Understanding Recovery as Life-Task

Eric Erickson is best remembered for his work on a model of psychosocial development.

As we grow and mature, according to Erickson, we are confronted with a set of challenges that cluster around a specific theme. We engage life-tasks that enable us to continue to grow and flourish as individuals in relationship with others.

Erickson presents his stages of psychosocial development as an orientations to opposing ways of being in the world. The eight stages are:

1. Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust
2. Autonomy vs. Shame
3. Purpose, Initiative vs. Guilt
4. Competence, Industry vs. Inferiority
5. Fidelity, Identity vs. Role Confusion—Adolescent
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation
7. Generativity vs. Stagnation
8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair

Sexual addiction may represent a challenge associated with a failure to successfully navigate one or more life-task as suggested by Erickson’s model. Those familiar with the work of Patrick Carnes will readily identify his association of a failure to successfully navigate Stage 2 (Autonomy vs Shame) as a primary contributor to the addiction process.

An addictive process undermines healthy development. A person has found that a specific behavior (or substance) resolves the deep pain one feels and that never seems to go away. Once healthy development is arrested by an addictive process, pathology sets in. A human being is formed around a distorted sense of self as habits of perception feed habits of emotion and behavior that reinforce maladaptive choices.

One way to conceive of recovery from sexual addiction involves doing the work of psychosocial development that has been undermined by the addiction. This does not suggest that one “go back” to complete work that was not successfuly accomplished earlier. Rather, one goes forward to do work that results in the creation of a renewed self, with new possibilities, and with new competencies and powers to engage one’s life with greater intention and reward.

More on this orientation to understanding and treating addiction generally can be found at the National Center for Biotechnology Information website in a paper titled,

Vogel-Scibilia, et.al. re-imagines Erikson’s model for recovery in a paper titled, The Recovery Process Utilizing Erikson’s Stages of Human Development:

1. Trust versus doubt
2. Hope versus shame
3. Empowerment versus guilt
4. Action versus inaction
5. New self versus sick self
6. Intimacy versus isolation
7. Purpose versus passivity
8. Integrity versus despair

The authors suggest ways to coach a person in recovery to address each task.

For example, most therapists and all interventionists have experienced the resistence that comes in the Preconceptual Stage of Change (using Prochaska and Diclemente’s model) when the person struggling with an addictive process is unwilling to engage the possibility that he may have a problem. A basic lack of trust in the interventionist, the family, the settings, the process undermines forward movement into greater health.

Healing will not begin until the person resolves the fundamental question, “Can I trust you?” It serves little purpose to attempt a syllabus of psychoeducation or a presentation of recovery skills until this question is addressed in way that allows the person to embrace an orientation of trust in the people and the process associated with recovery.

Shame is the fundamental identity that has formed as a result of an addictive process. The addiction thrives in secrecy. The lying and manipulation family members experience from the person trapped in the addictive process is rooted in a closely held self-concept of lack of worth. Why risk self-disclosure when the only result will be judgment and abandonment for others?

In Stage Two, a sense of shame slowly dissolves as a hope begins to grow that, yes, I too am worthy of respect and can be reconciled to the world I have abandoned as a result of this addiction.

Step by step, stage by stage, a person lost in an addictive process can be restored to greater health and life-giving relationships with others.


Image by Richard Leeming

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