Podcast #11 Thoughts About Identity


If you prefer to read rather than listen, here is a transcript of the podcast.
(Also available in PDF format.)
Note: portions of the text may be slightly edited for clarity in written form.
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Dr. Jerry: Good morning. This is Dr. Jerry, Psychotherapist’s Corner, 1490 WGCH.

This morning, I’d like to continue what we spoke about last week, talking about Erik Erikson’s book, and I’m going to focus on the whole issue of personal identity, our personal identity. Just the recoup a little bit, Erikson talks about the eight stages of man, and without getting overly complicated here, I just thought I would highlight some of the positive things he has said i.e., we should be able to experience, and even provide for those who are in our care.

He starts off his discussion of the life cycle with the experience of basic trust; we spoke about that last week. He goes on to autonomy. He speaks about the capacity have initiative, enabling a child to feel that their curiosity is good, their explorations are good, and that develops a capacity for initiative that stays with an individual their whole life.

Stage four that he speaks about is industry, the capacity to work and to enjoy one’s work. In our society, industry, for many, many years, is really almost limited to school and our capacity to master intellectual subjects, because we are a highly literate society.

He then goes on and speaks about identity in terms of intimacy, generosity, and ego integrity. Those are the last stages he talks about. Identity versus confusion about who we are…intimacy versus a sense of being alone, not able to connect with another person… and finally generosity, which he says is really very important, versus just holding everything to ourselves and really becoming stagnant.

So, this morning, I’m going to really combine some of these just to summarize it for us. I don’t want to turn the programs into a class, and I’m going to talk about identity and the all the others together…. so to speak.

As we know, sameness and change are really inherent in being alive. We human beings can greatly love and we can greatly destroy. We are usually ambivalent about a lot of things. That is, that we can be attracted to and sometimes feel alienated from those people around us. We can be generous and we can be self-serving. Our identity is made of all these experiences.

Sometimes, when people experience ambivalence towards someone they love, they get very concerned. It’s really essential to understand that ambivalence, that is, wonderful feelings and sometimes angry feelings are just in the whole mix and we have to recognize it very calmly. We have to recognize it particularly with our children. Our children can love us, and at times they can be very angry with us. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids or that we’re bad parents.

It’s because of these factors, that’s why I’ve spoken about identity as something that we constantly have to work on, believe it or not. It’s not just achieved. Identity is something that we experience, and we deepen, and we take ownership of ourselves, ideally, as we go through life. It’s not like just buying a house and living in it for the rest of your life. Because things change so much, really our sense of self-worth is also an ongoing issue.

We all know this today; marriages are no longer a guarantee of anything. They break up. 50% of marriages in America break up. Jobs, unfortunately, are no longer a guarantee. Our children face very different issues than we might have faced, and we’re frequently not sure how to respond to them or help them. Our sense of community, unfortunately, is not quite as strong as it was in past eras, and so relying on outside help is not always as available as it used to be. Yet, we have to keep alive, and keep our sense of who we are alive.

I’ve spoken in the past about in marriage, identity, and a husband and a wife forming who they want to be, not living out unconscious stereotypes from their childhood. It’s very, very important that a husband not live out maybe some of the behavior that he simply saw his father do, if he had an absent father, or if he had a father who was very bossy and controlling of his wife. It’s very important that the husband understand that he has to form who he is, not imitate his dad, even if he loved his dad. That, of course, equally applies to the woman.

Now, sameness and change can also foster anxiety as to who we are, how others respond to us. Human beings, in a sense, we’re always little children. Part of us is always a bit like little children in the following sense. We’re always concerned, are we being good or bad? Do we do the right thing, or do we do the wrong thing?

One of the things I want to talk about this morning, particularly with identity, because I was struck this week, and I’m going to describe this in terms of absolutes, I was struck this week with this terrible death that this doctor was killed for practicing abortions and was killed by this gentleman for committing abortions. I’m going to get around to that this morning, because I think that really touches on a very core issue: When our identity is not able to be flexible, what can come about because of that?

One of the ways of resolving the anxiety that we all experience in finding out who we are, who we want to become, how to live in this terribly complicated world that we all live in, one of the ways of resolving such anxiety is to opt for a life of constraint and have unyielding rules which mask our ability to handle any of the ongoing anxieties of life.

Whether it’s political, religious, educational, it doesn’t make any difference, whenever any of us get into a situation where we have absolutely unyielding rules, we have to be aware that is probably addressing a very deep anxiety in us. So the question arises, how do we avoid either extreme? You know the extreme of having absolute servitude about everything, so we don’t question ourselves, or, so to speak, just winging it, and making up our life as we go along.

Now, I’m well aware that the more we interact with other cultures, and we do, our particular society through television, through radio, through whatever, we interact with other cultures a great deal. The more we interact with other cultures, the more we realize how dependent we are on the particular culture in which we live. Knowing that cultures are different, and that there is no right answer to many of life’s questions, is a way of avoiding absolute unchanging beliefs.

Now, I am not talking about anything goes, believe me. I don’t believe anything goes, but I do believe that whenever we have to rush in and have absolute answers, we are liable to really stultify ourselves. Part of the need for each of us to accept what I have spoken about as our everyday unhappiness is that we frequently don’t know what to do in many situations.

Now, I can understand this gentleman, who unfortunately thought he had to kill somebody, held onto his beliefs about abortion very strongly. I don’t have any problem with that. I’m not criticizing that. I think what I’m highlighting is that he didn’t appreciate that one can hold one’s convictions, and that, “My identity is through that, but that I don’t impose that on someone else, and that if I really believe someone else is doing something terribly wrong, I simply have to use whatever means my society tells me to.”

Now that’s obvious, and yet, sometimes we forget that identity means, “I am flexible enough to recognize I can’t impose my values on a society. I have a constant dialogue with this society. A constant dialogue.” To me, that’s the essence of democracy. Not that we know the right thing, because I don’t think anybody knows the right thing, I don’t think the Democrats know the right thing; the Republicans know the right thing necessarily. What’s essential for our personal life and to live in a community is a capacity to dialogue.

Now, that’s very important to teach our children. Of course we want to give them values of integrity, and honesty, and hard work, there’s no questions about that, but we want to do that through talking, not through absolutes. Because only through talking and dialogue, frankly, do I think we manage to get through life.

Very frequently, I understand in past generations, particularly when religion was a much stronger force than it is today, we had a very clear sense of what was right and wrong. People today are constantly reevaluating what’s right and wrong. What was acceptable 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago, is no longer acceptable. Although this is understandable, I can understand that it’s also rather upsetting.

This is why I’ve spoken in the past for the need for everyday wisdom. Namely, we have to tolerate a certain amount of everyday unhappiness with the world in which we live in order to have everyday wisdom. We can’t have our way all the time. Very frequently, on a deeper level, we don’t even know which way to go. That’s what I also meant a few broadcasts ago when I spoke about everyday unhappiness.

Now, within this context, because I do want to highlight for the people who are listening, really, what psychotherapy is. Psychotherapy, and I’ve mentioned this many times, cannot and should not give us answers as to how to live our lives. A therapist should never be telling us what to do. That’s not a part of it. I don’t go to work out my identity by going to a therapist and then he tells me what to do. But talking to someone in a quiet, trustful situation can help us come in contact with our own strengths, our own capacity to think things out. It can help us by showing us how our childhood plays an important role in our living and in our experiencing ourselves.

As I’ve said many times, if you don’t have therapy, or don’t have it available for a variety of reasons, try to find a little quiet space each day, or a few times a week, and just think about who you are and who you want to be. Not that you’re right or wrong, that doesn’t help, but try to find a Psychotherapist’s Corner inside yourself.

Now, Erik Erikson speaks about, along with this whole notion of how do we develop who we are, how do we develop our identity, Erikson speaks about the need to be generous, particularly as we grow older. Not to hoard as we grow older, the exact opposite, to be generous. And, he also speaks about the need to appreciate what we have learned, without the fantasy that we have found some unchanging truth.

Now, that sounds obvious, and yet I’ve met many, many people who are so anxious that perhaps their life is meaningless, or perhaps they didn’t do it right, that they are absolutely convinced that all of their opinions are correct, and other people’s are wrong. I understand that comes from normal anxiety, which is what I’m talking about this morning, that we have to have an ongoing sense with ourselves, with our communities, probably our whole life. There is no easy answer. There is no automatic formula.

Erikson says that we have to be able to do two things in order to avoid a sense of stagnation and despair in our life, and in order to avoid a deep depression as life goes on. One of these, what he says, is that we have to will what has happened to us, and we’re going to talk about that in a second.

The second point that he calls is that we have to give wisdom to the oncoming generation without a sense that they have to accept it. In other words, we have to recognize that whatever we give the oncoming generation is relative and that’s all we have to do. We don’t have to give them something absolute. We have to give them the tools to think. We have to give them our generous desire to help them. That’s what people incorporate.

From the best teachers, in my experience of grammar school, high school, college, and post-graduate work, what I remember most is the generosity of the teachers wanting to convey something. We can always learn content, but you can’t go on fire for learning if you don’t feel that someone is generous and wants to share with you.

Now, let me just touch a few minutes on the first one, and then we’ll take a break, and then we’ll come back. The first one, Erikson says we have to be able to will what happened to us. Again, that sounds very, very simple, but really what it means, even though I’m going to use very simple terms, just try to hear me, we have to come to terms with who our parents were: What they were able to give us, and what they were not able to give us.

That doesn’t mean that we approve of everything they did. It means we have to recognize their behavior without spending the rest of our lives complaining about it. We have to accept how we look, our physical self, as well as our intellectual and our emotional self. We are who we are because of all of the particular things that happen to us.

Too frequently, when people keep saying, “Oh, my parents should have done such and such, my spouse never appreciated me, my children didn’t do what I really wanted, they’re really ungrateful kids, they didn’t accomplish what I wanted for them,” or, “I should’ve been able to do such and such,” while I humanely understand that talk, I simultaneously know that all of this kind of talk makes it impossible for anyone to appreciate that we are who we are because of the things that happened to us, which, for the most part, we had little control over.

We free ourselves for the future only when we recognize the past and let it be. I think that’s really what Erikson is talking about. We recognize the past and let it be. We don’t try to impose a new reality on our past, because that doesn’t work. We live in a democracy, and the gentleman who felt he had to kill a doctor because he disagreed with him didn’t understand that he lived in a democracy. In a democracy, you simply don’t do that, no matter how strong your beliefs are.

I’m going to take a break for a second, and we’ll come back for the second point of Erikson. This is The Psychotherapist’s Corner, 1490 WGCH, Dr. Jerry Talking.

Dr. Jerry: Welcome back to The Psychotherapist’s Corner with Dr. Jerry. We’ve been talking about Erik Erikson’s notions of identity, and some of the things that we have to do to recognize what the human identity is.

To summarize just briefly, it’s not something we achieve at somewhere around 16 to 18 and then hold onto for the rest of our life. Our identity is an ongoing dialogue with ourselves primarily and our dialogue with those around us, and our dialogue in the communities in which we live, and it’s a dialogue we have to keep up our whole lives. Actually, that’s part of the joy of life. That’s part of creating who we are, and the only reason I’ve spoken about the past, and coming to terms with the past, is not to dwell in the past, but because only when we know it can we be free of it, and when we’re free of it, we can live more fully.

That’s, in general, the points. The last point that Erikson makes, and I want to spend the last section of the show on it, Erikson speaks about either we develop wisdom in life, or we go into despair. Despair is usually masked by very deep depression and withdrawal, or sometimes, extreme rigidity. That’s really despair, where people no longer feel that they have any inner flexibility, that they no longer can have a dialogue with life.

Erikson speaks about the need to pass on whatever we have learned, and we have struggled to learn, and very hard to learn, we have to pass that onto the oncoming generation, knowing that what we pass on is relative. It doesn’t have to be an absolute, and that’s his strong point. To offer and to provide what we have learned to our children, literal children and those who come after us, is what we mean also by being generous.

Being generous doesn’t just mean giving things; I don’t mean that. I mean a generosity of spirit. The best way of counteracting depression, actually, is to develop and to force a generosity of spirit. We pass on whatever we’ve learned so that the next generation has more tools to handle life. Life really does seem to be getting more complicated in our technological society, and so the recognition that we pass on what is needed is, I think, really basic, and as I spoke about a few minutes ago.

The opposite of recognizing that what we are passing on is relative is to think that what we know, what we give to the next generation, is some unchanging absolute truth. Here, let me just focus, what we pass onto our children is a sense of integrity, a sense of honesty, a sense of commitment, a sense of work, and dedication to community and those around us. Those are absolute, but those are process, if you can follow what I’m saying. They’re not content.

What we have to pass on is a way of living in the world. That can be very absolute, but when we start getting into content, unchanging content, then I think we’re headed for a little trouble. Content doesn’t make us creative and generous. Actually, if you have an absolute content, you very frequently are desperately afraid that history might judge as less than correct. Whereas when we teach people integrity, and honesty, and work, and commitment, those are universal values. We don’t have to worry about that.

Now, why am I saying this? I’m saying it because the reality is, each generation, and we have to give this to our children, each generation must find its own truth, with as much help from past generations as possible. Each generation has to find its’ own truth. This is true in science, it’s true in life in general, it’s true in education.

Being real, being alive, as we’ve spoken about, has nothing to do with being correct all the time. That’s not what being alive means. We can hold our beliefs and our opinions strongly, as long as we do so, so to speak, with an open hand. Why I say this is because, I’ve reiterated throughout these programs, when we don’t hold our beliefs with a kind of open hand, we’re really in danger of imitating the queen’s narcissism, that what we have is correct, what we have is the most beautiful, what we have, other people should admire. That kind of narcissism is very dangerous for all of us.

So, everyday wisdom really means holding on to what we believe with an open hand, and passing it on to the oncoming generation with a sense of generosity. A father gives an example to his son about working by working, and by being dedicated to his family, and dedicated to those in his community. That’s passing on wisdom, not making sure that the son gets into a certain job no matter what, and holds onto it no matter what. That’s not teaching the child industry, that’s teaching him simply possession. Generosity is sharing who I am, trying to help those around me.

Wisdom means, as I’ve said, that we give to the next generation the truth as best we know it, not angry or intimidated if some of the truth proves no longer to be viable. I’m always struck, again, particularly in a democracy, where a democracy really demands a lot of us. To be alive in a democracy means we have to keep a certain internal flexibility, and I am surprised at times when events change, and facts change, and situations change, that people hold onto a position that they maybe held ten years ago, and they hold onto it merely because they had it ten years ago. That’s what I’m talking about, in terms of a lack of flexibility.

Emotional health is strengthened by an ability to be flexible and to entertain alternative explanations, even for our most deeply held convictions. I want to reiterate that. Emotional health is strengthened by our ability to be flexible. That doesn’t just mean relative, it means to be flexible, and to entertain alternate explanation, even for our most deeply held convictions. That doesn’t mean we give up our conviction. It means we’re willing to dialogue about them. We’re willing to think about them.

Political convictions, educational conviction, religious convictions, marriage convictions, I’m including the whole lot here, that if we can have that sense of inner flexibility, that, “I’m willing to listen to alternate opinions, and to stifle my immediate angry response, perhaps, and to entertain that someone else can think very different from what I think,” that capacity will not only make us happier, it’ll deepen whatever convictions we have, without anger, without righteousness, without narcissism, and it’ll also aid us in living in our community.

I think that’s really what Erikson is all about when he said, “We have to give to the oncoming generation whatever we have learned.” That seems to me to actually be essential, and when we don’t do that, we really dry up inside, and we hide inside ourselves, and when you think about it, what an awful waste of a life.

As I’ve said many times in these programs, our life is a remarkable, wonderful gift that we should enjoy and celebrate, and anything that can help us do that, whether it’s love, or a good friend, or a wonderful family, or psychotherapy, anything that gets out of ourselves to enjoy life, and to dialogue with life, is really what we need to get through it all.

Frankly, when democracy works well, it’s a great aid to each citizen’s psychological and emotional health, much more than any kind of other political system. I’m not saying the other systems are bad and ours is the only right one at all, I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that, certainly, my experience in education and reflection on it, is that democracy can help us enormously develop that inner flexibility that we all need to live life.

Thank you again for listening. This is 1490 WGCH, The Psychotherapist’s Corner.

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