Erik Erikson was a student of the famous ‘father of psychology’ Sigmund Freud. He followed many aspects of Freud’s theory of personalities such as the concepts of the id, ego, and superego and the underpinnings of the oedipal complex. However, Erikson was more culturally and socially oriented. He disagreed with Freud’s sexuality-based personality development. Although he agreed with Freud’s ideas about infantile sexuality, Erikson stressed that our personality is also shaped by integrating inner instincts and culture with social and human demands in a development that occurs throughout our lifetime.
Erikson developed eight psychosocial stages that humans encounter throughout their life. The stages are Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair (Ewen, 1988). Each stage is present at birth and unfolds as it is needed. Each stage has certain developmental tasks and crises (inner fragmentation) that are psychologically based. Ideally, the crisis in each stage should be resolved by the ego in that stage, in order for development to proceed correctly.
If a stage is managed well, we carry away a certain virtue or psychosocial strength which will help us through the rest of the stages of our lives. On the other hand, if we don’t do well, we may develop a negative or maladapted personality. However, the outcome of each stage of personality can also be altered by later experience. Everyone has a mixture of the traits attained at each stage, but personality development is considered successful if the individual has more of the “good” traits than the “bad” traits (Slater, 2002).
Freud was extremely pessimistic about human nature and society but Erikson has an optimistic view of human nature and the relationship between society and the individual. Freud believes that society is an inevitable source of conflict (Ewen, 1988).
However, Erikson disagrees with this element of Freud’s concepts. Instead, he believes in the mutuality of society and the individual; society plays an important role in shaping the developing ego and the individual plays an important role in shaping society (Ewen, 1998). Both the individual and society help each other to fulfill their various needs. Also, Erikson points out that parents and children help each other in this same kind of give-and-take development while Freud firmly emphasizes that only parents influence their children on development. Erikson’s theory can be more completely understood by examining the details of the eight stages of development he identified.
Stage one is Trust vs. Mistrust and occurs from approximately birth to one year. In the first year of life, babies are tremendously vulnerable. They have to depend on others to care for them. If the mother or other caregivers feed them when they are hungry, babies are able to build trust not only with their parents but also with the greater environment. On the other hand, if babies are constantly ignored regardless of their hunger, they will develop a sense of mistrust.
On a continuum of trust vs. mistrust, individuals who are heavier in mistrust will have problems socializing with people. Yet, if the parents are overly protective of the child, this will lead the child into the maladaptive tendency Erikson calls sensory maladjustment. That means that the child is overly trusting and gullible, and believes a person would never mean to harm them. Even worse is a child who develops a malignant tendency of withdrawal, characterized by depression, paranoia, and possibly even psychosis (Beoree, 1997).
The second stage is Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. This stage occurs between the ages of 1 to 2. In this stage, children are beginning to talk and walk and also train to use the toilet. Toddlers start to develop self-confidence and they start to control not only themselves also their environment. During this time, the parent’s role is very important. If parents encourage and support the child’s initiative to try new things and reassure them after making a mistake, the child will develop autonomy. Conversely, if parents are overprotective, the child may start to doubt his/her abilities or feel ashamed of trying to do things on their own (Coles, 2001).
Stage three is Initiative vs. Guilt and occurs from the ages of three to six. In this stage, the child begins to notice the physical and societal differences between genders and to divert the natural but threatening sexual drive into such acceptable outlets as play (Coles, 2001). Therefore, they start to socially interact with people around them. Through this interaction, they will develop a sense of responsibility and imagination for the future. If a parent encourages their child’s accomplishment, a sense of initiative will be promoted without any guilt. If the parents are too constraining or harsh in their discipline, the child may develop a limiting sense of guilt.
Stage four is Industry vs. Inferiority and occurs from about six to twelve years old. During this time, the child learns and is influenced by their peer group more than the family environment. Therefore, school is very important as a place where the child learns to make things, use tools and discovers new skills.
During this development, it is hoped that the child will begin to identify interests and abilities that will help guide them into a productive vocation and someday become a potential provider for others. To accomplish this step, the child must begin to veer away from the comfort and security of home and parents and enter more fully into the world of peers. The child’s successes during this stage will help them develop a sense of industry, whereas failures will develop a sense of inferiority (Beoree, 1997).
Stage five is adolescence, which begins around puberty and ends around eighteen or twenty years old. The task in this stage is Ego Identity vs. Role Confusion. Erikson regards this stage as one of the most important periods. Adolescents who successfully deal with an identity crisis, which is considered by Erikson as the single most significant conflict a person must face, will develop a strong sense of fidelity (Erikson,1964). If they do not successfully deal with an identity crisis, the adolescent will be confused regarding their identity which will lead to an inability to make decisions and choices regarding their role in life in general.
Stage Six is intimacy v. isolation. It occurs within the broad age range of 19 to 40. During this stage, individuals face the developmental task of forming intimate relationships with others. According to Erikson, only an individual who has a strong sense of identity will be able to form a healthy and intimate relationship. An individual with a weak sense of identity, on the other hand, will end up feeling isolated and/or actually fear entering into a committed relationship (Erikson,1964)
Stage seven of Erikson’s theory is Generativity v. Stagnation. It is this stage of development most associated with the so-called ‘mid-life crisis. By generativity, Erikson refers to the adult’s ability to look outside oneself and care for others (Erikson, 1964). Erikson suggested that adults need children as a means of addressing the issues that arise during this phase of development. People can also solve this crisis by helping other people in other ways. If this crisis is not solved successfully, the person will remain self-centered and experience stagnation later in life.
The final developmental stage according to Erikson is integrity v. despair. During this stage, people begin to look back over their life and evaluate what they have done with them. If the person sees their life as having been well spent, he/she will feel a sense of satisfaction, or integrity. If the adult has achieved a sense of satisfaction about life and a sense of unity within himself and with others, he will accept death with a sense of integrity and peace. On the other hand, if the older adult resolved many of the earlier stages negatively, the retrospective glances likely will have doubt or despair (Beoree, 1997).
Beoree, G. (1997). Erik Erikson: Personality Theories. Web.
Coles, R. (2001). The Erik Erikson Reader. New York: Norton.
Ewen, Robert B. (2003). An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Lawrence Erlbaum.