Posted by: JennyRain | December 24, 2009

Chaos and Identity Development

Chaos does not facilitate effective identity development in children.

My young life was marred with a significant amount of chaos from circumstances beyond my control. We moved a lot as a family in my first five years of life. Because I am naturally wired to need “rootedness” to my environment and stability in my time and space continuum, moving was very disruptive to my development. Somewhere along the way mom tuned into this so in my older years all subsequent family moves were scheduled when I was away at school.

As a child I would characterize myself as “fussy” – psychology would classify me as vacillating between “secure attachment” and “anxious/ambivalent attachment.” I had a tendancy towards “push/pull” patterns – sometimes I wanted people around, sometimes I did not, but when you were not around, I screamed, and then if you came near me, I’d scream louder.

The divorce of my parents at a young age and the subsequent move my father made to the east coast jarred my sense of permanence in relationships and hindered my ability to attach securely to my caregivers. Additionally, abuse from a neighborhood boy at an early age significantly impacted my ability to trust.

My illusions of a fairy-tale world were shattered pretty early in life.

Being naturally introverted and an only child created a great deal of social awkwardness and anxiety until I reached high-school. I had a very myopic view of the world and an extremely difficult time for years understanding anyone outside of my own family.

My mom is what I call a “butterfly’er.” This is my definition of her natural tendancy towards extroversion. When mom enters a room – you know she is there and people naturally gravitate towards her presence. As a young child I saw this as normal so I spent a lot of time trying to model this extroverted behavior.

Inheriting a genetic disposition towards anxiety and depression from both sides of my family decreased my ability to process and effectively assimilate new information.

Whereas many people could sail through these events with relative ease I was more profoundly impacted.

Instead of accomodating to these events, assimilating what was useful, and discarding what would not facilitate my identity development, each of these factors scattered my senses and left me looking to external sources to help me understand who I was becoming.

I grasped on to my environment for an answer to the question, “who am I?” which gave people, events, and outside definitions of “self” a great deal of power over my identity development.

Growing up, I had several dysfunctional relationships – culminating in an abusive marriage in the late 90’s. These events left me mistrustful of myself and my ability to form healthy relationships. These events also exacerbated the residual anxiety and depression in my system.

I emerged from my twenties wounded, mistrustful of myself and others, scattered, and very unsure of who I was.

This is the context in which I was attempting to form my identity.

Before we go any further, please know I share this not to blame or complain. My life was smooth sailing compared to what many young children have to endure. I share it because others may be experiencing the same thing. It took me thirty-six years to figure things out – my hope is that if you are reading this – it will shave off a few years from your search toward discovery.

Thousands of dollars of therapy later, a great deal of support in healing from my parents – without which I would probably not be able to write about this, and most importantly – a large dose of healing from my Creator, I can look back on my past and be thankful for the myriad of experiences that formed my “me” because they have contributed to the woman I have become.
Each of these environmental influences, however, had a large impact on my ability to answer the question “who am I?”

Psychology discusses my stage difficulties as follows.

Stage 5: (12 – 18 years) Identity vs. Role Confusion.
Up to this stage, according to Erikson, development mostly depends upon what is done to us. From here on out, development depends primarily upon what we do. And while adolescence is a stage at which we are neither a child nor an adult, life is definitely getting more complex as we attempt to find our own identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues.

Stage 6: (Young adulthood – 20-30 years of age) Intimacy vs. Isolation

Individuals begin to form intimate relationships with others. Erikson explains intimacy as “finding oneself yet losing oneself to another”. (Life-Span Development by John W. Santrock) If intimacy is not achieved at this time the individual will feel isolated. Fear of sharing oneself with another and fear of not achieving intimacy are common fears in this stage. An individual may battle with intimacy issues their entire lives.

Our task is to discover who we are as individuals separate from our family of origin and as members of a wider society… if we are unsuccessful in navigating this stage, we will experience role confusion and upheaval. A significant task for us is to establish a philosophy of life and in this process we tend to think in terms of ideals, which are conflict free, rather than reality, which is not.

My difficulties in stage 5 led to greater difficulties in stage 6. My early inability to consistently achieve secure attachment resulted in long term effects as “Early insecure attachment does not necessarily predict difficulties, but it is a liability for the child…”

So what does all of this mean?

Childhood identity disturbances are I believe, one of the most challenging to overcome because understanding who we are is a prerequisite to our ability to survive in the world around us.

Though identity is discussed in the Christian community, the practices learned simply become “layered upon” our core trauma. The core of us is not changed – though our external behavior has.

The popular concept of teaching followers of Christ their “True Identity in Christ” is typically done in a manner akin to Cognitive Behavioral Counseling (where distorted thought patterns of “self” are simply “replaced” with healthier thought patterns.)  I will talk more about this tomorrow.

In learning who we are in Christ – correcting faulty thought patterns is part of the healing process, however, I believe when we have been dealt significant trauma and pain early in life – this cannot fully heal an individual’s distorted identity. This was the case with me.

This week I will discuss more about how I found healing, what I have had to do to maintain this healing, and the theories of Christiandom about our “Identity in Christ” that worked, and those that did not.

Then God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. God had a job for Moses. But Moses asked God, “God who am I?” God and Moses chatted, but God did not answer Moses’ question.  A little later Moses asked, “God, who are You?”  (Exodus 3 – extremely paraphrased)… These two questions would become Moses’ life journey – as they have mine.

To be continued…

Part 1: Peering through the Looking-Glass Self

Part 2: Chaos and identity development

Part 3: Further along the road of identity

Part 4: The Power of Naming




  1. […] I explained in my previous posts on identity, I grew up in a pretty chaotic environment. Once I was through high-school, I was so used to chaos that I began to perpetuate it […]

  2. […] Part 2: Chaos and identity development […]

  3. […] Part 2: Chaos and identity development […]

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