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12.5: The Importance of Identity

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    The developmental crisis that Erikson focused much of his career on was that of developing one’s identity. From the beginning of publishing his theories, he emphasized that a lot of the psychological distress and pathological symptoms seen in childhood can be interpreted as the child expressing their right to find an identity in the world, and neurosis typically results from the loss of one’s identity (Erikson, 1950). Erikson returned to this theme repeatedly in books such as Identity and the Life Cycle (Erikson, 1980a; originally published in 1959), Identity: Youth and Crisis (Erikson, 1968b), and Dimensions of a New Identity (Erikson, 1974). He also published A Memorandum on Identity and Negro Youth at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America (Erikson, 1964). The importance of identity, and the stage of identity vs. role-diffusion and confusion, is that only upon completion of the first four stages of life is the ego fully mature, the point at which a person is ready to be an adult. But the entire period, the entire psychosocial crisis, is a critical time of transition:

    Adolescents have always been especially open to conversion or to what is now called consciousness-expansion in the direction of physical, spiritual, and social experience. Their cognitive capacities and social interests are such that they want to go to the limit of experience before they fit themselves into their culture and fit their culture to themselves. (pg. 37; Erikson cited in Evans, 1964)

    A General Definition of Identity

    Since Erikson labeled his fifth stage of development identity vs. role diffusion and/or confusion, it is common to think that identity formation is something that occurs during adolescence. Actually, identity formation begins at birth, and continues throughout the lifespan. It is only in adolescence that the individual finally has the material around which to form an integrated identity that can remain somewhat stable, hence the psychosocial crisis that arises during that process of integration and more stable identity formation. Thus, a child will have some sense of self, but it is not until adolescence that it becomes a crisis. So what is that sense of self that forms the identity? Erikson himself turned to two great men, whom he described as “bearded and patriarchal founding fathers of the psychologies on which our thinking on identity is based:” William James and Sigmund Freud (Erikson, 1968).

    A man’s character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: “This is the real me!” (pg. 19; William James in a letter to his wife, cited in Erikson, 1968)

    Moving beyond James’ very personal description, Freud spoke of his Jewish identity as something that provided a cultural context in which he lived his life, even though he was never religious, and openly despised religion. He felt that he shared a Jewish cultural nature, which offered an explanation for, as well as a justification for, aspects of his personality that defied any other obvious explanation.

    Based on these perspectives by James and Freud, Erikson described identity as a process rooted in the core of the individual, yet also rooted in the core of their communal culture. This complicated process involves both judging oneself in light of how others judge you, as well as judging the judgments others make about you. Eventually, the interplay between psychological and social factors results in an identity based on psychosocial relativity (Erikson, 1968). In other words, one’s identity is very much influenced by where a person sees themselves fitting into their world. Consequently, a person may develop a healthy identity, or they can just as easily develop a negative identity (see below).

    The term identity crisis was first used by Erikson during World War II, to describe a particular psychological disorder. They encountered patients, who had been fighting in the war, who had become severely disturbed. However, they could not be described in the typical ways, such as being “shell-shocked” or just faking mental illness to escape combat. Instead, they had lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity. Erikson proposed that they had lost the central control over that part of their self that psychoanalysts could only describe as the ego. Thus, he described these patients as having lost their “ego identity.” Since World War II, Erikson felt that he and his colleagues were observing the same fundamental disorder in many severely conflicted young patients. These disturbed individuals were, in a sense, waging a war within themselves and against society. An identity crisis of this sort can affect groups as well as individuals (Erikson, 1968). In an interesting, and somewhat amusing example of group identity crisis, we can look at the reaction of the psychoanalytic community to the theories of Carl Jung. In Erikson’s view, the psychoanalytic community reacted to Jung’s proposal of the collective unconscious and archetypes as a threat to scientific approach advocated by Freud. Consequently, the majority of the psychoanalytic community ignored Jung’s reasonable observations as well as his somewhat less scientific interpretations (Erikson, 1980a).

    Obstacles to the Development of Identity

    Erikson talked about two obstacles to the development of identity: ratio and negative identity. Ratio refers to the balance between the opposite poles of each psychosocial crisis: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, etc. Although it may be best for the ratio to favor trust, autonomy, and so on, it is unreasonable to expect a person to develop without any experience of trust being misplaced or without any feelings of shame. This helps to ground the person in the real world, particularly as it is appropriate to the customs of their culture (see Evans, 1964). Indeed, Erikson felt that identity could be viewed as being that subsystem within the ego that is closest to social reality, based on the integrated self-representations formed during the psychosocial crises of childhood. Thus, identity:

    …could be said to be characterized by the more or less actually attained but forever-to-be-revised sense of the reality of the self within social reality; while the imagery of the ego ideal could be said to represent a set of to-be-strived-for but forever-not-quite-attainable ideal goals for the self. (pg. 160; Erikson, 1980a)

    Negative identity is often expressed as an angry and snobbish rejection of the roles expected by one’s family, community, or even society. It is a profound reaction to the loss of identity that typically arises when identity development has lost the promise of wholeness that one expects to obtain from their identity. The consequences can be severe, for both individuals and groups of young people. Erikson worked with young people who were beginning to make choices in life that could easily lead them toward their vindictive fantasies of becoming prostitutes or drug addicts (an extreme way of rebelling against their parents). As such disturbed young people gather together, they can form gangs, drug rings, sex clubs, and the like (Erikson, 1968b, 1980a). Society, according to Erikson, often makes the mistake of enhancing this maladaptive behavior:

    If, for simplicity’s sake or in order to accommodate ingrown habits of law or psychiatry, they diagnose and treat as a criminal, as a constitutional misfit, as a derelict doomed by his upbringing, or indeed as a deranged patient a young person who, for reasons of personal or social marginality, is close to choosing a negative identity, that young person may well put his energy into becoming exactly what the careless and fearful community expects him to be - and make a total job of it. (pg. 196; Erikson, 1968b)

    Erikson believed that women and minorities (indeed, oppressed people in any situation) face special problems in the formation of their identity. Erikson considered men and women to be fundamentally different, but more importantly, he believed that only women could ensure the future of humanity. According to Erikson, men try to solve problems with “bigger and better wars.” And now, with the advent of nuclear bombs, men have nearly reached the limit of their ability to destroy each other. The future, therefore, requires the feminine aspects of personality, including realistically caring for the home, responsibly raising the children, being resourceful in peacekeeping, and devotion to healing:

    The question arises whether such a potential for annihilation as now exists in the world should continue to exist without the representation of the mothers of the species in the councils of image-making and decision. (pg. 261; Erikson, 1968b)

    For Blacks in America, the identity crisis has been one of being separated from their African heritage, and yet also separated from the White American heritage that surrounds them. Erikson recounts both clinical examples and folklore that emphasize the value placed on being White by Blacks themselves (Erikson, 1950, 1964, 1968, 1980a). The result is often psychological distress and depression, such as that seen in the classic study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which Black children considered identification with their race as bad. Using Black and White dolls, some of the young Black children actually cried when asked to point to the doll they looked most like (Clark & Clark, 1947). Perhaps the most dramatic example of Erikson’s theory in action occurred during the 1960s. Disenfranchised Blacks adopted a negative identity and opposed many aspects of the American society that had oppressed Black’s for so long (Note: Negative identity is used here only as Erikson’s term, not to imply that the fight for racial equality was, in any way, something negative). With Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, some young Black men opposed both the Christianity and the Democracy that formed so much of the American national identity. Those who did not, found themselves at odds with their own people, as we will see with Brian Copeland, author of Not a Genuine Black Man (see Chapter 16; Copeland, 2006). It should be noted, however, that the seemingly contradictory perspective of rejecting a society that gives one the very right to oppose it is not alien to the African psyche:

    …the African gods south of the Sahara always had at least two heads, one for evil and one for good. Now people create God in their own image, what they think He - for God is always a “He” in patriarchal societies - what He is like or should be. So the African said, in effect: I am both good and evil; good and evil are the two parts of the thing that is me… (pg. 24; Huey Newton, recorded in Kai Erikson, 1973)

    The idea that Black Americans might have been adopting a negative identity was more than just an academic theory for Erikson. In 1971, both Erikson and Huey Newton (who was then known as Supreme Commander of the Black Panther Party) presented talks to the students of Yale University. A short time later, they met again for a series of conversations in Oakland, California, which also included the Black sociologist J. Herman Blake and Erikson’s son, Kai Erikson, also a sociologist (see K. Erikson, 1973). Among many topics, Newton described the revolutionary actions of Black activists at that time as a process, a contradiction between old ways and new ways. Any change, he argued, might be viewed as revolutionary at a particular point in time. Newton went on to describe how the Black community expected him to hate all White people, and how the Black community rejected many of its own because they had too many Caucasian features (such as relatively light skin). He rebelled against this discrimination, just as he did against the oppression that was so inherent in American society. Erikson, for his part, talked mostly about just how difficult it is for people of different backgrounds to understand each other’s perspective. Most important, however, is the act of searching for some basis for understanding one another (K. Erikson, 1973).

    In his autobiographical book Revolutionary Suicide (the preparation of which was assisted by J. Herman Blake; Newton, 1973), Newton begins with a tribute to a comrade who was killed in a shootout with the police, while seeking nothing more than what Newton considered the right of all men: dignity and freedom. He then offers a poem, which sounds very much like Taoist philosophy, as well as a search for a greater identity:

    By having no family,

    I inherited the family of humanity.

    By having no possessions,

    I have possessed all.

    By rejecting the love of one,

    I received the love of all.

    By surrendering my life to the revolution,

    I found eternal life.

    Revolutionary suicide.

    Huey P. Newton, in Revolutionary Suicide (1973)

    discussion question\(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Erikson described the adoption of a negative identity as a serious rejection of one’s expected place in life. Has there been a time in your life when you adopted a negative identity? Do you feel that sometimes it is necessary to adopt a negative identity in order to change the world we live in?

    Identity and the Role of the Family - Perspectives from Around the World

    Identity is not merely a personal phenomenon, it develops within a cultural context that is passed on through the family. The most important social institutions of the first three stages of development are the mother, then both parents, and finally, the family as a whole. As adults, individuals face not only their own psychosocial crises, but they serve as the parents of the next generation, as their children face the early development crises. Thus, it is important to consider the role that the family plays in general, and the perspectives that can be offered by family psychology.

    It is difficult to define the word family, since it includes nuclear families (two-generations, with married parents and their own children), extended families (three or more generations), foster and adoptive families (which may be multi-racial and/or multi-cultural), single-parent families, gay or lesbian couples with or without children, remarried/step families, and others (Kaslow, 2001). Further complicating matters is the role the family plays as a microsystem of a given culture, especially when that culture is dramatically altered. For example, when the former Soviet Union collapsed, the entire economic and political structure of countries like Russia, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were wiped out. When Yugoslavia broke apart, ancient ethnic hatred led to brutal, local wars. The role that women play in many cultures has changed in recent years, whereas in some cultures the patriarchal authority has aggressively retained its domination of the culture. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank for developing micro-credit loans, most of which go to poor women in oppressive societies, in an effort to help these women and their children rise out of poverty.

    Family psychology addresses issues as complex as families themselves, including male-female relationships, domestic violence, child-rearing and socialization practices, divorce, the search for identity in a dysfunctional family setting, spirituality, drug addiction, war, crime and violence, homelessness, kidnapping, immigration, etc. (Kaslow, 2001). When the members of a family face any of these problems, or perhaps a number of them, family psychologists can help the individuals to retain their own sense of identity, in part by focusing on reconstructing the social structure of the family (as opposed to focusing on diagnosing individual disorders). Unfortunately, the problems facing families are common throughout the world. However, since the family is the basic social structure within communities across all cultures, family therapy can play an important role in helping to solve these problems. For example, family therapy has been used to study and treat a variety of problems in different countries: conduct disorder in youth from the U.S. Virgin Islands (Dudley-Grant, 2001); community disasters, war stress, and the effects of immigration on Israeli families (Halpern, 2001); and the refusal of some children in Japan to attend school (Kameguchi & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2001). In each of these cultures the family is considered to play a particularly important role in identity formation.

    This page titled 12.5: The Importance of Identity is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.