Rebuilding the psychological foundations of healthy identity.
(bronx. November 21, 2008)
Over the past several decades, a series of social and political causes—perhaps most prominently, abortion and same-sex marriage—have polarized the American people. For many adherents of these causes, passionate political involvement now fills the place more traditionally occupied by religious belief. Virtually every cause, led by its militant true believers and enlisted activists, has exploited the tactics of identity politics, vilifying the opposition while proclaiming its aggrieved righteousness. Identity politics draws people in by appealing to fairness, inducing guilt, promoting fear, demonizing opponents, and attaching the cause to a political affiliation.
Not all people are equally vulnerable to these tactics. As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that people’s susceptibility to identity politics, moral relativism, and situational ethics is determined, at least in part, by certain key developmental life experiences—both conscious and unconscious.
The field of psychiatry possesses a rich knowledge of human emotional and mental development. Unfortunately, this knowledge is largely ignored in the climate of biological reductionism that currently dominates the discipline. Still, the knowledge is there for those who care to make an honest inquiry, even if the realities of psychological development do not support their preferred political position.
In particular, psychiatry clearly demonstrates the formative influence of the role models with whom children identify and underscores the importance of the traditional nuclear family. And understanding the crucial role of identification in personality development can shed light on why our country has fallen for the polarizing politics of special interest groups.
Fatherlessness and Identity
Certain universal truths govern human nature. Just as surely as an infant reared by English-speaking parents learns to speak English, so too does he or she assimilate parental attitudes and behaviors. A child’s mental development consists of an amalgam of parental characteristics, with both mother and father playing crucial roles. Identification—internalization and assimilation of parental attitudes and characteristics—is the building block of personality. And the most important constituent of personality is one’s sense of self or personal identity. This is formed not simply by emulating parental characteristics but by internalizing them.
Consider the role that identification plays in the multi-generational impact that single-parent households and absent fathers have had in this country. The pathology that results from broken homes provides a convincing argument for the importance of the married mother-and-father family structure in shaping children’s personal identities.
The most devastating consequences are borne by young boys without fathers. Without fathers to model mature and responsible manhood, boys seek other models of identification and other “families” to feel part of. Fatherless and directionless young men find each other, and the culture of the streets shapes their sense of self. Strong gang identifications contribute to the tragically high homicide rate among disaffected youths.
Disputes between rival gangs, often in retaliation over real or imagined offenses against gang “brothers,” violently act out the rage that can consume young men whose fathers have abandoned them. Their displaced anger is often internalized as well, manifesting itself in self-damaging behaviors, such as substance abuse, that reflect their hopelessness and deficient self-esteem.
Nor do the girls reared in fatherless homes escape unscathed. Their experience with rootless men who abandon children and their mothers profoundly diminishes their full potential as women, often limiting them to childrearing as single parents in a culture of poverty that perpetuates itself from generation to generation.
Trust, Relationships, and Conscience
The unfortunate consequences for children raised in broken families can be predicted from what we know about human development. A consistent, loving, and physically affectionate maternal relationship during infancy is the emotional bedrock upon which a child’s sense of self is built. Self-esteem, the nucleus of personal identity, reflects the child’s identification with the loving attitude of mother.
A cherished child will internalize a sense of self-worth. A trustworthy mother who lovingly satisfies her infant’s physical and emotional needs engenders a sense of trust in her child. The child learns not only to trust mother but to trust others as well. Mother’s dependability in meeting her infant’s needs engenders the optimistic expectation that other people, until proven otherwise, also will generally be upright and forthcoming. Absent a loving mother who is in tune with her infant’s biological and psychological needs, a child may approach subsequent relationships with pessimism and distrust.
In the first several years of life, the elements of personal identity—self-worth, trust of oneself and of others, optimism, and a sense of autonomy—are established via the infant’s relationship with the mother. When children achieve gender identity—generally, girls know they are girls and boys know they are boys around age three—the father becomes increasingly influential in his children’s personality development.
While mothers continue to model for daughters what it means to be a woman, boys learn from their fathers how to be men. To help their sons master their strong and potentially unruly sexual drives and tendencies toward physical aggression, fathers need to model self-control and mature coping skills. In particular, sons identify with how their fathers handle emotions and control impulses—how they express anger, how they control their temper, and how they express and control their sexuality.
Sons need to learn from their fathers that enduring and loving relationships depend on a reciprocal and empathic regard for another person and not simply on sexuality. Just as girls identify with their mother’s role in marriage, boys identify with their father’s marital role. While sex is biologically determined, how men and women treat each other is modeled, for better or worse, by their parents, usually leaving an indelible mark.
Finally, children develop a conscience by identification with both parents. Normally, parents impose constraints on their children’s behavior as soon as they become toddlers. Children develop a conscience as concepts of right and wrong are progressively internalized, become part of the self, and automatically govern their behavior. This process of developing a self-governing system of standards of belief and conduct, another element of one’s personal identity, is crucially determined by parental models. That is, to a significant extent, children form their conscience by incorporating the consciences of their parents, particularly the same-sex parent.
Adolescence, Same-Sex Parenting, and Gender Identity
Identification largely finishes its work as the crucial element of the human developmental process in adolescence. The “identity crisis” of adolescence is the task of integrating the cumulative identifications of childhood into a stable sense of self. Rapid hormonal and physical changes produce a tumultuous conflict between the security of childhood attachments and the threatening but compelling urges of adult sexuality and autonomy.
In the process of achieving a stable personal identity, a young person often will “try on” a number of identities before achieving a comfortable sense of self. Various identifications with teachers, coaches, public figures, celebrities, and even social and political causes can be quite intense. However, they tend to be transient, no longer necessary after aiding in the transition from parental dependence to self-sufficiency and independence.
Ephemeral same-sex attractions and opposite-gender identifications are not unusual, as adolescents move from parental dependence to autonomy and achieve a stable self-identity. It is tragic when children with opposite-gender identifications, the vast majority of which are transitory developmental phases, are subjected to life-altering hormonal treatments and surgery.
Despite reassurances by political activists, the effects on children reared by same-sex parents will not be known for years, until these children achieve sexual and social maturation and begin establishing their own relationships. However, everything we know about human development suggests that there will be significant problems. Indeed, the studies using the most rigorous methodologies reveal as much.
The issue of identity confusion for children reared by homosexual couples will likely be significant. Same-sex parents provide their children very limited models for gender identity, sexual orientation, and the nature of relationships between the sexes. The conflict between identification with their parent’s sexual and social proclivities and the gender roles and sexuality modeled by heterosexual peers and admired extra-familial adults can become intense under the pressure of the strong sexuality of adolescence.
One would predict more than the usual amount of adolescent turmoil for such children, at the time when personal identity—the achievement of a stable sense of self—is largely consolidated. And adopted children, as many in these families are, have additional identity issues related to questions and fantasies about their biological parents, why they were adopted, and how their life would be if they had been reared by their birth parents. Clearly, children of same-sex couples face many more developmental obstacles than those reared in traditional families.
The Psychology of Activists
The role of identification and personal identity is important not only in understanding family formation but also in analyzing the process whereby activists who espouse special interests gain popular adherents.
Activists who constitute the driving force behind a special interest have an intense identification with the cause and its goals. In fact, identification with the cause must be an aspect of their personal identity, core to their sense of self. It is an important, even defining, feature of their personality. This might be the case with a gay man with developmental conflicts about his homosexuality who not only advocates gay rights but is militant in his demands for social approval. His militancy might well be energized by a desire to force society to grant him the validation he has been unable to give himself. However, for the cause to gain social traction it must attract a critical mass of supporters beyond its core stakeholders—in this case, heterosexual people.
In contrast to activists whose identification with a cause is integral to their personal identity, many people who rally to their support do not have such a visceral attachment. A variety of motivations may determine their identification. They may be driven by emotions such as sympathy, altruism, or guilt, or they might be driven by political correctness, party affiliation, or perhaps even personal, financial, or political gain. Underlying these conscious motivations, many people are seeking to replace the loss of transcendent meaning in their lives.
The fact that disagreements about sexuality and gender are particularly divisive and accompanied by such angry intensity should come as no surprise. After all, the conflict conflates the energies of basic instinctual drives: sex and aggression. Aggression is mobilized in defense of one’s practices and beliefs about sex. The role that sexuality plays in one’s self-definition determines attitudes regarding acceptable sexual practices. And sexuality is an important component of the system of moral values that make up one’s conscience. Consequently, people with differing sexual identifications often hold widely divergent views about sexual morality.
Many of the most ardent devotees of these contentious causes are those whose personal identity does not include religion and who are seeking to derive a transcendent faith from elsewhere. Devoutly religious people have incorporated their faith into their sense of self; it is an important aspect of their self-identity. But when people lack a grounded faith with a trust in God that gives meaning to their lives and to their children’s, they look for meaning elsewhere. Many are attracted to causes that, in effect, are secular religions.
Religion, Psychology, and Politics
Religion has a much more important role in mental development than simply providing moral imperatives. Through religion, the faith and trust of believers is imparted to their children. There is an intergenerational reciprocity between trust in God and trust in people. Trust—a building block of personality that depends on the quality of mothering in the first several years of life—is the basis of faith. Religious belief plays such an important role in personality development because it is not only a generation-to-generation transmitter of the morality of conscience, it also contributes to the earliest stage of identity formation.
Those whose personal identity does not include any robust form of religious belief or transcendent faith are easy prey for the tactics of those who equate orthodox sexual morality with an attack on civil rights. With astute psychological insight, G.K. Chesterton commented, “The Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” A culture that rejects religion—the institution that embodies trust, faith, and hope and inculcates it in its young people—produces rudderless individuals who search for causes to believe in.
Just as socioeconomically disadvantaged families without fathers can produce a multigenerational underclass, so too do parents without a transcendent faith produce children who lack trust not only in others but in themselves. If we ever hope to rid our country’s political discourse of the poison of identity politics, we must begin by rebuilding the psychological foundations of healthy identity formation in our children.
Richard B. Corradi, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. This article was originally published on The Public Discourse. View the original article.