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Erik Erikson Psychotherapeutic Visionary

Erik Erikson 

Erik Erikson conceptualises the basic nature of human beings in three domains. Biological processes (and the unconscious) are important to human psychological development, as in the Freudian system (see Section 1.3), but are nonetheless more easily subjugated to ego processes and societal processes. Ego processes are conceived of as not only defending against basic instincts, but also serving important healthy functions, such as sense of mastery over the environment and the evolution of a person’s identity. Social factors are regarded as fundamental to human psychological development, the healthy progress of which is encouraged by the affirmation provided by mutually enhancing relationships. Adaptation is also facilitated by repeated and socially sanctioned forms of interplay known as ritualisations (straightforward examples of which may involve for the young child being called by name, picked up and cuddled).

Erikson is mainly famous, however, for his proposition that human psychological development continues more or less uniformly through the whole lifespan. Although he agrees that childhood experience is important, and that unresolved childhood conflicts in particular can adversely influence adulthood, he disagrees with some other influential psychodynamic theorists’ views that personality is mainly formed between birth and age five. He believes, rather, that it continues even beyond adulthood through the mid-life period and into old age.

Erikson identifies eight ages of man, many of which concur with Freud’s psychosexual stages (see Section 1.3), albeit recast in principally social terms. He frequently adopted the term epigenetic psychosocial stages, “epigenetic” meaning developing in line with an innate schedule. Each stage involves a developmental crisis critical to psychological health or disturbance. The stages and associated key issues are as follows.

1)       The Oral-Sensory Stage: basic trust versus mistrust.

2)       The Muscular-Anal Stage: autonomy versus shame and doubt.

3)       The Locomotor-Genital Stage: initiative versus guilt.

4)       Latency: industry versus inferiority.

5)       Adolescence: identity cohesion versus role confusion.

6)       Young Adulthood: intimacy versus isolation.

7)       Adulthood: generativity versus stagnation.

8)       Maturity: ego integrity versus despair.

Successful passage through these stages results in the respective development of the basic strengths of hope, willpower, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care and wisdom. To a greater degree than many theorists, Erikson does underline the potentially healthy, adaptive aspects of development. Unsuccessful passage results in the development of the opposite polarities, as stated above (mistrust, shame, etc). The outcome of each stage can be undone, however, while a severe later crisis may reactivate previous unsuccessful outcomes or override previous successful outcomes. Although there is substantial variation across cultures in the specific experiences relating to the psychosocial stages, the fundamental elements and sequence are universal.

During the oral-sensory stage, approximately from birth to age one, the emphasis is upon satisfying basic physical and emotional needs and developing trust in others and self. The fundamental theme running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted in the presence of and through the mother, is incorporation, initially passively and then more aggressively. Basic trust will emerge if the infant receives a good quality of care. If its needs are met soon after registering and any discomforts quickly removed, the world comes to be perceived as safe and predictable and other people as essentially helpful and dependable. The future can similarly be imagined with hope and optimism. Basic mistrust, fear and suspiciousness will tend to emerge if care is sporadic and neglectful. Much of the oral-sensory centres around feeding and concurs with Freud’s oral stage of psychosexual development. To such a form of incorporation, Erikson added all sensory input, not least taking in information visually. Trust or mistrust in self will also be determined by the infant’s sense of ability to influence having its needs met, which can take an aggressive twist

During the muscular-anal stage, approximately from age one to three, the emphasis is upon exploration and developing self-reliance and self-control. The fundamental themes running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted in the presence of parents, involve retaining and eliminating. With the child’s maturing cognitive and muscular systems comes an increase in the range of her experiences. In particular, a sense of herself as a separate entity may be a springboard for autonomy and independence. It then becomes easier to exert willpower. As parallel to Freud’s anal stage of psychosexual development, the arena for playing out such matters is toilet training. If parents are too strict too soon, the child might experience a sense of powerlessness in controlling her bowels and become prone to shame and doubt.

During the locomotor-genital stage, approximately from age three to six, the emphasis is upon achieving a sense of competence and learning to plan and initiate new actions. The fundamental themes running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted within the basic family, are seeking and playing. As the child’s physical, intellectual and social development accelerates, his need for “invading” the environment becomes prominent. To the extent that such exploration, including fantasy play, is encouraged, the child’s sense of initiative will be enhanced. A sense of purpose will be experienced. If the child is treated as a nuisance or if her incessant questions elicit parental embarrassment and inhibition, her sense of guilt will be reinforced

During the latency stage, approximately from age seven to 12 (puberty), the emphasis is upon setting and attaining personal goals and developing a sense of competence. The fundamental theme running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted within the neighbourhood and school, is that of constructing, both alone and with others. The child becomes concerned with how things work and also his own efforts to make things, to a significant degree in collaboration with and comparison to others. Thus, the peer group begins to exert influence, as do adults other than the child’s parents. Self-esteem issues evidently come to the fore. Again, encouragement is experienced positively, enhancing the child’s sense of industry. Discouragement is experienced negatively, reinforcing the child’s sense of inferiority

During the adolescence stage, approximately from age 12 to 18, the emphasis is upon testing limits and achieving a self-identity. The fundamental themes running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted within the peer group, involve being or not being oneself and sharing being oneself. The end of childhood is signalled by the adolescent stage and Erikson granted it considerable importance. Successful passage through this stage enables a person to clarify his identity. Erikson suggests a cohesive identity to have four components.

  • Individuality, through a conscious sense of uniqueness and existence as a separate, distinct being.
  • Wholeness and synthesis, through a meaningful integration of a variety of previously fragmentary self-images.
  • Sameness and continuity, through an unconscious striving to consolidate past, present and future into a coherent and consistent direction.
  • Social solidarity, through a feeling of social validation and a perception that one’s identity is accurately perceived and respected by significant others.

From a cohesive identity develops the basic strength of fidelity, comprising sincerity and a sense of duty to others. As the critical challenge of the adolescence stage, Erikson contributed the term identity crisis to our everyday language (interestingly, having added Erikson to his original name Erik Homburger, not surprisingly, on becoming a naturalised American citizen in his late thirties). A positive sense of identity is achieved by forging an appropriate role sexually and occupationally. The former, in particular, may not be easy given the energetic re-emergence of strong sexual impulses and the changes in body image so characteristic of this time. Role confusion is another term for the negative outcome of the adolescent stage and may be experienced in several ways which impede progression through the subsequent psychosocial stages. Erikson firmly believed that particular hindrances to cohesive identity include overidentification with icons of popular culture or fanatical groups.

During the young adulthood stage, approximately during a person’s twenties, the emphasis is upon achieving intimate interpersonal relationships. The fundamental themes running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted within a close partnership, are losing and finding oneself in another person, competition and co-operation. Contact with others may be encouraged by a firm sense of identity, easing any fears regarding abandonment of self in a close relationship. This facilitates intimacy. Conversely, contact with others may be discouraged by a fragile sense of identity, highlighting self-protection and self-absorption. Isolation then becomes more likely. To the degree that intimacy triumphs over isolation, love will be experienced. Mutually satisfying relationships become easier to develop, in which both partners have equal opportunities for personal growth and fulfilment

During the adulthood stage, approximately from a person’s late twenties through to his fifties, the emphasis is upon being productive and helping the next generation. The fundamental themes running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted within the household and at work, are productivity, creativity and care. Adulthood, ideally, is a time for generativity, for procreation and guiding the next generation. Having children and being able to care for them appropriately indicates successful passage through this stage. The potentially negative outcome is stagnation, which Erikson believed to be a consequence of extreme self-indulgence.

During the maturity stage, approximately from the person’s late fifties onwards, the emphasis is upon an overview and integration of life experience, feeling worthwhile and developing wisdom. The fundamental themes running through the activities relating to this stage, generally conducted through the wider context of humankind, involve “being” (largely through having been) and facing “not being”. Successful progression through the seven previous stages enables a person to affirm, if not celebrate, the life she has lived. So-called ego integrity can be achieved. The attendant wisdom may clearly exert a positive influence on subsequent generations. Unsuccessful progression through the seven previous stages may instil a sense of despair. Such despair may be expressed in a fear of death due to its preclusion of opportunities for redemption of a subjectively difficult and perhaps meaningless existence.


Erikson, E (1963). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E (1964). Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E (1975). Life History and the Historical Movement. New York: Norton

Erikson, E (1977). Toys and Reasons. New York: Norton

Erikson, E (1982). The Life Cycle Completed. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E (1987). A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers from 1930 to 1980. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E, Erikson, J & Kivnick, H (1986). Vital Involvement in Old Age. New York: Norton.

Shaun Brookhouse

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