The Second Question: “Can I take care of myself or am I dependent on others for my survival?”
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the first question of life, "Am I safe?" on my blog. It was the first in a series of posts on using the developmental stages of life as defined by the psychologist Erik Erickson to understand the story you are living and to help you find your tribe -- those who support and uplift you and who need your unique qualities to support and uplift them. Tribe -- your grid of aligned and empathic others. Tribe, as in the African word "Ubuntu": "I am through you."
I knew for some time that the struggles I was having with money had less to do with my attitudes about money itself, or even my sense of self-esteem, than with some deeper story that was replaying throughout my life. If I were to draw a portrait of my life, it would be an endless series of mountains and valleys, high peaks and deep abysses -- boring and sad in its predictability. Soaring, often unexpected success followed by a painful crash into the bushes -- usually financial -- that broke the continuity of my life, requiring me to scramble around picking up the pieces and blocking timely completion of whatever writing or business project I was working on at the moment. Over and over, I had to start over -- never really getting traction, never really moving, never able to establish solid ground from which to grow.
It was when I began to realize that this continuous pattern was in fact a deeply buried narrative playing and replaying in a vulnerable area of my life, and work with it as a story, that I was able to dissolve that pattern from the deepest inside out. What did working with it as a story mean? This:
1. Looking for the solution beyond childhood wounds and applying the classic hero's journey, which lays out in story terms the dramatic arc of growing up, to my own life;
2. Writing, as an adult, personal stories based on the questions a child must resolve for him/herself to arrive whole at the threshold of adulthood;
3. Writing my own fairy tales (metaphorical journeys through crisis, struggle, and transformation) inspired by the conflict between autonomy and dependence;
4. Translating the metaphorical story into concrete world actions.
What I saw clearly lacking in my childhood through the lens of story was not love, but the ability to mentor, that is, to:
1. Provide a positive holding environment where the word "failure" didn't exist, and the words, "You did it!" acknowledged the smallest accomplishments and the courage for trying;
2. Model skills in a way that child body and brain could imitate them;
3. Show how to take small, incremental steps toward autonomy and celebrate each one;
4. Believe in my capacity to do it;
5. And most importantly, the ability to recognize the creative swan in the troublesome duckling -- to see and nurture my inherent gifts rather than chop away at them so I would fit into a preexisting mold of what a girl should be.
Traditional storytellers use metaphorical tales that speak directly to the unconscious mind to diagnose the root of a problem in a suffering person and then tell curative stories to heal it. My curative tales seemed always to concern someone who possessed a dangerous knowledge and had to find a way out of a tower or castle where they had been imprisoned. The how was where the suspense of the story and the clues to my own needs were buried. I would write these tales and hold them in my mind. Eventually, from within, my entire life changed, taking on a different quality altogether. I found myself making different choices, new opportunities were offered, and new kinds of clients started arriving in my office. The question itself dissolved rather than being answered.
Core stories represent the neural pathways laid down in our brains at the beginning of life, which filter perception and create experience until pathways become trenches and it's hard to even imagine another way. But we can change the actual architecture of the brain and change the story of our life.
The Little Warrior and the Power of “No”
The conflict between autonomy and dependence is rooted in the second phase of life, which generally begins at 18 months and lasts until the age of three -- that time known as the "terrible two's." By a year and a half, a distinct child is beginning to emerge from the helpless infant totally dependent on others for his/her survival. The great dramatic question of this stage of life, which will be echoed each time that child (and later, the adult) steps into a new and unfamiliar environment, is: “Can I take care of myself or am I dependent on others?” Positive outcomes of this stage are self-control, courage, and will -- qualities that will be needed for the next preschool stage, the age of play, as well as for success in adulthood.
One task in this second phase of life is to learn how to become little warriors for ourselves -- to take care of and protect our emerging self. Toddler rebellion may be pain for parents, but it develops important skills of the will, courage, and personal boundaries. In a nourishing holding environment made safe by the atmosphere of unconditional love and joy in the child's mere existence, no matter what, a child learns not only to talk, feed him/herself, finer motor development including toilet training, but also self-reliance and resilience. In short, during this stage, a child is learning how to learn and how to take strategic risks.
In an unloving, neglectful, or dysfunctional family, if a child is ridiculed or humiliated in the process of toilet training or in learning other important self-care skills, he or she may feel great shame and doubt their capabilities to go forward. Low self-esteem, confusion, paralysis, and the inability to learn can result. Highly restrictive parents may fill the child with a reluctance to attempt new challenges. On the other hand, if caregivers demand too much too soon, a child may develop a core story that they're helpless to handle problems.
So resilient are children, however, that one positive adult somewhere in that child’s world can be the lifeline that child needs to make it to the next stage. This is where the existence of healthy mentors -– in or out of the immediate family -– can be so influential on a child’s development.
What's your story?
1. You probably don't remember anything from that time, but you may be able to remember the house in which you lived, your parents and extended family. Memories are stored in the senses. List 10 sensory memories you have from early childhood. Pick one or two that stand out for you and free-write for 10 minutes. Let your imagination roam free; don't even limit your writing to your own life. Don't worry about writing the "truth." Let the words on the page lead you beyond conscious memory to a deeper kind of truth.
2. Every parent, teacher, and adult who works with children is a mentor -- for good or ill. How many musicians and painters, for example, were tutored early in life by someone who recognized a possible gift in the 4-year-old? And how many violent criminals were "coached" in skills of preemptive strikes by a father, older brother, or other family member? Can you name the most important mentors in your life? When did they show up in your life? What challenge were you grappling with at that time? How did they help you? What was the gift you gained from them? What do you think they would say that you gave them? Thinking in terms of story structure – beginning, middle, and end; environment; characters’ and their desires; and situation, write a short tale about a mentoring relationship. Begin with "Once there was a ...." and let the words lead you, always keeping in the back of your mind the basic road map of story: Crisis, Struggle, and Transformational Realization.
3. Finally, are you a mentor? If you're a parent, teacher, therapist, or coach, you definitely fall within the mentor archetype. Can you give what you've got and then let go? Write a short piece about someone whom you're mentoring, what you hope for them, what gifts you see in them, what you feel them asking of you.
(Note: My October newsletter has the complete list of Erickson's developmental stages.)
© 2011, Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. All rights reserved. This post is from my forthcoming book, A Write of Passage: How to Recreate Your Life through Telling Your Story. This is the companion book to my Write of Passage course.