Psychology in Writing: Identity versus Role Confusion

Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development presents a good thumbnail sketch that counselors can use to identify what challenges a client may be experiencing based on

"The mother"

“The mother” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

their age.  I use the term thumbnail sketch because the stages of development are hierarchical, meaning that an individual must resolve the developmental conflict at each previous stage to move on to each subsequent stage.  Therefore, an individual can be chronologically older, but still struggling with resolving a developmental stage indicative of a younger chronological age (I find the developmental stages of adolescence and young adulthood to be the stages mostly likely to extend beyond the typical age boundaries).  Unlike Maslow’s hierarchy (discussed previously here), Erikson’s developmental stages are not cyclical; once an individual resolves the conflict between two conflicting forces they emerge with either the virtue or the challenge of the force as they move into later stages.

The first developmental conflict I want to focus on is Identity versus Role Confusion, which is typically confronted between the ages of 13-19.  At this stage clients are asking the ever important question “Who Am I?” and their relational focus shifts from family and society (e.g., school, neighbors) to peers and role models.  The client begins searching out others like them to determine how they should be (e.g. how they should act, talk, dress) and to role models for how they want to be (e.g. early career exploration, attitudes, dress).  They also begin to develop a sense of self that is concerned about how others perceive them, leading to a sense of hyper-awareness that “everyone is looking at me,” so that every action feels like it carries increased importance.

There are two ways for clients to resolve this developmental level.  Given room to develop and to try on different roles in a safe and supportive environment the individual can resolve this “identity crisis” and emerge from the developmental stage with a strong sense of self and confidence in who s/he is. This will help the individual in future stages to recognize her/his own needs and what s/he needs to do to get those needs met and find contentment.  On the other side, if a client is getting conflicting messages about who s/he should be and does not have the ego strength to set boundaries for her/his own identity, s/he will immerge from this stage confused about who s/he is and will demonstrate instability in her/his identity.  This instability can cause issues as the individual seeks out relationships and work that would lead to contentment because the individual is not clear on who s/he is and therefore can’t identify what s/he wants.

As writers, understanding that past is prologue (i.e., the resolution or failed resolution of previous stages will impact current functioning) and that current development will affect how our characters interacts in the world and with themselves, will shape their portrayal on the page.  During this developmental stage our characters will probably engage in a lot of self-talk, questioning about themselves and the world, and self-doubt.  This is when our characters decide to conform, being who others wants them to be, or strike out on their own to determine who they will be in spite of external pressures.  Both approaches can provide considerable conflict in drama to write about, whether it’s the stomach clenching feeling we get when a character decides to go with the crowd against their own best interests and it ends poorly, or when our character faces social ridicule and pressure for standing against the crowd and being who they want to be.

Understanding our character’s psychosocial development can also affect our connection with our readers.  If our target audience is young adults, they probably will not be able to identify as strongly with characters in developmental stages too far below or too far above themselves.  An adolescent reader is not going to necessarily be interested in the legacy of an older person or if babies trust their parents; these can be good to know about to develop strong supporting characters.  As main characters, dealing with these earlier or later developmental conflicts will probably not grab our audience in the way that a character attempting to resolve the same challenges they are currently experiencing will.  It is much easier for our audiences to project on someone who is having the same thoughts and feelings as themselves.

Writing Prompt:  Think about an adolescent character and without dialogue walk through her/his thought process in determining whether to conform with a group or to strike off on his/her own.  Describe the character’s examination of the pro’s and con’s of this choice, and how s/he thinks others will view and react to her/him.

My response to the writing prompt can be found here (updated on Fridays)


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