The past few weeks have been immensely stimulating, as discussions on resilience in Brussels, and excessive use of technology in adolescents all gave way to a truly thought provoking day on the development of identity in the 21st Century at the Tavistock Centre (http://tinyurl.com/j3gsoml).
Core to the discussion was a consideration of how fluid or plastic our identity is today, and perhaps what happens to our identity when we live out our lives online, with multiple profiles meeting a multiplicity of influences as we navigate social media. This was no more keenly explored than in relation to the processes of radicalisation.
A solid sense of one’s unique identity was thought to be key to mental and emotional well-being, as was understanding what might be best called your true self, which is only partly shaped by external influences, yet could still develop with experience. Yet a stable, unique identity could be problematic if it jarred with your family, poverty, class, race, culture, religion or country etc; then the appeal of personal reinvention, or transformation would hold much appeal. But could one reinvent oneself today, through social media without side-effects?
The life and work of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was astonishingly helpful in this respect. Many will know of Erikson’s model of human development, outlined in his influential book ‘Childhood and Society’, first published in 1950. Erikson had taken Freud’s biological model of development, and repurposed it in a social and anthropological form, at a time when countries were rebuilding themselves after the Second World War. What may be easily forgotten is that this time of great change, of modernity, of plastics, and great developments in technology, was a time of confusion for many young people, some of whom had grown up without the father they had lost during the war. This disruption of family life on a massive scale, plus the turbulence of the time, lent considerable force to Erikson’s concept of the ‘identity crisis’; a painful state of uncertainty, often associated with adolescent breakdown. Erikson himself knew all about this crisis of identity from the inside, and we can learn much about his struggle with the problem which perhaps followed him throughout his life.
Erikson’s mother, Karla Abrahamsen, came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen that had traced its genealogy back to the 17th Century and the north of Germany. (http://tinyurl.com/zbtaj8m). She was married to Jewish stockbroker Valdemar Isidor Salomonsen, but had been estranged from him for several months at the time Erik was conceived.
According to the New York Times (http://tinyurl.com/3327xbw)
“The common story was that his mother and father had separated before his birth, but the closely guarded fact was that he was his mother’s child from an extramarital union.”
Little is known about Erik’s biological father except that he was thought to be a Danish gentile. On discovering her pregnancy, Karla escaped to Frankfurt in Germany where Erik was born on June 15, 1902
“He never saw his birth father or his mother’s first husband. When he was 3, his mother was married to his pediatrician, Dr. Theodore Homburger, and throughout his youth he was known as Erik Homburger. He did not learn about his parentage until his teen-age years, “and it was a secret my mother and I shared.” To add to the confusion, his adoptive father was Jewish and his mother’s heritage was Lutheran.
He was reared as a Jew, because his mother and her new husband agreed to treat him as their son. He was also led to think of himself as a German, and his anti-Semitic schoolmates taunted him, while at the synagogue his Jewish friends rejected him because of his Nordic features. As a consequence of compounded identity confusions, he said, he developed “a morbid sensitivity” and often escaped into a fantasy world.
After graduating from high school in Karlsruhe, he became an itinerant bohemian, scratching out a living by sketching children. In the process he read eclectically on his own, mostly about art and history.”
Erikson’s daughter later wrote that her father’s “real psychoanalytic identity” was not established until he “replaced his stepfather’s surname [Homburger] with a name of his own invention [Erikson]. She further described her father as plagued by “lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy.“ He thought that by combining resources with his wife, he could “achieve the recognition” that might produce a feeling of adequacy.
What is now perhaps the most striking of aspect of this account of Erikson’s early life is how at the time of his conception and birth it is likely that his mother’s life was fraught with anxiety and perhaps shame. We can only speculate as to how available she was for him psychologically in those early days and months of his life. In his own theory of development, those first moments with a mother or other carer should establish something of a fundamental foundation in the personality, which takes the form of a basic trust, or belief in the goodness of the world, and of yourself as a loved and essentially good child. When good care is absent or diminished, such trust and hope is replaced with fearfulness. We might then presume that the contradictory tensions between Erikson’s appearance and his religion merely amplified the anxieties about his existence that would have been present earlier.
At a moment in history when paediatricians suggest that we outsource the emotional labour of child care to robots (http://tinyurl.com/zmwzvee), we do need to reflect on the cost of this to the healthy development of identity in infants. The establishment of basic trust is not so easily created later in life; beginnings matter. But perhaps this account of Erikson’s journey through life raises other questions. Social media can provide an outstanding opportunity for young people to explore identity and find others that seem to be a close match to themselves; hugely important for isolated minority groups who may not so easily find like minds. This can be hugely positive in lifting confidence and self-esteem. But if the goal is to reinvent yourself through social media, to escape the uncertainties or agonies of a past, as Erikson did earlier, does this give rise now to a new form of ‘identity crisis’ that may feel all the more devastating because it is so public? And would this suggest that a person’s relationship to such a ‘reinvented’ profile may also be more desperate or fragile than to anything offline, because it is both necessary and precious in terms of their well-being?
It is too soon to be certain and precise about this, but the possibility haunts and demands further consideration.
In that sense I remain grateful to Erikson for providing us with a template of development in the 20th Century, so as to better help us explore it in the digital age.