Erik Erikson is one of the few personality theorists from a Western perspective who addressed the entire lifespan. He shifted from Freud’s emphasis on psychosexual conflicts to one of psychosocial crises, which have unique manifestations through adulthood and old age. Erikson’s theory has always been popular, but as our society has become increasingly older the need has grown to understand the aged individual, making Erikson’s perspective even more valuable and relevant today than it was when he first proposed it. If, indeed, Erikson’s perspective on the personality changes occurring in adulthood and old age do become more relevant with time, it may result in an interesting change in Erikson’s place in psychology. Although most personality textbooks devote a chapter to Erikson, and he is typically covered in lifespan developmental texts as well, he is not mentioned in most history of psychology textbooks, and those that do mention him do so only briefly. As popular as he is with students of psychology, and most psychology faculty as well, becoming a common topic in the history of his field would be a distinct honor.
It is also important to note that Erikson was first, and foremost, a psychoanalyst, and a child psychoanalyst at that. He did not neglect the importance of childhood as he pursued the psychosocial changes that accompany aging:
One may scan work after work on history, society, and morality and find little reference to the fact that all people start as children and that all peoples begin in their nurseries. It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an ever longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a lifelong residue of emotional immaturity in him. (pg. 12; Erikson, 1950)
Brief Biography of Erik Erikson
The most curious aspect of Erik Erikson’s life is certainly that his name was not Erikson. No one alive today knows the name of his real father, and he never learned it either. He implored his mother to tell him who his father was, as did his wife Joan, but Erikson’s mother had promised her second husband, Theodor Homburger, the man who raised Erikson and whose name Erikson had been given, that she would never reveal the truth. And she kept that promise. When Erikson and his family moved to the United States, their son Kai was taunted by schoolmates, who called him “hamburger, hamburger.” So, Erikson and his wife turned to the Scandinavian tradition of naming a son after his father, and they called their son Kai Erik’s son, or Kai Erikson. They then adopted the surname themselves, becoming Erik and Joan Erikson. It is also surprising to note that Joan Erikson’s name was not Joan. Her first name was Sarah, and as a child she was called Sally. According to her daughter Sue, she hated both names, and eventually chose to be called Joan (Sue Erikson Bloland, 2005).
Erik Homburger Erikson was born Erik Salomonsen on June 15, 1902, near Frankfurt, Germany. His mother, Karla Abrahamsen, was from a wealthy Jewish family in Copenhagen, Denmark. She had married a man named Valdemar Salomonsen, but her husband left Europe within a day of their marriage and went to North America; she never saw him again and he seems to have had no further relationship with her. A few years later she became pregnant, and in order to avoid scandal, she either left or was sent away from Denmark to Germany, where she would be near relatives. She settled near Frankfurt, and raised Erikson alone. Shortly after Erikson was born, they received word that Valdemar Salomonsen had died, making Erikson’s mother a widow. When, at about the age of 3, Erikson became ill, his mother took him to the local pediatrician, Theodor Homburger. Karla Abrahamsen and Theodor Homburger fell in love, got married, and Homburger helped to raise Erikson as his own son. Erikson was 8 years old when he learned the truth that Homburger was not his father, but he still grew up as Erik Homburger, since his mother never revealed the truth about his actual father’s name (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
As a child, Erikson was never secure in his relationship with his mother. They were close, and his mother delighted in his intelligence and sensitivity. She shared her passion for philosophy and art with her son, but she had to pay special attention to her new and very proper husband Dr. Homburger. Erikson himself was, by all accounts, deeply traumatized by his mother shifting her attention to this new husband, and by the deception he eventually learned about regarding the fact that Homburger was not his father. Although he was eventually adopted by Homburger, it was more about proper appearances than any close relationship between step-father and step-son. Later in life, Erikson rarely ever mentioned him (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Erikson attended a primary school for 4 years, and then went to a very traditional Gymnasium. He studied Latin and Greek, German literature, ancient history, and art. He was not a particularly good student, but he excelled at history and art. Since the Homburger family was rather prestigious, and given his mother’s interest in art, their home was often entertained by many regional artists. Erikson sought formal training as an artist, and was considered quite talented. So, rather than attending college, he spent a year wandering through Europe living a Bohemian lifestyle. However, he was still deeply troubled by his sense of having no identity, no heritage, and by his own account was marginally functional at best. He was able to make ends meet only because his mother secretly sent him money, something his step-father would have been very angry about, because Homburger was becoming openly intolerant of Erikson’s avoidance of social and financial responsibility. After a year, Erikson returned home and entered an art school, and then went to Munich to study at another art school. After 2 years in Munich he moved to Florence, Italy, where he spent most of his time wandering around and studying people. He also made friends with other wandering artists, including a writer named Peter Blos, who had actually been in his graduating class at the Gymnasium and who later became a well-known child psychoanalyst. Eventually, however, Erikson realized he would not be successful as an artist, and he returned home, caught in the grip of a deep depression (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Then, in 1927, something most important happened in Erikson’s life. His friend Peter Blos had been privately tutoring the children of Dorothy Burlingham, a wealthy American who had come to Vienna for psychoanalysis and to meet Sigmund Freud. Blos had been living with the Burlinghams, and he also came to know the Freud family well, but he had decided that the time had come to move on. However, Mrs. Burlingham and her close, personal friend Anna Freud did not want to lose a teacher they were so fond of. So, they offered Blos the opportunity to establish a school of his own, and he invited Erikson to help him develop the curriculum and to teach art and history. Blos and Erikson were given a free hand to develop a progressive curriculum, and the two men flourished. The results were astounding. The children had great freedom, and with Erikson they studied art, music, poetry, German history, ancient history, geography, they read about Eskimos and American Indians, and they made tools, toys, and exhibits. The environment in what came to be known as the Hietzing School also provided much food for thought for Anna Freud, as she was just developing her ideas on the psychoanalysis of children (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Through his relationship with the Burlingham family and Anna Freud, Erikson became well acquainted with the entire Freud family. He greatly impressed Anna Freud with how quickly he bonded with the children in the Hietzing School. So, he was accepted into psychoanalysis, both as a patient and a psychoanalyst in training. Since his interests in the school had shifted from teaching to studying and observing the children as they lived their lives, Erikson, like Anna Freud, was already interested in becoming a child psychoanalyst. As he pursued his psychoanalytic training, he also pursued training in the Montessori approach to education. He actually became one of only two men in the Vienna Montessori Women’s Teacher Association. As if all this wasn’t enough, in 1929 Erikson met Joan Serson. Born in a small town in Ontario, Canada, she had moved to Vienna to pursue her own studies (she had a Master’s degree in Sociology, and had been working on a Ph.D.). The two met at a masked ball at a palace in Vienna, and before long were living together, and Serson was teaching at the Hietzing School with Erikson and Blos. In the spring of 1930, Serson went to Philadelphia, where her mother was very ill. While there she learned that she was pregnant. She returned to Vienna, only to find that Erikson balked at marrying her. However, a number of his friends urged him to avoid the mistakes of his own father, and that he should not abandon the woman who was carrying his child, let alone the child itself. So, Joan and Erik Erikson were married in 1930. She joined the faculty of the Hietzing School, and there were clearly some happy times:
After our marriage we lived on the Kueniglberg, above the school. When our son Kai was born (after some time out for Joan) we daily carried him between us in a laundry basket to the tiny schoolyard or the Rosenfelds’ back porch. It became routine that the children would tell us during class when he was crying (“Kai weint”), and in the intermission some watched him being nursed. It was enriching for us all to share this experience. (pg. 5; Erikson & Erikson, 1980).
In 1932, however, the Hietzing School closed, in part because some of the children returned to America with their families, and in part because of different opinions on how the school should be run between Mrs. Burlingham and Anna Freud on one hand and Erikson and Blos on the other. Not only did it seem appropriate that Erikson move on from the school in Vienna, the climate in Europe was becoming increasingly hostile as the Nazis took over Germany and the surrounding areas (including Austria). Erikson was concerned about his family (they had two sons by that point). So Erikson moved his young family to America, in order to escape the dangerous conditions brewing in Europe (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Considering his illustrious credentials, having been an acquaintance of Sigmund Freud and trained by Anna Freud, Erikson was welcomed into the American psychoanalytic community, despite never having graduated from college (let alone medical school). The Eriksons never really settled anywhere, in many ways his career was one of unending research and clinical experience. In 1933, the Eriksons moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and Erik received appointments at the Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Judge Baker Guidance Center. He was associated with the Harvard Psychological Clinic, and came to know Henry Murray. In 1936, he accepted a position at Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations, where he met John Dollard. Dollard encouraged Erikson’s interests in cross-cultural research and in extending Freud’s theories to the entire lifespan. Indeed, Dollard may have had a significant influence on Erikson’s eight-stage theory of development (Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
In the summer of 1938, the year that his daughter was born, Erikson joined anthropologist Scudder Mekeel on a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to study the children of the Sioux Indians. He was able to make extensive observations of mother-child interactions, and to talk with employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1939 the Eriksons moved to California. Erikson practiced psychoanalysis in San Francisco, taught at the University of California, and continued his studies on Native Americans by visiting the Yurok tribe in Northern California. During this time he consolidated his major interests into his most significant book, Childhood and Society (Erikson, 1950), which includes sections on the influence of social life, culture (based on his Native American studies), the use of toys and playing when studying children, the evolution of identity, and the eight stages of development. Erikson also became an American citizen (Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
In 1944, however, a disturbing and tragic event befell the Eriksons, one that they kept secret as much as possible. They had a fourth child, named Neil. When she went to deliver the child, Joan Erikson had been heavily sedated, because of a surgical procedure that had been planned ahead of time (as a result of an earlier pregnancy). Erikson was summoned by the doctors, who told him that his newborn child was a “Mongolian Idiot” (known today as a Down Syndrome child). The case was considered severe, and he was told it was unlikely that the child would live more than a year or two. The medical staff recommended having the child institutionalized. Erikson was not used to making such decisions, it was Joan who ran the household and supported him while he worked. He called a close friend, Margaret Mead. She assured him that the medical staff was right. Another friend, Joseph Wheelwright (a respected Jungian analyst) agreed. Erikson signed the necessary papers, and Neil Erikson was transferred before his mother ever woke up. The decision tormented both of them. Joan felt that she had never been given a chance to participate in the decision, but she also never made any effort to bring Neil home. They told their children that he had died, and many of their friends never knew he had even existed (no mention is made in the 1970 biography by Robert Coles). After a year or two they did tell their oldest son, Kai, but he was strictly forbidden to mention Neil. Making the situation even more tragic was the fact that Neil lived to be 21 years old. Since much less was known about mental retardation at the time, and this occurred well before the prevailing attitude had begun to change, what else might the doctors have been wrong about (Bloland, 2005; Friedman, 1999)?
In 1949, Erikson was appointed as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Within a year, however, as McCarthyism gripped America, Erikson refused to sign a loyalty oath. Erikson protested publicly, his statement was read at conferences and published in the journal Psychiatry. He was not a communist, and had never had any interest in communism, but he felt that signing the oath would have made him a hypocrite, as well as being a betrayal of junior colleagues who had refused to sign the oath and were promptly dismissed. Although the tenure committee recommended that he be allowed to remain at the University of California, due in large part to the dismissal of junior colleagues, Erikson resigned his position. He was quickly offered a position at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Erikson was something of a celebrity in Stockbridge. He spent 10 years in Stockbridge, during which he published Young Man Luther (Erikson, 1958), an historical/psychoanalytic biography that brought together two of Erikson’s academic strengths, and that brought him a certain amount of acclaim. He also taught a graduate seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, using Young Man Luther as a model for the course. He was subsequently offered a professorship at Harvard, but not without some controversy. One of the faculty who protested Erikson’s appointment, claiming that he came at too high a price (literally), was David McClelland. Others supported Erikson, and he was eventually appointed as a professor with no particular department. It proved to be a good decision. Erikson used his influence and personal connections to invite renowned guest speakers, ranging from pediatrician Benjamin Spock to anthropologist Margaret Mead and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He inspired students such as Howard Gardner, Carol Gilligan, and future congressman, senator, and Vice President of the United States Albert Gore, Jr. (Gore wrote a biography of his father for Erikson’s class). Erikson also continued his interest in historical biography with the publication of Gandhi’s Truth (Erikson, 1969), following a 3-month visit to India in 1962/1963. Gandhi’s Truth won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Always afraid that he would not be recognized for his accomplishments, Erikson hoped that he would also win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he was disappointed when it did not happen (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Erikson retired in 1970, and he and Joan returned to California. Erikson continued writing for a number of years, focusing on issues related to personality changes that accompany old age. Eventually, however, time began to catch up with him. In 1987, as his health deteriorated, he and Joan returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with two young professors who could help Joan care for her husband. He died in 1994 (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).
Joan Erikson missed her husband terribly, but managed to spend some time on her own writing. She wrote several chapters that were added as an addendum to The Life Cycle Completed, in which she proposed a ninth stage of development (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). She spoke to their daughter Sue regularly as Sue followed her father’s footsteps and became a psychoanalyst. Sue Erikson Bloland was deeply concerned, however, since Lawrence Friedman was about to publish his biography on Erikson, which included extensive coverage of the Erikson’s son Neil. Fortunately, perhaps, Joan Erikson died in 1997, and never had to face the public reaction to Friedman’s biography (Bloland, 2005).
Special Biographical Note: While preparing his biography on Erikson, Lawrence Friedman tried his best to identify Erikson’s father. He went to Copenhagen to review historical documents and interview relatives, particularly in the Abrahamsen family. There was a persistent rumor that Erik Erikson had been named after his real father, who had been a court photographer. According to historical records of the appropriate time period, there were two court photographers in Copenhagen named Erik: Erik Strom and Erik Bahnsen. However, little evidence supports that either of these men could have been Erikson’s father. Thus, Friedman concluded that this mystery will never be solved (Friedman, 1999).
Discussion Question: Erikson never knew who his father was, so he never knew his heritage (at least on one side of his family). What do you know of your heritage? In what way, if any, has it influenced your personal development?
Placing Erikson in Context: Psychodynamic Challenges Across the Lifespan
Erik Erikson is well-known and popular, and he was highly respected by most of his colleagues. He knew Sigmund Freud personally, and he was trained in psychoanalysis by Anna Freud. And yet, it is difficult to place Erikson in context. He believed that he had remained true to Freud’s theories, but his shift from psychosexual stages to psychosocial crises, and his extension of them throughout the lifespan, was something that Anna Freud found objectionable, and she dismissed his work as “not much… designed to make my father’s work palatable to Harvard freshman” (cited in Bloland, 2005). Erikson was always bothered by this rejection, even when the importance of his place in psychoanalytic theory was assured by others.
Erikson also stands apart from most other theorists with his emphasis on the continuation of psychodynamic processes throughout the lifespan. Although Jung had discussed the importance of middle age, his theorizing was based on Eastern perspectives, not on psychodynamic theory. A number of other analysts emphasized sociocultural factors in adulthood, including Adler and Horney, but only Erikson proposed a continuous, single theory from birth to old age, a theory based on traditional psychodynamic perspectives.
Erikson was not unique in his emphasis on cross-cultural studies, but other theorists typically looked to confirm their psychodynamic theory after the fact. Erikson’s studies on the childhood of the Sioux and the Yurok helped him form his psychosocial theory, since those studies were part of his experience during the time his theory was forming in his mind.
And finally, Erikson was one of the few theorists who addressed personality changes in old age. As life expectancy continues to rise in America, there are many more elderly people today than ever before. And they are healthier at older ages as well. Thus, our understanding of the unique aspects of the elderly person will become increasingly more relevant, not only to psychology, but to all of society as well.
Basic Concepts Underlying the Study of Development
Erikson is well known for his theory on the eight stages of development. He did not simply theorize these stages, of course. He drew upon Sigmund Freud’s basic theories, Anna Freud’s explorations in the psychological development of children, and his own experience as a teacher and, later, as a child psychoanalyst. In addition, he attempted to repeat many of his observations in different cultures, particularly in two Native American tribes, the Sioux and the Yurok. These basic principles and observations form the foundation upon which Erikson built his stage theory of development.
The Epigenetic Principle and Psychosocial Crises
Epigenesis is a biological term referring to the development of an embryo, and ultimately an adult organism, from an undifferentiated egg. Similarly, Erikson viewed psychological development as a series of predictable stages in each individual. We begin life without having faced or resolved any of these stages. Only the experience of our life can result in moving us along. This aspect of Erikson’s theory is identical to Freud’s. Where they differ, however, is on the matter of what are the critical factors that drive the process of these stages. For Sigmund Freud, it was psychosexual development, and each stage is based on the region of the body from which the child gains sexual satisfaction (first the mouth, then the anus, then the genitals, etc.). In contrast, Erikson proposed that the underlying framework for the developmental stages is a series of psychosocial crises. Erikson used the term psychosocial crises to refer to turning points, or crucial moments, in a person’s development, which contain within them the potential for abnormal development and the failure to reach one’s development.
In other words, we face predictable, yet critical, developmental tasks as we move through our lives. We cannot experience one aspect of a crisis without also experiencing the opposite aspect. Our goal, or task, is to achieve a greater degree of the favorable aspect of the crisis (such as being more trusting than distrusting; see below), within the context of our social and cultural environments (Erikson, 1950, 1954, 1968a).
Observing Children at Play
Erikson borrowed Freud’s famous line regarding dreams as the royal road to the unconscious mind, saying instead that play is the royal road to understanding the young child’s ego and identity development (Erikson, 1950). With very young children there is a unique challenge for both experimental psychologists and therapists: the child’s limited language development. Not only does observing play allow for insight into ego development, it can also show us the capacity for the ego to find recreation and to cure itself, if necessary. This makes play useful in the therapeutic setting, as we saw when examining the contributions of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.
Erikson studied childhood play extensively, publishing articles that included clinical notes on how and why children build things or choose the toys they play with (Erikson, 1937), psychological factors behind and effects of disruptions in play (Erikson, 1940), gender differences in play (Erikson, 1955), and ethnic, racial, nationality, and socioeconomic status differences in play (Erikson, 1972). Ultimately, Erikson published Toys and Reasons (Erikson, 1977), in which he argued that childhood play provides a basis for ritualizing our life experiences, and that ritualization continues throughout the stages of life. Whether play serves to help master and resolve traumatic experiences, or provides catharsis for pent-up emotion or surplus energy, or whether it has a functional role in which a child can exercise new faculties and potentials in preparation for the future, Erikson argued that play is an act of renewal and self-expression, one that can be an expression of inventiveness and abandon. Play provides a means for connecting with others, in order to cope with the challenges of life (Erikson, 1977).
Discussion Question: Have you ever watched children play? What has it told you about the individual child, and is it always consistent with who you think that child is? What sort of games or sports do you like to play, and do you like to play with children?
The Value of Cross-Cultural Studies
The value of studying other cultures was summarized rather succinctly by Erikson in an interview with Richard Evans:
The interesting thing was that all the childhood problems which we had begun to take seriously on the basis of pathological developments in our own culture, the Indians talked about spontaneously and most seriously without any prodding. They referred to our stages as the decisive steps in the making of a good Sioux Indian or a good Yurok Indian…And “good” meant whatever seemed “virtuous” in a “strong” man or woman in that culture. I think this contributed eventually to my imagery of basic human strengths. (pg. 62; Erikson cited in Evans, 1964)
So, it was actually on the basis of cross-cultural comparisons that Erikson felt confident in proposing his eight stage theory of psychosocial development.
Erikson was deeply indebted to two anthropologists, H. Scudder Mekeel and Alfred Kroeber, who introduced him to the Sioux and Yurok tribes they had been studying. Through their introductions, Erikson was able to gain the confidence of the individual Sioux and Yurok who provided Erikson with invaluable evidence on their traditional ways of life and their child-rearing practices. But it is important to note that Native Americans were not the only other cultural groups that Erikson studied. He studied the childhood myths of Hitler and the Bolshevik myth of Maxim Gorky’s youth, in an attempt to understand the terrible political events that occurred in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. He also examined the factors influencing Black identity in America. He suggested that one of the greatest struggles for Blacks in this country, after the Civil War had ended slavery, was the mostly false promise of a better life in the North. As they left behind their successful identity as slaves (Note: successful only means that it was a clear identity, not that it was moral or justified) for a fragmented identity of supposedly free people, though prejudice and discrimination were still rampant, even in the North. Erikson made some interesting comparisons between Blacks and Native Americans in terms of their attempts to identify their place in American society:
I have mentioned the fact that mixed-blood Indians in areas where they hardly ever see Negroes refer to their full-blood brothers as “niggers,” thus indicating the power of the national imagery which serves to contrast the dominant ideal images and the dominant evil images in the inventory of available prototypes. No individual can escape this opposition of images which, in a great variety of syndromes, is all-pervasive in the men and in the women, in the majorities and in the minorities, and in all the classes of a given national or cultural unit. (pg. 215; Erikson, 1950)
Individuals try to resolve their identity crises in as simple and straightforward a way as possible. Every group within a society is somewhat familiar with the stereotypical identity attributed to other groups, and these factors play an important role, even when they are expressed in negative ways, such as mixed-blood Native Americans calling full-blooded Native Americans “niggers.” Erikson later noted that full-blooded Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation turn around and call their half-blooded brothers “white trash” (Erikson, 1980a). These factors also tell us something about the place different groups occupy in the minds of members of other groups, and how that might influence the individuals within those groups. We will return to the concept of identity after examining Erikson’s stages of development.
Discussion Question: Erikson believed that his theories had been confirmed in different cultures, such as the Sioux and the Yurok. Do you think his theories apply to all cultures? If not, what problems do you see with his work?
Erikson's Eight Stages of Development
Many people are familiar with Erikson’s eight stages of life, but what is less well known is that each stage is tied to specific, basic social institutions and is also associated with a particular strength, which Erikson believed gave the individual a “semblance of instinctive certainty in his social ecology” (Erikson, 1968a; see also Erikson, 1950). Each stage can also be viewed as awakening a specific sense of estrangement, which can become the basis for psychopathology. As we are about to see, the first stage is basic trust vs. basic mistrust. If a child develops basic trust, they will also develop the basic strength of hope. Then, as they progress through life, they will likely encounter situations in which people cannot be trusted, but the person can remain hopeful. In contrast, hopelessness is a term closely identified with depression, and it is easy to see how a person who learns from the beginning of life that the people around them, indeed the whole world (as they perceive it), is a threatening and untrustworthy place. As each of the eight stages is introduced, the title will begin with the general age at which the stage occurs, the psychosocial crisis experienced during that stage, and finally, the primary human strength that is associated with the successful resolution of the crisis.
Infancy - Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust - Hope: The primary relationship (or social institution) of this first stage is the mother. The infant needs to be fed (and traditionally this was only breast-feeding), comforted, and protected. As we have seen in earlier chapters, the child does not necessarily recognize that the mother is a separate person, so the bond between them is extraordinarily intimate. It is inevitable, however, that the child will experience discomfort and pain, and that the mother will not be able to immediately attend to every need. In such times of distress, the child who mostly trusts in the care of their mother will be able to hope that the care is coming.
Early Childhood - Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt - Will: At this stage, both parents become the primary social institution. As young children develop the ability to walk and talk they begin to do many things for themselves. However, their actions often lead to restrictions, as they experience the categorical rules of “yes and no,” “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.” Shame is the consequence of being told that one is bad or wrong. Doubt arises when the child is unsure. As they develop their will power, i.e., their exercise of free will, they may not be sure what to do in a certain situation. A child who has been supported in exercising their autonomy will develop the will power to restrain themselves without experiencing shame or doubt. For example, they will learn not to run out into the busy street, and even feel good about their ability to take care of and protect themselves. It is often fascinating to watch a young child demonstrate this protectiveness when they interact with an even younger child. One can easily see the satisfaction in understanding rules and guidelines as, say, an eight-year old looks after a two-year old cousin.
Play Age - Initiative vs. Guilt - Purpose: The entire family (e.g., siblings, grandparents, etc.) provides the social context for this developmental stage. As the child of age three or four years old becomes able to do much more, and to do so more vigorously, they begin to realize something of what is expected of them as adults. So, they being to play with other children, older children, and to play games that mimic things done by adults. This helps them to develop a sense of purpose, and to pursue valued goals and skills. Excessive initiative, especially when combined with autonomy, can lead to problems such as rivalry and jealousy, especially with younger siblings. It can also lead to aggressive manipulation or coercion. Consequently, the child can begin to feel guilty about their actions, especially if they are punished.
School Age - Industry vs. Inferiority - Competence: The social institutions relevant to this stage now move outside the family, including the neighborhood, community, and schools. It is one thing to play adult roles, such as in the previous stage, but in this stage the child actually begins the process of preparing to be a caretaker and provider for others, such as their own children. In all cultures, according to Erikson, at this age (beginning at 5 to 6 years old) children receive some form of systematic training, and they also learn eagerly from older children. Unfortunately, some children are not as successful as others, particularly in the restrictive learning environment of schools. Keep in mind that Erikson was trained in the Montessori style of education, which emphasizes free exploration and active learning, at each child’s own pace (Lillard & Jessen, 2003; Spietz, 1991). If children are indeed successful, if they are given the freedom to learn, they will develop a sense of competence, which will help them to persevere when faced with more challenging tasks.
Adolescence - Identity vs. Role Diffusion, Confusion - Fidelity: The family finally loses its place of primacy as a social institution, as peer groups and outgroups become the most significant social institutions. According to Erikson, childhood comes to an end when a person has developed the skills and tools to proceed into adulthood. First, however, there is the period in which one’s body changes from a child to an adult: puberty. Known psychologically as adolescence, it is a period in which each person must determine how they will fit their particular skills into the adult world of their culture. This requires forming one’s identity. The fidelity that Erikson speaks of refers to the ability to remain true to oneself, and to one’s significant others. This period is easiest for children who are gifted and well trained in the pursuit of clear goals, and also for children who receive a good deal of affirmation from their peers.
The pursuit of one’s identity can be quite challenging, and we will examine identity in more detail in the next section. But first, one way to cope with the challenge of forming one’s identity is to stop doing it for a while, something Erikson called a psychosocial moratorium (Erikson, 1959). A moratorium is a break that one takes in life before committing oneself to a career. Some people serve in the military or the Peace Corps before coming home and taking their place in the community. Some travel, and try to “see the world,” before starting college. Erikson considered the moratorium to be a natural and, in many cases, quite productive activity. To cite one of Erikson’s examples, a young Charles Darwin, who had been training for the ministry, left England on a 5-year voyage on a ship called the Beagle in order to participate in geological studies (he was also studying geology). It was during that trip that he made the initial observations of animals and fossils that ultimately led to his theory of evolution.
Young Adulthood - Intimacy vs. Isolation - Love: With the onset of adulthood, the most significant social factors become partners in friendship, sex, competition, and cooperation. Once an individual has consolidated their own identity, they are capable of the self-abandonment necessary for intimate affiliations, passionate sexual unions, or inspiring encounters. According to Erikson, sexual encounters prior to fulfilling this stage are of the identity-confirming kind, rather than the truly intimate sexual relationships based on love. Love is the mutual devotion of two people. Individuals who are unsuccessful in making intimate contacts are at risk for exaggerating their isolation, which brings with it the danger of not making any new contacts that might lead to the very intimate relationship they are lacking.
Adulthood - Generativity vs. Stagnation, Self-Absorption - Care: The family household, including divided labor and shared household duties, becomes the primary social institution of adulthood. Erikson also referred to adulthood as maturity, and he considered this stage to be reciprocal. A mature person needs to be needed, and it is their very maturity that guides them to care for the needs of others. So, generativity is the concern with helping to establish and guide the next generation. It is psychosocial because it includes productivity and creativity, not just procreation. When the potential enrichment to be found in generativity fails, the consequences are often seen in the estrangements of the next generation. In other words, the children of stagnant, self-absorbed parents may have great difficulty forming their own identities and achieving intimacy in their relationships.
Old Age - Integrity vs. Despair - Wisdom: The social concerns for those approaching the end of life include “Humanity” and “Family.” Wisdom allows one to maintain and convey the integrity of one’s lifetime of experience, despite the gradual physical decline of the body. Wise people are able to pass on an integrated heritage to the next generation. For those who have failed to integrate their life’s experiences, despair arises as the fear of death, death being the time limit on their opportunity to achieve integrity. Erikson described wisdom as “a detached and yet active concern with life in the face of death” (Erikson, 1968a).
Is there a ninth stage? After Erikson died, Joan Erikson wrote a few short chapters that were added to The Life Cycle Completed (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). Erikson had suggested that his wife was an important contributor to all of his theories, throughout his career, so it was not surprising that she offered these additions after his death. Indeed, they are most likely the result of her observations regarding his death, something he could then no longer write about.
Very Old Age - Despair vs. Gerotranscendence: Unlike the earlier stages, Joan Erikson felt that the negative aspect of this stage should be placed first. People who make it to 90 years old, and beyond, are close to death. Their bodies are steadily deteriorating, most, if not all, of their friends have died, some of their children may have died, their spouse has likely died, and the despair they face is quite real. The despair experienced in the eighth stage involves looking back at one’s life, but in the ninth stage it involves looking squarely at one’s present reality, and passing once again through life’s stages. People who are very old can no longer trust their own capabilities, and they may need to be cared for, thus losing some of their autonomy. Their sense of purpose is dulled, and they lose the urgency and energy necessary to be industrious. Likewise, their identity may become unclear once again, and they can become isolated and self-absorbed. However, some very old people hold a special place in their families and/or communities, and may withdraw only by choice, in order to contemplate and be at peace with their life. Joan Erikson refers to this choice as a dance with life:
With great satisfaction I have found that “transcendence” become very much alive if it is activated into “transcendance,” which speaks to soul and body and challenges it to rise above the dystonic, clinging aspects of our worldly existence that burden and distract us from true growth and aspiration.
To reach for gerotranscendance is to rise above, exceed, outdo, go beyond, independent of the universe and time. It involves surpassing all human knowledge and experience. How, for heaven’s sake, is this to be accomplished? I am persuaded that only by doing and making do we become. (pg. 127; Erikson & Erikson, 1997)
Discussion Question: Joan Erikson proposed a ninth stage, when death is imminent. Do you agree with this stage; do you hope it is possible to achieve gerotranscendence? Have you known anyone who was very old and facing death, and what was it like for them?
The Importance of Identity
The developmental crisis that Erikson focused much of his career on was that of developing one’s identity. From the beginning of publishing his theories, he emphasized that a lot of the psychological distress and pathological symptoms seen in childhood can be interpreted as the child expressing their right to find an identity in the world, and neurosis typically results from the loss of one’s identity (Erikson, 1950). Erikson returned to this theme repeatedly in books such as Identity and the Life Cycle (Erikson, 1980a; originally published in 1959), Identity: Youth and Crisis (Erikson, 1968b), and Dimensions of a New Identity (Erikson, 1974). He also published A Memorandum on Identity and Negro Youth at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America (Erikson, 1964). The importance of identity, and the stage of identity vs. role-diffusion and confusion, is that only upon completion of the first four stages of life is the ego fully mature, the point at which a person is ready to be an adult. But the entire period, the entire psychosocial crisis, is a critical time of transition:
Adolescents have always been especially open to conversion or to what is now called consciousness-expansion in the direction of physical, spiritual, and social experience. Their cognitive capacities and social interests are such that they want to go to the limit of experience before they fit themselves into their culture and fit their culture to themselves. (pg. 37; Erikson cited in Evans, 1964)
A General Definition of Identity
Since Erikson labeled his fifth stage of development identity vs. role diffusion and/or confusion, it is common to think that identity formation is something that occurs during adolescence. Actually, identity formation begins at birth, and continues throughout the lifespan. It is only in adolescence that the individual finally has the material around which to form an integrated identity that can remain somewhat stable, hence the psychosocial crisis that arises during that process of integration and more stable identity formation. Thus, a child will have some sense of self, but it is not until adolescence that it becomes a crisis. So what is that sense of self that forms the identity? Erikson himself turned to two great men, whom he described as “bearded and patriarchal founding fathers of the psychologies on which our thinking on identity is based:” William James and Sigmund Freud (Erikson, 1968).
A man’s character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: “This is the real me!” (pg. 19; William James in a letter to his wife, cited in Erikson, 1968)
Moving beyond James’ very personal description, Freud spoke of his Jewish identity as something that provided a cultural context in which he lived his life, even though he was never religious, and openly despised religion. He felt that he shared a Jewish cultural nature, which offered an explanation for, as well as a justification for, aspects of his personality that defied any other obvious explanation.
Based on these perspectives by James and Freud, Erikson described identity as a process rooted in the core of the individual, yet also rooted in the core of their communal culture. This complicated process involves both judging oneself in light of how others judge you, as well as judging the judgments others make about you. Eventually, the interplay between psychological and social factors results in an identity based on psychosocial relativity (Erikson, 1968). In other words, one’s identity is very much influenced by where a person sees themselves fitting into their world. Consequently, a person may develop a healthy identity, or they can just as easily develop a negative identity (see below).
The term identity crisis was first used by Erikson during World War II, to describe a particular psychological disorder. They encountered patients, who had been fighting in the war, who had become severely disturbed. However, they could not be described in the typical ways, such as being “shell-shocked” or just faking mental illness to escape combat. Instead, they had lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity. Erikson proposed that they had lost the central control over that part of their self that psychoanalysts could only describe as the ego. Thus, he described these patients as having lost their “ego identity.” Since World War II, Erikson felt that he and his colleagues were observing the same fundamental disorder in many severely conflicted young patients. These disturbed individuals were, in a sense, waging a war within themselves and against society. An identity crisis of this sort can affect groups as well as individuals (Erikson, 1968). In an interesting, and somewhat amusing example of group identity crisis, we can look at the reaction of the psychoanalytic community to the theories of Carl Jung. In Erikson’s view, the psychoanalytic community reacted to Jung’s proposal of the collective unconscious and archetypes as a threat to scientific approach advocated by Freud. Consequently, the majority of the psychoanalytic community ignored Jung’s reasonable observations as well as his somewhat less scientific interpretations (Erikson, 1980a).
Obstacles to the Development of Identity
Erikson talked about two obstacles to the development of identity: ratio and negative identity. Ratio refers to the balance between the opposite poles of each psychosocial crisis: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, etc. Although it may be best for the ratio to favor trust, autonomy, and so on, it is unreasonable to expect a person to develop without any experience of trust being misplaced or without any feelings of shame. This helps to ground the person in the real world, particularly as it is appropriate to the customs of their culture (see Evans, 1964). Indeed, Erikson felt that identity could be viewed as being that subsystem within the ego that is closest to social reality, based on the integrated self-representations formed during the psychosocial crises of childhood. Thus, identity:
…could be said to be characterized by the more or less actually attained but forever-to-be-revised sense of the reality of the self within social reality; while the imagery of the ego ideal could be said to represent a set of to-be-strived-for but forever-not-quite-attainable ideal goals for the self. (pg. 160; Erikson, 1980a)
Negative identity is often expressed as an angry and snobbish rejection of the roles expected by one’s family, community, or even society. It is a profound reaction to the loss of identity that typically arises when identity development has lost the promise of wholeness that one expects to obtain from their identity. The consequences can be severe, for both individuals and groups of young people. Erikson worked with young people who were beginning to make choices in life that could easily lead them toward their vindictive fantasies of becoming prostitutes or drug addicts (an extreme way of rebelling against their parents). As such disturbed young people gather together, they can form gangs, drug rings, sex clubs, and the like (Erikson, 1968b, 1980a). Society, according to Erikson, often makes the mistake of enhancing this maladaptive behavior:
If, for simplicity’s sake or in order to accommodate ingrown habits of law or psychiatry, they diagnose and treat as a criminal, as a constitutional misfit, as a derelict doomed by his upbringing, or indeed as a deranged patient a young person who, for reasons of personal or social marginality, is close to choosing a negative identity, that young person may well put his energy into becoming exactly what the careless and fearful community expects him to be - and make a total job of it. (pg. 196; Erikson, 1968b)
Erikson believed that women and minorities (indeed, oppressed people in any situation) face special problems in the formation of their identity. Erikson considered men and women to be fundamentally different, but more importantly, he believed that only women could ensure the future of humanity. According to Erikson, men try to solve problems with “bigger and better wars.” And now, with the advent of nuclear bombs, men have nearly reached the limit of their ability to destroy each other. The future, therefore, requires the feminine aspects of personality, including realistically caring for the home, responsibly raising the children, being resourceful in peacekeeping, and devotion to healing:
The question arises whether such a potential for annihilation as now exists in the world should continue to exist without the representation of the mothers of the species in the councils of image-making and decision. (pg. 261; Erikson, 1968b)
For Blacks in America, the identity crisis has been one of being separated from their African heritage, and yet also separated from the White American heritage that surrounds them. Erikson recounts both clinical examples and folklore that emphasize the value placed on being White by Blacks themselves (Erikson, 1950, 1964, 1968, 1980a). The result is often psychological distress and depression, such as that seen in the classic study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which Black children considered identification with their race as bad. Using Black and White dolls, some of the young Black children actually cried when asked to point to the doll they looked most like (Clark & Clark, 1947). Perhaps the most dramatic example of Erikson’s theory in action occurred during the 1960s. Disenfranchised Blacks adopted a negative identity and opposed many aspects of the American society that had oppressed Black’s for so long (Note: Negative identity is used here only as Erikson’s term, not to imply that the fight for racial equality was, in any way, something negative). With Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, some young Black men opposed both the Christianity and the Democracy that formed so much of the American national identity. Those who did not, found themselves at odds with their own people, as we will see with Brian Copeland, author of Not a Genuine Black Man (see Chapter 16; Copeland, 2006). It should be noted, however, that the seemingly contradictory perspective of rejecting a society that gives one the very right to oppose it is not alien to the African psyche:
…the African gods south of the Sahara always had at least two heads, one for evil and one for good. Now people create God in their own image, what they think He - for God is always a “He” in patriarchal societies - what He is like or should be. So the African said, in effect: I am both good and evil; good and evil are the two parts of the thing that is me… (pg. 24; Huey Newton, recorded in Kai Erikson, 1973)
The idea that Black Americans might have been adopting a negative identity was more than just an academic theory for Erikson. In 1971, both Erikson and Huey Newton (who was then known as Supreme Commander of the Black Panther Party) presented talks to the students of Yale University. A short time later, they met again for a series of conversations in Oakland, California, which also included the Black sociologist J. Herman Blake and Erikson’s son, Kai Erikson, also a sociologist (see K. Erikson, 1973). Among many topics, Newton described the revolutionary actions of Black activists at that time as a process, a contradiction between old ways and new ways. Any change, he argued, might be viewed as revolutionary at a particular point in time. Newton went on to describe how the Black community expected him to hate all White people, and how the Black community rejected many of its own because they had too many Caucasian features (such as relatively light skin). He rebelled against this discrimination, just as he did against the oppression that was so inherent in American society. Erikson, for his part, talked mostly about just how difficult it is for people of different backgrounds to understand each other’s perspective. Most important, however, is the act of searching for some basis for understanding one another (K. Erikson, 1973).
In his autobiographical book Revolutionary Suicide (the preparation of which was assisted by J. Herman Blake; Newton, 1973), Newton begins with a tribute to a comrade who was killed in a shootout with the police, while seeking nothing more than what Newton considered the right of all men: dignity and freedom. He then offers a poem, which sounds very much like Taoist philosophy, as well as a search for a greater identity:
By having no family,
I inherited the family of humanity.
By having no possessions,
I have possessed all.
By rejecting the love of one,
I received the love of all.
By surrendering my life to the revolution,
I found eternal life.
Huey P. Newton, in Revolutionary Suicide (1973)
Discussion Question: Erikson described the adoption of a negative identity as a serious rejection of one’s expected place in life. Has there been a time in your life when you adopted a negative identity? Do you feel that sometimes it is necessary to adopt a negative identity in order to change the world we live in?
Identity and the Role of the Family - Perspectives from Around the World
Identity is not merely a personal phenomenon, it develops within a cultural context that is passed on through the family. The most important social institutions of the first three stages of development are the mother, then both parents, and finally, the family as a whole. As adults, individuals face not only their own psychosocial crises, but they serve as the parents of the next generation, as their children face the early development crises. Thus, it is important to consider the role that the family plays in general, and the perspectives that can be offered by family psychology.
It is difficult to define the word family, since it includes nuclear families (two-generations, with married parents and their own children), extended families (three or more generations), foster and adoptive families (which may be multi-racial and/or multi-cultural), single-parent families, gay or lesbian couples with or without children, remarried/step families, and others (Kaslow, 2001). Further complicating matters is the role the family plays as a microsystem of a given culture, especially when that culture is dramatically altered. For example, when the former Soviet Union collapsed, the entire economic and political structure of countries like Russia, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were wiped out. When Yugoslavia broke apart, ancient ethnic hatred led to brutal, local wars. The role that women play in many cultures has changed in recent years, whereas in some cultures the patriarchal authority has aggressively retained its domination of the culture. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank for developing micro-credit loans, most of which go to poor women in oppressive societies, in an effort to help these women and their children rise out of poverty.
Family psychology addresses issues as complex as families themselves, including male-female relationships, domestic violence, child-rearing and socialization practices, divorce, the search for identity in a dysfunctional family setting, spirituality, drug addiction, war, crime and violence, homelessness, kidnapping, immigration, etc. (Kaslow, 2001). When the members of a family face any of these problems, or perhaps a number of them, family psychologists can help the individuals to retain their own sense of identity, in part by focusing on reconstructing the social structure of the family (as opposed to focusing on diagnosing individual disorders). Unfortunately, the problems facing families are common throughout the world. However, since the family is the basic social structure within communities across all cultures, family therapy can play an important role in helping to solve these problems. For example, family therapy has been used to study and treat a variety of problems in different countries: conduct disorder in youth from the U.S. Virgin Islands (Dudley-Grant, 2001); community disasters, war stress, and the effects of immigration on Israeli families (Halpern, 2001); and the refusal of some children in Japan to attend school (Kameguchi & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2001). In each of these cultures the family is considered to play a particularly important role in identity formation.
Many theories on personality and cognitive development end with adolescence. As one enters into adulthood, it is assumed, one has accomplished all of the tasks necessary to be an adult, including one’s identity. And yet, if adolescence ends sometime in the late teens, many people can reasonably expect to live another 60 to 80 years. Does it really make any sense to propose that nothing meaningful happens during those years? Of course, Erikson described development stages throughout adulthood and old age, but what about other psychologists? Srivastava, et al. (2003) examined changes in the Big Five personality traits across the years of adulthood. They found that conscientiousness and agreeableness increased through early and middle adulthood, whereas neuroticism decreased in women, but not in men. In other words, both men and women become more responsible and cooperative as they grow through adulthood, and women become more stable. One can speculate that these changes fit well within Erikson’s model, in which most adults take on the tasks involved in raising a family. Self-esteem rises steadily throughout adulthood, before dropping sharply in old age (Robins & Trzesniewski, 2005). Similarly, the ability to integrate cognitive and affective components of the self, in order to maintain positive self-development, increases steadily during adulthood until beginning to decline with old age (Labouvie-Vief, 2003). Thus, adulthood does appear to be a time of personality change.
Adulthood, however, means different things in different cultures. In Adulthood (Erikson, 1978), Erikson brought together a collection of authors who examined adulthood from a variety of cultural perspectives. For a Christian adult, growth occurs primarily through social experiences. One encounters Christ in service to others, or in other words, by loving your neighbor. Christ himself serves as the model for adulthood (Bouwsma, 1978). Adulthood in Islam carries with it responsibility for the religious commands and obligations of Islam. One must reconcile the reality of the world with one’s place in it, as willed by Allah. Adulthood then becomes an expression of the inner peace achieved by living in the world in accord with the divinely revealed reality (Lapidus, 1978). In the Confucian tradition, adulthood is the complete process of becoming a person. In this patriarchal model, first a man comes of age, then he marries and has children, then he begins a career as a scholar-official, and that career is expected to be served with distinction (Wei-Ming, 1978). In Japan, adulthood is a time of social responsibility, discipline, and perseverance, in preparation for the integrity and respect typically associated with old age (Rohlen, 1978). India presents a particularly difficult challenge, and it is not really possible to speak of a single adulthood model. The caste system inherent in the India of the past created vastly different life conditions for the people of India (Rudolph & Rudolph, 1978). The problems of language and multicultural populations create unique difficulties for understanding adulthood in Russia and America (Jordan, 1978; Malia, 1978). What is clear across cultures is that adulthood is a time of continued development, it can vary quite dramatically (even within a culture), and it often involves an aspect of anticipating old age. The anticipation of old age, however, can vary dramatically, based on individual and cultural attitudes about old age, as we will see in the next section.
Adulthood can be the most productive and, in some ways, most gratifying years of life. Some of the unique challenges of adulthood have become popular topics in psychology, such as the midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome. And yet, adulthood is the least studied period of life. One possible explanation for this neglect, according to Smelser (1980a), is that most research is done by adults, and they tend to be more interested in stages of development other than their own. In a second collection of articles, entitled Themes of Work and Love in Adulthood (Smelser & Erikson, 1980), Smelser and Erikson brought together a variety of perspectives on what they viewed as two of the most important life phenomena that dominate the adulthood years. Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that maturity is to be found in the capacity to love and to work. Throughout one’s life, both of these phenomena follow certain paths, typically involving a period of growing interest and ability, followed by a fairly stable level (which typically lasts for decades), followed by a gradual (as in work) or sudden (as in the death of a spouse) decline (Smelser, 1980a). In examining the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, evident in their letters to one another, Erikson (1980b) found distinctly adult content related to such topics as mutual regard, confidence, affection, intimate concern for their families, both good and bad observations regarding their professional colleagues, and an ongoing debate regarding the important issues in psychodynamic theory and the psychoanalytic movement. There are similarities, but some interesting contrasts, between these letters and the ones Freud had written to Wilhelm Fliess years earlier. In that younger period of adulthood, Freud seemed more in need of a close friend, particularly since he was in the process of creating the field that was becoming well-established by the time Freud met Jung. Perhaps due to Freud being older when he met Jung, it seems that he interacted with Fliess and Jung in different ways: when Freud was young he interacted with his colleague Fliess as a colleague, but when he was older he interacted with Jung in a much more father-son type relationship (and Jung had lost his father years earlier).
Work and love interact, or don’t, depending on the nature of individual cultures. For example, in America we compartmentalize our lives. We tend to have clearly defined career paths, and our personal relationships exist primarily outside of the workplace (Smelser, 1980b). In contrast, the Gusii in Kenya have not traditionally had “careers,” but rather a domestically based economy. They also practice polygyny (each man having many wives, but not vice versa). Thus, a husband must balance the resources at his command between his different wives and their children. As such, although love plays some role in marriage, it can actually become a problem for that man who cannot maintain fair and equitable treatment of each wife and her children. This is handled by maintaining a certain distance from each wife, including having his own house, and visiting each wife on a rotating schedule that is acceptable to everyone (LeVine, 1980). Such a concept of love and marriage is extraordinarily alien to the symbolic and mythic nature of the love ideal that lies at the foundation of American culture: a man and a woman committed to one another in a way that ennobles and transforms them both (Swidler, 1980).
However, the romantic vision of love in American culture is not without its drawbacks. The romantic, passionate, committed love that Americans envision completes one’s identity. In Erikson’s terms, it stands in opposition to isolation. However, it is all too common that most marriages, as well as other long-term relationships, eventually come to an end. What then happens to each person’s identity? Love also provides a basis for rebellion, such as when a person “marries for love” in spite of the objections of one’s family and/or friends. Love can also lead to conformity, such as one sees in the term “settling down” or when women, in particular, are expected to take on the primary responsibility for the household as an expression of their love, even if they also have a job outside of the home as their husband does. When one partner, more so than the other, must engage in self-sacrifice, what happens to their opportunities for self-realization? If it is possible to find fulfillment through the love of another, then self-sacrifice can be self-realization (Swidler, 1980). If not, we might see high divorce rates. And a high divorce rate is the reality in America today.
So, whether love and work are intermingled or separate, whether simple or complex, whether fulfilling or a necessary social expectation, they dominate the years of early and middle adulthood. No one period in adulthood is more likely than another to result in change, as different stressors impact each age differently. Work related stress is particularly likely for the young adult, but older adults face the challenge of preparing (both financially and psychologically) for retirement, and unexpected changes can occur at any age. Love, particularly as it relates to marriage, causes stress throughout adulthood, but in different ways. Younger couples are more likely to experience separation and/or divorce, middle-aged adults experience their children leaving home and possible career transitions, and older couples are more likely to experience illness, disabilities, and perhaps the loss of a spouse. Each of these different forms of stress brings with it a need for coping mechanisms, and if those coping mechanisms fail, the likelihood for psychological distress becomes very real (Pearlin, 1980). Perhaps the most challenging stressor in our lives, one that ultimately cannot be overcome, but that may be transcended and accepted, is old age and our inevitable death.
Connections Across Cultures: Glorifying Youth vs. Valuing the Elderly
We hear a lot in our society about how we value youth, and consider the elderly to be of little worth. The obsession with youth and appearance is such that plastic surgery has become the subject of numerous television shows. But is our society really different than other societies, and if so, what factors might have contributed to the difference? The matter is particularly important today, since the world’s older population is the fastest growing group. One estimate has suggested by the year 2020 the total population of people over 65 years of age will be 690 million (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). Thus, it won’t be long before there are a billion people over the age of 65. But is 65 years old a valid point for declaring someone as old?
Old age can be defined functionally, as in whether or not a person can still do the things expected of them in their culture, it can be defined formally by some external event, such as the birth of the first grandchild, or it can be determined chronologically, as it typically is in the United States (we traditionally use the age of 65 years). Each measure has its advantages and disadvantages, but regardless, when a person is viewed by others as old, the question becomes one of how they will be treated. Generally speaking, the more industrialized a society is, the less likely it is to treat its elderly with respect and dignity. In non-industrialized societies, the elderly play a number of important roles in the traditions and ceremonies emphasized by such cultures, since they know the most about those traditions and ceremonies. Older members of the community function as historians, vocational instructors, and often as doctors and ministers. In agrarian societies they continue to work as long as they are able. As a result, the elderly are still vital, contributing members of the community, and as such, they are naturally treated with the respect they deserve (Hillier & Barrow, 1999).
There are, however, variations even within non-industrialized societies. For example, nomadic societies have few resources, and often live in harsh climates. Their geographic mobility favors youth and vigor, as well as individual autonomy, all elements that fade with advanced age. Even with minor advances in technology, the important roles that elders played in many cultures have faded with time. Among the Aleuts in Northern Russia there were always one or two old men who educated the children. However, the availability of printed material has largely eliminated the need for this type of education. In places such as Turkey and Nepal, the elderly have lost their place in the workforce with the urbanization and industrialization of the country. The Igbo of Nigeria once held their elders in high regard, but mass migrations have diminished their authority, and formal education in schools has supplanted their spiritual roles (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). Many more examples can be found of changes in how communities, societies, and cultures treat the elderly more poorly than they have in the past.
As a result, many older people want to look and feel younger. Studies have shown that one’s attitude about their body image is positively correlated with their self-esteem, and that this holds true throughout the lifespan. In other words, people with high self-esteem feel good about their bodies, but people with low self-esteem feel bad about their bodies. People who are treated without respect or dignity, who feel that they are being discarded by society, are likely to experience lowered self-esteem, and with it a lower regard for their body image. These people become easy targets for fraudulent cures for arthritis, cancer, weight-loss, and sexual aids. It is estimated that Americans spend as much as $27 billion dollars a year on quack medical products or services (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). There are also many products that do help people look younger, so even more money is spent in a vain effort to pretend that people are younger than they actually are.
Consider your own relationships with people who are much older, or if you are a bit older yourself, with people who are younger than you. Do you even have relationships with people of different ages, or do such relationships tend to make you uncomfortable? How do you feel about the efforts of some people to try looking younger? Has there been an older person in your life, perhaps a grandparent, who has had a dramatic, positive influence on who you are today? Try to imagine your life at 60 or 70 years old, and how your children and grandchildren, or perhaps co-workers and friends, might treat you. Remember, your attitudes and actions toward older people today might have a significant effect on how your family and friends act toward you when the roles are reversed.
Old Age and Death
In Western culture most people seem to focus on youth. Old age and death are to be avoided, even feared. And yet, both are inevitable, unless we die young, something that is even less desirable than eventually dying of old age. What is most curious, however, is that there is nothing in our culture to suggest that death is something bad. Most people believe in life after death, and that good people go to Heaven. So why would we want to avoid that? In many other cultures, death is not viewed with the same finality as it is in Western culture, and ancestors are revered, and even worshipped. Even within Western culture, there are those who embrace the later years in life, and who do not fear death. These are the perspectives we will examine here.
Growing Old: Or Older and Growing?
The title for this section was taken from an essay written by Carl Rogers (1980). Rogers was 75 years old at the time, and he was looking back on the previous 10 years of his life. Rogers was experiencing a number of physical problems associated with the natural deterioration of his body due to advanced age, such as some loss of vision and arthritis in his right shoulder (making it impossible to enjoy playing Frisbee), but he still enjoyed 4 mile walks on the beach and felt physically strong in many ways. As for his career, from the age of 65 to 75 years old he had been very productive, publishing numerous books and articles. He also led many workshops and encounter groups, including some that required him to travel around the world. Professionally he began to take many risks, experimenting with his theories and workshops in ways he might never have considered earlier in his career. As it became necessary for him to rely on others for help, due to his slowing down with age, he also found that he was able to form far more intimate relationships with those colleague/friends who helped him. Even as his wife approached death during those years, he found that the struggle and pain led him to realize just how much he had loved her. Ten years later, as he turned 85 years old, Rogers wrote another essay, On Reaching 85 (Rogers, 1989). Once again, he had been very productive during the 10 years between being 75 and 85 years old, most notably leading a number of peace conferences that led to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. He felt deeply privileged to have lived long enough to see the great international influence of his work. There can be little doubt that when his life ended, which was actually before this essay was published (he wrote the essay, turned 85, and died 1 month later), he had experienced integrity and wisdom:
I hope it is clear that my life at eighty-five is better than anything I could have planned, dreamed of, or expected. And I cannot close without at least mentioning the love relationships that nurture me, enrich my being, and invigorate my life. I do not know when I will die, but I do know that I will have lived a full and exciting eighty-five years! (pg. 58; Rogers, 1989)
Erikson, in contrast, knew something of the despair that contrasts the integrity one hopes for in old age. Never having known his own father, which resulted in an unending identity crisis, he struggled with feelings of having been an inadequate father himself. As famous as he was, he desired the ultimate recognition of a Nobel Prize, and was disappointed that Ghandi’s Truth only won a Pulitzer Prize. He was also very sensitive to criticism in any form. As his own daughter pointed out, it is a tragic irony that individuals such as Erikson do not accept the vast majority of approval as commentary on their real self, but they do experience every shred of criticism as being very real (Bloland, 2005). Erikson himself said that even when a person developed a clear identity following adolescence, significant life events later on can precipitate a renewal of the identity crisis. One can only imagine the terrible psychological burden of sending away their baby Neil to die alone and secretly in a hospital, only to have him live for 21 years. Under such circumstances, Erikson described the search for a new identity as frantic (Evans, 1964).
One of the most interesting, important, and potentially enjoyable consequences of old age is the likelihood that one has grandchildren. All too often in American culture there are challenges to the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Families move across the country, they are broken apart by divorce, and, in general, our culture does not place value on the experiences of the elderly. However, only the elderly can provide generational continuity, which can be an important aspect of one’s identity. For the grandparents, they can play a vital role in supporting the emotional development of their grandchildren, especially following a traumatic event such as divorce. They can provide adolescents with hope for continued development and purpose throughout life, a prospect that might seem quite difficult for an adolescent to comprehend on their own. And perhaps most importantly, they can simply spend quality time with their grandchildren, without the burden of being responsible for the day-to-day raising of the child (Erikson, 1959; Erikson & Erikson, 1997; Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986). As shared by Joan Erikson, a grandmother and her grandchild can congratulate themselves for doing a marvelous job picking blueberries, while experiencing the reality of the life cycle:
After a while I did need to sit down on a rock and rest a bit, but not he. He continued for a moment or so and then stood up very straight in front of me to clarify essentials. “Nama,” he said, “you are old and I am new” - an unchallengeable pronouncement. (pg. 115; Erikson & Erikson, 1997)
While Carl Rogers and Joan Erikson seemed to accept old age and achieve integrity, Erik Erikson struggled with despair, despite his international acclaim and many obvious accomplishments. Thus, it should become clear that an individual’s point of view is an important aspect of one’s identity. In Still Here (Ram Dass, 2000), Ram Dass, a former Harvard University psychologist turned renowned guru of Bhakti Yoga and Kirtan (see Chapter 17), acknowledges the challenges of old age: physical problems, illness, loneliness, embarrassment, powerlessness, loss of role/meaning, depression, and even senility. The suffering associated with these conditions is, however, self-induced, and one can choose mindfully to not suffer. Whether or not one suffers, therefore, and whether or not one approaches the end of life with relative integrity or despair, is in many ways a choice. And that choice will have a dramatic effect on the final stage of life: death.
Death and Dying
It is important to begin by distinguishing between death and dying. Death is the end of life, and as far as scientific psychology is concerned, no one alive has been able to study death itself. Dying is a process that occurs when death is imminent, but does not come immediately. The dying process begins either with old age or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is well-known for her research on the dying process, as are the five stages that she described in On Death and Dying (1969): Denial and Isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance. When diagnosed with a terminal illness, most people naturally respond with the common defense mechanism of denial, but there is more to it. Many psychology textbooks do not address the second aspect of this first stage: isolation. Denial is usually temporary, but the dying person may still not be ready or even able to talk about their death, so they isolate themselves psychologically. Unfortunately, hospital staff members often foster this isolation, because of their own fears and discomfort regarding death. Kubler-Ross and her colleagues found it quite difficult to stop hospital staff members from encouraging the isolation of patients clinging to denial, including such simple tasks as keeping the patient’s door open so that people passing by could look in and vice versa. The final stage of acceptance, according to Kubler-Ross, is one that many patients do not achieve. Many people fear death, and Western culture, due in part to its emphasis on science and medicine, and its movement away from religion, encourages people to challenge death. But for those who fight, struggle, and hope to the very end, even they eventually “just cannot make it anymore” (Kubler-Ross, 1969).
There are, however, many people who do come to accept the inevitability of death, either as a result of illness or old age. Erikson seemed to finally be at peace at the very end of his life, smiling whenever he recognized his wife or daughter:
I was deeply touched on one visit to Dad when a flash of pleasure crossed his face as I entered the room, and he said faintly to himself, Meine Tochter (“my daughter” in his native tongue). (pg. 204; Bloland, 2005)
Carl Rogers was largely unconcerned about death, he seldom thought about it. He was, however, quite interested in the work of Kubler-Ross, particularly after he experienced his wife’s dying process. One night, when his wife was near death, he told her that she should not feel obligated to live, all was well with her family, and that she should feel free to live or die, as she wished. After Rogers left that evening, his wife called for the nurses, thanked them for all they had done, and told them she was going to die. By the next morning she was in a coma, and by the next day she was dead (Rogers, 1980). This experience was profoundly moving for Rogers, and awakened a deep spirituality in him, but with a decidedly unscientific aspect to it. Kubler-Ross joined Carl Jung in believing in synchronicity and the possibility of out-of-body experiences, life after death, and the like (see Kubler-Ross, 1983, 1997). Rogers also came to believe in such possibilities. Helen Rogers reported seeing evil figures and the Devil by her hospital bed, as well as a white light that would come and begin to lift her from the bed. Earlier the two of them had attended sessions with a medium who claimed to be able to contact the dead. Rogers was thoroughly convinced that the medium’s abilities were real, and that she had contacted Helen’s deceased sister, and later Helen Rogers herself. According to Rogers, each event was “an incredible, and certainly non-fraudulent experience” (Rogers, 1980).
For the individual who is, indeed, about to die, what remains of life? Kubler-Ross, Joan Erikson, and Ram Dass all see death itself as a final stage of growth. For Joan Erikson, when hope and trust can no longer sustain the individual, “to face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course,” and one may then strive for gerotranscendence. Indeed, the ninth stage of development proposed by Joan Erikson seems quite similar to the stage of acceptance proposed by Kubler-Ross (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). Ram Dass talks about the different perspective on death in India, and how it helped him to believe that although the body and the mind, as well as their reflection in the ego/self, could die, the soul was something that would exist forever. Accordingly, it is more common in India, and in many other cultures, to prepare for death. The failure to do so in America can have painful consequences:
When I was in my 30s, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal blood disorder. I went to visit her in the hospital, and all the people around her were saying things like, “You look great!” “You’ll be home in no time!” But she looked terrible, and it was likely she’d never come home again. No one - not my father, her sister or the rabbi - would tell her the truth. In that moment I saw just how isolated she was. She was dying and no one would talk to her about death. We spoke about it, Soul to Soul, and she began to relax. (pg. 149; Ram Dass, 2000)
Kubler-Ross examined a variety of cultural perspectives on death, in a collection of essays entitled Death: The Final Stage of Growth (Kubler-Ross, 1975). Among Alaskan Indians the time of death was a choice. As death approaches, if it does not come suddenly, the dying person would call together relatives and friends for a time of storytelling and prayer. The dying person’s life would be celebrated, and their death would be accepted as an inevitable matter of fact (Trelease, 1975). In the Jewish faith, tradition holds that the dying process should be met with efforts to alleviate distress as much as possible, but that death must also be accepted as the decree of human mortality by the Eternal and Righteous Judge (Rabbi Heller, 1975). In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, there is no death, but rather a common belief in rebirth. The circumstances of one’s rebirth, however, are determined by how one lived their most recent life (based on karma). So, one’s life, as well as the preparations preceding the death of one’s body in this life, is an important factor in determining the nature of the next life. Of course, one can transcend this cycle of death and rebirth by attaining enlightenment. Thus, it is common in countries like India and China to practice Yoga or Buddhist meditation, as well as other spiritual practices, in order to either attain nirvana or, at least, a more favorable circumstance in the next life (Long, 1975). Each of these traditions, as well as others, considers death to be an important transition between this life and something beyond. It is in anticipation of something beyond that death and dying should be approached, both in terms of one’s actions and one’s state of mind. In conclusion:
There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are. …when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings. (pg. 164; Kubler-Ross, 1975)
Discussion Question: People who have experienced the dying process often report strange occurrences, such as out-of-body experiences, visions of spirits (including angels and demons), or white lights shining down from above and beyond. Do you believe in any of these phenomena? Why do you think they only seem to occur with people who are, indeed, close to death?
Personality Theory in Real Life: …and in Death!
Arthur Benjamin Niemoller was a fine example of a man who had achieved integrity in old age, which is not to say that his later years were entirely easy. As he prepared to travel from Ohio to Massachusetts for the first graduation of one of his grandchildren from college (me), his wife lapsed into a coma due to a serious blood infection. Knowing it was unlikely that she would survive, or that she would even know if he was there, he chose to attend my graduation. After the ceremony was over, and everyone returned to my mother’s house for a party, the call had come from the doctor. My grandmother had died. I spent the next week in Ohio, helping my grandfather make the funeral arrangements for my grandmother. We had a service in Montgomery, Ohio where they had lived for many years, and then another in Putnam, Connecticut, where there is an old family graveyard. My grandfather made it very clear that he was glad he had attended my graduation, because he was proud of his family and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.
But the story doesn’t end there. I attended graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit, which isn’t too far from the Cincinnati area, where Montgomery is located. I began visiting my grandfather regularly, which was quite interesting because I’d had very little contact with him before that (my family has never been close). He was a very active man. He as a Sunday School teacher and church council member at the local Presbyterian church, he belonged to a retired men’s club, he had season tickets to the opera, and he regularly attended the symphony. He had many friends, some whom had also lost their spouses to old age. He was responsible for developing the computer programs that calculated the materials needed and the cost of those materials for building an isolated phase bus (something for carrying industrial strength electrical currents in power plants, I never really understood what he did). He was very proud of his work, and always eager to show me his new computer programs. I was just as proud of him, and I am very pleased to be able to say that he is the only person who attended all three of my college graduations (B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.). We developed a relationship I will always treasure.
The last time I saw my grandfather, he had been given 3 weeks to live. He had been suffering from dementia for several years, and typically wasn’t sure who was visiting him. He thought I was his son Donny, and it didn’t help that my wife and my aunt are both named Donna. On that last day I saw him, he was not the excited man of 80 years old who had a new computer program to show me. In fact, it took a while for me to convince myself he was actually still alive. It is frightening to see what can happen to the human body as a result of what is simply a natural process (old age, that is, dementia is certainly not a given with old age). Before I left, I prayed to God, deeply and sincerely, that my grandfather would finally just die. I was the last person in our family to see him alive. It is even more frightening, though merciful nonetheless, to think that my prayer was answered. I was satisfied that his life had been a good one, and content that his suffering was ended.
Has there been anyone in your life who meant a great deal to you but who has died? Were you able to participate in their dying process, and if so, how difficult was it? Imagine what it might be like to face death yourself, and think about how you might want others to treat you. Do your feelings and expectations fit within the cultural expectations and/or traditions of your family and community?
Review of Key Points
- Erikson never knew who his father was, and his relationship with his mother was never secure. This challenge to his own identity led him to focus much of his career on the development of identity.
- Erikson’s theory was epigenetic, in that he believed people progress through a predictable series of psychological stages.
- At each stage, there is a unique and critical psychosocial crisis.
- Play is the royal road to understanding the young child’s ego, according to Erikson.
- Before fully developing his theory, Erikson confirmed many of his observations in distinct cultures, including two Native American tribes (Sioux and Yurok).
- Erikson described eight stages of development: trust vs. mistrust; autonomy vs. shame/doubt; initiative vs. guilt; industry vs. inferiority; identity vs. role diffusion/confusion; intimacy vs. isolation; generativity vs. stagnation/self-absorption; and integrity vs. despair.
- Each of the eight stages is associated with a particular strength: hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, wisdom.
- Sometimes young adults will take a moratorium during their search for an identity.
- Joan Erikson proposed a ninth stage of development when death is imminent: despair vs. gerotranscendence.
- Identity develops in relation to one’s environment and culture. Thus, it involves psychosocial relativity.
- Individuals who lose a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity may face an identity crisis.
- Both the ratio of where one falls on each continuum of a psychosocial crisis and the possibility of adopting a negative identity are challenges to healthy identity formation.
- Erikson believed that the significant challenges faced by young Blacks trying to find an identity in America, their disconnection from both their African heritage and the White majority in America, led them toward adopting a negative identity. Evidence can be found in the movement of some young Blacks toward the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers during the 1960s.
- The family is an integral social institution in all cultures. Thus, family psychology can play an important role in helping individuals to recover from identity crises.
- Adulthood is a time of continued psychological development, with its own unique psychosocial crises. The form of these crises, however, varies dramatically from one culture to another.
- In all cultures, the primary activities of adulthood, around which the psychosocial crises revolve, are work and love.
- Very old individuals can still be productive and creative. Old age is also an important time for grandparents to communicate a sense of continuity, a generational link, to their grandchildren.
- Kubler-Ross described five stages that occur during the dying process: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Unfortunately, many people never reach the stage of acceptance.
- When faced with death itself, those who have achieved acceptance can transcend life, and die in peace. Many non-Western cultures have different attitudes regarding death, and are able to facilitate acceptance much more readily.