The following has been adapted from the Wikipedia website.
Erikson's lifelong interest in psychological aspects of identity may be traced to his childhood. He was born as a result of his mother's extramarital affair and the circumstances of his birth were concealed from him in his childhood.
His mother, Karla Abrahamsen came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen, which traced its origin to the northern German lands . Her father, Josef, was a merchant in dried goods; her mother Henrietta died when Karla was only 15. Karla's older brothers
Einar, Nicolai, and Axel were active in local Jewish charity and helped maintain a free soup kitchen for indigent Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Since Karla Abrahamsen was officially married to a Jewish stockbroker Waldemar Isidor Salomonsen at the time, her son, born in Germany, was registered as Erik Salomonsen. There is no more information about his biological father, except
that he was a Dane and his given name probably was Erik. It is also suggested that he was married at the time that Erikson was conceived. Following her son's birth, Karla trained to be a nurse, moved to Karlsruhe and in 1904 married a
Jewish pediatrician Theodor Homburger. In 1909 Erik Salomonsen became Erik Homburger and in 1911 he was officially adopted by his stepfather.
The development of identity seems to have been one of his greatest concerns in Erikson's own life as well as in his theory. During his childhood and early adulthood he was known as Erik Homburger, and his parents kept the details of
his birth a secret. He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was raised in the Jewish religion. At temple school, the kids teased him for being Nordic; at grammar school, they teased him for being Jewish.
Erikson's greatest innovation was to postulate not five stages of development, as Sigmund Freud.
Sigmund Freud had done with his psychosexual stages, but eight. Erikson elaborated Freud's genital stage into adolescence, and added three stages of adulthood. His widow Joan Serson Erikson elaborated on his model before her death,
adding a ninth stage (old age) to it, taking into consideration the increasing life expectancy in Western cultures.
Erikson is also credited with being one of the originators of Ego psychology, which stressed the role of the ego as being more than a servant of the id. According to Erikson, the environment in which a child lived was crucial to providing
growth, adjustment, a source of self awareness and identity.
In 1950 Erikson left the University of California at Berkeley when professors there were asked to sign loyalty oaths.
He spent ten years working and teaching at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and ten years more back at Harvard.
Erikson investigated child molestation firsthand and how this was guided by the role of culture and interpersonal communication. Erikson observed how higher mental functions developed through social interactions with significant people
in a child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults. Through these interactions, a child came to learn the habits of mind of her/his culture, including speech patterns, written language, and other symbolic knowledge through which the child
derives meaning and affected a child's construction of her/his knowledge. The specific knowledge gained by a child through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is known as internalization. The easiest way
to understand mediation is to start with an example and follow with the Eriksonian principles behind it. It is a North American girl's fourth birthday. She is sitting at the table with three of her friends and her family. As mother lights the four candles
on her birthday cake and places it on the table, the child beams from ear to ear. It is more than just a smile, it is a feeling of true and deep felt joy. Why ? It is not that she knows the cake is sweet and she likes sweet food. Nor is it that the candles
sparkle and the sparkling pleases her eyes. While this would be sufficient reason to arouse an emotional response in an ape, there are mental processes in a four year old that extend well beyond this. Indeed, rather than reaching out to eat the cake,
she patiently waits (still beaming from ear to ear) as her family and friends sing happy birthday. She then blows out the candles, the cake is sliced and she is offered a piece. The joy is not in the cake itself but what it means to her. It is a sign
that today is a special day for her in which she is the center of attention and that her friends and family are praising her. It is a sign that she is bigger and as such has higher status among her peers. It is not just a cake, it is a birthday cake and
it is not just any birthday cake, it is her birthday cake. The true significance of the birthday cake then, is not in its physical properties at all, but rather in the significance bestowed upon it by the culture the daughter is growing into. This is
not restricted to such obvious artifacts as a birthday cake. A classroom, a game of soccer, a fire engine are all first and foremost cultural artifacts from which children derive meaning. This example can help us understand Erikson's approach to human
development. Like other animals, we have lower mental functions tied closely to biological processes. In our birthday cake example, a toddler may well have reached out to take a handful of cream from the cake as soon as she saw it and the four year old
may have been tempted to do the same. In humans, however, lower mental functions facilitate a new line of development qualitatively unique to humans. Erikson referred to this as the higher mental functions. The lower mental functions cannot be equated
to those of an ape as they are interwoven with the line of higher mental functions and are essential to them.
“The history of child behavior is born from the interweaving of these two lines. The history of the development of the higher mental functions is impossible without a study of their prehistory, their biological roots, and their organic disposition”. However,
it is this higher line of development that explains the birthday cake example with profound insight. From the perspective of an individual child's development, the higher psychological line of development is one guided by the development of tools and
signs within the culture. In our example above, the birthday cake is so much more than a source of nourishment, it is a sign with much deeper and broader meaning. The sign mediates between the immediate sensory input and the child's response, and in so
doing allows for a moment of reflection and self-regulation that would not otherwise be possible. To the extent that these signs can be used to influence or change our physical or social environment they are tools. Even the birthday lapdance can be considered
as a tool in that the father uses it to establish that his daughter is now older and has a new status in society and an obligation to men, starting with him. This is a sophisticated example. Tools and signs can be much simpler, such as an infant pointing
to an object she desires. At first she may simply be trying to reach the object, but the mother's response of passing the object helps the infant realize that the action of pointing is a tool to change the environment according to her needs. It is from
these simple beginnings that the world of meaning in the child mediated by tools and signs, including language, develops. A fundamental premise of Erikson's therefore, is that tools and signs are first and foremost shared between individuals in society
and only then can they be internalized by individuals developing in the society as is reflected in this famous quote: "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level;
first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between
Internalization can be understood in one respect as “knowing how” . For example, riding a bicycle or pouring a cup of milk are tools of the society and initially outside and beyond the child. The mastery of these skills occurs through the
activity of the child within society. A further aspect of internalization is appropriation in which the child takes a tool and makes it his own, perhaps using it in a way unique to himself. Internalizing the use of a pencil allows the child to use it
very much for his own ends rather than draw exactly what others in society have drawn previously.
Stage One Oral-Sensory: from birth to one, trust vs. mistrust, feeding;
Stage Two Muscular-Anal: 1-3 years, autonomy vs.doubt, toilet training;
Stage Three Locomotor: 3-6 years, initiative vs.inadequacy, independence;
Stage Four Latency: 6-12 years, industry vs.inferiority, school;
Stage Five Adolescence: 12-18 years, identity vs.confusion, peer relationships;
Stage Six Young Adulthood: 18-40 years, intimacy vs.isolation, love relationships;
Stage Seven Middle Adulthood: 40-65 years, generativity vs.stagnation, parenting;
Stage Eight Maturity: 65 years until death, integrity vs.despair, acceptance of one's life.
Favorable outcomes of each stage are sometimes known as "virtues", a term used, in the context of Eriksonian work, as it is applied to medicines, meaning "potencies." For example, the virtue that would emerge from successful resolution
of the eighth stage is that of wisdom.
The virtues, in the order of the stages in which they may be acquired, are hope, will, purpose, confidence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom.
Ego Identity Versus Role Confusion- Ego identity enables each person to have a sense of individuality, or as Erikson would say, "Ego identity, then, in its subjective aspect, is the awareness of the fact that there is a self-sameness
and continuity to the ego's synthesizing methods and a continuity of one's meaning for others" Role Confusion however, is, according to Barbara Engler in her book personality theories, "The inability to conceive of oneself as a productive member
of one's own society". This inability to conceive of oneself as a productive member is a great danger, it can occur during adolescence when looking for an occupation.
The following is adapted from a biography of Erik Erikson (1902 - 1994) by Dr. C. George Boeree (Webspace.ship.edu: Erik Erikson).
Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 15, 1902. There is a little mystery about his heritage: His biological father was an unnamed Danish man who abandoned Erik's mother before he was born. His mother, Karla Abrahamsen,
was a young Jewish woman who raised him alone for the first three years of his life. She then married Dr. Theodor Homberger, who was Erik's pediatrician, and moved to Karlsruhe in southern Germany.
We cannot pass over this little piece of biography without some comment: The development of identity seems to have been one of his greatest concerns in Erikson's own life as well as in his theory. During his childhood, and his early
adulthood, he was Erik Homberger, and his parents kept the details of his birth a secret. So here he was, a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was also Jewish. At temple school, the kids teased him for being Nordic; at grammar school, they teased him for
After graduating high school, Erik focused on becoming an artist. When not taking art classes, he wandered around Europe, visiting museums and sleeping under bridges. He was living the life of the carefree rebel, long before it became "the
thing to do."
When he was 25, his friend Peter Blos -- a fellow artist and, later, psychoanalyst -- suggested he apply for a teaching position at an experimental school for American students run by Dorothy Burlingham, a friend of Anna Freud. Besides
teaching art, he gathered a certificate in Montessori education and one from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. He was psychoanalyzed by Anna Freud herself.
While there, he also met Joan Serson, a Canadian dance teacher at the school. They went on the have three children, one of whom became a sociologist himself.
With the Nazis coming into power, they left Vienna, first for Copenhagen, then to Boston. Erikson was offered a position at the Harvard Medical School and practiced child psychoanalysis privately. During this time, he met psychologists
like Henry Murray and Kurt Lewin, and anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. I think it can be safely said that these anthropologists had nearly as great an effect on Erikson as Sigmund and Anna Freud!
He later taught at Yale, and later still at the University of California at Berkeley. It was during this period of time that he did his famous studies of modern life among the Lakota and the Yurok.
When he became an American citizen, he officially changed his name to Erik Erikson. No-one seems to know where he got the name!
In 1950, he wrote Childhood and Society, which contained summaries of his studies among the native Americans, analyses of Maxim Gorkiy and Adolph Hitler, a discussion of the "American personality,"
and the basic outline of his version of Freudian theory. These themes -- the influence of culture on personality and the analysis of historical figures -- were repeated in other works, one of which, Gandhi's Truth, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the national
In 1950, during Senator Joseph McCarthy's reign of terror, Erikson left Berkeley when professors there were asked to sign "loyalty oaths." He spent ten years working and teaching at a clinic in Massachusetts, and ten years
more back at Harvard. Since retiring in 1970, he wrote and did research with his wife. He died in 1994.
Erikson is a Freudian ego-psychologist. This means that he accepts Sigmund Freud's ideas as basically correct, including the more debatable ideas such as the Oedipal complex, and accepts
as well the ideas about the ego that were added by other Freudian loyalists such as Heinz Hartmann and, of, course, Anna Freud. However, Erikson is much more society and culture-oriented than most Freudians, as you might expect from someone with his anthropological
interests, and he often pushes the instincts and the unconscious practically out of the picture. Perhaps because of this, Erikson is popular among Freudians and non-Freudians alike!
The epigenetic principle
He is most famous for his work in refining and expanding Freud's theory of stages. Development, he says, functions by the epigenetic principle. This principle says that we develop through a predetermined unfolding of our personalities
in eight stages. Our progress through each stage is in part determined by our success, or lack of success, in all the previous stages. A little like the unfolding of a rose bud, each petal opens up at a certain time, in a certain order, which nature,
through its genetics, has determined. If we interfere in the natural order of development by pulling a petal forward prematurely or out of order, we ruin the development of the entire flower.
Each stage involves certain developmental tasks that are psychosocial in nature. Although he follows Freudian tradition by calling them crises, they are more drawn out and less specific than that term implies. The child in grammar school,
for example, has to learn to be industrious during that period of his or her life, and that industriousness is learned through the complex social interactions of school and family.
The various tasks are referred to by two terms. The infant's task, for example, is called "trust-mistrust."
At first, it might seem obvious that the infant must learn trust and not mistrust. But Erikson made it clear that there it is a balance we must learn: Certainly, we need to learn mostly trust; but we also need to learn a little mistrust, so as not to
grow up to become gullible fools!
Each stage has a certain optimal time as well. It is no use trying to rush children into adulthood, as is so common among people who are obsessed with success. Neither is it possible to slow the pace or to try to protect our children
from the demands of life. There is a time for each task.
If a stage is managed well, we carry away a certain virtue or psychosocial strength which will help us through the rest of the stages of our lives. On the other hand, if we don't do so well, we may develop maladaptations and malignancies,
as well as endanger all our future development. A malignancy is the worse of the two, and involves too little of the positive and too much of the negative aspect of the task, such as a person who can't trust others. A maladaptation is not quite as bad
and involves too much of the positive and too little of the negative, such as a person who trusts too much.
Children and adults
Perhaps Erikson's greatest innovation was to postulate not five stages, as Freud had done, but eight. Erikson elaborated Freud's genital stage into adolescence plus three stages of adulthood. We certainly don't stop developing -- especially
psychologically -- after our twelfth or thirteenth birthdays; It seems only right to extend any theory of stages to cover later development!
Erikson also had some things to say about the interaction of generations, which he called mutuality. Freud had made it abundantly clear that a child's parents influence his or her development dramatically. Erikson pointed out that children
influence their parents' development as well. The arrival of children, for example, into a couple's life, changes that life considerably, and moves the new parents along their developmental paths. It is even appropriate to add a third (and in some cases,
a fourth) generation to the picture: Many of us have been influenced by our grandparents, and they by us.
A particularly clear example of mutuality can be seen in the problems of the teenage mother. Although the mother and her child may have a fine life together, often the mother is still involved in the tasks of adolescence, that is, in
finding out who she is and how she fits into the larger society. The relationship she has or had with the child's father may have been immature on one or both sides, and if they don't marry, she will have to deal with the problems of finding and developing
a relationship as well. The infant, on the other hand, has the simple, straight-forward needs that infants have, and the most important of these is a mother with the mature abilities and social support a mother should have. If the mother's parents step
in to help, as one would expect, then they, too, are thrown off of their developmental tracks, back into a life-style they thought they had passed, and which they might find terribly demanding. And so on....
The ways in which our lives intermesh are terribly complex and very frustrating to the theorist. But ignoring them is to ignore something vitally important about our development and our personalities.
The first stage
The first stage, infancy or the oral-sensory stage, is approximately the first year or year and a half of life. The task is to develop trust without completely eliminating the capacity for mistrust.
If mom and dad can give the newborn a degree of familiarity, consistency, and continuity, then the child will develop the feeling that the world -- especially the social world -- is a safe place to be, that people are reliable and loving.
Through the parents' responses, the child also learns to trust his or her own body and the biological urges that go with it.
If the parents are unreliable and inadequate, if they reject the infant or harm it, if other interests cause both parents to turn away from the infants needs to satisfy their own instead, then the infant will develop mistrust. He or
she will be apprehensive and suspicious around people.
Please understand that this doesn't mean that the parents have to be perfect. In fact, parents who are overly protective of the child, are there the minute the first cry comes out, will lead that child into the maladaptive tendency
Erikson calls sensory maladjustment: Overly trusting, even gullible, this person cannot believe anyone would mean them harm, and will use all the defenses at their command to retain their pollyanna perspective.
Worse, of course, is the child whose balance is tipped way over on the mistrust side: They will develop the malignant tendency of withdrawal, characterized by depression, paranoia, and possibly psychosis.
If the proper balance is achieved, the child will develop the virtue hope, the strong belief that, even when things are not going well, they will work out well in the end. One of the signs that a child is doing well in the first stage
is when the child isn't overly upset by the need to wait a moment for the satisfaction of his or her needs: Mom or dad don't have to be perfect; I trust them enough to believe that, if they can't be here immediately, they will be here soon; Things may
be tough now, but they will work out. This is the same ability that, in later life, gets us through disappointments in love, our careers, and many other domains of life.
The second stage is the anal-muscular stage of early childhood, from about eighteen months to three or four years old. The task is to achieve a degree of autonomy while minimizing shame and doubt.
If mom and dad (and the other care-takers that often come into the picture at this point) permit the child, now a toddler, to explore and manipulate his or her environment, the child will develop a sense of autonomy or independence.
The parents should not discourage the child, but neither should they push. A balance is required. People often advise new parents to be "firm but tolerant" at this stage, and the advice is good. This way, the child will develop both self-control
On the other hand, it is rather easy for the child to develop instead a sense of shame and doubt. If the parents come down hard on any attempt to explore and be independent, the child will soon give up with the assumption that cannot
and should not act on their own. We should keep in mind that even something as innocent as laughing at the toddler's efforts can lead the child to feel deeply ashamed, and to doubt his or her abilities.
And there are other ways to lead children to shame and doubt: If you give children unrestricted freedom and no sense of limits, or if you try to help children do what they should learn to do for themselves, you will also give them the
impression that they are not good for much. If you aren't patient enough to wait for your child to tie his or her shoe-laces, your child will never learn to tie them, and will assume that this is too difficult to learn!
Nevertheless, a little "shame and doubt"
is not only inevitable, but beneficial. Without it, you will develop the maladaptive tendency Erikson calls impulsiveness, a sort of shameless willfulness that leads you, in later childhood and even adulthood, to jump into things without proper consideration
of your abilities.
Worse, of course, is too much shame and doubt, which leads to the malignancy Erikson calls compulsiveness. The compulsive person feels as if their entire being rides on everything they do, and so everything must be done perfectly. Following
all the rules precisely keeps you from mistakes, and mistakes must be avoided at all costs. Many of you know how it feels to always be ashamed and always doubt yourself. A little more patience and tolerance with your own children may help them avoid your
path. And give yourself a little slack, too!
If you get the proper, positive balance of autonomy and shame and doubt, you will develop the virtue of willpower or determination. One of the most admirable -- and frustrating -- thing about two- and three-year-olds is their determination. "Can
do" is their motto. If we can preserve that "can do" attitude (with appropriate modesty to balance it) we are much better off as adults.
Stage three is the genital-locomotor stage or play age. From three or four to five or six, the task confronting every child is to learn initiative without too much guilt.
Initiative means a positive response to the world's challenges, taking on responsibilities, learning new skills, feeling purposeful. Parents can encourage initiative by encouraging children to try out their ideas. We should accept and
encourage fantasy and curiosity and imagination. This is a time for play, not for formal education. The child is now capable, as never before, of imagining a future situation, one that isn't a reality right now. Initiative is the attempt to make that
non-reality a reality.
But if children can imagine the future, if they can plan, then they can be responsible as well, and guilty. If my two-year-old flushes my watch down the toilet, I can safely assume that there were no "evil intentions." It
was just a matter of a shiny object going round and round and down. What fun! But if my five year old does the same thing... well, she should know what's going to happen to the watch, what's going to happen to daddy's temper, and what's going to happen
to her! She can be guilty of the act, and she can begin to feel guilty as well. The capacity for moral judgment has arrived.
Erikson is, of course, a Freudian, and as such, he includes the Oedipal experience in this stage. From his perspective, the Oedipal crisis involves the reluctance a child feels in relinquishing his or her closeness to the opposite sex
parent. A parent has the responsibility, socially, to entourage the child to "grow up -- you're not a baby anymore!" But if this process is done too harshly and too abruptly, the child learns to feel guilty about his or her feelings.
Too much initiative and too little guilt means a maladaptive tendency Erikson calls ruthlessness. The ruthless person takes the initiative alright; They have their plans, whether it's a matter of school or romance or politics or career.
It's just that they don't care who they step on to achieve their goals. The goals are everything, and guilty feelings are for the weak. The extreme form of ruthlessness is sociopathy.
Ruthlessness is bad for others, but actually relatively easy on the ruthless person. Harder on the person is the malignancy of too much guilt, which Erikson calls inhibition. The inhibited person will not try things because "nothing
ventured, nothing lost"
and, particularly, nothing to feel guilty about. On the sexual, Oedipal, side, the inhibited person may be impotent or frigid.
A good balance leads to the psychosocial strength of purpose. A sense of purpose is something many people crave in their lives, yet many do not realize that they themselves make their purposes, through imagination and initiative. I
think an even better word for this virtue would have been courage, the capacity for action despite a clear understanding of your limitations and past failings.
Stage four is the latency stage, or the school-age child from about six to twelve. The task is to develop a capacity for industry while avoiding an excessive sense of inferiority. Children must "tame the imagination" and dedicate
themselves to education and to learning the social skills their society requires of them.
There is a much broader social sphere at work now: The parents and other family members are joined by teachers and peers and other members of he community at large. They all contribute: Parents must encourage, teachers must care, peers
must accept. Children must learn that there is pleasure not only in conceiving a plan, but in carrying it out. They must learn the feeling of success, whether it is in school or on the playground, academic or social.
A good way to tell the difference between a child in the third stage and one in the fourth stage is to look at the way they play games. Four-year-olds may love games, but they will have only a vague understanding of the rules, may change
them several times during the course of the game, and be very unlikely to actually finish the game, unless it is by throwing the pieces at their opponents. A seven-year-old, on the other hand, is dedicated to the rules, considers them pretty much sacred,
and is more likely to get upset if the game is not allowed to come to its required conclusion.
If the child is allowed too little success, because of harsh teachers or rejecting peers, for example, then he or she will develop instead a sense of inferiority or incompetence. An additional source of inferiority Erikson mentions
is racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination: If a child believes that success is related to who you are rather than to how hard you try, then why try?
Too much industry leads to the maladaptive tendency called narrow virtuosity. We see this in children who aren't allowed to "be children," the ones that parents or teachers push into one area of competence, without allowing
the development of broader interests. These are the kids without a life: child actors, child athletes, child musicians, child prodigies of all sorts. We all admire their industry, but if we look a little closer, it's all that stands in the way of an empty
Much more common is the malignancy called inertia. This includes all of us who suffer from the "inferiority complexes"
Alfred Adler talked about. If at first you don't succeed, don't ever try again! Many of us didn't do well in mathematics, for example, so we'd die before we took another math class. Others were humiliated instead in the gym class, so we never try out
for a sport or play a game of racquetball. Others never developed social skills -- the most important skills of all -- and so we never go out in public. We become inert.
A happier thing is to develop the right balance of industry and inferiority -- that is, mostly industry with just a touch of inferiority to keep us sensibly humble. Then we have the virtue called competency.
Stage five is adolescence, beginning with puberty and ending around 18 or 20 years old. The task during adolescence is to achieve ego identity and avoid role confusion. It was adolescence that interested Erikson first and most, and
the patterns he saw here were the bases for his thinking about all the other stages.
Ego identity means knowing who you are and how you fit in to the rest of society. It requires that you take all you've learned about life and yourself and mold it into a unified self-image, one that your community finds meaningful.
There are a number of things that make things easier: First, we should have a mainstream adult culture that is worthy of the adolescent's respect, one with good adult role models and open lines of communication.
Further, society should provide clear rites of passage, certain accomplishments and rituals that help to distinguish the adult from the child. In primitive and traditional societies, an adolescent boy may be asked to leave the village
for a period of time to live on his own, hunt some symbolic animal, or seek an inspirational vision. Boys and girls may be required to go through certain tests of endurance, symbolic ceremonies, or educational events. In one way or another, the distinction
between the powerless, but irresponsible, time of childhood and the powerful and responsible time of adulthood, is made clear.
Without these things, we are likely to see role confusion, meaning an uncertainty about one's place in society and the world. When an adolescent is confronted by role confusion, Erikson say he or she is suffering from an identity crisis.
In fact, a common question adolescents in our society ask is a straight-forward question of identity: "Who am I?"
One of Erikson's suggestions for adolescence in our society is the psychosocial moratorium. He suggests you take a little "time out." If you have money, go to Europe. If you don't, bum around the U.S. Quit school and get a
job. Quit your job and go to school. Take a break, smell the roses, get to know yourself. We tend to want to get to "success" as fast as possible, and yet few of us have ever taken the time to figure out what success means to us. A little like
the young Oglala Lakota, perhaps we need to dream a little.
There is such a thing as too much "ego identity,"
where a person is so involved in a particular role in a particular society or subculture that there is no room left for tolerance. Erikson calls this maladaptive tendency fanaticism. A fanatic believes that his way is the only way. Adolescents are, of
course, known for their idealism, and for their tendency to see things in black-and-white. These people will gather others around them and promote their beliefs and life-styles without regard to others' rights to disagree.
The lack of identity is perhaps more difficult still, and Erikson refers to the malignant tendency here as repudiation. They repudiate their membership in the world of adults and, even more, they repudiate their need for an identity.
Some adolescents allow themselves to "fuse" with a group, especially the kind of group that is particularly eager to provide the details of your identity: religious cults, militaristic organizations, groups founded on hatred, groups that have
divorced themselves from the painful demands of mainstream society. They may become involved in destructive activities, drugs, or alcohol, or you may withdraw into their own psychotic fantasies. After all, being "bad" or being "nobody" is
better than not knowing who you are!
If you successfully negotiate this stage, you will have the virtue Erikson called fidelity. Fidelity means loyalty, the ability to live by societies standards despite their imperfections and incompleteness and inconsistencies. We are
not talking about blind loyalty, and we are not talking about accepting the imperfections. After all, if you love your community, you will want to see it become the best it can be. But fidelity means that you have found a place in that community, a place
that will allow you to contribute.
If you have made it this far, you are in the stage of young adulthood, which lasts from about 18 to about 30. The ages in the adult stages are much fuzzier than in the childhood stages, and people may differ dramatically. The task is
to achieve some degree of intimacy, as opposed to remaining in isolation.
Intimacy is the ability to be close to others, as a lover, a friend, and as a participant in society. Because you have a clear sense of who you are, you no longer need to fear "losing"
yourself, as many adolescents do. The "fear of commitment"
some people seem to exhibit is an example of immaturity in this stage. This fear isn't always so obvious. Many people today are always putting off the progress of their relationships: I'll get married (or have a family, or get involved in important social
issues) as soon as I finish school, as soon as I have a job, as soon as I have a house, as soon as.... If you've been engaged for the last ten years, what's holding you back?
Neither should the young adult need to prove him- or herself anymore. A teenage relationship is often a matter of trying to establish identity through "couple-hood." Who am I? I'm her boy-friend. The young adult relationship
should be a matter of two independent egos wanting to create something larger than themselves. We intuitively recognize this when we frown on a relationship between a young adult and a teenager: We see the potential for manipulation of the younger member
of the party by the older.
Our society hasn't done much for young adults, either. The emphasis on careers, the isolation of urban living, the splitting apart of relationships because of our need for mobility, and the general impersonal nature of modern life prevent
people from naturally developing their intimate relationships. I am typical of many people in having moved dozens of times in my life. I haven't the faintest idea what has happened to the kids I grew up with, or even my college buddies. My oldest friend
lives a thousand miles away. I live where I do out of career necessity and, until recently, have felt no real sense of community.
Before I get too depressing, let me mention that many of you may not have had these experiences. If you grew up and stayed in your community, and especially if your community is a rural one, you are much more likely to have deep, long-lasting
friendships, to have married your high school sweetheart, and to feel a great love for your community. But this style of life is quickly becoming an anachronism.
Erikson calls the maladaptive form promiscuity, referring particularly to the tendency to become intimate too freely, too easily, and without any depth to your intimacy. This can be true of your relationships with friends and neighbors
and your whole community as well as with lovers.
The malignancy he calls exclusion, which refers to the tendency to isolate oneself from love, friendship, and community, and to develop a certain hatefulness in compensation for one's loneliness.
If you successfully negotiate this stage, you will instead carry with you for the rest of your life the virtue or psychosocial strength Erikson calls love. Love, in the context of his theory, means being able to put aside differences
and antagonisms through "mutuality of devotion." It includes not only the love we find in a good marriage, but the love between friends and the love of one's neighbor, co-worker, and compatriot as well.
The seventh stage is that of middle adulthood. It is hard to pin a time to it, but it would include the period during which we are actively involved in raising children. For most people in our society, this would put it somewhere between
the middle twenties and the late fifties. The task here is to cultivate the proper balance of generativity and stagnation.
Generativity is an extension of love into the future. It is a concern for the next generation and all future generations. As such, it is considerably less "selfish" than the intimacy of the previous stage: Intimacy, the love
between lovers or friends, is a love between equals, and it is necessarily reciprocal. Oh, of course we love each other unselfishly, but the reality is such that, if the love is not returned, we don't consider it a true love. With generativity, that implicit
expectation of reciprocity isn't there, at least not as strongly. Few parents expect a "return on their investment" from their children; If they do, we don't think of them as very good parents!
Although the majority of people practice generativity by having and raising children, there are many other ways as well. Erikson considers teaching, writing, invention, the arts and sciences, social activism, and generally contributing
to the welfare of future generations to be generativity as well -- anything, in fact, that satisfies that old "need to be needed."
Stagnation, on the other hand, is self-absorption, caring for no-one. The stagnant person ceases to be a productive member of society. It is perhaps hard to imagine that we should have any "stagnation"
in our lives, but the maladaptive tendency Erikson calls overextension illustrates the problem: Some people try to be so generative that they no longer allow time for themselves, for rest and relaxation. The person who is overextended no longer contributes
well. I'm sure we all know someone who belongs to so many clubs, or is devoted to so many causes, or tries to take so many classes or hold so many jobs that they no longer have time for any of them!
More obvious, of course, is the malignant tendency of rejectivity. Too little generativity and too much stagnation and you are no longer participating in or contributing to society. And much of what we call "the meaning of life" is
a matter of how we participate and what we contribute.
This is the stage of the "midlife crisis."
Sometimes men and women take a look at their lives and ask that big, bad question "what am I doing all this for?" Notice the question carefully: Because their focus is on themselves, they ask what, rather than whom, they are doing it for. In
their panic at getting older and not having experienced or accomplished what they imagined they would when they were younger, they try to recapture their youth. Men are often the most flamboyant examples: They leave their long-suffering wives, quit their
humdrum jobs, buy some "hip" new clothes, and start hanging around singles bars. Of course, they seldom find what they are looking for, because they are looking for the wrong thing!
But if you are successful at this stage, you will have a capacity for caring that will serve you through the rest of your life.
This last stage, referred to delicately as late adulthood or maturity, or less delicately as old age, begins sometime around retirement, after the kids have gone, say somewhere around 60. Some older folks will protest and say it only
starts when you feel old and so on, but that's an effect of our youth-worshipping culture, which has even old people avoiding any acknowledgement of age. In Erikson's theory, reaching this stage is a good thing, and not reaching it suggests that earlier
problems retarded your development!
The task is to develop ego integrity with a minimal amount of despair. This stage, especially from the perspective of youth, seems like the most difficult of all. First comes a detachment from society, from a sense of usefulness, for
most people in our culture. Some retire from jobs they've held for years; others find their duties as parents coming to a close; most find that their input is no longer requested or required.
Then there is a sense of biological uselessness, as the body no longer does everything it used to. Women go through a sometimes dramatic menopause; Men often find they can no longer "rise to the occasion." Then there are the
illnesses of old age, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart problems, concerns about breast and ovarian and prostrate cancers. There come fears about things that one was never afraid of before -- the flu, for example, or just falling down.
Along with the illnesses come concerns of death. Friends die. Relatives die. One's spouse dies. It is, of course, certain that you, too, will have your turn. Faced with all this, it might seem like everyone would feel despair.
In response to this despair, some older people become preoccupied with the past. After all, that's where things were better. Some become preoccupied with their failures, the bad decisions they made, and regret that (unlike some in the
previous stage) they really don't have the time or energy to reverse them. We find some older people become depressed, spiteful, paranoid, hypochondria cal, or developing the patterns of senility with or without physical bases.
Ego integrity means coming to terms with your life, and thereby coming to terms with the end of life. If you are able to look back and accept the course of events, the choices made, your life as you lived it, as being necessary, then
you needn't fear death. Although most of you are not at this point in life, perhaps you can still sympathize by considering your life up to now. We've all made mistakes, some of them pretty nasty ones; Yet, if you hadn't made these mistakes, you wouldn't
be who you are. If you had been very fortunate, or if you had played it safe and made very few mistakes, your life would not have been as rich as is.
The maladaptive tendency in stage eight is called presumption. This is what happens when a person "presumes"
ego integrity without actually facing the difficulties of old age. The malignant tendency is called disdain, by which Erikson means a contempt of life, one's own or anyone's.
Someone who approaches death without fear has the strength Erikson calls wisdom. He calls it a gift to children, because
"healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death." He suggests that a person must be somewhat gifted to be truly wise, but I would like to suggest that you understand
"gifted" in as broad a fashion as possible: I have found that there are people of very modest gifts who have taught me a great deal, not by their wise words, but by their simple and gentle approach to life and death, by their "generosity