Personality traits seem to come in opposites—you are patient or impatient, optimistic or pessimistic, aggressive or passive, adventurous or cautious, etc. Many of these are inherited traits but other characteristics such as the feeling of inferiority or lack of initiative are learned traits we develop based on the challenges and support we receive throughout our development. Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist influenced by Freud who organized life into eight stages from birth until death.
Stages of Development
1. Trust vs. Mistrust–Birth to 18 months (Infancy):
Emphasis is placed on the parents’ positive and loving care for the child. If we pass successfully through this stage, we learn to trust that life is alright and have faith in the future. If we fail to establish a trust in others and constantly have our needs left unmet, we may end up with a feeling of mistrust with the world in general.
2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt–18 months to 3 years (Early Childhood):
During this stage we learn how to do things for ourselves such as talking, walking, toilet training, etc. This gives us the opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy as we gain more skills and learn to control ourselves. Yet, if we are shamed in the process of learning important skills or not given enough autonomy, we may doubt our capabilities and suffer low self-esteem.
3. Initiative vs. Guilt–3 to 5 years (Play Age):
During this stage, we have the desire to copy the influences around us and take the initiative in creating play situations. For example, a child may make up a dialogue between her dolls. We also start asking “Why?” and constantly question our surroundings. If initiative is restricted during this stage, we may experience guilt and frustration.
4. Industry vs. Inferiority–6 to 12 (School Age):
This stage is characterized by the capacity to learn, create, and accomplish new things, thus developing a sense of industry. However, because this is also a very social stage of development, if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of self-esteem.
5. Identity vs. Role Confusion–12 to 18 (Adolescence):
This is a very important stage in development—the “Who am I?” stage. In this stage, according to Erikson, development mostly depends on what is done to us and every stage following it is impacted by what we do. We must discover who we are as individuals separate from our family and as members of a wider society. Therefore, it is no surprise that our most significant relationships are with peer groups. If we are unsuccessful in navigating this stage, we will experience role confusion and upheaval. A significant task for us is to establish a philosophy of life.
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation–18 to 35 (Young Adulthood):
In this stage we try to find mutually satisfying relationships, primarily through marriage and friendship. If navigating this stage is successful, we can experience intimacy whereas if we are unsuccessful, we will feel isolated from others.
7. Generativity vs. Self-Absorption–35-55 or 65 (Middle Adulthood):
Erikson observed that middle-age is when we tend to be occupied with creative and meaningful work and with issues surrounding our family. The significant task is to preserve our culture and transmit values of the culture through the family (teaching the kids) and working to establish a stable environment. Because the focus is on giving back and contributing to the betterment of society, Erikson called this stage generativity. Failure in this stage can result in self-absorption and stagnation.
8. Integrity vs. Despair–55 or 65 to Death (Late Adulthood):
If as older adults we can look back on our lives and feel happiness, fulfillment, and a sense that life has meaning and that we have somehow made a contribution to the world, then this will lead to a feeling Erikson calls integrity. We are able to accept death as the completion of life. However, some adults may reach this stage and feel despair regarding their experiences and failures. They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their life.
While the actual ages one undergoes each stage may vary depending on the individual, it seems appropriate for a majority of people. Many of the problems people face as young adults or as adults can be traced back to failure in one of the stages of development. For example, many studies of suicides and suicide attempts point to the importance of the early years in developing the basic belief that the world is trustworthy and that every individual has a right to be here. Furthermore, a person who has difficulty in the adolescent stage might find it hard to maintain a job in the future because they were unable to form their own identity and establish what it is that they are happy pursuing. They may also have trouble with forming and maintaining healthy relationships with others.
For positive youth development to occur, the successful passage of each stage is important and requires the support of caring adults in the youth’s life. Erikson’s theory stresses the role of influences because they ultimately shape the way one views the world, themselves, and their future.
by Betty Diop (Re:LIFE Writer/Columnist)
B.A. Applied Psychology