We are all creating the future version of ourselves every single day. We're either moving toward wholeness—or we're moving toward fragmentation. In this brand-new September series, I'm walking you through the most important steps you can take to cultivate resilience, embrace authenticity, and nurture intimacy.
Today's episode kicks us off with an overview of the key challenges we all face throughout the course of our lives. Here's what you’ll learn:
1. The 8 challenges we face from childhood to old age
2. The #1 challenge most of us are still working to resolve
3. Why identity precedes intimacy
4. A proven exercise to help you become your ideal self
Do you have questions about friendship for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
Thanks to our sponsors:
This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Give online therapy a try at betterhelp.com/BESTOFYOU and get on your way to being your best self.
Go to www.organifi.com/bestofyou today and use code BESTOFYOU for 20% off your order today.
Visit hiyahealth.com/BESTOFYOU and get your kids the full-body nourishment they need to grow into healthy adults.
Go to www.simplemodern.com/bestofyou and by sharing your email you’ll get a unique discount code just for you or bundle and save for back to school. This should be your go to brand for your family.
Get 35% off your first order of Sundays. Go to SundaysForDogs.com/BESTOFYOU or use code BESTOFYOU at checkout.
Music by Andy Luiten
Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
More on the stages of psychosocial development, according to Erik Erickson
Related Podcast Episodes
Episode 66: The Truth About Anxiety & How to Become a Worry Free Parent with Sissy Goff
Episode 55: Am I Supposed to Distrust Myself? Why Trusting Yourself is Necessary to Establishing Healthy Relationships With Other People
Episode 56: Am I Really Supposed to Die to Myself? Misconstrued Messages and How to Disentangle From Them
TBOY Episode 69
Alison: Hey everyone. And welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You Podcast. I'm so glad you're here. I can't believe it's September. We're in the fall officially. I guess not officially, but it feels as if it's official.
The kids are back in school and the summer feels like it's for the most part over. This week, we're going to launch a new series. I'm so excited about it. It's one of my favorite things to do. It's called Psych 101, and we're going to go through all of these basics of what it means to become a whole person who can function as an individual, who can function in relationships, who knows how to set healthy boundaries, who knows how to assess and understand misbehaviors and incongruencies in the people around you, someone who has healthy communication skills.
We're going to go through all the things–this is the stuff I love. This is the teacher in me. It's going to be so much more fun than your old, boring textbooks. I'm going to use real life examples and practical applications so that this becomes your go to guide for everything you need to become a whole healed person. I want to equip you to engage this life God has given you with as many resources as I can.
So we're going to kick things off this week with an annotated excerpt from chapter four of the best of you. Now there's a couple of reasons for this. Number one, big announcement: The Best of You is out in paperback this week. So if you've been waiting to get your copy until the price goes down or until the paperback version comes out, this is your week, and so to celebrate that and to celebrate this new series, I'm going to turn to chapter four this week, where I talk about the eight stages of development.
Now, I promise you, this is such rich, good stuff that is going to help you navigate your life better. It's going to help you understand your childhood and what you did or didn't get. It's going to help you understand how to parent your own children. It's going to help you understand how to reparent yourself. It's going to help you understand the whole context of your life.
Now, here's the thing I love the most. You're also going to be able to identify the current stage of life you're in. Each of these stages of life, according to Eric Erickson, who came up with these stages of development has a crisis that you need to resolve.
Now it doesn't have to be a literal crisis. It's more of a milestone. It's a way of naming the particular season you're in and the different milestones you want to achieve in each of those seasons.
I love this framework. I think it's super helpful. So without further ado, let's dive into these eight markers of maturity. These eight milestones that help you understand where you are in your own life journey and how to take charge of your own growth.
Inevitably, when a client comes into my office, they bring me a problem. Usually it's a problem with another person or sometimes it's a problem with their own emotions or the way they're seeing themselves or the world. Regardless, that problem lies within the context of your whole story, the story of your life. The problem that you face today is rooted in a whole grand narrative of the person you've taken yourself to be for your whole life.
This applies to little problems, and this applies to big problems. If you're having a problem with a child or the way that you're parenting, almost always there's something going on. Inside of you that has a long tail all the way back to the way that you were treated, a message you picked up, a value you've latched onto that may or may not be relevant to the current situation with your child, or if you're having trouble with a parent or with a friend or with a spouse, the first thing we've got to do is get a bigger picture about your journey, about your story.
And if you imagine your life as a path with a beginning, a middle, and an end, in order to understand where you are now, we've got to look back to where you've been. We've got to look forward to where you want to go. And we've got to locate where you are now. So we're going to start by looking back.
Now this is an excerpt, which I'm going to annotate from chapter four of The Best of You.
Most people aren't born with a deep sense of confidence and clarity about who they are. Instead, children need a healthy environment and guidance at key junctures to develop. In fact, renowned psychologist, Eric Erickson, identified eight stages of identity development. These are the eight stages we're going to go through today.
Each one represents a milestone you must overcome. And these eight stages highlight that becoming your true self, becoming this whole person, this person that's equipped to face whatever challenges that you face is a process that spans an entire lifetime. It's never one and done. Always in process.
Here are the eight steps. Number one is infancy. This is really in your first year of life and the milestone you're resolving during these years is trust versus mistrust. That means the central issue that you're going to face in that first year of life that any child is going to face during that first year of life is whether they can develop a sense of safety, a sense of trust in the world and in the people around him or her. Or a sense of mistrust, a sense that the world is not safe.
The second stage is early childhood, the first two to three years of life. And the milestone that you have to resolve is autonomy versus shame and doubt. Now, autonomy is this idea of your individuality, your independence, that you have a being, a you ness That's separate from other people. So there's a little bit of individuation that starts to happen when you think of toddlers in those first few years.
They start to explore away from the caregiver. They start to have a sense of their own autonomy when this milestone is not resolved. A child might develop a sense of shame or a sense of self doubt deeply at his or her core. Where there's this sense of, I can't make it on my own.
And that child might want to stay blended or merged with the primary caregiver. Now, paradoxically, when this milestone is not resolved, it's typically because there's an. Insecure attachment. So this gets back to attachment. The more secure the attachment with that primary caregiver, the more the child is able to individuate and explore the world around her.
But when there's an insecure attachment, that child tends to cling, that child tends to want that security. So they stay closer in an unhealthy way to that primary caregiver. All right. Number three, this is the preschool years, ages four to five, roughly. And the milestone is initiative versus guilt.
During this stage, children began to understand their power in the world. They can take initiative. They might initiate social interactions with other kids. They might initiate work. You might start to notice what they like, what they don't like. When they resolve this milestone, they gain a sense of purpose. They gain a sense of agency, a sense of, I can affect change in my world. I can ask a friend to play and they say, sure, I'd love to play with you. And that feels good inside my body, as a little young child.
So they begin to develop that sense of purpose. On the other hand, if they don't resolve this milestone, they might develop a core sense of guilt, a sense of being bad or not good enough or not being valuable or having purpose with other people or in the world around them.
Number four is during the early school years. And the milestone is industry versus inferiority. Now, again, these aren't necessarily always sequential, but you can think about this when you think about your own kids, that they're walking themselves through these developmental stages.
And during those early school years, roughly ages six to 11 or 12, children start to cope with new social environments. They start to cope with new academic demands. They begin to develop a sense of competence. They believe in their own power to achieve their self efficacy.
Which is industry. Or if they don't resolve this milestone successfully, they might develop a sense of inferiority, a feeling of being less than. Other people, this is a big age during which we begin to compare ourselves to others. So often when I work with clients and we're dealing with comparison or inferiority or feeling less than a lot of the memories that surface go back to this age, this fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, when you start to take inventory of yourself as you compare yourself against other people. That's age appropriate at that age.
When we get stuck in this stage of development, we bring a lot of that into our adult years. Again, there's no shame in any of this. I'm trying to describe the process of what development looks like.
Okay. Number five happens more during adolescence, during the teen years. This is identity versus role confusion. If you think about your teenagers, your young adults, they're working on finding their identity. They're trying to understand themselves. Who am I? What do I like? Where do I fit into this pecking order? That's what they're trying to resolve, a strong sense of self, a strong sense of this is who I am.
This is where I fit in. This is how I belong. I'm not like everybody else. I am who I am. This is where, when it's resolved in a healthy way, you start to have a sense of wanting to be true or faithful to your own self. Now I know right here, is where a lot of us are like, no, that didn't happen to me. And this is a lot of what my book, The Best of You is all about. It's repairing the wound at that core sense of self, that core sense of identity where we didn't really. Arriving at that strong sense of this is who I am. I am who I am.
I can assess myself. I have a healthy self concept. I know who I am. I can reflect on myself. I know how I'm different from other people. I've accepted myself. This doesn't often get resolved in those teenage years, especially for those of us who were parented in earlier decades.
We talked about this in episode 66 with Sissy Goff, where Sissy and I were talking about how we were raised in the 70s and 80s versus how kids are raised now and how in many ways a lot of us are over parenting to correct some of the deficits in the parenting we got because so many of us didn't find this sense of Agency, this sense of self confidence, this sense of identity that is so critical for children to find in these early tween and teen years.
So it's great that we're working to help our kids develop this core sense of self. It's also important that we do the work in our own lives. It's also important for us to continue to do that work in our own lives.
So now we move into the adult years. Now, Erickson hypothesized that this next stage, intimacy versus isolation, could last anywhere from age 19 to 40 years, and I actually like it that there's such a broad span on that, especially in our modern era where research shows that are young adult children are taking longer to leave the nest in many ways they're marrying later.
They're staying closer to family longer. And so many of them are still reconciling with this intimacy versus isolation well into their twenties versus at the age of 19.
That's not to say it doesn't happen, but the idea in this stage, intimacy versus isolation is that young adults need to begin to form intimate, loving relationships with other people, and they'll begin to experience love, the seedbed for creating a partnership, for creating a family for beginning to create a legacy of their own.
The Bible talks about this process of development where we leave our own family of origin, our own parents and cleave to someone else. This is a natural part of psychological development. We grow up, we leave the nest, we find someone of our own, we set up a life. And the cycle of life continues, it's beautiful.
But there can be disruptions in this stage of life where perhaps you reach adulthood and you're able to work and you're doing all sorts of great things, but you really struggle with intimacy.
You really struggle with forging a deep, meaningful, intimate partnership with another person. Again, there's no shame in this. In fact, in many ways, this was part of my story. It took me years into adulthood to learn how to develop intimacy. I had good work, I had great friends, but dating was a challenge for me.
I struggled in this area and I work with a lot of people who do, whether you're married and struggled to form a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with your partner, or whether you stay single and struggle to develop an intimate relationship, that is the milestone of this young adult season from the age of roughly 19 to 40.
Next, number seven, the stage is generativity versus stagnation. Erickson hypothesized this was the milestone of middle adulthood from roughly age 40 to 65. Again, those numbers change a little bit as people are retiring later, as people are working longer, But the theme really holds true.
This stage is characterized by learning to create good work, by learning to understand your legacy, your generativity, your contribution to this world. It might be through raising your kids. It might be through the work that you do. It might be through ministry or through service, but during this season, you're really cultivating that lasting impact you're having.
And it results in a sense of stewardship, a sense of care. When you navigate this milestone, and oftentimes if you're a mom who's been raising kids, you might go through a couple of phases with this.
You might have a first phase of really pouring into your kids, and then as your kids get a little older, you might go through another phase of figuring out another way that you want to contribute. You see this also with people who have different careers.
The first leg of their life is building their career. And then as they get into their forties and fifties, they think more about how do I want to help others? How do I want to take some of the success I've gained and poured into the next generation? Now, again, these steps are. iterative. They're not necessarily always sequential. You might have been doing some of this in your twenties and thirties, but in general,
This is a helpful guideline to think about the different stage of life you're in. And then finally, I love this. I love that Erickson goes through the whole life. We look at number eight, integrity versus despair. Erickson estimated this roughly late adulthood after 65.
Again, in our modern era where we're living longer, this might be coming at 70, 75, even 80, depending on your health and your relationship to work and family. But in this stage, this older age, the milestone is this sense of integrity, this sense of a life well lived, this sense of looking back over your life and feeling good about the choices you've made and making peace with the choices you wish you hadn't made.
That's what we mean by integrity. There's a sense of wisdom. Of bringing things together before God, of reflecting and finding peace and integrity in the wholeness of your life. And then if this milestone or the preceding milestones that led up to it, don't get resolved, it can lead to despair.
It can lead to a really hard relationship with aging. And I see this too. I see folks who haven't done the work and they're hanging on to old ways and they're hanging onto old grudges and they're hanging on to old resentments and they're hanging on to old shame. And it only gets worse as they age.
You're moving in one of two directions throughout your life. You're moving toward growth, you're moving toward wholeness or. You're moving toward the opposite. You're moving toward fragmentation. You're moving toward disintegration, which ultimately leads to shame and despair.
These are the consequences of the choices we make in life. Here's the good news. It is never too late to begin to tackle the milestones of whatever season of life that you're facing.
Now I go through this whole process of forming an identity, forming your sense of you-ness, as I like to say, your sense of selfhood, wherever you are. That is the topic of The Best of You. The whole book takes you through that whole process of becoming a whole person, a whole you and all of those spokes that come out of it.
It's not about you. It's so that you can contribute to a legacy. It's so that you can live a life of purpose. It's so that you can live a life of integrity. It's so that you can live a life that's characterized by intimacy and meaningful relationships. That's the purpose of developing a strong sense of self.
And I think it's so important to understand in this world where we can focus so much on love, we can focus so much on finding that one right person, we can focus so much on finding that one right friend, when the best way to do that so often is to first focus on the work of becoming true to your own God given self.
Here's what I call I before we, here's what is critical to understand when it comes to establishing relationships as an adult, identity is necessary for intimacy. This means that a healthy sense of self is vital to creating healthy relationships with other people.
Now, listen, this is true in marriage. This is true with friends. This is true with your kids. This is true with your parents. It's not true for you. It's also true for the other person. If you have a strong sense of self and the other person has a strong sense of self, you're going to be able to forge a great relationship.
But if you have a strong sense of self and the other person is stuck and not growing, it's going to be really hard to forge a healthy relationship with that person.
In fact, in Erickson's framework, a stable sense of self grows out of years of cultivating deep roots as you seek to understand your purpose, your challenges, the gifts you have to bring, and it's out of this strong sense of self that you learn the meaning of what Erickson calls fidelity or faithfulness.
This is a fruit of the spirit. Which I define in the psychological sense as the ability to commit yourself to other people and to the world around you with integrity.
It's really hard to demonstrate faithfulness to others in a wise way, in a healthy way, if you don't first know how to be faithful to yourself. Furthermore, faithfulness to yourself, I would argue, shows faithfulness to the God who made you.
Faithfulness to God involves faithfulness to self. Faithfulness to self involves faithfulness to God, the two go hand in hand. Faithfulness to yourself involves understanding what you need to thrive. It means prioritizing the care of your mind, your heart, your body, your soul. , it involves honoring the unique gifts God has given you.
Faithfulness to someone else involves understanding what they need to thrive, prioritizing the care of their mind, heart, body, and soul, and honoring the unique gifts God has given them. Do you see how both matter? I'm faithful to myself. And I'm faithful to you as I'm faithful to you and I honor you. I'm also simultaneously needing to be faithful to myself.
Both matter. One cannot exist without the other. It's difficult to show up faithfully for someone else if you don't also know how to show up faithfully for yourself. But most people don't arrive at adulthood with a strong sense of self and to complicate the situation Most people enter into their most important relationships with other people before healing Their own sense of self
Instead of seeking to heal ourselves first we jump right into relationships as a cure for all that hurts as you think about your relationships. Did you jump into a relationship before you really understood yourself? Now that doesn't mean that you jumped into an unhealthy relationship.
It's possible that the relationship you jumped into has helped you nurture a strong sense of self. That's great. It also might mean you jumped into a relationship where you have to backtrack a bit. Doesn't mean the relationship is bad. Doesn't mean you need to throw the relationship away. It does mean you might need to pause for a minute right where you are and do some work to catch up to yourself. To catch up to the wholeness of who you are so that you can bring more of your full self into. Your relationship.
Think about your own experience.
Did you have that strong sense of fidelity to your God given self as you entered into adulthood? Think about that younger you. For a moment. What was she like? What was she looking for? Did she stumble into a relationship that actually in many ways has become that safe crucible in which she can grow and develop and become more of her true self?
Or did she stumble into a relationship that became a source of pain, a source of anguish, a source of taking her away. That's okay. Whatever it is, notice and take comfort in the fact that you're not alone. There's not one path to wholeness. Whichever path you chose, it's never too late to course correct.
Here's what I know to be true. If you're willing to face yourself, honestly, including what's hard, you can heal your core sense of self. You can heal it within the context of your relationship. You can also heal it in yourself.
The beauty of this work yields incredible results. As you heal yourself, you will start to create the relationships you crave. Now, listen, I'm not saying every relationship will magically fall into place, but I am saying this, as you heal yourself, you'll start to discover the kind of people that you truly want and need to bring into your life.
And you start to honor what I call the I inside of you. Becoming your true self is not a destination you arrive at. It's not a process of trying to make all your relationships perfect.
Instead it's the work so often of going back to those very formative first four building blocks where you learn to regain a sense of safety, a sense of trust, if you didn't get it early on. It's the work of developing that sense of safety in yourself and with God.
It's the work of developing that sense of autonomy, of identifying what you think and what you feel. It doesn't mean you always act on what you think and what you feel, but you can identify it, you can name it, you can honor your own autonomy.
It means going back to those early stages of when you first tried to show initiative and correcting painful experiences. It might be learning how to reframe messages of guilt or self doubt in your mind, going back to those painful wounds where someone made fun of you, where someone didn't guide you through the jungle of social survival early on.
It's learning how to reparent yourself as you bravely take a step to reach out to new friends at this stage of your life. It's the work of going back to that place of industry versus inferiority, where maybe you struggled in school or you struggled with a task and you started comparing yourself negatively to other people.
It's the work of going back and naming that and healing that wound and then updating yourself that you no longer live in that place. You can now take brave steps to develop a sense of agency in your life. It might mean taking a step to pursue a dream, write a blog, take a job, learn a skill.
And instead of shaming or guilting yourself, reframing those messages. This has been hard. No one taught me how I wasn't guided through a process of learning how to develop my purpose, but I can do it now. I can walk myself through it with kindness, with gentleness. I can bring people around me who encourage me instead of knocking me down.
You can go back to those first four roots and develop a sense inside of what it means to feel safe, to feel seen, to have purpose and to understand without a doubt that you are irreplaceable and that no one can take your place on this earth. This is the work of wholeness. The work of healing.
As I read through those eight stages and gave you a little snapshot of each one, I want you to think about which one stood out to you the most: which one you feel like you might still be needing to resolve.
And then I want you to ask yourself some of the following questions. Number one, when have you felt safe with someone?
Who or what made you feel seen?
When did you last feel a sense of purpose?
What do you like about yourself and what is your sense of how God sees you?
And notice what comes up as you consider those questions.
Here's what I love about these eight milestones of development. It's not about looking back. It's also about looking forward. It's about envisioning where you want to get. And so to close, I'm going to read to you this benediction I wrote for the best of you about envisioning your future self. Take a moment to envision your future.
Think about those milestones we talked about, that integrity you want to have as you look back over your life, that generativity, that feeling of having contributed what you feel you could contribute. And as you envision that future self, however many years from now, imagine her free of the weight of your current pain, a future version of yourself who has moved through the darkness and found an even better place. She knows who she is. She knows how to experience deep intimacy. She knows what she has to give and she has a sense of integrity.
Envision her in detail. What does she look like? What is she doing? Where? Who is with her?
And as you envision that future version of you, that future version of what you want to feel like, of what you want to experience as you look back at yourself right now,
Ask yourself, how would this future version of you understand the current situation you're facing? The current decision you might need to make the current struggle that you have. Maybe it's your self-doubt, maybe it's a relationship, maybe it's confusion. Whatever it is, imagine that best version of yourself, that person you long to become in your future and ask yourself how would she respond in this situation? What qualities does that future version of you have readily available to her? Is it wisdom?
Is it confidence? Is it strength to know that this is hard, but it really is going to work out? Imagining that future version of yourself, that place you want to get. What Erickson calls integrity, can help you shape the decisions you make right now.
So as you move today, consider who you want to be in the future. That person you want to be in the future and then take a look at where you are right now and take one brave step toward becoming a truer version of yourself.