20s, was keeping myself safe and secure; however, my security came at the price of intimate relationship, and so, according to Erikson’s theory, I failed to master the young adult’s crisis of intimacy versus isolation. My relationships were few and far between, and fraught with unhappiness. By my mid-thirties, I had achieved an insulated and isolated state of existence, and I began to realize that I wanted to do something about my persistent loneliness and depression, so I began therapy.
This was a turning point in my journey of healing. I sought help from a holistic counselor who had been my yoga teacher for a number of years. I began working to address my depression, heal my childhood abuse wounds, and change my pattern of behavior in relationships by finding my voice and my ability to stand up for myself. As a result of this work, I began speaking up with men, which was a major step toward creating healthy relationships with others and with myself.
I dated a number of men during this time, and each one wanted me to be exactly what I did not want to be—silent and compliant. I felt elated to know that I could speak my mind and suffer rejection, and that the world did not collapse around me as a result. I started to feel compassion for myself when I realized that my pattern of behavior was not just my interpersonal incompetence, but was actually a behavior fostered and conditioned in me by people who wanted to exploit my low self-esteem and use me for their own selfish gratification.
Eventually, changing my conditioned patterns and speaking authentically, led me to a relationship in which I received appreciation and love for who I was, and not just who I pretended to be. The thought that I could be loved just for myself was an amazing revelation to me. Erickson’s psychosocial theory states that one has to master each of life’s major crises along the way, before confronting the next stage. I believe this to be true, based on my personal experience.
My therapeutic work took me back to the identity versus role confusion stage of adolescence and helped me to find my true voice. I discovered my authentic self and learned how to speak my mind with self-respect and confidence. This work allowed me to finally develop a relationship with a man who wanted to hear my voice and appreciated me for who I was, thus helping me to successfully master the intimacy versus isolation stage of young adulthood. By whatever grace exists, I can say I took my life back and corrected the botched tasks of adolescence and young adulthood.
Now, I am in my mid-50s and, having sufficiently worked through my previous crises, I feel confident that I will successfully accomplish my current life task of generativity versus stagnation. Erikson (1974) describes this stage as more than just the task of parenting and ushering in a new generation: In youth you find out what you care to do and who you care to be—even in changing roles. In young adulthood you learn whom you care to be with—at work and in private life, not only exchanging intimacies, but sharing intimacy. In adulthood, however, you learn to know what and whom you can take care of.
As a principle it corresponds to what in Hinduism is called the maintenance of the world, that middle period of the life cycle when existence permits you and demands you to consider death as peripheral and to balance its certainty with the only happiness that is lasting: to increase, by whatever is yours to give, the good will and the higher order in your sector of the world. That, to me, can be the only adult meaning of that strange word happiness as a political principle (p. 124). Erikson’s description clearly encapsulates the spirit of the task I am working on currently. I never had children, and have no regrets about that.
However, I know I still have something to offer the world and I want to do my best to improve the lives of others around me in both my personal life and my professional life. While others my age are considering retirement, I am embarking on a challenging new career in counseling. I accept this challenge with a grateful and willing heart, and I know that once I complete this life task, which I hope takes a long time, I will be able to successfully master the final stage of integrity versus despair, I will look back on my life with acceptance and fulfillment, and I will face death without fear.
In tarot reading, the Six of Wands card is traditionally associated with cooperation, leadership, and peaceful victory. According to my understanding, gained from teachers in my past, wands correspond to the element of fire and signify passionate creativity, and sixes correspond to a level of comfortable success in which one can rest before taking on the next life challenge.
The Wild Unknown Tarot deck (Krans, 2016) depicts the Six of Wands as a confused jumble of dead or dormant branches from which a beautiful butterfly rises with confidence and grace. This image resonates with me: I see the branches as my messy but necessary experience of pain and confusion, which, although difficult and sometimes even torturous, protected the chrysalis of my authentic self as it developed. Now the butterfly that is my true self is finally free to rise above the pain of the past and fly to new experiences.