Autonomy and relationships

There are two key aspects of psychological wellbeing that counsellors find themselves most commonly addressing with their clients. One is our sense of control over who we are and what we do – autonomy, or self-empowerment. The other is how well we are able to function with and alongside others – relationships.

I’ll come back to this, but first I want to introduce something called life stage theory. A key exponent of this theory (but not the only one) was Erik Erikson, a German-born American psychologist. His major work was Childhood and Society, first published in 1950.

In summary, Erikson said that at certain key stages of our lives we are presented with certain ‘dilemmas’. For example, during our first months of life we hopefully start to develop trust in others; during adolescence we expect to develop our personal identity more fully. Erikson called this his theory of psychosocial development – our personal development in the context of our social environment.

It is also possible to see Erikson’s dilemmas as key life tasks. Ideally we will successfully complete these tasks at the appropriate stage of life. If not, our natural psychological development could be obstructed until we are able to tackle the issue (whatever it is) later in life.

In Judith Herman’s excellent Trauma and Recovery*, first published in 1992, she itemises the key faculties that we develop as we go through our life stages: trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy. These faculties all have a relationship element to them. But Herman’s book is essentially about trauma. What has trauma got to do with life stage theory?

Trauma is a prime example of something that can get in the way of our psychological development. Trauma is disempowering and can actually set us back and undermine some of the previous life stage work we have already completed. It can cause us to question our values and our sense of who we are and how we relate to the world. How do we recover from this? How do we get our lives back on track?

To quote Herman from the latter part of her book, ‘Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation’.  Since each of our key faculties contains a relationship element this is hardly surprising. Herman is saying that somehow the traumatic event has damaged the way in which we relate to others. So she emphasises that we must somehow renew the way we connect with other people so that we can redevelop the ‘psychological faculties that were damaged …’

Since the destinies of each of us involve negotiating our life stages, it’s not really surprising that issues around autonomy and relationships are so commonly met within counselling.


*I’m intending to make further reference to this work in a later post.