Life seems to consist of taking developmental steps. The significant theories and the thinkers whose psychological theories are most often referred to, all use unfolding development as the context for understanding behavior.
Freud proposed that human personality development in childhood takes place in psychosexual stages. Sexual energy, or libido, by which he meant all pleasurable activity and thoughts, is discharged as we mature biologically in different ways and through different parts of the body.
Freud believed the first five years of life are critical in the formation of adult personality. Libidinal wishes for gratification must be directed into socially acceptable channels setting up a conflict that must be resolved before an individual can successfully advance to the next stage.
Erik Erikson, an ego psychologist who expanded on Freud’s theories, also believed that personality developed in a series of stages. His theory, however, centered on psychosocial rather than psychosexual development, the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan, how social interaction and relationships play a role in the development and growth of human beings.
Jerome Kagan, a psychologist and researcher who has written extensively on the nature of the child, differs in significant ways from earlier theorists. He believed that children are very adaptable and that their biology promotes a regular developmental progression. He questioned the belief that adult personality was determined by childhood experience alone, arguing against what he called “infant determinism,” the widespread belief that experiences and parenting during the first three years of a child’s life are the most important determinants of adult personality.
Gail Sheehy, the writer who contributed the idea of passages, was a social commentator rather than a psychologist or researcher. Her widely read book, PASSAGES: Predictable Crisis of Adult Life, refers to the transitions that people make between years of relative stability in their adult lives. The stages of children’s lives had been well known, but little had been written earlier about how adults develop.
Sheehy describes four predictable passages of adulthood drawn from in-depth interviews, concluding that all adults must navigate the same passages, either failing and becoming life’s losers, or succeeding and leading more fulfilling lives. Adults cannot skip a passage, jumping from a disturbed late adolescence to a fulfilled midlife.
Whichever theory you follow, taking steps in development can mean new challenges and satisfactions. It also can mean giving up or letting go of earlier gratifications. In a way this is true throughout life as hopefully we continue to grow as well as get older. The first steps in this process is true of a baby’s first steps. When you start to walk you don’t get carried as much. But you have the pleasure that comes from finding you can move on your own.
Starting school is a step away from parents, bringing new expectations. Children have some anxiety about taking this step having not yet fully mastered new skills and not fully confident that they will meet the expectations of new situations.
Adults might have such feelings starting a new job, new boss, new colleagues. As adults we don’t cry or try to leave – although we might want to. Maturity has given us tools with which to adapt and master new situations.
Anxiety experienced at all stages may be an expression of apprehension about our ability to perform as expected. Recently, many people express the feeling that a major decision or life change is imminent. Are these life passages that we are confronting or rather the suddenness of the transition as we emerge from the pandemic?
There are rewards and losses in these passages. Hopefully, the rewards can outweigh the losses.