Born in Germany, in 1902, to Danish parents but raised by a Jewish stepfather, Erikson grew up with a different upbringing from his peers.
In 1927, the psychoanalyst Anna Freud (Sigmund Freud’s youngest daughter) invited Erikson to teach at a private art school in Vienna.
Erikson began his training in psychoanalysis, becoming deeply influenced by Freud’s ideas on how childhood upbringing impacts people’s personality and growth. And he realized the following:
“Every adult, whether he is a follower or a leader, a member of a mass or of an elite, was once a child. He was once small. A sense of smallness forms a substratum in his mind, ineradicably. His triumphs will be measured against this smallness; his defeats will substantiate it.”
But he felt that Sigmund Freud’s theories on childhood overly emphasized the role of sexuality in human development. Erikson believed that social and cultural factors played a more significant role in how we develop as humans.
So he broadened his study of Freud’s theory, and focused instead on understanding the interaction between:
- A person’s biological being
- Individual psychological traits
- Cultural and societal upbringing
Erikson studied and interviewed children of different cultural and societal backgrounds. And he found that people’s personality traits unfolded in 8 stages.
As we go through each stage, we experience certain challenges and setbacks. If we resolve these challenges in a positive manner: We grow. But if we don’t, we stagnate.
The 8 stages of development
Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is one of the most recognized theories of personality in psychology. Erikson suggests that an individual’s personality develops throughout their lifespan, and this development occurs in a series of eight stages.
Each stage presents a conflict or crisis that humans must resolve for healthy development.
- Trust vs. Mistrust (0-2 years): When a baby cries, the expectation is that a caregiver will attend to their needs, whether it’s for food, a diaper change, or comfort. If these needs are consistently met, the baby develops a sense of trust in the world and in their relationships.
- Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (2-4 years): In this stage, children start to assert their independence. If encouraged and supported, they become more confident and secure in their ability to survive in the world.
Imagine a toddler learning to dress. If their parents encourage them, they’ll develop a sense of autonomy and confidence in their ability to handle tasks. But if the child feels overly criticized or ridiculed, they may feel ashamed.
- Initiative vs. Guilt (4-5 years): Children begin to assert control and power over their environment by planning activities.
For example, a preschooler may want to plan a make-believe game with friends. If their initiative is nurtured, they’ll learn to take leadership and improve their decision-making ability. But if they’re made to feel like a nuisance, they might feel guilty for taking the initiative.
- Industry vs. Inferiority (6-11 years): Here, Erikson emphasizes the importance of a child’s development in their sense of pride. Often in school, children aged 6-11 begin to have a more concrete view of their accomplishments and abilities.
A young pupil struggling with math, for example, can develop a sense of competence when teachers and parents encourage them. But when others tease or neglect them, they may feel inferior and doubt their abilities.
- Identity vs. Role Confusion (12-18 years): The focus here is one’s sense of self and personal identity. Often, we make our biggest academic choices in this stage: What high school would you attend? Which college would you apply to?
There are various factors at play, like your family’s financial ability to send you to certain schools. Or if your parents support whichever academic path you’ll take, instead of enforcing their own will. Outside of your family, the peers you hang out with also impact your development.
- Intimacy vs. Isolation (19-40 years): This is the stage many of us may currently be in. This typically covers your life during college, your first jobs outside university, your first attempts at building a business, traveling overseas alone, or even the first time to invest!
For other folks, this might also mean marriage, kids, company tenure, building a home, and so forth. A lot of people experience the so-called “Quarter Life crisis” at this point. But when you look at the other stages above, you’ll see that someone’s quarter-life crisis doesn’t happen purely during the quarter-life stage.
Instead, there are likely unresolved challenges during the earlier stages. Which led to less-than-ideal personal development in the present. When you’re at peace with your work, finances, and personal life, you’d often find yourself in healthier, fulfilling relationships. The opposite is a feeling of isolation.
- Generativity vs. Stagnation (40-65 years): The so-called “Midlife Crisis.” At this stage, many folks have established their career and personal relationships. When that happens, the next step is often finding a new direction or purpose.
This leads to two results: Not knowing what to do, so life becomes a matter of “compensating” for certain things, like driving fancy cars or buying expensive homes.
Or leveraging one’s lifetime of insights to live a satisfying life. When you overcome this stage positively, you focus on learning and living more.
- Ego Integrity vs. Despair (65+ years): In retirement, a senior might reflect on life achievements with satisfaction, feeling a sense of completeness (ego integrity). Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom. People who look with regret end up bitter and in despair.
It’s important to note that even Erikson believed people could face the above conflicts at different points in their life, not just in the age range he identified.
Also, successfully navigating a stage doesn’t mean that the crisis won’t reappear. Eventually, you may need to address them again. But by understanding these stages, we can better navigate our own life journey.
You are what survives you
As Erikson concluded:
“I am what survives me.”
We are defined not just by who we are in the present, but by how we managed our past experiences.
Erikson’s 8 stages of psychosocial development provide a roadmap for understanding our personal and professional growth throughout different phases of life.
From learning to trust in our earliest years, to seeking intimacy in adulthood, to reflecting on our accomplishments in old age, each stage presents unique challenges and opportunities for growth.
With every resolved conflict, we shape our identity and leave an imprint on the world around us.