By Barb Beck
June 4, 2012
a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him.
— Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994)
It has come to my attention throughout the last three years, between my personal journey with weight loss, and through helping others with their journeys that development and developmental processes are at the fore of what makes us click as humans. Reading comments in forums, other blog posts, and having random conversations in support groups have helped me to understand that this topic is not understood well by the layperson or by the professional alike. Perhaps it was all those years in school being bored with this topic that prevented me from seeing it sooner, but I have since established a personal theory (untested and without any real formative data or an extensive literature review, so not reliable or valid either) that folks who have struggled with obesity are more likely to struggle with developmental issues or what others might call issues of maturation.
Erik Erikson (1950) stated that there were developmental milestones that were to be expected at certain ages, barring any out of the ordinary traumas, circumstances, or situations (emphasis added) which help adults to their full potential. Unlike other developmentalists of his time (i.e., Piaget, Vygotsky, Harlow, etc.) he believed that our jobs as humans was to develop from birth to death. His stages are: 1. Infancy: Birth to 18 Months - Ego Development Outcome: Trust vs. Mistrust - Basic strength: Drive and Hope; 2. Early Childhood: 18 Months to 3 Years -
Ego Development Outcome: Autonomy vs. Shame - Basic Strengths: Self-control, Courage, and Will; 3. Play Age: 3 to 5 Years -Ego Development Outcome: Initiative vs. Guilt -Basic Strength: Purpose; 4. School Age: 6 to 12 Years - Ego Development Outcome: Industry vs. Inferiority -Basic Strengths: Method and Competence; 5. Adolescence: 12 to 18 Years - Ego Development Outcome: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Basic Strengths: Devotion and Fidelity; 6. Young Adulthood: 18 to 35 - Ego Development Outcome: Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation -Basic Strengths: Affiliation and Love; 7. Middle Adulthood: 35 to 55 or 65 - Ego Development Outcome: Generativity vs. Self-absorption or Stagnation -Basic Strengths: Production and Care; and, 8. Late Adulthood: 55 or 65 to Death - Ego Development Outcome: Integrity vs. Despair Basic Strengths: Wisdom. Thus, despite becoming an adult in the eyes of society, it might be very clear that one is not developmentally an adult in the eyes of the psychological world. Each step or stage is one that a person must master in order to be a full adult.
Another very interesting personal who discussed development and how it makes a person into their adult, final selves is Abraham Maslow (Maslow, 1937). Yes, these theories are old but they have withstood the tests of time. Maslow believed that one must go through stages, like Erikson, to achieve full human potential. His stages are as follows:
Whether a person believes in either of these two theories on development or any of the other theories, they have many things in common – people move through stages or periods of time, conquering certain skills, and depending on how one is nurtured and what type of natural environment, this person will either develop on schedule or not. It is the category of NOTS that I am interested in today.
I have viewed the developmental states of countless of people in my job, but have paid very little attention to my own developmental level. I assumed (wrongly, of course, as the saying goes) that I was plugging along just fine. But, if I read Erikson’s fourth, fifth and sixth stages, I do believe that I have somehow arrested my development within these stages. I fluctuate between knowing who I am and trying to find who I want to be. I have interiority complexes abound. I feel very much like I can do it one moment, and then find the confusion so great that I am immobilized. This is still true, despite my education, age, and experience in life. Thus, I am still a child who is trying to figure out who they wish to be and am stuck at about the age where my weight issues first began. I have had periods of time where I knew exactly who I was, did not feel inferior and didn’t get confused about my existence. But, by and large, I have struggled with these stages.
And then, whammo! I had weight loss surgery. There is no doubt in my mind that those who have worked with the weight loss surgery community from a psychological perspective know all too well about this volatile period. Erikson’s period of Identity vs. Role confusion (ages 12 to 18) and Maslow’s period of belongingness and esteem needs come slamming at us, full speed, forcing us to finally rectify the lack of development in these areas. Being a normal weight, our fat and fat persona is no longer one that we can hide behind and we are forced to develop. But, to develop, we must flounder, learn from our mistakes, and do things differently than we ever have done before. Is it any wonder that the people who know us best in this life are often surprised by the NEW person that stands before them. Not to me – I have studied this junk (supposedly in detail -- please don’t tell Dr. Hicks) and I was still not prepared for the work that it entails. In fact, I vehemently denied the fact that I was changing. However, I am not so ignorant to admit that I was wrong. Changing is the point. We don’t go through weight loss surgery to just change the outer being – most of us work on changing the inner being as well. The one that feels inferior because she was picked on in school by the cool kids, cheerleaders or jocks. The boy who was laughed at for being a little “mama’s boy” and didn’t have a place in this world that felt safe except for with food. The 16 year old who was forced to have sex earlier than she wished because the approval junkie within and her inability to decipher her inferiority issues as normal developmental issues couldn’t keep her from making this mistake; each of these people are trying to overcome the developmental milestones missed as a result of food, food related issues and the normal propensity of temperament and the environment in which they lived.
So, while some harken what is going on to a specific stage or time in high school, I would like to extend the thinking to something more natural. We develop as beings unless something gets in the way. For many of us, food was in the way for a long time. Now, we are doing the things that we would have done if the obstacle wouldn’t have been there. If you have partners, perhaps they should read this primer and understand that while the behavior is unacceptable it serves a purpose – reaching the correct developmental stage or perhaps even self-actualization. I am not writing this with the intent to give people a free pass on behaviors – because that’s not who I am or what I am about. I just want people to understand themselves, and have one theory out there (I am sure someone much more intelligent than me has written this very same thing in much more cogent and intellectual manner) that might help others understand why adult people who seemingly had it all ‘together’ have all of a sudden made decisions that no one thought possible.
So, it rests with you. Understand the developmental issues of people and the goals that all humans are trying to overcome. Keep striving to get past those issues and through these developmental stages. But do so knowing that there’s a reason that isn’t related to being bad, guilty, no good, stupid, inferior or lacking in some way. You are just trying to get to the same place everyone else is trying to get….
 Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood & Society. New York: WW Norton and Company.
 Harder, A. (2012). Support for change. Retrieved from: http://www.support4change.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=47&Itemid=108 on June 4, 2012