Thursday, September 30, 2010


Regression is understood in Freudian parlance as a defense mechanism;  if an individual experiences a stressful event or circumstance, they may revert to an earlier stage of behaviour.  If, for example, someone was fixated at an oral stage, they may chew their nails when studying for an exam.  Or, if they were having emotional difficulties, stemming from relational issues, they may display anal expulsive behaviour, by keeping their apartment messy for a few weeks. 

As a student of medicine, I cannot help but draw a parallel to the physiological principle of sympathetic activation of the nervous system when danger (or stress) is experienced.  Normally this results in what is known as the fight or flight response.  For example, when confronted by a wild boar, the nerves are steeled and the senses activated - either one is about to be eaten by a predator and must needs run away to live, or one takes an aggressive stance, placing oneself at risk for the possibility of a meal.

In the spiritual context, the idea of defense mechanism finds its noblest example in sublimation.  Losing one's job, or a loved one, rather than causing regression, may result in the sublimation of angst into positive activities, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter, or visiting the sick.  Thus we recognize that, along with negative defense mechanisms, such as regression, denial and passive agression, which stem from the flesh and its desires (or, in psychosocial parlance, immaturity), there are a host of positive mechanisms for dealing with stress, including sublimation, altruism and suppression, which may be understood in the Scriptural context as being fruits of the spirit (or, again, in theories of human development, as maturity).

Psychosocial Moratorium

In Erikson, one of the challenges of the fifth stage, namely identity versus role confusion, is to establish one's place in the context of society and its structures.  The positive outcome of this stage results in an ego which is capable of fidelity to those associations opted for.  Along the road to choosing what structures merit fealty, many adolescents experience hesitance.  Some of these may choose to act on the difficulty of committment by taking leave from regular projects, and end up dropping out of school, or quitting work, in order to explore.  My generation called this 'finding yourself', but the idea is not new, and for Eriksonians, this hiatus is known as a psychosocial moratorium.

The decision to forestall making definite identifications to traditional structures is one which Crain normalizes in Erikson's own journey, pointing out that for people in the society in which the theorist grew up, this was an acceptable means of coming to grips with life.  It is sometimes thought of as a luxury afforded the youths of Western-style civilization, as those in other regions of the world are often pressed by family needs to commit early to work or school.

In my own journey, I experienced a very similar thing in 1992, when I dropped out of medical school to 'find myself'.  It was a powerful catalyst for spiritual exploration, freeing me from the bonds of my parents' materialist dreams.  I am amused that, while I became a Christian as a result of this 'time out' in 1994, I found that the realignment of my persona which this new reality required was so fundamental, I did not return to studies (or to serious work) until 2002.  The application of the principle of the moratorium was, for me, in any case, clearly positive from a spiritual perspective.  Being skeptical of my native religion and of the values of my family of origin permitted me the freedom and motive force to seek and to find the wholeness of Christ's love.

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