If there were such a thing as a normal life what would it really look like? If everything that had happened to us in our lives and the way we had developed had been ‘normal’, what would those happenings and developments actually have been, and what would need to have been missed out?
Obviously there are no universal answers, not realistic ones anyway. But at some level we might be aware that certain events or relationships in our past, particularly our early past, were unhelpful or traumatic to a greater or lesser extent. We might sense that we would otherwise have emerged from our earlier lives less hurt or wounded. Perhaps these were the things that got in the way of ‘perfect’ development for us.
Probably the most useful approach to this very broad question is offered by life-stage theory. A major contribution to this school of thought was psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Erikson’s research led to his theory of the ‘eight stages of man’, which offers a framework for understanding how we develop over the course of our lives, and the factors that determine how well we do this. Unsurprisingly, social and cultural influences play an important part in this process.
Each of Erikson’s stages requires a particular dilemma to be resolved that is key to that particular life stage. For example, during the first year of life the task is to develop a basic sense of trust in those responsible for our welfare, even though it isn’t possible at that age for us to have all of our wants immediately satisfied.
The theory explains that if these particular dilemmas or tasks are not satisfactorily resolved during the appropriate stage of development then we are likely to have problems during later stages, although it is important to add that it is possible to address these issues during a subsequent stage. This will involve belatedly confronting earlier dilemmas and will involve some honest reflection on why particular earlier ‘life tasks’ were not properly addressed or completed.
This is only a very brief summary of the theory and in reality the position is not as cut and dried as I have outlined here. For most of us it is unlikely that our life stages are completely resolved or unresolved; it is more that we emerge from each stage with a mixture of resolved and unresolved issues and it is the extent to which our issues are unresolved that determines how problematic later life stages may be for us.
This suggests that we don’t need to search for some idealised version of ‘a normal life’ when we are struggling to tackle our personal difficulties. It’s more about finding a way of moving a little in a positive direction. Even that can make a big difference.