How Can You Apply Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development?
you’re never too old to grow, evolve, or learn!
The process of ego development is integral to the field of psychology.
It helps us understand common questions that arise, such as: How do we evolve as beings, and adapt skillfully to our environment. How do we learn to become successful, healthy adults? What’s the role of nature and nurture? How do we each balance our individuality with the understanding that all of us share the planet, and mutual respect and harmony are essential for happiness?
Many models and theories have been applied to human development. One of the most popular is Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Originating over 50 years ago, many therapists and psychologists have been inspired by Erikson’s work. His model has become the standout theory of personality development, for good reason.
In this article, we will provide a comprehensive overview of Erikson’s theory. You’ll learn how various life stages result in particular crises, and where this conflict originates from. You’ll understand how your development fits within a wider framework, and what virtues arise from successfully navigating inner conflict.
If you’re looking for a valuable point of reference for your life journey, read on.
Who was Erik Erikson?
Erik Erikson wasn’t only a man with a cool name. Born in Germany to Danish parents in 1902, Erikson died shortly before his 92nd birthday in 1994. He lived during a golden age of depth psychology, learning his trade at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, with the honor of being mentored directly by Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud.
Eventually, Erikson moved to America, where he had a private practice and taught at Harvard Medical School, Yale University, and the University of California.
Erikson’s significant contributions came in the field of human development, particularly ego psychology. He largely subscribed to the ideas of Sigmund Freud, although diverged into focusing on how a person’s environment shapes their experience.
Most notably, he theorized that personality continues to develop throughout all ages, from childhood to middle adulthood through to when a person finds their life cycle completed. Freud, on the other hand, saw personality as solidifying during adolescence.
Erikson has a highly influential and successful career. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his book, Gandhi’s Truth, which applied his theory to Gandhi’s life and his doctrine of militant non-violence. His most significant contributions to psychology came with his stages of development, a model that explains the development of personality, and even replaced Freud’s earlier theory of psychosexual development.
Erikson’s theory explained
With respect to psychosocial development, Erikson’s stages model sees each stage of personal identity development as reflective of unique challenges that occur in each of the subsequent stages in our lives.
At these critical junctures in life, from young adults on through to older folks, people find themselves confronted with a conflict between their individual needs and psychology (psycho) and the needs, beliefs, and attitudes of wider society (social). This psychosocial development theory mirrors Sigmund Freud’s concept of the superego, the part of the psyche which handles moral standards and conscience.
In search of fulfilling lives
To live a rich and fulfilling life, we have to be able to be authentic to our wants and desires, while at the same time nurturing healthy relationships and contributing to society.
There’s a need for balance — not sacrificing one’s true self for others, and not becoming overly selfish or uncaring. In Erikson’s words: “Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.”
Navigating this terrain isn’t easy, which is why Erikson originated the term identity crisis, which has now been absorbed into popular language.
Crisis as opportunity
Crises are integral to Erikson’s model — at each stage, the conflict between the psycho-social elements creates a lot of confusion, with an opportunity for transformation. Depending on how each crisis is handled, there’s a potential for positive or negative impact on development. Fortunately, negative impacts on development can be revisited and healed at a later stage.
In total, there are eight stages in Erikson’s stages of development, ranging from birth to death. Each is linked to a particular age range. At each of these stages, a person will find conflict between two opposing forces, their ego identity, and the social context in which that exists. Psychosocial development occurs when people “complete” each stage, developing a basic virtue unique to that stage of development.
If someone fails to complete or integrate those lessons, they’ll struggle to integrate the later stages.
The stages of psychosocial development
Erikson’s ideas were presented in his book, Childhood and Society, published in 1950. Naturally, Erikson’s theory doesn’t operate in a strict manner, like a video game leveling up. But it does provide a powerful model to comprehend personal growth and healthy development of identity. Let’s take a look at these eight stages in closer detail.
Stage One: Trust vs. Mistrust
Basic virtue: Hope.
Age: 0-1 ½
“Hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive,” writes Erikson, “if life is to be sustained hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired.”
All of us are born into the world completely powerless, and dependent on our caregivers to survive. This first stage is largely dependent on the care the child receives.
Because of their reliance on being looked after, a child is looking for stability and consistency. They’re making sense of the world they’ve been born into. If they receive love and care at this age, they will develop a sense of trust which will stay with them later in life. Without this basic care, though, a child can become mistrusting, uncertain, and anxious, not sure if they will be cared for.
When this stage is successfully integrated, a child will feel hopeful in future relationships, as opposed to feeling fearful if adequate care isn’t provided. This links with other theories of development, such as attachment styles, that have a profound impact on later life.
Stage Two: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
Basic virtue: Will.
Age: 18 months to 3 years.
As a child slowly starts to get a sense of independence, moving away from complete dependence on their caregiver, they require reassurance and support. During these stages, we start to make choices and understand we have a separate, unique, identity compared to others around us. In addition to feeling more autonomy and personal power, this stage gives the child the belief that they can survive in the world.
The potential roadblocks at this stage come from caregivers who attempt to smother the child, control them, or don’t support their growing exploration of the wider world. When this is the case, the child may lose confidence, have lower self-esteem, become overly dependent on others and feel shame and doubt towards their own skills.
As a child learns and adapts during this time, a supportive environment will be patient and nurturing as the child attempts things for themselves, such as getting dressed, or toilet training. Through this process of self-exploration, healthy development will lead to a sense of will, and the belief they can act on their own behalf.
Stage Three: Initiative vs. Guilt
Basic virtue: Purpose.
Age: 3 to 5.
The learning curve of this stage is found through play. Children will start to spend a lot of time around their peers, in a school setting, and start to learn the ropes when it comes to interpersonal relationships, games, and communication. Initiative comes from the child’s ability to plan activities or be creative in various different ways. In Erikson’s words:
“You see a child play, and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what’s wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever’s in them rises to the surface in free play.”
The risk comes from this initiative being suppressed or criticized, which can quickly lead to the child feeling guilty. Guilt is healthy when relevant to a certain degree. It is the DNA of conscience and encourages people to act in ways that are supportive and thoughtful of others. Too much guilt, however, leads to an imbalance and unhealthy development, as it conflates initiative with “doing something wrong.” If this stage is integrated in a healthy way, the child will begin to develop a strong sense of purpose.
Stage Four: Industry vs. Inferiority
Basic virtue: Competency.
Age: 5 to 12.
Before this age, there’s not much pressure on children. Play is still at the forefront, as they learn to assert themselves, develop relationships, and explore their initiative. Soon, though, they start to experience a spell of learning and skill-building. They’ll be expected to learn how to read and write, take exams, and start moving through the education system. Teachers will begin to take on a bigger role in the child’s life.
At the same time, as the child becomes more immersed in school, their peer group will take on a bigger role. They’ll start to look for approval through social interactions, and if they feel they don’t live up to certain standards or achieve goals, can begin to feel inferior, or not good enough.
Like the stage before, there is a balance to be found between feeling competent and inferior. The grounding force of competence is modesty. Without modesty, a child can become self-absorbed or overestimate their ability. Equally, within the right environment, failure is a valuable and teaching experience on the path of developing competency.
Stage Five: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Basic virtue: Fidelity.
Age: 12 to 18.
Adolescence is a journey of becoming, and a transition between childhood and early adulthood. It’s when a large percentage of the personality is developed and refined, based on an embodied exploration of a range of different worldviews, outside of the culture or ideology they were born into. As children begin to grow in independence, they start to gain a clearer understanding of who they’d like to be, and what they’d like to do in the world.
This stage is closely linked with physical changes in the body and maturing sexually. That can include a spell of discomfort before, Erikson says, “growing into the body.” The fifth stage is a fusion of the lessons of childhood and a firmer sense of identity. However, without clarity over what “role” the person would like to take on, confusion, or an identity crisis, can emerge.
Forging an identity isn’t straightforward, though. Children who are pressured to conform will often rebel, or attempt to understand their identity through trial and error. Equally, a solid, fixed identity at the age of 18 is shortsighted. Many people develop a deeper understanding of their “role” later in life. Successful integration, in the form of fidelity, means aligning with the needs of the social group in which the person belongs, even in the face of apparent differences.
Stage Six: Intimacy vs. Isolation
Basic virtue: Love.
Age: 18 to 40.
The sixth stage of intimacy vs. isolation spans more than two decades. It highlights the importance of nurturing intimate relationships that are committed. Success at this stage involves learning more nuanced interpersonal skills, having the courage to be vulnerable, and how to build social bonds in a way that creates a sense of overall happiness and community.
For many people, these relationships are developed from a strong sense of autonomy, drawn together through mutual interests and beliefs. Consistency, safety, care, and trust can all emerge from a healthy social circle. From these healthy social interactions, the virtue of love is developed.
If this stage is underdeveloped, and a person fails to cultivate healthy relationships, or if they are afraid of intimacy or commitment, they run the risk of feeling isolated. In turn, such loneliness can lead to depression — which is a recognized epidemic for Millenials, who make up the bulk of this age group.
Stage Seven: Generativity vs. Stagnation
Basic virtue: Care.
Age: 40 to 65.
The question “what would you like to be when you grow up” starts to adapt to “what did you become when you grew up?”.
The seventh stage is closely linked to legacy — what has the person been involved with that will outlast their time on Earth? For many, this might look like a family or a body of work. When people reach this stage, they tend to consider how they can contribute to society, as they start to see their lives from a wider perspective. The way in which someone views their level of contribution has a large influence on their healthy development.
If someone feels accomplished and satisfied, they develop the virtue of care, or pride over the person they’ve become, what they’ve offered the world. Without such recognition, there’s a risk of feeling disconnected or disillusioned, leading to a sense of stagnation and a lack of productivity.
Stage Eight: Ego Integrity vs. Despair
Basic virtue: Wisdom.
Modern Western culture seems to devalue old age. Rather than looking to our elders for wisdom, or holding the older statesmen as valued consultants, most people fear the aging process. However, Erikson’s theory is a powerful reminder that personal growth doesn’t stop but continues to expand into older age, and the final stage offers a valuable quality to the twilight of life.
Stage eight ends with death. But this is a cause for inspiration, not morbidity. Personal growth continues until the very end. People at this stage tend to enter deeper reflection on their life, looking back at their experiences, the highs, the lows, the success, the failure. However, if someone falls into regret at this stage, there’s a high likelihood of experiencing despair, hopelessness, bitterness, or guilt.
For Erikson, ego integrity is a journey of wholeness and “the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be.” Those able to look back on life with a sense of acceptance and humility are likely to develop the virtue of wisdom. In many ways, this comes down to a person’s mindset and spiritual insight, more than their particular life circumstance.
How “at peace” can someone be about the life they’ve lived?
Issues with Erikson’s theory of development
Erikson himself highlighted some of the shortcomings with his theory, particularly that the stages of psychosocial development can’t be neatly packaged, and don’t unfold in a linear way.
Erikson’s intention wasn’t to provide a how-to guide towards navigating each stage, or how to transition successfully or integrate each level. But the model’s big success is its ability to closely map the process of personality development across an entire lifespan.
Similar to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s not necessarily that each level perfectly flows into the next. Talking from my own experience, I’ve undergone multiple internal conflicts across my life, many of the most profound came after adolescence, way into my 20s, and my 30s. No doubt I’ll experience similar crises in the future, unrelated to the specific conflicts Erikson highlights.
Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development also don’t offer much in the way of guidance on how to navigate particular conflicts and crises. But perhaps looking for those answers is asking too much. Enhanced self-awareness around a model of development that is fairly precise allows us to gain a clearer point of reference to life’s journey, like a psychological “you are here” moment.
How do you start moving towards the person you wish to become? How can you ensure that later in life, you look back satisfied, complete, and whole? What if you lived your life from that perspective, each day?
The most important message of Erikson’s theory is that you’re never too old to grow, evolve, or learn. In fact, it’s why you’re here.