Our personality traits come in opposites. We think of ourselves as optimistic or
cautious, leader or follower, aggressive or passive. Many of these are inborn
temperament traits, but other characteristics, such as feeling either competent or inferior,
appear to be learned, based on the challenges and support we receive in growing up.
The man who did a great deal to explore this concept is Erik Erikson. Although he was
totally defensive. Based in part on his study of Sioux Indians on a reservation, Erikson
became aware of the massive influence of culture on behavior and placed more emphasis
on the external world, such as depression and wars. He felt the course of development is
determined by the interaction of the body (genetic biological programming), mind
(psychological), and cultural (ethos) influences. His developmental stages were based on
his philosophy that: (1) the world gets bigger as we go along and (2) failure is
He organized life into eight stages that extend from birth to death (many developmental
Erikson divided the stages of adulthood into the experiences of young adults, middle aged
adults and older adults. While the actual ages may vary considerably from one stage to
another, the ages seem to be appropriate for the majority of people.
1. Infancy: Birth to 18 Months
Ego Development Outcome: Trust vs. Mistrust Basic strength: Drive and Hope
Erikson also referred to infancy as the Oral Sensory Stage (as anyone might who
watches a baby put everything in her mouth) where the major emphasis is on the
mother's positive and loving care for the child, with a big emphasis on visual contact
and touch. If we pass successfully through this period of life, we will learn to trust
that life is basically okay and have basic confidence in the future. If we fail to
experience trust and are constantly frustrated because our needs are not met, we may
end up with a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and a mistrust of the world in
2. Early Childhood: 18 Months to 3 Years
During this stage we learn to master skills for ourselves. Not only do we learn to
walk, talk and feed ourselves, we are learning finer motor development as well as the
much appreciated toilet training. Here we have the opportunity to build self-esteem
and autonomy as we gain more control over our bodies and acquire new skills,
learning right from wrong. And one of our skills during the "Terrible Two's" is our
ability to use the powerful word "NO!" It may be pain for parents, but it develops
important skills of the will.
this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in
miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint
for what we believe it means to be an adult. We also begin to use that wonderful word
for exploring the world — "WHY?"
While Erikson was influenced by Freud, he downplays biological sexuality in favor of
that at this stage we usually become involved in the classic "Oedipal struggle" and
resolve this struggle through "social role identification." If we're frustrated over
natural desires and goals, we may easily experience guilt.
4. School Age: 6 to 12 Years
Ego Development Outcome: Industry vs. Inferiority Basic Strengths: Method
and Competence During this stage, often called the Latency, we are capable of
learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus
developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if
we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we
can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem.
As the world expands a bit, our most significant relationship is with the school and
neighborhood. Parents are no longer the complete authorities they once were,
although they are still important.
depends upon what is done to us. From here on out, development depends primarily
upon what we do. And while adolescence is a stage at which we are neither a child
nor an adult, life is definitely getting more complex as we attempt to find our own
identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues.
Our task is to discover who we are as individuals separate from our family of origin
many of us go into a period of withdrawing from responsibilities, which Erikson
called a "moratorium." And if we are unsuccessful in navigating this stage, we will
experience role confusion and upheaval.
A significant task for us is to establish a philosophy of life and in this process we tend
The problem is that we don't have much experience and find it easy to substitute
ideals for experience. However, we can also develop strong devotion to friends and
causes. It is no surprise that our most significant relationships are with peer groups.
or more companions and love. As we try to find mutually satisfying relationships,
primarily through marriage and friends, we generally also begin to start a family,
families until their late thirties. If negotiating this stage is successful, we can
experience intimacy on a deep level.
If we're not successful, isolation and distance from others may occur. And when we
defense, we can feel superior to others.
7. Middle Adulthood: 35 to 55 or 65
Ego Development Outcome:
Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation Basic Strengths: Production and
Care Now work is most crucial. Erikson observed that middle-age is when we tend
to be occupied with creative and meaningful work and with issues surrounding our
family. Also, middle adulthood is when we can expect to "be in charge," the role
we've longer envied.
The significant task is to perpetuate culture and transmit values of the culture through
comes through care of others and production of something that contributes to the
betterment of society, which Erikson calls generativity, so when we're in this stage we
often fear inactivity and meaninglessness.
As our children leave home, or our relationships or goals change, we may be faced
meanings and purposes. If we don't get through this stage successfully, we can
become self-absorbed and stagnate.
8. Late Adulthood: 55 or 65 to Death
Erikson felt that much of life is preparing for the middle adulthood stage and the last
stage is recovering from it. Perhaps that is because as older adults we can often look
back on our lives with happiness and are content, feeling fulfilled with a deep sense
that life has meaning and we've made a contribution to life, a feeling Erikson calls
integrity. Our strength comes from a wisdom that the world is very large and we now
have a detached concern for the whole of life, accepting death as the completion of
On the other hand, some adults may reach this stage and despair at their experiences
and perceived failures. They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their
lives, wondering "Was the trip worth it?" Alternatively, they may feel they have all
the answers (not unlike going back to adolescence) and end with a strong dogmatism
that only their view has been correct.
Psychosocial Crisis: Trust vs. Mistrust
Will: Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (Toddlers, 2 to 3 years)
Psychosocial Crisis: Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt
Main Question: "Can I do things myself or must I always rely on others?"
Purpose: Initiative vs. Guilt (Preschool, 4 to 6 years)
Psychosocial Crisis: Initiative vs. Guilt
Main Question: "Am I good or am I bad?"
Related Elements in Society: ideal prototypes/roles
Competence: Industry vs. Inferiority (Childhood, 7 to 11 years)
Psychosocial Crisis: Industry vs. Inferiority
Main Question: "Am I successful or worthless?"
Related Elements in Society: division of labour
Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion (Adolescents, 12 to 19 years)
Psychosocial Crisis: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Main Question: "Who am I and where am I going?"
Ego quality: Fidelity
Related Elements in Society: ideology
Love: Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young Adults, 20 to 34 years)
Main Question: "Am I loved and wanted?" or "Shall I share my life with someone or live alone?"
Related Elements in Society: patterns of cooperation (often marriage)
Care: Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle Adulthood, 35 to 65 years)
Psychosocial Crisis: Generativity vs. Stagnation
Main Question: "Will I produce something of real value?"
Related Elements in Society: parenting, educating, or other productive social involvement
Wisdom: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Seniors, 65 years onwards)
Psychosocial Crisis: Ego Integrity vs. Despair
Main Question: "Have I lived a full life?"