Initiative vs. Guilt

The need to experiment, to learn, grow, and make mistakes, is key to development. Erikson’s stage three covers ages three to six years old, leading to the development of independence and a sense of purpose. This is when we ask questions about our world, about why and how things are so, and we learn by imitation. But healthy exploration and assertion of self during this stage can elicit stern reactions from adults, leading to feelings of guilt.

Relationships with family throughout the life cycle are obviously a major factor in development as well. In many cases, the child, adolescent, and adult, in trying to establish a foundation for their growth, offend or appear to injure family members who may have a different agenda for their present and future. There is often conflict when development separates a person from the family’s wishes, but the bond holds, and guilt arises from either causing injury or anger in other family members. Guilt in the “offending member” is damaging to his/her development.

Think about how your growth, experimentation, development of values, purpose, and direction were experienced by family members. Did you feel supported even if your chosen direction was not one your family would have picked? If you had to choose between disappointing family members and trying alternate paths for yourself, where did your strength and support come from?

It turns out that we were both fortunate in this regard. Oliver was born into an Irish Catholic family, and the expectation was that this would be reflected in his choice of partner. At age 17, he met a young woman at a Red Cross camp with whom he corresponded for a time. A few years later, their correspondence began anew, followed by a brief courtship during Oliver’s training as a Navy fighter pilot. When the pair became engaged, the family was concerned because she was not Catholic. Oliver’s father was especially upset and said he could not attend the wedding because it was a violation of his beliefs. However, when the couple married one year later, the entire family attended. Oliver’s father chose his relationship with his son over his conflicted beliefs.

As for Barbara, she discovered acting at nine years of age and became serious about it—although at that time, no one in her community was in the arts, except perhaps as a hobby. Barbara’s decision to become a professional actress was distressing to her family, as it was not at all what they intended for her. But what was important was that no one stood in her way. Not understanding did not mean interfering, and when she began to work, her parents were her biggest fans.

Not everyone is so fortunate. For most people, important developmental questions are, “What role does guilt play in your life? How do you deal with the conflict between what family wants from you and what seems possible or maybe even best? Where is the resolution?”

In his book, Oliver speaks about how our relationships are more important than our achievements— the challenge is in reaching out for accommodation, ever mindful of the need to continue to grow, develop, and include those we love, who love us, in our mutual journey. Accepting differences is possible among people who are equal.

Oliver & Barbara


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