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Foreclosed Identities

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Once upon a time way back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth (before the Internet really became popular, during the mid 90's) there was a psychology professor who was doing his best to teach a number of graduate students how to become skillful therapists. Student therapists would deliver therapy and the supervising professor would watch through a one-way mirror to make sure the students didn't mess up too badly (grin!). Once a week, the professor and the students got together as a group to discuss active cases so that all involved could benefit from each other's learning experiences in dealing with patients. Lest you be concerned that this activity constituted a violation of anyone's privacy rights, let me assure you that everything was completely above board, all students had been sworn to secrecy, and all patients had given written informed consent to be involved in this process in exchange for very low cost access to services. This is how a student psychology clinic gets run.

It so happened that one of the student therapists came to be working with a highly religious man. The fervent nature of the patient's religiosity was interesting to the therapist, who thought it might be related to the patient's symptoms and so this therapist brought the religiosity up as a topic of discussion during the weekly group meeting. The therapist (a quite religious man himself) wondered out loud if the patient's compulsive symptoms and harsh self-criticism might be related to his strong belief system. This would have been an interesting question to bat around the table had we been a psychoanalytically oriented teaching program -- however, we were a boring bunch of behaviorists instead and discussion of this interesting question didn't appear to offer any practical advantage in terms of helping us to identify ways to help the patient better manage his symptoms. I (the professor in question) asked the therapist to move on with discussion of other patients and that was that for that day.

I did think it was a really interesting question, though. Off and on, I've thought about it over the years since it first came up. It doesn't get less interesting with further consideration. Can someone's values and beliefs (religious or otherwise) contribute to psychological symptoms and illnesses? Or is it perhaps the other way around (where a disposition to have particular symptoms and illnesses might also lead one to seek out and commit to particular value systems with more or less commitment)? When you start asking questions like these, you find that they quickly give way to even larger questions like "what is the nature of identity", and "are certain value systems (cultural, religious, institutional, etc.) healthier than others" and "if some value systems are healthier than others, how will we know that, and what should be done about it if anything". This sort of thing gets philosophical in a hurry.

Psychologists, philosophers and theologians have had many things to say about the nature of identity, selfhood, and the nature of the self. To completely over-simplify their statements, we can say that there are two major camps with two different conclusions. Some say that people are by nature essentially evil, bad, violent and nasty while others say that people are essentially good, benign and loving at their core. The idea that people are essentially sinful seems to originate in Judeo-Christian values, but by the same token, those same values also suggest a vision of deity that is all-loving, and that people are made in the image of this deity. So there isn't any completely clear correlation between religiosity and views on human nature.

The patient we were discussing that long-ago day belonged to a fairly strict church, and believed strongly in his own sinfulness. The dominant idea about identity for him seemed to be that his essential nature was no good and that he required the ministrations of his church practice as a corrective measure so as to insure his survival. His practical identity seemed to be mostly concerned about suppressing his natural identity, if you will, as he perceived his natural identity to be sinful.

This view of self-as-sinful is in sharp contrast to the view of human nature and identity put forth by Carl Rogers, a psychologist active during the middle of the last century (in the 50's and 60's mostly). As I'm to understand it, Rogers grew up in a religious family and went so far as to enroll in seminary before choosing instead to become a psychologist. Throughout his career, he taught the view that people were essentially good rather than sinful, and that if left to their own devices, people would grow to become good people. People developed psychological maladies and/or started acting badly after losing contact with their essentially good inner nature after constant bombardment as children by faulty cultural ideas and commandments.

I've always thought that one of Roger's coolest ideas was something he called 'Organismic Self Valuing'. Basically, this is the idea that people vary in terms of what they like, what is good for them at the level of their organism; their core being. Some people are going to like chocolate ice cream and some people are going to like vanilla. Or, more controversially, some people are going to prefer same-sex partners and some are going to prefer opposite-sex partners. Rogers suggested that, if left to their own devices, people would choose those things that they organismically preferred, that these things they would choose would be good for them and promote their happiness and resilience, and that this would make a better world. Not to put words in the (now dead) guy's mouth, but it seems to me that Rogers probably would have had a very different definition of sin than our religious patient. For Rogers, I think, sin would occur when someone tried to stop someone else from becoming who they preferred to become.

Some other authors have had interesting things to say about the nature of the self as well. Erik Erikson, in the 1950's, wrote a lot about how identity (the sense of self we take for granted as adults) was not a given thing that people were born with, but rather that it was something that people had to develop, and grow into over time. Identity emerged through a process of discovery; It was not fully developed at birth.

Erikson wrote about the need for people to pass through stages of identity (or self) development before mature identity could be said to have occurred. He also identified a set of developmental stages that people tended to pass through at different ages of their lives. At any given moment in someone's development process, they are faced with an identity-related task or crisis to solve. If they solve the crisis successfully they go on to the next (more mature) crisis/stage. If they fail to solve the crisis adequately, they get stuck and problems can develop. For instance, during early adulthood, Erikson saw the essential crisis to be solved as having to do with choices between committing to work and love relationships or failing to do so. Failure to do so could result in negative outcomes. Of course life is not quite this simple or linear, but the idea of a set of stages that people pass through on their way to become the person they were intended to become is compelling nevertheless.

The psychologist, James Marcia, writing in the mid 60's, gave us an elegant spin on Erikson's stages of identity development model. According to Marcia, the most important thing about identity development was not successful passage through a defined set of stages, but rather that identity was ever struggled for in the first place. Two different attributes are important to Marcia's thinking: 1) how hard someone struggles to figure out who they are in the first place, and 2) whether or not their struggle (or lack of one) bears fruit in the formation of a sense of self - a sense of what one likes and dislikes, what one will believes and does not believe. He called these two dimensions 'exploration' and 'commitment', respectively.

  High Committment Low Committment
High Exploration Achievement Moratorium
Low Exploration Foreclosure Diffusion

I've always thought that Marcia's little model was essentially correct, as my personal experience suggests that authentic identity, the finding of your own voice, is never a given, but rather something that people have to struggle to achieve over time. Authentic identity is born of crisis and repeated testing by and against the forces of the world. One must explore the world and try on different values to see which fit best one's inner nature, AND one must also ultimately make a commitment to the best fitting set of values. Only when both of these events have occurred (a case represented in Marcia's chart by the quadrant labeled 'achievement'), can someone be considered to have achieved 'identity' in the Rogerian sense of having actualized one's organismic self-valuing; a state where one's values are in total alignment with all the fibers of their being. If a person is homosexual by organismic orientation, then they really could not be considered to have achieved 'identity' in this sense until they have come to terms and to peace with that homosexual orientation in some fashion. Or, as was the case for the organismically-conservative character 'Alex P. Keaton' (Michael J. Fox from the old TV show 'Family Ties' (1982-89), identity could not be achieved until parental 'hippy' values had been rejected.

Some people work very hard to figure out who they are, but never quite seem to decide on what it is they believe. Think of Bob Dylan (a musician who became famous in the 1960's, - before even the dinosaurs!) who was known to change his professed religious beliefs multiple times. Mr. Dylan's switching might have qualified him (at least during the time of active switching) to fit into Marcia's 'Moratorium' quadrant describing people who search and search but never seem to figure out what values fit.

Some people don't really ever get started in doing the work of exploration, of trying on different values and selves until a good fit is found. There are a variety of reasons why this can be so. Some people are just tentative by nature and don't ever really explore or feel safe expressing an opinion, preferring instead to 'go with the flow'. Such individuals are called 'Diffuse' in the Marcia system as (so the story goes) they never really form a coherent sense of identity of any sort, but rather spend their lives reflecting the values of others around them.

To me, Marcia's  'Foreclosure' quadrant is the really interesting one. 'Foreclosed' individuals end up committing to a value system before they ever get the chance to search. They might have the drive to explore but, if so, that drive gets sabotaged by cultural or family forces. One's family might hold out one and only one agenda for their child, telling him or her that they must accept only the 'true' set of beliefs and values if they are to be a part of the family (culture) in good standing. This might mean that a child accepts a set of values to be true such as "homosexuality is bad" even though he or she is actually (organismically) homosexual in orientation. Or, alternatively, a child might study to become a doctor to please her parents even though a more organismic internal preference might have led her into the arts. There must be some cases where the proffered 'one true' value set does fit the recipient's organic values like a glove and that these values were coerced upon that person would be but a happy coincidence. Unfortunately, the majority of the time (or so it seems), the values that are forced onto someone don't fit that person's organismic values and a conflict comes into being in that person's insides. So hungry are most people for what passes for love that they will frequently trade in their uniqueness for a sense of belonging.

Being a 'foreclosed' person means that there is a real discrepancy between one's organism-values and believed-to-be-true values. Such people must continually exert effort towards keeping their commitments to their believed-to-be-true values alive, or else their organismic-values may threaten to overwhelm them. A foreclosed person is like a mermaid trying to bail water out of a leaky boat. The water is the mermaid's natural element, but she doesn't know that in her foreclosed state (having been raised by land-dwelling humans who convinced her of the badness of her hydrophillia -- yes, I know it's a stretch, but just go with me for a  minute...). She expends enormous energy trying to maintain her precarious state of floating on the water (she bails and pumps to the point of exhaustion). The moment she stops bailing, however, the water level in the leaky boat will rise and ultimately she will become submerged. The tragedy (or comedy) here is that she won't drown at all. She just thinks she will.

Foreclosure isn't all that healthy. It can lead to headaches, stress, and to more serious psychological problems. Someone who wanted to be an artist but became a doctor instead to please her mother might end up loving the income she pulls down, but also perceiving her job as unsatisfying and empty. A sense of malaise or even full on depression could follow. It could be worse for a homosexual-hating homosexual person because the size of the discrepancy between such a person's believed-to-be-true and organismically-true values is far wider than in the case of the doctor. Someone in that sort of situation might actually become suicidal. It isn't a coincidence that suicide is a leading cause of death in homosexual youth. Worse than suicide even is the ' Roy Cohn' scenario, where a self-hating homosexual devotes his life to persecuting other homosexuals in a pathetic but highly dangerous attempt to 'remove the stain' (this actually happened and many lives were destroyed - rent the movie to learn more). Ugh! How awful, how sad, and how preventable a fate.

Ill people like Cohn probably need to go to absurd lengths to maintain their foreclosed convictions because it takes them that much effort to keep those convictions alive. If they don't go to outlandish lengths to maintain their convictions, they would probably start to drift back towards their organismic desires. The technical term for this sort of defensive outlandish opposition is 'reaction formation'. In reaction formation, a person acts towards others in a way opposite of how they 'actually' feel. This is generally an unconscious process characterized by a lot of denial. Since no one ever admits to or is aware of reaction formation, it can be only indirectly inferred to be operating. You best know when a reaction formation is occurring through use of the 'Shakespeare' method: ("The lady does protest too much, methinks" - spoken by Queen Gertrude to Prince Hamlet in the play 'Hamlet').

Does all of this theorizing have any bearing on the religious patient who came to see us all those years ago? Were this patient's problems caused by some sort of 'foreclosed' identity that forced him into a situation where his only coping mechanisms involved obsessional behavior? I tend to think that in part this is probably true, but then again, I also know that it is more complex then that. The problem with all these sort of theorizing is that they are abstract and divorced from the realities, complexities and messes of real life. In real life you have to take biology into account, relationships, etc. This guy's problems could have been being caused by too much coffee or a chemical imbalance as easily as by some sort of foreclosed identity. Or maybe all of these things. Probably all of these things. People are complex.

For myself, I have ended up quite agreeing with the idea that people can't become optimally healthy, well adjusted people if they are prevented from becoming who they need to become. Becoming who you need to become in turn requires family, society, culture and religious environments that are tolerant of diversity rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all set of truths.

However, the other side of this coin is that there really are behaviors that some people will choose to act out that are destructive, violent and generally not good. There really does need to be a limit to how far tolerance for diversity can be allowed to go when destructive and violent behavior is involved. Dr. Rogers didn't talk about the darker parts of human nature too much, preferring to focus on our good potentials, but it is true nevertheless that some people are just born abusers-waiting-to-happen and that we all have our darker sides. It is completely necessary that culture and family impose core values on people to keep violent impulses in check, and to punish and contain those people who persist in breaking those values. So it isn't quite as cut and dry as saying "everyone should be ideally encouraged to become their organismic selves". Instead, responsible people who want to be able to trust their neighbors will probably have to conclude that we need a little of both going on; a mixture of tolerance for benign diversity and relative intolerance towards violent or abusive behavior, to make a good world, and good happy human beings.

So what do you all think? Comments are much appreciated and diversity of opinion will be (within limits) respected (grin!).  

Mark