I’m working with a very troubled young woman at the moment at the college where I’m on placement. She has a very uneven idea of who she is and where she fits into society
I’m working with a very troubled young woman at the moment at the college where I’m on placement. She has a very uneven idea of who she is and where she fits into society. She has had a difficult relationship with her mother and a distinct lack of boundaries at home, coupled with a strained relationship with her absent father. She has a history of recreational drug use that she herself says started because of peer pressure and wanting to fit in. She’s also sexually promiscuous and has, through our work together, made the connection that she sees sex as a way of getting people to care about her. On top of this, she has all the usual stresses of college life – the friendship cliques, course work and deadlines. She says there is a huge difference between who she feels she is and who she feels society wants her to be.
In our training we’re currently undertaking our secondary module, which focuses on working with children and adolescents. In one session we covered the work of Erik Erikson and his theories on how identities are formed, particularly in adolescence, which he regarded as a very key period.
Adolescence can be a difficult time for most people, for a multitude of reasons. Erikson’s own adolescence was fraught with identity issues, given that he was blonde and blue-eyed and Jewish and living in Germany in the early 20th century. Erikson suffered bullying for much of his early life, initially because of his Nordic looks and later for his Jewish faith. These experiences were a major influence on the formation of his theories on the psychosexual stages of development.
My own teenage years were pretty difficult and, as I’m currently working with adolescent clients, I found this part of the course fascinating and extremely pertinent. For Erikson the main challenge of adolescence is that of identity and role confusion. This chimes absolutely with my adolescent clients and, of course, my own experience. The issue of identity is totally front and centre for them and for all of us; we’ve all been through it. I feel as though I am travelling with them across a social minefield as they struggle to establish who they are, who they want to be and how other people see them.
I had a tough time at school. I didn’t really fit into the rugby-playing grammar school mould; I was more into languages and art. I was different and everybody knew it. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ – to fit in and not stand out – but I didn’t want to be like the rest of them either. It was a single sex boys’ school and I felt uncomfortable with how different I was to everyone else. At this point I knew I was gay but didn’t feel I could publicly identify myself for fear of violent or negative reactions from everyone around me. In a classic Erikson scenario, I struggled with an identity crisis: ‘Who am I, and who can I be?’ I knew I was different to the other boys at school, but had no real-life role models to show me that I could be myself and that being me wasn’t a bad thing.
I also felt that there was a massive divide between who I felt I was on the inside and who everyone else thought I should be. I felt suffocated by my environment, unable to experiment and explore who I could be, while finding it impossible to establish the boundaries of ‘me’ in the hostile world of adolescence.
Studying Erikson has enabled me to foster real and deep empathy for my adolescent clients – and my older ones too – after all, we’ve all been there. I’ve been able to walk with my younger clients as they open up and tell me about the problems and issues that have brought them to the point of identity crisis and this has proved invaluable in building a true therapeutic relationship.
In the lecture on Erikson’s work we were asked to do a free association exercise to explore our thoughts and feelings about our own adolescence. It was really interesting travelling back to that time and thinking over how I felt then and also listening to others’ experiences of making the transition from childhood to adulthood. Initially I found I was applying a lot of negatives to my adolescence – ‘isolated’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘sadness’ – but as I thought more, the words became more positive. I realised that, to have survived, I must have been really strong at the time and that the soul-searching and constant battle to find and ‘be’ myself is what gave me that strength.
|‘I knew I was different to the other boys at school, but had no real-life role models to show me that I could be myself and that being me wasn’t a bad thing’|
© British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy 2011.