Erik Erikson

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If you read Eriksont's colourful and complicated, almost juicy, personal history, you would not be surprised that the man spent his life studying life and its crises. As all stories of people which are unusual go, this one too is populated with sensitive, thinking, self-reflective people who lived life to the full. Erikson’s personal history is a story that needs to be read for itself. It reads like a good Merchant-Ivory production. For the same reason, Erikson’s own journey of exploration is a wonderful tale of adventure — his interests were diverse and he followed his instincts and his heart as he led his own learning.

Influenced by his anthropological interests, Erikson’s theory of lifespan development is one filled with hope and recourse as it stresses the role of the ego and of society being a source of inspiration and guidance for well adjusted and balanced development.

Erikson has proposed a guideline of Psychosocial Development through life. There are eight stages. Each has been described in great detail. He was a very engaging writer. The progress through each stage is marked by a decision to orient one’s life in a particular direction. The decisions made thus, at a previous stage, influence how life presents itself in the stages to come.

Erikson observed several challenges that a human being would face as they went through life. These are briefly outlined in the table below. It is easily understood.

Erik Erikson's 8 Paths
Stage Age Psychosocial Crisis Significant Relations Psychosocial Modalities Psychosocial Virtues Maladaptations and Malignancies
I Infant (0-1) Trust vs. mistrust Mother To get, to give in return Hope, faith Sensory distortion — Withdrawal
II Toddler (2-3) Autonomy vs. shame and doubt Parents To hold on, to let go Will, determination Impulsivity — Compulsion
III Pre-schooler (3-6) Initiative vs. guilt Family To go after, to play Purpose, courage Ruthlessness — Inhibition
IV School-age child (7-12 or so) Industry vs. inferiority Neighborhood and school To complete, to make things together Competence Narrow virtuosity — Inertia
V Adolescence (12-18 or so) Ego-identity vs. role-confusion Peer groups, role models To be oneself, to share oneself Fidelity, loyalty Fanaticism — Repudiation
VI Young adult (the 20’s) Intimacy vs. isolation Partners, friends To lose and find oneself in another Love Promiscuity — Exclusivity
VII Middle adult (late 20’s to 50’s) Generativity vs. self-absorption Household, workmates To make be, to take care of Care Over-extension — Rejectivity
VIII Old adult (50’s and beyond) Integrity vs. despair Mankind or “my kind” To be, through having been, to face not being Wisdom Presumption — Despair

Adapted from Erikson's 1959 Identity and the Life Cycle (Psychological Issues vol 1, #1)

However, Erikson’s theory is remarkable in the undercurrent of hope that runs through it. Although, the way you live through one stage has bearing on how you might live the next; the process is not like knocking down dominoes. Every time you enter a new stage, you have the chance to work through and remake the decisions about your perspective that you made in all of the previous stages. Unlike Freud’s deterministic and predictive theory, Erikson’s believes in the human potential to reflect, be influenced, to change and to effect change. One of his postulates is the phenomenon of mutuality. Especially in the case of the child, it is most fortunate that he has drawn attention to the possibility that while parents (or life) affect their children (or the human potential), children too are a tremendous influence on their parents.

Erikson does suggest a particular time period for each stage. It makes you wonder why emotional maturity is tied with age and not experience. However, as you read the table below, you will have to agree that, generally speaking, (and Erikson did verify his data across several cultures) it is not unusual to have the defined experiences in the age-ranges he specifies. An important extrapolation from Erikson’s contention is that you should not rush through any of the stages and instead allow yourself to learn from life.

In fact, one of the main distinctions between Erikson’s theory and those that preceded it, is the role that he defines for the ego or the Reality Principle. In fact, one of the cornerstones of Erikson’s theory was the construct of Ego Identity. The other end of the continium is Role Confusion. As the term suggests, ego identity is the awareness that there is a "self-sameness and continuity to the ego's synthesizing methods and a continuity of one's meaning for others" (Erikson, 1963). In simple terms, it is the ability to stay you. But then, there is the matter of seeking you or finding who you are, of knowing that you will remain you whatever the challenge.


[edit] I Can Be Safe

  • Stage one: It’s about feeling safe. If parents provide familiarity, consistency and continuity, then the child will feel the world is safe and people are reliable and loving. This carries over to the trust of his body and the biological urges that go with it. If there is rejection in the form of abuse or inadequacy, the child will grow up apprehensive and suspicious of people around him.
  • The extremes: Over-protective care giving will create overly trusting, even gullible, children and adults; their naiveté extends to believing that no one can mean them harm. Or there could be withdrawal, characterised by depression, paranoia and, possibly, psychosis.
  • Balance: The end game is hope. The unshakeable belief that even if things don’t go well all the while, they do work out well in the end — later through disappointments in love, career, etc. A good sign is when a child does not get too upset when he has to wait his turn.

[edit] I Can Be Independent

  • Stage two: Caretakers increase in numbers at this time. If they provide for a safe environment in which to explore and manipulate, the child will develop a sense of autonomy or independence. Being firm and tolerant, neither pushing nor discouraging, creates the opportunity for both self-control and self-esteem.
  • The extremes: Punishment and ridicule can lead to shame and doubt about her abilities. Similarly, not being able to explore her capacities will take away the child’s belief in them. You may need to be patient while she engages in a task just so she can finish it and know first-hand that she is capable of learning and doing something new. The other extreme is impulsiveness — a shameless willfulness which can make you jump into things without proper consideration of your abilities. Or compulsiveness, where you feel everything is dependent on you getting it all right.
  • The balance: The determination to pull through odds, without deluding oneself about one’s capacities.

[edit] I Can Do

  • Stage three: Initiative is the attempt to make that non-reality a reality. Encouraging initiative by encouraging fantasy, curiosity and imagination is what prepares a child for balance at this stage. This is a time for play, not for formal education. They can plan, be responsible as well, and guilty. Erikson’s version of the Oedipal experience occurs at this stage — the child is reluctant to give up his closeness to the opposite sex parent, while the parent needs to gently encourage the child to "grow up — you're not a baby anymore"!
  • The extremes: Too much initiative could mean ruthlessness — you plan and road-roll over anyone who comes in your way. Guilt is thought for the weak, the pathological form being the sociopath. Inhibition is the other side of the coin —"nothing ventured, nothing lost". On the sexual, Oedipal side, the inhibited person may be impotent or frigid.
  • The balance: The psychosocial strength of purpose is the ultimate gain. A sense of purpose gained through imagination and initiative keeping in mind a realistic assessment of your limitations and past failings.

[edit] I Can Enjoy and Finish What I Do

  • Stage four: Between six and 12, children are exposed to education and through that to a much larger social sphere where they must learn social skills their society requires of them. They learn that there is pleasure in implementing the plans they made and taste success.
  • The extremes: If allowed too little success, a sense of inferiority or incompetence is developed. An additional source of inferiority, according to Erikson, is racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination — if a child believes that success is related to who you are rather than to how hard you try, then why try? Erikson speaks of narrow virtuosity – children whose childhoods are second priority to the development of one aspect of their personalities, such as in the case of child protégés. There is, of course, the much more common inertia; if at first you don't succeed, don't ever try again!
  • The balance: It is to feel competent while being humble.

[edit] I Am

  • Stage five: Knowing who you are, consolidating all you've learned about life and yourself, and mold it into a unified self-image, which is contextualized to the community in which you live. It’s easier if there is an adult culture which is worthy of respect, with good adult role models and open lines of communication. Also, it helps when the distinction between adult and child is clear to the child and to his society.
  • The extremes: Fanaticism, or "my way is the only way". It is distinct from the idealism that is characteristic of adolescents; fanaticism precludes others' rights to disagree. You could go the other way, where you relinquish your right to an identity by fusing with a group, especially one keen to define who you are — such as religious cults, militaristic organisations, groups founded on hatred, groups that have divorced themselves from the painful demands of mainstream society.
  • The Balance Fidelity - The ability to be loyal to your community despite their imperfections, which comes from having found a place where you can contribute. Erikson suggests a psychosocial moratorium while you figure all this out, a little "time out."

[edit] I Can Love and Be Loved

  • Stage six: The opportunity between 18 and 30 is to achieve intimacy versus becoming isolated. The ability comes from a clear sense of who you are. The many fears that accompany not knowing, including the fear of being lost to another’s identity, the fear of commitment and the need to prove yourself could melt away by this time. The young adult relationship could be a matter of two independent egos wanting to create something larger than themselves.
  • The extremes: You could become promiscuous; Erikson does not mean sexually, although this could be one result. He means wearing your heart on your sleeve — becoming intimate too freely, without depth. Or you could isolate yourself and become bitter in compensation.
  • The balance: The balance, of course, is love. He calls the ability, beautifully enough, a psychological strength. He defines it as the ability to put aside differences and antagonisms through the "mutuality of devotion".

[edit] I Want to Spread Love

  • Stage seven: The opportunity at this stage is to sustain love. It is for your love to move onward and outward. The balance to be made is between, what Erikson terms, generativity and stagnation. Generativity is a concern for the next generation and all future generations, being a productive member of society. The implicit expectation of reciprocity isn't as strong. Stagnation is self-absorption. This is the time of the ‘mid-life crisis’ — you ask: "What am I doing all this for?"
  • The extremes: Over-extension, or having no time for yourself as you do for others, and so not being able to contribute effectively. Rejectivity, or being unable to see yourself as connected with the generations past and to come, stagnation.

[edit] I Am Wise

  • Stage eight: This is the last stage of maturity. Reaching it is not about reaching a particular age, even strictly, as per Erikson. Not reaching it indicates unresolved issues at earlier stages. It can be difficult to achieve balance in this stage, but perhaps not harder than it is in any of the earlier stages. There is a detachment that one can feel from society, a sense of uselessness to society, a sense of one’s body becoming useless, including changes in the ability to perform sexually. What can be even harder to get used to is the entrance of death as a permanent resident in one’s life. Friends, family, spouses pass on and the fear of living can overtake the fear of death.
  • The extremes: We’ve all met people who think they know it all. Erikson indicates to this as the maladaptive tendency that can occur at this stage; if you "presume" ego integrity without actually facing the difficulties of old age. Or there could be disdain — a contempt for life, one's own or anyone's.
  • The balance: Erikson advises that one attempt to come to terms with the changes that take place at this time in life in our own particular social setting and circumstance in life. This stage can be thought of as harder than the rest because, like all the others it requires a think-through of all the stages past, but in this case, there are so many more years to consider. Viewing one’s life with all the good and bad times is a challenge. The balance that Erikson calls for is ego integrity — being able to accept the person who you have become, the life that you have led by accepting the past, so that you can look to the future with a stronger sense of self, with calm and peace, not resignation or despair.

Wisdom in the broadest sense is what Erikson suggests we strive for at this stage. "Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death," he says. The generosity of spirit and acceptance of life in all the colours that it offers, is the environment that the elderly can offer to the younger generation to look forward to life.

[edit] Minder

Before you hit the panic button, it’s a good idea to take the chronologial ages that Erikson’s stages of development are tied to, with a pinch of salt. If you are not in the right stage at the prescribed age, it probably has to do with the age you live in; of course, Erikson would say that justification is a symptom of maladjustment, an excuse for the resistance you are putting up to advance through the stages.

[edit] References and Useful Links