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Adult Development Theories


Psychological growth takes place specifically between two opposing pulls. 

One is the need to grow and adapt, and the other is the need to preserve safety and the illusion of safety.

Adult development is the gradual replacement of the child's sense of safety (which is now an illusion) with actual grown-up safety anchored in mature decisions. 

The process of psychological growth gets STUCK when there is a failure of adoption.

When there is a situation in which inner and/or outer reality demands actions, and the action is not taken, there is psychological pain. 

Symptoms are a consequence of being stuck and a sign that adaptation is required.


The theory of Roger Gould

While Erikson saw development as a constant adaptation to society’s demands on the developing individual, the psychiatrist Roger Gould (1978, p. 321) is more interested in people’s own fears, preoccupations and assumptions, which they acquired during childhood and in their relationship with their parents:


“I’ve come to understand ‘growth’ in one special way: As the release from arbitrary internal constraints. I don’t pay much attention to what happens after the release – that seems to take care of itself. It’s the work of liberation, not prescription, that has to be the focus of my attention.”


He proposed a stage theory of transformations that start in the adolescent years and continue until mid-life. In his view, children trust completely in their parents and believe that their parents will always protect and nurture them. When reaching their mid-teens (around 16–22 years of age) they start to realize that this is a false assumption, and that they are required to make their own decisions, and to develop self-confidence: They have to leave their parents’ world.


From age 22 to 28, young people have learned to take control of many areas of their life. But they are still rather naive, and cling to the false assumption that if only they do things as their parents did, and do so with willpower and perseverance, they will achieve all their goals. They are still convinced that their parents will ‘bail them out’ if something does go wrong. During this period they have to confront reality and learn that life is not always just, that rationality will not always succeed, and that nobody will (necessarily) do for them, what they cannot do themselves. In the end, they will arrive at the insight that they are ‘nobody’s baby now’.


Once young adults have learned that, there is another false assumption they have to confront. Between the age of 28 and 34, they have to get rid of the idea that life is simple and controllable, and that there are no contradictory forces inside them. Up to then, they might have seen the world as black and white, and they might have been convinced that they know who they are, and that they have become what they are by their own choice. Now they begin to realize that things are not that simple and that there are sometimes contradictions between emotions and rationality. They learn to turn their attention to their deeper feelings and more complicated selves. That is why Gould called this period ‘opening up to what’s inside’.


While entering the mid-life decade, between 34 and 45 years, a new awareness develops. Up to then, most people have been healthy and most of their friends and relatives were still around. So, though everybody knows that human beings eventually die, the reality of death has not entered their lives until now. For that reason, people hold implicitly to the wrong assumption that there is not really death or evil in this world. Not only do they have to come to grips with their own and others’ mortality, they also become aware that there is betrayal, manipulation and evil in the world – and that they themselves often, willingly or not, conspire

in creating evil. For instance, couples can hold unconscious ideas about each other’s character and intentions and thus build up a system of misunderstandings and wrong interpretations; blaming the other for what in reality is a childhood fear one does not dare to confront.


Beyond mid-life, finally, there are no more false assumptions to be tackled. Now is the time of making meaning for one’s life, to become reconciled with the fact that one has made mistakes, and to adjust to and accept life as it has turned out. This includes coming to terms with losses, with the inability to do things as well as before, and with the approach of death, and to value what one still has. The motto for this last period of life is: ‘That’s the way it is, world. Here I am!’ This does not mean that there are no more problems and difficulties beyond mid-life, but that, after having achieved ‘contact with one’s inner core’, one is now prepared to face up to life’s challenges without confronting one’s own demons at the same time!


Though Gould concentrates heavily on the individual and not so much on society, as Erikson did, there are some similarities in their descriptions of the life course; most of all in the description of the last period in life where healthy development includes acceptance of one’s life choices. However, note that the age ranges of their stages, and sometimes the developmental issues described, do differ.


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Psychological Growth . . .

What is the developmental issue underlying when and why a person gets STUCK?

And how can you return that person back to the stream of experience, so that they continue to grow and develop?