Identity Formation as a Multidimensional Concept
Assignment – Paper 4 – Developmental Psychology: Write a 10-page paper addressing the readings. Make sure you offer definitions and descriptions of identity development in a general sense, as well as identity development through the particular lens/perspective that you selected. Highlight the main theoretical and research findings from the readings. Your paper should demonstrate your understanding of the articles you read, and offer your critique and/or position on this material. Be sure to incorporate information from your interview. Conclude your paper with a brief reflection on your learning process with regard to the subject area.
Identity Formation as a Multidimensional Concept
This paper examines the process by which a person’s identity is created, also referred to as identity development or identity formation. We will begin by examining the theoretical foundations and research findings that underpin our current understanding of how identity develops. To gain an even deeper and more comprehensive understanding of how an individual’s identity develops, it can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, including ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, or spirituality, of which the latter is the focus of this paper. Additionally, as appropriate, excerpts from my wife Maria’s interview will be incorporated throughout the paper. Finally, the paper concludes with a section on writing process reflections, in which I examine a more esoteric aspect of identity formation, such as the possible influence of memories from previous lives on identity formation.
Fundamental Understanding of Identity Formation
To begin, let us establish a basic understanding of identity formation. More precisely, identity formation is the process by which an individual’s mental representation of themselves develops, which includes a sense of personal continuity and differentiation from others (JRank Psychology Encyclopedia, 2007). While personal continuity relates to a person’s unique numerical identity, composed of personality traits that remain consistent over time and define the person as the same person regardless of where they are in their life (Olson, 2016), differentiation from others means when an individual is aware of their own unique characteristics, such as their personal goals, values, ideals, strengths, and weaknesses, and how these differ from those of other people (Berger, 2014). Parallel to the creation of a unique identity, identity formation is strongly influenced by the various groups to which an individual belongs, such as family, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age group, occupation, and spirituality (JRank Psychology Encyclopedia, 2007). These so-called “social identities” assist individuals in satisfying their need to belong and in defining themselves both to others and to themselves, which has a significant impact on the groups and people with whom they associate.
In terms of family influence, my wife Maria describes how, as a child, she felt that her parents did not allow her to be who she truly was (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). The result of this was that as she grew older, she encountered internal conflict as she sought to become a more authentic version of herself (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). As a consequence, my wife frequently considers how to raise our daughter, who will soon turn three, in a way that adequately nurtures her unique characteristics so that she hopefully may develop an identity consistent with her deeper self (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). On the basis of this discussion, let us turn to psychologist Erik Erikson and his fifth stage in psychosocial development, which focuses on the concept of identity and role confusion in the context of identity formation.
Erikson (1968) describes that adolescent between the ages of twelve and eighteen are unsure of who they are, and questions such as “Who am I?” serve as a means of gaining a deeper understanding of their own identity. What do I ultimately want to achieve in my life? What is my place in the world? What are my long-term goals and values? The overall purpose is to gain a better understanding of one’s own uniqueness while also developing a sense of morality. A critical aspect of Erikson’s model is that it emphasizes the fact that people face crises or conflicts in each of the eight life stages he defines. In order to successfully move on to the next stage of life, the crisis of the previous phase must be resolved. In relation to identity formation, when parents, for example, constantly push adolescents to conform to their views, they may experience identity confusion or even identity crisis, potentially leading to behaviors such as procrastination, unorganized cognition, acting out, or experimenting with different lifestyles in order to find their own way in life (McLeod, 2017). Adolescents struggling to form their identity in this stage may also experience difficulty to develop a shared social identity, meaning that they may struggle to find a group of people with whom they can identify, foremost relating to Erikson’s next phase called the intimacy versus isolation stage.
A result of identity confusion may be that the adolescent accepts one identity without exploring other options. James Marcia (1966), a psychologist who expanded on Erikson’s concept of identity crisis, refers to this as identity foreclosure. In such circumstances, teenagers can either mimic their parents’ and culture’s values, roles, and norms, or they can reject them and adopt values and norms that are diametrically opposed to their parents’ or culture’s. In the interview, my wife describes how she did a little bit of both, that is, she tried to be different from her parents on a conscious level because she felt she couldn’t rely on them to guide her sufficiently in her life, but she later realized that many of her parents’ beliefs and values, both good and bad, were deeply instilled in her and, as a result, sometimes limited her behavior (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). Marcia (1966) continues to explain that another factor that may contribute to the delay in resolving identity confusion is what he refers to as a moratorium, which allows for additional time to explore one’s identity, such as during college or military service. Moratorium is a highly relevant concept for contemporary western culture in which full responsibility for one’s life is often delayed in comparison to a few generations ago, when it was more common to begin working or becoming parents at a younger age than it is today.
Regardless of whether we are experiencing an identity foreclosure or moratorium, how can these identity crises be managed? Erikson explains that a person’s identity crisis is not resolved until they have discerned what goals, values, and beliefs they can identify with and thereby recognize their unique identity, a process known as identity achievement (Berger, 2014). When identity achievement is reached, the adolescent is better equipped to face the challenges of the next stage, the intimacy versus isolation stage, where they are able to develop strong friendships and a stronger sense of belonging as a result of their personal growth following their various crises. In terms of my wife’s journey, she describes how she began to heal her attachment style as well as begin to reach identity achievement through her loving relationship with a partner (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). She then experienced a greater sense of acceptance for who she was, and as a result, she allowed her truer self, or more authentic self, to be reflected in her actions (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). With regard to parenting, which is something both I and my wife often discuss, Erikson (1968) argues that it is easier for children to discover their own identity if they are allowed to explore and pursue their own interests and opinions. As a result, the adolescent is given the opportunity to act in accordance with one of the core principles of humanistic psychology, namely that humans are autonomous, creative individuals with an inbuilt willingness to learn new skills and develop into a more true or authentic version of themselves, a process known as self-actualization (Maslow, 1968). After we have laid the groundwork for a better understanding of how a person’s identity develops, let us look at it from a spiritual standpoint to hopefully gain an even deeper and more comprehensive understanding.
Identity Formation from a Spiritual Perspective
The primary reason for approaching identity formation through the lens of spirituality rather than ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or age in this paper is that it is the perspective that has aided me the most in my own personal journey toward identity achievement and understanding myself and my life in the context of the greater whole, which we will discuss in greater detail in the reflection section. However, before delving into identity development from a spiritual standpoint, let us first examine the definition of the term spiritual. The word spiritual, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (n.d.), refers to a person’s innermost being, spirit or soul, and is related to a person’s deepest sentiments, ideas, feelings, that often transcend traditional notions about material goals, values, or wellbeing. According to my personal experiences with clients and my own growth, one of the initial steps toward spiritual development is recognizing and then developing an understanding and trust in this innermost aspect of ourselves. Erikson came to the same conclusion when he began incorporating spirituality into developmental models, and more specifically explained how spirituality can assist children in developing a sense of trust in life and seniors in coping with the unavoidable reality of death (Kass & Lennox, 2005).
This process of becoming “spiritually aware,” or recognizing a spiritual dimension to life, is often referred to as spiritual maturation. According to Rogers (1980, p.128), spiritual maturation is the expression of an innate transformative inclination that influences a person over time to develop a greater awareness of the interconnected nature of existence, particularly “in the direction of wholeness, integration, and a unified life.” Kass and Lennox (2005) identified five domains in which to observe this multidimensional learning process toward spiritual maturation, namely behavioral, cognitive, social-emotional, contemplative, and integrative domains. The behavioral dimension is primarily concerned with developing self-regulation skills that assist the individual in coping with negative experiences and emotions (Kass, 2015). This is often learned in childhood as the capacity to self-regulate in response to the various situations in life that elicit negative feelings. Later in life, meditation and mindfulness can be used to advance emotional management and achieve a state of physical relaxation, emotional well-being, and inner peace, as well as to gain a better understanding of the vital information that feelings frequently contain, which is also a key component of the majority of spiritual practices (Kass, 2015). When confronted with life’s inevitable difficulties, self-regulation is only a component of the solution. Another is the growth of intellectual abilities, relating to Kass and Lennox’s (2005) cognitive dimension, that enable self-empowering interpretation and response to reality. This results in increased resilience and the capacity to bounce back from life’s challenges without resorting to self-defeating stress-relief behaviors such as distractions or addictions in all their expressions. Another critical aspect of increasing one’s resilience and spiritual connection is cultivating loving and healthy relationships, both with oneself and with others. Kass and Lennox refer to this as the social-emotional dimension, emphasizing the critical nature of utilizing the various relationships we encounter in life to heal our past and develop a secure attachment in the process, just as my wife earlier described that she did. According to Kass (2015) and various spiritual practices, when we are able to relate to our feelings and deeper selves in a safe and secure manner, that is, without being triggered by unresolved feelings and sensory impressions, we can develop an even deeper relationship and sense of trust with ourselves, as well as others, and the spiritual dimension of life.
Before proceeding, let us briefly summarize Kass and Lennox’s first three dimensions of spiritual maturity. While we need to learn to regulate our emotions and grow in our cognitive maturity or wisdom to deal with the challenges of daily life, we must also learn how to connect with others on an emotional level and build genuine, loving relationships. The following two dimensions are devoted to developing one’s capacity for communion with the divine. In the fourth contemplative dimension, meditation and various introspective activities are used to transcend the limitations and boundaries of the ego-mind, the conscious and rational part of our mind that tends to be preoccupied with mundane matters, and instead connect with the invisible and deeper aspect of life and our self, the innermost aspect of ourselves that we frequently refer to as the soul or spirit. This may include the recognition that one’s self, others, and life are all components of a single, interrelated whole that communicates with one another via intuitive inspirations perceived during introspection, when the mind is calm and focused on subtle inner sensory impressions (Green & Green, 1977; Kass, 1995; Schuon, 1984 as cited in Kass, 2015). Interestingly, my wife describes how, since becoming a parent, and especially after spending so much time caring for and being physically close to our daughter, she has developed a greater awareness of subtle inner sensations and frequently feels as if she is one with our daughter, as if they share the same nervous system (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). When they are apart, my wife even occasionally perceives when our daughter is crying or in need of breastfeeding (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021).
As with the proverb “all roads lead to Rome,” the fifth integrative dimension represents the culmination of the previous four dimensions of behavioral, cognitive, social-emotional, and contemplative development, resulting in increased resilience in the face of life’s inevitable challenges (Kass, 2015). Lessons learned from integrated prior life experiences are woven into one’s current life through this process, along with increased resilience, also resulting in an increase in self-confidence and trust in life (Kass, 1998).
After reading about Kass and Lennox’s five dimensions of spiritual maturity, my wife and I began discussing a course in stress management that we both are teaching at Arizona State University (ASU). Our conclusion was that the entire course is addressing all five dimensions of spiritual maturity, albeit without using this term specifically (Nordstroem Lindhe, 2021). To illustrate, a portion of the course is devoted to teaching students introspection, the understanding of somatic and emotional markers as carriers of vital information, and a process for combining logic and intuitive decision-making strategies in order to enable them to make more informed choices consistent with their true selves (Nordstrom, 2013). As part of developing into one’s “own scientist,” who is testing and investigating things in one’s own life and discerning what is one’s own truth and what is someone else’s, what and when something works or does not work, we offer several tools and exercises to assist students in discerning when they are choosing out of curiosity, excitement, and a natural desire to grow and learn new things, versus when they are choosing out of, for example, old unconscious habits based on fears or wishful thinking and how things should be done (Nordstrom, 2013). After the course, we frequently hear from participants that they have a better understanding of who they are, why they make certain choices, and how they can more effectively say no to things that do not align with their deeper values and short- and long-term goals, and say yes to things that do, and thus be better equipped to navigate their future lives. Overall, it appears as though this course may assist students in becoming more aware of their deeper identities, thereby hopefully assisting them in reaching identity achievement.
Before we move on to reflections on the writing process, let us review theologian James Fowler’s seven stages of faith development. This is primarily to provide a more chronological understanding of faith development, whereas Kass and Lennox went into greater detail about the various components of spiritual maturation. Fowler (1982) describes in the first of his seven stages of spiritual development how, from birth to the second year of life, we develop a sense of trust and security in life, which translates into the capacity to connect more deeply with the divine. We learn spirituality, or more commonly, religion, between the third and seventh years of life through the stories and experiences of those around us. Between the ages of eight and twelve, the third stage frequently results in a strong belief in justice, in right and wrong. Stage four embodies this belief in a sense of submission to various authorities in society. Quite frequently, these beliefs and feelings result in the anxieties and struggles of stage five, which frequently result in an openness to a more complex and nuanced understanding of one’s beliefs as a result of their numerous conflicts. The midlife crisis, which corresponds to stage six, frequently causes people to question their spiritual beliefs and the way they have lived their lives, often leading to the realization that spiritual truth cannot be explained in a single statement. As a result of this process, some people find themselves in a state of love, compassion, and justice with the rest of society, which is the final stage of Fowler’s faith development.
Reflections on Identity Formation from a Spiritual Perspective
I have had the experience of learning a great deal in writing this paper, such as becoming familiar with numerous concepts relevant to identity formation and better understanding the various components of spiritual maturity, which already have been discussed in the context of teaching a course on stress management at ASU. Nonetheless, one of the primary conclusions drawn after reading the recommended reading material for this assignment, as well as all the supplemental research articles and materials, is that the possibility of experiences from past-lives influencing one’s personality in this life is not discussed or included in the literature. Since this has been a subject of interest to me, especially in relation to better understanding my own experiences in this life, allow us to examine this a little more closely.
From the time I was six years old until I was in my twenties, I had two dominant fears. First, I was fearful of death and, more specifically, that everything would simply end after this life. Second, at the thought of starting a family, I was terrified that my wife would die on me. Although both of these fears are probably quite common, I felt as though they had a significant impact on my inner life, to the point where I would occasionally almost have a panic attack lasting about 10 seconds, during which I was devastated that one day the sun would stop shining and all life would be extinguished.
Then one day, as part of my training to become a therapist, I had a session with a psychologist who used hypnosis to induce a deep state of relaxation in me. Although the objective was to experience a deep state of relaxation, after about twenty minutes, while I was half asleep and half awake, “memories” began to emerge very gradually. For a few minutes, I had the distinct impression that I was waking up in a cave. I turned around in my inner mind, as if completely immersed in this experience, and there beside me was a woman who had died overnight. Despite the fact that this experience had nothing to do with anything in my life, I felt such paralyzing grief and sadness. After a few moments, another experience surfaced. This time, I am lying on a stone floor in a stone-walled structure, and as I turn over in the morning, I experience again that someone I loved had died overnight. The next few months following this session, I did not think too much about what had happened until one day I realized that when I considered entering a relationship with a woman, I was no longer afraid that this person might die. Also, a few months later, I discovered that when I thought about life ending, I was no longer afraid of it. It was as though something in me had come to believe that consciousness survives death. In the ten years that followed, other memories emerged that helped me better answer the question “Who am I?” which, as mentioned previously, is a necessary component of identity formation and successfully reaching identity achievement. While I make no claim that the various memories I have from previous lives are accurate, I believe they have aided significantly in my understanding of the deeper aspects of myself. As a result, I’ve concluded that whether they’re true or not, it doesn’t matter; as long as they make sense to me and result in a more fulfilling and happy life, I’m satisfied.
Regardless of whether past lives exist or not, for the sake of curiosity, let us conclude this paper by briefly reviewing some of the research that has been conducted on the subject. Although Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, as well as the mystical traditions of Judaism and Christianity, believe in reincarnation, it is still a phenomenon that is not widely accepted by the scientific community. Nonetheless, researchers such as Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker have dedicated their careers to collecting case studies and conducting scientific research on the subject. Stevenson (1977, 1997, 2000) was a psychiatrist who worked for the University of Virginia School of Medicine for fifty years. During that time, he studied about three thousand cases of children who claimed to remember past lives. In most cases, Stevenson was able to identify an actual figure who had once lived based on the child’s statements alone. In one illustrative case, a child in India informed her mother that she had drowned in a town after being pushed into a river by her mentally impaired brother. Stevenson was able to corroborate 27 of the child’s 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements, which included the location of the incident, the names, appearances, and occupations of relatives, as well as numerous other details about her past life. By looking into details such as whether the two families knew each other or shared friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances, which Stevenson concluded could not have been the case, he was able to ascertain that the child’s information had not been obtained in an obvious manner.
While Stevenson concentrated on cases from Asia, Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, continued his research with children from the United States. Tucker (2007, 2015) describes several compelling American cases of young children recalling previous lives in his book Return to Life, including James Leininger, who had irrefutable memories of a previous life as a World War II pilot, and Ryan Hammons, who had verifiable memories of being a Hollywood extra and talent agent. In summary, Stevenson’s and Tucker’s research both demonstrate how frequently children exhibit behaviors, such as phobias or preferences, that are consistent with their statements about a previous life, as well as emotions, memories, and even physical characteristics that appear to be retained between lives (Pehlivanova et al., 2018).
To conclude, in relation to developmental psychology, and specifically identity formation, I believe that the spiritual dimension adds significant value, particularly to the mystically inclined individual, who has an innate desire to find their own answers and is unafraid of confronting uncertainties, such as whether past or future lives exist. Furthermore, it has been my experience that learning to listen to one’s inner guidance is of great benefit. Especially now, in these times of information overload, agenda-driven information, and fake news, it can be exhausting and ambivalent to listen to the outside world and be blindly guided by various institutions and experts. It is easy to become overwhelmed and lose oneself. I believe that being able to listen inward and be one’s own scientist, determining which information and when it is useful, makes life easier to navigate. Research also shows that faith is a powerful protective factor during crises and trauma. According to my personal belief, this is due to the fact that one feels held by something greater; that during meditation or prayer, one feels as though one is a part of a larger context, in contrast to how we often feel after a trauma or painful event, which makes us feel alone and disconnected from life. As a result, just as every cell in the body is a part of us, we as humans are a part of a larger whole, whether we call it the human species, the planetary body, nature, the collective unconscious mind, God, Allah, the Divine, Source, or the One. When it comes to making life work, anything goes, as long as it doesn’t hurt others.
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