l. What does being human mean: internally, relationally and in a wider social contest?
There are many different viewpoints on what it means to be human, but most boil down to the struggle between right and wrong and the role of personal responsibility. Internally, human beings struggle daily with "good" versus "bad" impulses; responsible human adults have learned to delay gratification and make use of the control they exercise over their own lives, in order to make a worthwhile contribution to society. Relationally, human beings struggle with genuine intimacy -- the ability to share oneself openly and honestly in meaningful communication with another. This is where the adage "you're only as sick as your secrets" comes into play; if someone is engaging in thoughts or behaviors he is ashamed to share with friends, family, or romantic partners, he cannot share himself fully and genuinely. And without truthful human connections, people begin to feel isolated and lonely, leading to other psychological problems and coping mechanisms. Finally, in a wider social context, being human means finding your "niche" -- a constructive, valuable role that is meaningful and fulfilling to you as a unique individual. "It takes all kinds" is true; the world cannot flourish without many different people finding joy in many different occupations. Being human means being aware of one's authentic self and freely expressing that self in fulfilling ways that also serve the needs of others (Spirkin 1983).
In summary, in an ideal world, every human being would be in touch with their authentic self, would be comfortable with that self and able to give and receive love freely, and would look forward to every day as an opportunity to share their unique gifts with society for the greater good.
2. How do you think about lifespan development? How does a person grow?
Human development over a lifespan is highly complex. Many different researchers and psychologists have developed theories regarding the environment and experiences necessary to produce a healthy, fully-functioning adult. For example, Erik Erikson gained fame for his social-cognitive theory of emotional development, consisting of eight interrelated stages (Lerner 1997). A student of Freud, Erikson managed to incorporate Freud's famous psychosexual stages of emotional development into his own theory (Lerner 1997). The result is an outline of human sexual, emotional, and social development in the following eight stages: oral-sensory, anal-musculature, genital-locomotor, latency, puberty and adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, and maturity (Lerner 1997). According to Erikson, human beings go through various "critical periods" during development, in which certain supportive internal and environmental conditions must be present for a person to successfully "graduate" to the next level of development. Erikson listed these supportive conditions as basic trust, autonomy, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity (Arieti, 1974). If any of these conditions are absent, lacking, or faulty, a person will develop some kind of psychological problem in order to cope (Lerner 1997).
While effective parenting is not the only factor involved in personal growth during childhood, it is vital, whether from a biological parent or other caregiver. Some proven techniques for effective parenting include: consistency in discipline with a focus on positive reinforcement rather than punishment, effective listening and response to what children have to say, treating a child as an individual and respecting their differences, and "practicing what you preach" (Owens, 1995). Put another way, healthy emotional development is dependent upon "consistent, involved, encouraging, and secure parental involvement during the early years," leading into healthy intimacy in social relationships later on (Bellack & Hersen, 1998).
3. How do human beings function? What are healthy ways of being?
According to Freud, human beings function as a result of the complex interplay between internal psychological drives and the external world (Lerner 1997). The different "drives" he is famous for defining include: the id, or emotional and irrational immature drive for pleasure and satisfaction; the ego, or the rational drive that guides a person's ability to function within the context of reality; and the superego, which consists of both conscience and ideals (Lerner 1997). Put another way, according to the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, human beings must struggle daily to reach a compromise between "the world of natural necessity and that of moral freedom" (Spirkin 1983). A healthy human being is able to successfully manage the daily struggle between these different drives and achieve a satisfactory, fulfilling balance. If a person achieves this balance, he should be able to succeed as a mature, responsible adult. He will be capable of giving and receiving love through intimate relationships, and will make worthwhile contributions to society through his work. He will achieve the highest level of being possible -- that of a creative human being with consciousness and the ability to reflect upon, and therefore take control over, his own life (Spirkin 1983).
In addition, high self-esteem is critical to healthy mental, social, and emotional functioning. While many factors during childhood can affect a person's self-esteem as an adult, there is also a myriad of tools and techniques proven to help a person build a strong, positive self-image. People with high self-esteem and healthy, productive lives engage in the following behaviors -- all indicators of healthy self-regard: "self-awareness, self-reliance, stress management, self-acceptance, creativity, self-expression, and realistic goal-setting" (Plummer 2005).
Healthy living is also about giving and receiving. If a person receives sufficient love during childhood, he will likely feel compelled to share that love with others as he matures. This leads to an upward spiral of good psychological health, in which giving love leads to receiving love, which leads to higher self-esteem, greater creativity, and the capacity to contribute even more to the world (Covey 1989).
From a different perspective, healthy living can be viewed as living a life centered around timeless and universal principles of truth and goodness (Covey 1989). These principles, or virtues, must be considered above anything else when making a decision. They include honesty, integrity, love, kindness, tolerance, respect for self and others, forgiveness, hard work, patience, communication, giving, sharing, etc. Also known as idealism, this philosophy "reduces the human essence to the spiritual principle. According to Hegel, the individual realizes not subjective, but objective aims; he is a part of the unity not only of the human race but of the whole universe because the essence of both the universe and man is the spirit" (Spirkin 1983). This sense of "unity with the universe" brings great joy and fulfillment: so why doesn't everyone live according to a value system?
The problem is that these ideals often conflict with a person's deepest desires, or are difficult to live out for various other reasons. Living according to principles requires the maturity to delay gratification, as well as faith that commitment to such principles will pay off in the long run (Covey 1989). This is why people need to participate in some form of spiritual or religious belief system or organization. Human beings cannot do it alone; people need moral support and encouragement from others in order to succeed.
4. How do psychological problems develop? What perpetuates these problems?
When something goes awry, such as when basic trust is not present as a result of early abuse, emotional development will be stunted and that person may not develop the maturity necessary to navigate and negotiate his inner drives. The resulting emotional pain will manifest in symptoms of psychological distress, such as depression or other mood disorders.
Furthermore, that person's self-esteem will be tainted by the negative experiences or traumatic events, because people naturally blame themselves when something bad happens to them. This unresolved guilt and shame will also result in symptoms of psychological distress and low self-esteem. In addition, human beings are taught that rational responses are superior to emotional ones (McLeod, 2007), so often people learn to suppress their true emotions. This also leads to a "stunting" of personal growth and intimacy, because that person is out of touch with his authentic self. Unless the underlying emotional issues are confronted and "worked through" with the help of a compassionate yet objective third party (counselor) (McLeod 2007), it is unlikely that person will ever develop higher self-esteem and learn healthier ways of coping with life. The result is a self-perpetuating downward spiral, in which one problem leads to more feelings of shame and inadequacy, leading to further psychological problems and maladaptive coping mechanisms, and so on.
So why do some people with positive, supportive upbringings and no major traumatic experiences develop psychological problems? In some cases, psychological problems develop in part as a result of genetic predisposition and neurochemical factors; in these cases, psychotropic medication may be necessary in addition to counseling for successful treatment. But often a problem develops merely because human beings are highly complex creatures leading highly complex lives. So many things can go wrong in so many different ways:
"The question: how are we to understand the relationship between social-cognitive development (i.e., self, ego, morality, and perspective-taking) and mental health, involving positive adaptation, a…