Have you ever wondered when you lost your confidence?
Erik Erikson, a psychologist, formulated a theory of personality called the stages of psychosocial development. Essentially, Erikson believed if something affects you during your early developmental stages of life, it will affect you in your later stages unless you deal with it properly when it occurs.
His theory is broken up into eight stages, with each stage describing a pattern of development that occurs in a particular life stage.
When I first learned about this theory, a lightbulb went on. I thought, ‘Could I dissect my past to figure out why I think, feel and behave the way I do?’
I did it, and it worked.
In the next few pages, I’ll give you a brief but powerful overview of these stages. While you’re reading about each stage, I would like you to think back to that period of your life and look for possible people or situations that may have affected your levels of self-esteem.
WARNING: This will (likely) not be easy, but it’s a good way to consider how our personalities (and self-esteem) have developed.
In this blog you’ll learn:
- how the most influential theory of personality development applies to you
- how to capitalise on your strengths and manage your weakness
- how to let go of old thoughts and start creating new ones
Can we fix something that’s broken?
Before we begin, it’s important to note that this isn’t a magic process.
I didn’t just ‘all of a sudden’ transform into the person I am today just by dissecting my past (but wouldn’t that be nice?).
So if it takes effort, and it’s an uncomfortable process, why do it? That is, why take the deep dive and look into the shadowy nooks and crannies of your life?
I’ll tell you why, because it’s a pretty gosh darn good reason.
It will help you understand that it’s not just our appearance that influences our confidence, our past experiences will too.
So onto the theory itself: the stages of psychosocial development. The ‘psycho’ part of the name doesn’t mean losing the plot, but rather refers to how we think and feel (psycho comes from the Latin psyche, which means spirit, mind or soul). The ‘social’ part just means how we interact with other people.
Erikson believed that during each stage, a person would deal with a psychosocial crisis, basically meaning that they have to deal with a conflict, which will affect how they think and feel and how they interact with other people. How they deal with the crisis will influence the development of their personality.
So, essentially, if we don’t deal with our issues in one stage, the residue of those issues will carry on to later stages of development. It’s like if you step in poo, if you don’t deal with it and clean it up, it’ll stick on you until you do.
I know this sounds depressing, but the good news is that, just like dirty shoes can be fixed, our way of thinking can too.
Infancy (Age: birth–18 months)
Welcome to the first stage: infancy.
Surprise! You’re plopped out into the world, you can barely see, you’re hungry all the time and you have no idea what’s happening. During this stage, we depend on our caregivers to feed us, keep us warm and out of danger.
Let’s say we get all the caring we need, that it’s consistent, predictable and reliable. This is a good thing because it will teach us to trust others. This trust will be carried to other relationships, even when things get a bit rocky. What this means is that our ability to trust will give us hope that others will support and protect us in times of crisis.
On the other hand, let’s say we get fed one day, but then the next day we’re neglected because our parents are out drinking, and this inconsistency continues throughout infancy. Would we trust our caregivers? Of course not. Because of this mistrust toward people who should love us, this negative feeling may spread to other relationships and cause us to feel anxious and insecure.
So, what are your thoughts around this stage? I realise it’s an age that’s difficult to remember that far back, but does it bring up any thoughts or feelings? Or perhaps if you’re a parent yourself?
Early childhood (Age: 2–3 years)
The second stage is about our early childhood.
In this stage, kids are putting on clothes and using the bathroom to show their independence. This is when they want to do everything themselves. ‘NO!’ and ‘I’ll do it!’ are statements that are on repeat to ensure they assert their autonomy.
A sense of autonomy is important because it gives them a sense of accomplishment and independence, which will lead to higher levels of confidence and security in their own ability to survive.
However, if children are criticized or blamed, or not given the opportunity to learn to do things for themselves, they’ll be increasingly dependent on others. This may not be so much of a problem when they’re two years old, but what about later in life? If they feel they can’t do anything, their confidence may deflate. When they do need to do something, they’ll doubt their abilities and feel shame because of it.
What comes to mind when you think about this stage? Or perhaps if you’re a parent yourself, consider how your children are asserting themselves.
Preschool (Age: 3–5 years)
The third stage is right before we start our education.
During this stage, playing with other kids is essential because it gives them a reason to talk to other kids. Essentially, it develops their social skills.
Let’s say little John asks Emma to play with some dolls, and she agrees. This helps John develop a sense of initiative. This is pretty important in later life, especially for leadership and decision-based careers.
But what if little John asks Emma to play, but in return she insults him and says, ‘You’re stupid! Boys don’t play with girls’. He’ll then feel like a nuisance, and as a result, develop a sense of guilt.
During this stage, children also ask a lot of questions such as, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ or ‘Why do dogs have fur?’ By dismissing these questions as silly or pointless, the child could also feel like a nuisance.
In summary, this stage is important for a child to develop a sense of self-control but also show initiative.
How do you feel about this stage?
School age (Age: 6–12 years)
The fourth stage is when we take the scary step and start our education.
By this stage, we’re going to school and creating some deep and meaningful relationships with our friends. Much of our self-esteem comes from the strength of these relationships, and also from showing the world that we too, can accomplish ‘important stuff’.
If we’re able to do this ‘important stuff’, we’ll feel confident in our abilities and gain a sense of industry, which leads to a sense of competence. Essentially, we feel good about ourselves. This is especially true if our accomplishments are noticed and supported by the people around us, such as our parents.
If we are not able to do things, or if we do things and no one notices or gives us praise, we may doubt our abilities, and, as a result, stop trying to do anything as we feel inferior to everyone else.
What were your experiences during this stage?
Adolescence (Age: 12–18 years)
The fifth stage is the last stage before we become adults.
In this stage, we’re trying to separate ourselves from our parents. We want to be our own person, but we also want to fit in with society. We’re creating our personalities, sort of like trying on different outfits.
Some of us can easily form our sense of identity. We do so by learning from all the experiences that we’ve been through, and the people who are around us, supporting us through the good times and the bad. Most importantly, we don’t look back at our experiences with shame and regret, we look at them as life lessons.
In contrast, we may be in a state of role confusion. We don’t know who we are, and feel like we’re in limbo. Oftentimes, we let others tell us who we are, how to think and what to believe.
Were you easily able to form your sense of identity? Or did you suffer from role confusion?
Page 7: Young Adulthood (Age: 19–40 years)
The sixth stage is our first dive into adulthood.
Erikson believed that if we hadn’t formed our sense of identity by the time we got married—that is, completed the task from adolescence—things would landslide pretty quickly in this stage.
During young adulthood, flippant romances start to fade, and we begin to look for ‘the one’. We start exposing more of our authentic selves. Why do we do this? Well, for love. In this stage we aim to be intimate with someone by showing and sharing love.
The opposite feeling is isolation, a feeling that I know oh-so well. For years and years, I thought I would never end up with anyone. I later realised it was because I didn’t even know who I was; I didn’t have an identity. Once I knew who I was, I could finally be me in the relationship, rather than wearing a mask and acting all of the time. (Now of course I’m not saying if you’re single, you don’t have an identity, far from it. That was just my experience).
What are your thoughts around this stage?
Middle adulthood (Age: 40–65 years)
This penultimate stage is that of generativity.
Generativity means that we feel we are doing something of purpose. For some, this may be through work, for others, children. The possibilities are endless. Either way, this stage is important to develop the virtue of care.
The opposite of generativity is stagnation; a feeling of not having purpose, or feeling unproductive.
What are your feelings about this stage? If you’re not in this stage yet, are your parents? Can you relate to what they’re going through?
Maturity (Age: 65 years–death)
The last stage . . . literally.
Living with integrity during this ultimate stage means you feel your life has been lived to the fullest. I should mention, you don’t start thinking about this all of a sudden just because you’re about to kick the bucket. Thus, integrity means more in the sense that you start to look back and, hopefully, appreciate life.
Living a full life doesn’t mean living a perfect life; it means understanding that mistakes will be made, sh*t does hit the fan and tragedies will happen and hurt badly. But accepting these instances will help us develop integrity, and eventually lead us to the virtue of wisdom. The benefit of wisdom, Erikson believed, is that we will be more inclined to accept our oncoming death without fear.
For me, wisdom is much more than just understanding death. For me, it’s like a shield, protecting us from the hard times and enabling us to push forward in life with strength, ambition and curiosity. For me, although this will probably sound cliché, wisdom is the holy grail of happiness, health and confidence.
Despair, on the other hand, occurs when we feel we haven’t reached our potential, and we’ve lost all hope that we ever will. It can also happen when we feel guilty about something that happened in the past, especially if we haven’t made any attempt to resolve the situation. Despair can lead to depression and hopelessness, which is a horrible thing to experience at any point in our life, but certainly must be torture at the end of our lives when there is seemingly little opportunity for change.
What are your thoughts around this stage? Again, if you’re not in this stage yet, are your parents or grandparents? Or someone that you know? Can you relate to what they’re going through? And also, knowing this, what can you do now to prevent despair from occurring in your life?
Final summary and action points—putting the stages together
Here is your key take-home message:
If improving our confidence was as ‘easy’ as changing our appearance, we wouldn’t have a billion-dollar beauty industry.
The reason why confidence is so difficult to change or gain is because the working parts that make up our confidence levels are created over our lifetime, and are influenced by our experiences and our social interactions.
Trying to fix these past experiences and interactions with a diet or cosmetic surgery is like trying to fix a broken spark plug by getting our car detailed. Sure, it might look better, but your car is eventually going to give up.
To improve your confidence, we need to look under our hoods rather than just brushing over the surface with a dust rag. Yes, it takes more work and time, but the benefits can last a lifetime.
- I’d like you to think of how various experiences or interactions with others have influenced your confidence. Think about your answers from two different perspectives.
- What are the experiences that made you feel more confident?
- What are the experiences that made you feel less confident?
- Now that you’re aware of what has influenced the development of your personality, and how this in turn has affected your self-esteem, how can you re-write the story of your life? That is, just because that was ‘you’ back then, does it mean that it still has to be ‘you’ now?
I know it sounds impossible, but yes, you can do it.
How? It’s a choice. And it’s always been your choice to decide who you want to be; you don’t need to let someone from the past or present decide for you.
You can be the person you’ve always wanted to be.
Dr Katherine x