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Introduction ::

This book was born when a dream I had cherished collided with reality.

Having grown up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I went to college in Madison, where, during the second week of school, I fell in love with my extraordinary-in-every-way wife, Renee. Our first daughter, Lauren, was born in Chicago during my second year of medical school (she hated to go to bed and I needed to study). Our second daughter, Cheryl (who, thank God, loved to play by herself), was born in Los Angeles a few years later during my medical internship. Then there were two miserable years in Fort Polk, Louisiana, renowned as the worst possible assignment in the Army (108 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, with 99 percent humidity). We returned to Los Angeles after the Army so that I could complete my residency. By the time I'd finished my psychiatric training, we'd lived in seven different rented houses and apartments.

The dream was that Renee and I would own our own house. We had been in Los Angeles long enough to like it, and it was time to buy a house and settle into a neighborhood. I now had a good salary guaranteed by the state of California: I was to be assistant director of the UCLA Psychiatric Outpatient Department. So Renee and I rushed out and bought the house we had fallen in love with. We had no financial hedge against hard times: there was only one salary and no savings. We were a bit jittery, but it all worked out on paper, and, besides, we each had parents we could lean on temporarily if some financial disaster did occur.

So the dream came true on moving day. Each of us claimed a room, filled it with our personal belongings, lined the cupboards, set up the lamps, kept the cats out of the way, and made ourselves visible to the neighbors in case they wanted to welcome us. In the moments between moving men, I proudly surveyed the house and yard from every angle. When the last moving man closed the door, we were alone in this strange place.

We slept fitfully that night even though we were exhausted. The next night, we each tried to manufacture our share of cheerfulness, but despite our friends' ceremonial bottle of champagne in the afternoon, we both felt profoundly depressed. "What's wrong?" we asked. "Why are we so depressed just at the crest of fulfilling our dream?" Although we didn't know it, we were caught by the forces of a powerful, predictable contradiction.

The dream of owning a house is constructed in childhood and becomes a myth about our adulthood. We prefigure the experience and then expect pure joy when it actually happens. However, the experience of owning a house carries with it realities never imagined in our dream. It has a meaning our young minds had no way of knowing. We felt sadness the second night in our dream house because something had died. What died was a pro-tective illusion connecting us to childhood and our parents. We could no longer believe that we were children on loan to California, destined to return to our "real" home. Only after the illusion died did we recognize its silent presence. In the back of our minds, we were protecting ourselves against the full realization that this was really our life, to be lived into an unknown future. A tether to our parents was tom, and we mourned it. We were a bit less fettered by the codes of life our parents had woven into the tether, but we were left temporarily unanchored in time and space.

This forgotten childhood assumption, that I would live my adult life in my hometown near my family and friends, is not the same kind of assumption one thinks of in a debate or an exploratory conversation. It is more like a wish and therefore leads to unrealistic expectation-and disappointment, which in this instance was expressed by feelings of sadness. As I later discovered, my disappointment at having to give up this rather minor false assumption of my childhood is part of a process of shedding a whole network of assumptions, rules, fantasies, irrationalities and rigidities that tie us to our childhood consciousness. This network of assumptions allows us to believe, on a nonrational, emotional level, that we've never really left the safe world provided by omnipotent parents. The act of taking a step into an adult life-our moving into our new house-exposed this second, unsuspected emotional reality: a childhood consciousness coexisted alongside our rational, adult view of reality.

This event in my life, which I might have passed over as another peculiar reaction, unworthy of explanation, has become an impetus for the book that follows. For this book is about that second, unsuspected reality: how it supports and stabilizes us, how it interferes with our life, and how we can and must master it if we're to have an unfolding creative life.

Over the next few days, these sad, unanchored feelings gradually subsided. We resumed our lives but with a new sense of immediacy and fullness. Renee and I felt fortunate that we had experienced this unexpected discontent simultaneously, for we both realized that if one of us had been completely satisfied with being in the new house, the happy one wouldn't have understood the other's "morbid" reaction to this long-awaited event. An argument of some kind would have undoubtedly followed because either she or I would have "ruined" the pleasure of the other. As a psychiatrist, I would have looked for the neurotic origins in myself or in her and tried to search out the memory of a traumatic move in childhood.

However, it began to dawn on us that our response had nothing to do with a forgotten childhood event. Instead, it was a response to our current position in life and to the transition that had brought us there. In fact, it was a reaction set in motion because we had moved a step further into our own created life. The unexpected sadness we felt upon realizing our dream was probably inevitable. If only we had known, wouldn't it be nice, we thought, if someone had written a Dr. Spock for adults so that we could have expected this? Someone should have predicted and labeled the mourning and discomfort that accompany every growth step. 

Perhaps then adults could be spared some of the pain and misunderstanding of significant life events. How many other major, hazardous growth steps awaited in the future? How many had we already muddled through without knowing? Yes, someone, we thought, ought to write a Dr. Spock for adults. And then we forgot about it.

Several years later, while supervising psychiatric residents, I became acquainted indirectly with the life stories of approximately a hundred and twenty-five people over a five-year period. The supervisory position turned out to be crucial to the development of my theories about normal adult changes, for I began to see patterns that I couldn't have seen if I had known the people more directly. The resident psychiatrists filtered for me the compelling but obscuring uniqueness of each individual.

When I asked the simple orienting questions-" What is the patient's major area of concern? Why did this person seek treatment at this time?"-I began to hear answers that sounded agerelated. All teenagers were preoccupied with their parents. Undeniably, people in their twenties were preoccupied with vocational choice, with their new roles as spouses and parents, or with their inability to get into those roles. People in their early thirties talked about being stuck and mired down; the same important topics of life suddenly seemed vague, more diffuse and more difficult for them to understand. People in their late thirties and early forties all were experiencing an intense discontent and were feeling an urgency about determining what their lives had been and what they still could be.

As I brought these observations home, Renee and I began to ask ourselves if this was not preliminary evidence of a predictable sequence of changing patterns and preoccupations during the adult years. We began to see that certain key events-buying a house, a first car, experiencing a first job, a first baby, the first loss of a parent, first physical injury or first clear sign of aging-force us to see ourselves more as the creators of our lives and less as living out the lives we thought were our destiny. Only gradually do we let go of the values and programs of our parents' way of life. Progressively, we become freer to determine our own lives.

I started a research project at UCLA to track this hunch a little further. For six months, my colleagues and I had co-therapist investigators sit in on all therapy in the outpatient department. The groups were organized by age. At the end of six months, we rotated each investigator to a different age group. During the first year, we compared the preoccupations of each age group. By discarding problems common to all age groups for instance, anxiety and depression-and by eliminating individual patterns of hostility or self-defeating behavior-fundamental differences between one age group and another became obvious.

This first study led to a second project. We constructed a questionnaire to be given to people aged 16 to 50 who were not patients, using the particularly salient or emotional or repetitive statements from the previous year's treatment groups. The questionnaire forced people to rank these statements according to their personal applicability. There were no right answers, so the ranking was a measure of each person's intuitive reading of himself.

When the questionnaire was given to 524 people, mostly between 16 and 50, who were not patients, the results matched the patient-group observations. Patients and non-patients of the same age shared the same general concerns about living. As a result of this study, we had a rough catalog of the march of concerns and the changing patterns of self-awareness that occur in men and women between ages 16 and 50.

After reporting the findings of this study in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1972 and to various lay and professional audiences, I received hundreds of letters and personal anecdotes saying, essentially, "Right on!" Not all those who said "right on" were relating anecdotes that conformed to my descriptions. Yet these people felt they were covered by my general explanation even though it didn't apply exactly to their experience.

I concluded that my report on the "posturing of the self" over the adult years was useful to all because it brought home the obvious fact that adulthood is not a plateau; rather, it is a dynamic and changing time for all of us. As we grow and change, we take steps away from childhood and toward adulthood, steps such as marriage, work, consciously developing a talent or buying a home. With each step, the unfinished business of childhood intrudes, disturbing our emotions and requiring psychological work. With this in mind, adults may now view their disturbed feelings at particular periods as a possible sign of progress, as part of their attempted movement toward a fuller adult life.

In 1973, Gail Sheehy, a journalist who had decided to write on the subject of adult development, came to interview me. After a second interview, she asked me to join her in writing a book on the subject. I told her I wasn't quite ready-it wasn't quite clear to me how these vague notions and descriptions connected with the deep unconscious workings revealed by psychoanalysis, and without that connection, any book on the subject would have to be superficial. I thought I would write a book in about three or four more years, after I had thought about the problem more.

This book is the product of the three years of maturing that I correctly guessed I would need. It is about the evolution of adult consciousness as we release ourselves from the constraints and ties of childhood consciousness.