Writing Advice

Erikson’s Trust versus Mistrust

This week I want to take a closer look at Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development.  Trust versus mistrust.  Per Erikson, this stage forms the basis for all our psychosocial development as human beings.  We need to learn to trust that the world and most people in it are safe and good.  As infants, we learn this based on how our parents or primary caregivers took care of us as this stage ends at about one-year-old.

 Now, keep in mind, this can be thrown off so much we do not learn that the world and people are good.  Sometimes it does not take much.  A difficult geographic location move.  One parent being absent/neglectful/etc. even while the other parent is still there.  Some natural disaster.  The tough part is that we do not fully understand why some children can go through something like this and still learn to trust while other children do not.  What makes this even more challenging is that this is all happening before we learn to talk.  Therefore, we have no real memory of the thing (s) that may have created the trust issues.

 Now, to keep from sounding all gloom and doom about things, there are ways to address the lack of trust if we did not learn this as infants.  While the details of that would take entire volumes to discuss how to do this, the short version is that it revolves around cognitive retraining.  The person is taught to notice acts of trust instead of mistrust, and to change the trust testing and challenging behaviors to where the new behaviors and insights support trusting relationships.  It is a long process for most people.

 What does all of this have to do with writing?  This may well be stuff that never makes it into the actual story, but is critical to creating a believable character.  This is the back-story foundation the character comes into the story you’re telling with.  Think about it.  How would you react if you struggled to see the world as safe and good?  It may not matter why the character does not see the world this way in the story you’re telling, but it will show in their choices and actions.  Will your character struggle with testing the trust of others or will your character learn to trust someone?  Will the reasons for the trust issues come back up to reinforce that lack of trust or will some of them somehow be resolved?  Unless your story spans a significant length of time or your character has already been working on them, the problems won’t likely be resolved, but the character could be making good progress.

 Just a few thoughts on one way to build some depth to your characters.  Hope it helps!

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