Erikson’s theory is best known for his belief that all personality develops through a series of eight stages. These stages recast Freud’s psychosexual stages in a way that lessens the importance of biological factors and highlights the social determinants of personality (such as parental behaviors).
Erikson’s stages cover the entire life span from childhood through old age, with each stage highlighted by a developmental crisis that signifies a crucial turning point for better or worse. Erikson was one of the first psychotherapists to care for children, including psychotics as well as neurotics, and to devise important techniques of play therapy.
Erikson (1968) projected his psychosocial stages of development, arguing that attaining intimacy with an important other person is a significant milestone in early adulthood and that this makes a significant involvement in identity development. In other words, intimacy is linked to our sense of who we are and acts as a buffer against emotional maladjustment. He referred to this stage as understanding vs. isolation and argued that it is vital that we form a close relationship, for the alternative is isolation. He explained his views in the following terms:
‘Where a youth does not resolve such a commitment, he may isolate himself and enter, at best, only stereotyped and formalized interpersonal relations; or he may… seek intimacy with the most improbable of partners’ (Erikson, 1968, p.167).
In accordance with the values of ego psychology, Erikson’s theory extends the scope of psychoanalysis by giving emphasis to the healthy and adaptive aspects of personality. As a result, some critics regard his work as the most considerable new direction to be taken by psychoanalytic theory since its initiation.
Erik Erikson credited Freud for calling attention to the illogical aspects of personality but argued that psychoanalytic theory should also emphasize our innate adaptive and healthy capacities. According to Erikson, the ego is far more than a deeply tried mediator among the unrelenting id, punitive superego, and forbidding environment; it is comparatively powerful and has constructive goals of its own.
“Ego,” according to Erik Erikson (1964), is “an age-old term which in the scholastics stood for the unity of body and soul, and in philosophy in general for the permanency of conscious experience” (p. 147).
One of these is to preserve a sense of identity, which comprises four distinct aspects:
- A cognizant sense that you are unique and separate from everything else.
- A sense of inner totality and indivisibility; integration of your personal characteristics, such as more or less lovable, talented, obedient, scholarly, and independent, into a meaningful whole.
- Feeling that your life has consistency and is headed in a consequential direction; that there is a connection between who you were in the past and who you will be in the future.
- Feeling that your way in life has social support, and is approved of by people who are significant to you.
A second significant goal of the ego is mastery or a sense of competence in dealing with the environment. Both identity and mastery instigate in the ego, are unrelated to id impulses, and are sources of substantial pleasure (or anger, if these needs are frustrated). Erikson also departed from Freud by concluding that conflict with society is by no means inevitable. Society offers us precious support in our quest for identity and mastery, by providing sanctioned roles that facilitate define who we are (“doctor,” “wife,” “father”) and confirm that we have found an effective life plan.
Erikson’s conception of the id and superego was similar to Freud’s. The id is entirely unconscious and amoral and is the only constituent present at birth. The superego includes ideals and restrictions introjected from the parents, who facilitate keeping the id under control, but it can also become oppressive and impose excessively harsh standards on the ego.
However, Erikson’s moral dynamics of psychosocial transitions throughout mature adulthood are also evident. Though care and justice orientation scores among older adults followed a clear linear trend in relation to ego stages, care and justice orientation scores also showed a striking, though apparently temporary, the decline in relation to stage of moral development. Lower frequencies for both care and justice orientations usually reflected a conscious tension between their need to become more caring of and fair to themselves as individuals versus their need to persist in caring for and protecting the rights of others. The apparent tension between individualistic, apparently selfish behavior and communitarian, seemingly self-sacrificing behavior was also expressed in some moral predicament discussions as a conscious philosophical tension about how and why one must live morally when the very “caring and just community” one has devoted one’s life creating is still all too often unjust and uncaring. Here we see an expression of the Eriksonian struggle between integrity -acceptance of limits, finitude, and one’s one and only life cycle versus despair, a melancholic inability to accept life’s finitude, and the fact that one is now too old to try alternative life paths. Erikson defined this struggle as the primary polar tension of the eighth stage of the life cycle.
Erikson, E. (1968) Identity: youth and crisis. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Erikson E. H. ( 1964). Insight and responsibility. New York: Norton.