How Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development Applies to Your Life

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November 17, 2019
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Erik Erikson (1902–1994) was an American Psychologist of German descent, nowadays regarded as the most read psychoanalyst in the United States. His complex career (plastic artist, educator, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and college professor) and his interest for several special aspects of existence (child pathological psychiatry, war traumas, the lives of Indians in reservations, exceptional individuals – Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi) made him choose the concept of identity as key to explaining individual psychosocial development.

Among his most important works are: Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Childhood and Society (1963), Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) and Toys and Reasons (1977).

Introduction to Psychosocial Development

Erikson was a stage theorist who took Freud’s controversial theory of psychosexual development and modified it as a psychosocial theory, as he rejected the central importance of the sexual drive in favour of the progressive emergence of identity. Like Freud and many others, Erik Erikson maintained that personality develops in a predetermined order, and builds upon each previous stage. This is called the epigenetic principle. Although he admits that the first years of life play a crucial role in the formation of personality, Erikson does not accept the fact that the ending of adolescence marks the completion of the identity development process. Thus, three of his ontogenetic stages later discussed in the present writing are reached at adulthood.

Erik Erikson emphasized that the ego makes positive contributions to psychosocial development by mastering attitudes, ideas, and skills at each stage of development. This mastery helps children grow into successful, contributing members of society. During each of Erikson’s eight stages, there is a psychological conflict that must be successfully overcome in order for a child to develop into a healthy, well-adjusted adult.

According to Erikson, every stage of development is marked by unique events and conflicts, which present specific tasks that individuals must overcome in order to attain psychological qualities. The manner in which these psychosocial crises are resolved determines a person’s personality and the psychological qualities they acquire.

These developmental stages are also referred to as crises, as successfully overcoming them can lead to positive outcomes while failing to do so can result in negative consequences. Erikson believed that each stage presents a conflict that is a crucial turning point in development, as it determines whether a person develops a psychological quality or not. Although these crises present opportunities for personal growth, the potential for failure is equally high.

Failure to adequately resolve the crisis can impede future development and cause problems in navigating through subsequent stages. Nevertheless, Erikson also asserts that unresolved experiences from previous stages can be compensated for later in life. Additionally, successfully overcoming a crisis can mitigate the effects of later deficiencies.

If people successfully deal with the conflict, they emerge from the psychosocial stage with psychological strengths that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. If they fail to deal effectively with these conflicts, they may not develop the essential skills needed for a strong sense of self.

Erikson also believed that a sense of competence motivates behaviors and actions. Each stage in Erikson’s theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life. If the stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of mastery, which is sometimes referred to as ego strength or ego quality. If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy in that aspect of development.

The first three psychosocial stages are similar to Freud’s psychosexual stages: oral, anal and phallic and are strongly influenced by the adequate care and attention provided by the caregivers.

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

During the first year of life, it is crucial for infants to realize that they can rely on the adults in their lives. The conflict is between trust vs mistrust. This is achieved when caregivers fulfill the baby’s fundamental needs for survival. Infants are totally dependent on their caregivers, therefore, responsive and attentive caregivers help their baby to establish a sense of security and trust in the world. Conversely, caregivers who are unresponsive and neglectful can instill feelings of anxiety, fear, and mistrust in their baby, causing them to perceive the world as unpredictable. If infants are subjected to cruelty or their needs are unmet, they may develop a deep-seated mistrust of people and the world around them. This period also plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s attachment style.

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

As toddlers (ages 1–3 years) begin exploring their world, they learn to control their actions and act on their environment to get results. They show clear preferences for some aspects of the environment, such as food, toys, and clothing. A toddler’s main task is to resolve the issue of autonomy vs shame and doubt by working to establish independence. This is the “I do it” psychosocial stage. For example, we might observe a budding sense of autonomy in a 2-year-old child who wants to choose her clothes and dress. Although her outfits might not be appropriate for the situation, her input in such fundamental decisions has an effect on her sense of independence. If denied the opportunity to act on her environment, she may begin to doubt her abilities, which could lead to low self-esteem and feelings of shame

Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt

Once children reach the preschool stage (ages 3–6 years), they can initiate activities and assert control over their world through social interactions and play. According to Erikson, preschool children must resolve the task of initiative vs guilt. By learning to plan and achieve goals while interacting with others, preschool children can master this task. Enterprise, a sense of ambition and responsibility, occurs when parents allow a child to explore within limits and then support the child’s choice. These children will develop self-confidence and feel a sense of purpose. Those who are unsuccessful at this stage—with their initiative misfiring or stifled by over-controlling parents—may develop guilt.

Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority

During the elementary school stage (ages 6–12), children face the task of industry vs. inferiority. Children begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they feel that they don’t measure up. If children do not learn to get along with others or have negative experiences at home or with peers, an inferiority complex might develop into adolescence and adulthood.

Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion

In adolescence (ages 12–18), children face the task of identity vs. role confusion. According to Erikson, an adolescent’s main task is developing a sense of self. Adolescents struggle with questions such as “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” Along the way, most adolescents try on many different selves to see which ones fit; they explore various roles and ideas, set goals, and attempt to discover their “adult” selves. Adolescents who are successful at this psychosocial stage have a strong sense of identity and are able to remain true to their beliefs and values in the face of problemsand other people’s perspectives. When adolescents are apathetic, do not make a conscious search for identity, or are pressured to conform to their parents’ ideas for the future, they may develop a weak sense of self and experience role confusion. They will be unsure of their identity and confused about the future. Teenagers who struggle to adopt a positive role will likely struggle to “find” themselves as adults.

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation

People in early adulthood (20s through early 40s) are concerned with intimacy vs. isolation. After we have developed a sense of self in adolescence, we are ready to share our life with others. However, if other psychosocial stages have not been successfully resolved, young adults may have trouble developing and maintaining successful relationships with others. Erikson said that we must have a strong sense of self before we can develop successful intimate relationships. Adults who do not develop a positive self-concept in adolescence may experience feelings of loneliness and emotional isolation.

Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation

When people reach their 40s, they enter the time known as middle adulthood, which extends to the mid-60s. The social task of middle adulthood is generativity vs. stagnation. Generativity involves finding your life’s work and contributing to the development of others through activities such as volunteering, mentoring, and raising children. During this stage, middle-aged adults begin contributing to the next generation, often through childbirth and caring for others; they also engage in meaningful and productive work which contributes positively to society. Those who do not master this task may experience stagnation and feel as though they are not leaving a mark on the world in a meaningful way; they may have little connection with others and little interest in productivity and self-improvement.

Stage 8: Ego Integrity vs. Despair

From the mid-60s to the end of life, we are in the period of development known as late adulthood. Erikson’s task at this stage is called integrity vs. despair. He said that people in late adulthood reflect on their lives and feel either a sense of satisfaction or a sense of failure. People who feel proud of their accomplishments feel a sense of integrity, and they can look back on their lives with few regrets. However, people who are not successful at this stage may feel as if their life has been wasted. They focus on what “would have,” “should have,” and “could have” been. They face the end of their lives with feelings of bitterness, depression, and despair.

Evaluative Observations

In spite of the attention and the international recognition of Erikson’s contribution to psychiatry, psychology, education and to the theory of psychosocial activity, not all of his claims have been approved without critique. It is argued that his thesis on the self acknowledgement of identity (the fifth stage) can be successfully applied to men but not so much to women. The reason behind the argument are empirical researches that suggest that women postpone their identity consolidation until after marriage, as a woman’s identity is partially defined by the identity of the man with whom she marries. This is hard to dispute in the traditional cultures.


Erikson edified his psychosocial theory in a psychoanalytic view based on his experience as an educator, consultant and psychoanalytical therapist. He wished to develop a theory that made reference to the normal and general course of human development, being closely observed in different cultural environments, be them modern (Europe, America) or traditional (Sioux, Yrok). Sketched even since 1959, his theory was revised and reformulated thanking to the aspects that he described: child’s play, identitary crises, the emergence of responsability, the history of the personality and so on. The last review is offered by his book from 1982: The Life Cycle completed – in which his octogenary experience is expressed.

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