Psychology of Adjustment. Erikson’s Personality Theory

Erikson developed eight psychosocial stages in which humans develop through throughout their entire life span. Erikson believed that personality progressed through these eight stages with certain conflicts arising at each stage. Success in any stage depended upon successfully overcoming these conflicts.

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 (Wagner 1). At every stage, the dominating aspect of the personality will depend on development through the previous stages. In the final stage if the previous stages have developed properly then they will experience integrity or else despair (Wagner 1).

Erikson’s theory is unique in that it encompasses the entire life cycle of human life and recognizes the impact of society, history, and culture on personality. Erikson’s theory answers many questions about what it means to be an adult (Hoare 200). He has shown the importance of understanding adults as those who are interdependent with each other, with children, and with their unique society and historical era.

He described the transition to the moral-ethical in adulthood from its basis in childhood morality and adolescent ideology and illustrated how the trust of infancy can lead to mature spirituality. He showed how adulthood is, in so many ways, deficient against childhood and led thinking along a line in which children can function as participants with parents and other elders. His understanding of insight as a process and product relegates mere knowledge to an inferior status. Some reviewers have found great worth in the fact that Erikson depicted essential psychosocial content as existing throughout all of life (Hoare 201).

For example, the rudiments of generativity are seen in early life, when children’s primary concerns are those of trust, autonomy, and initiative, whereas older adults who are concerned with generativity and integration as the dominant issues will continue to grapple with the need for transcendent trust and for autonomy and mastery. Erikson’s theory has a wide focus as it answers new broad questions. He has supplied new meanings for terms such as mutuality, actuality, human vulnerability and adaptation to explain the needs and intricacy of humans and their needs. He also illustrated that adults are vulnerable to the unconscious deals they make with themselves and the societal deals with which they collude.

It has also been found that Erikson’s theory provides a theoretical approach to conceptualize counseling needs and guide treatment interventions (Saladino and Bellus 140) Thus Erikson’s efforts to link psyche, soma, and society are seen to be truly integrated. He showed how developmental needs mesh with the family and broader institutions of society. For example, trust is elaborated in religion, autonomy in the law, play and initiative in dramatic theater and politics, and competence in the business and technological establishment.

The term identity has also become increasingly important in modern psychology, largely through the work of Erik Erikson. He has used the term to designate a sense of self that develops in the course of a man’s life and that both relates him to and sets him apart from his social milieu. The terms “identity crisis” and “identity confusion,” introduced by Erikson, have gained a wide usage. Erikson’s descriptions of the stages of the life cycle have advanced psychoanalytic theory to a point when it can now describe the development of a healthy personality on its own terms and not as opposite to a sick one.

Likewise, Erikson’s emphasis upon the problems unique to adolescents and adults living in today’s society has helped to rectify the one-sided emphasis on childhood as the beginning and end of personality development (Elkind 1). Finally, in his biographical studies, such as Young Man Luther and Gandhi’s Truth, Erikson emphasizes the inherent strengths of the human personality by showing how individuals can use their neurotic symptoms and conflicts for creative and constructive social purposes while healing themselves in the process.

Not everyone agrees with Erik Erikson’s theory of personality. Douvan and Adelson in their book, The Adolescent Experience, argue that while his identity theory may hold true for boys, it doesn’t for girls (Elkind 24). Robert W. White, Erikson’s good friend and colleague at Harvard believed that Erikson’s theory did not account for the phenomena of ego development in an economic manner (Elkind 24).

Erikson’s multi-disciplinary approach broadened the scope of his theory but reduced its depth. His tendency to think from a position halfway between the person and society has led to the criticism that he had shifted the previous psychoanalytic focus on the person’s deep sense of his own self (Hoare 200). Some critics have claimed that he generalized too much at times (Hoare 209). For example, by attaching identity to adolescence and then to all of adult development, including spirituality, ethics, prejudice, and group and national belonging, identity’s credibility sagged. It is felt that Erikson projected the middle-class Euro-American identity as the gold standard for “identity” (Hoare 209).

He had a tendency to generalize and speculate, especially in his book on Luther, when he used the problems of a seminarian of mid-twentieth-century America as the prototype for the Luther of sixteenth-century Germany (Hoare 202).

Despite these drawbacks, it cannot be denied that Erik Erikson’s theory of development is a remarkable endeavor in the realm of personality theories – one that impacted all future personality studies in a huge way.


Elkind, David (2004). Erik Erikson’s Eight Ages of Man. The New York Times Magazine. Web.

Hoare, Hren Carol (2002). Erikson on Development in Adulthood: New Insights from the Unpublished Papers. Oxford University Press. New York.

Saladino, P. Albert and Bellus, B. Stephen (2000). Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development and Counseling for Adults With Mental Retardation: Case Conceptualization and Implications for Treatment. Mental Health Aspects Dev Disabil; Volume 3. Issue 4. Pages 140-148.

Wagner, Van Kendra (2008). Theories of Personality. Web.