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The Erikson stage model of psychosocial development

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The Erikson stage model of psychosocial development

We all go through different phases in the course of our lives. We learn, develop, and gain countless experiences that shape our personalities. As the saying goes, "You never stop learning."

This was also the view of the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson. He asked himself what exactly are the stages we go through until our character is fully formed. The result was a model that Erikson shared with the public in 1950.

Back then he called it "The Eight Stages of Man", but today we know it as the "Erikson Psychosocial Stage Model" or simply the "Erikson Stage Model". What exactly it is about and which stages we all go through in the course of our lives, you can read here.

What is the Erikson stage model?

Basically, the Erikson stage model describes the development of human identity. The starting point are the desires and needs that you already have in your childhood. However, these are constantly evolving, because the demands you have to meet in the eyes of your social environment change the older you get.

Consequently, you also change in order to be able to fulfil exactly these requirements. In Erikson's eyes, the relationship to the social environment and the interaction with it is the crucial point. Of course, this also leads to one or the other conflict or even to a crisis.

After all, the demands you have to meet at different stages of your life and the desires and needs you have are two different things. Sometimes they contradict each other, and then it is your task to build a bridge and overcome the conflict. It is in these situations that you develop your character.

Conflicts shape our lives

Each stage according to Erikson's stage model is characterized by such a conflict and you are confronted with them one after the other. The fact that you overcome them is not a prerequisite for getting to the next stage, but it is of course helpful on your further path of development. Each stage you overcome becomes part of the foundation for mastering all the stages that lie ahead. So the better you have done in overcoming them, and the more experience you have gained, the easier it will be for you to overcome the crises that come.

However, you should say goodbye to the idea that you will be able to completely resolve each of these conflicts, because that will not happen. They will remain relevant throughout your life and will occupy you again and again. To get rid of them completely is not the goal at all. It is rather a matter of dealing with certain topics particularly intensively in a certain phase of life and growing from them.

Who was Erik H. Erikson?

Before we look at the individual stages of Erikson's stage model, let's first take a look at the psychoanalyst himself. What kind of person was he and how did he come to these insights in the first place? 

Erik H. Erikson was a creative mind, open to the world. He had a very unique take on psychoanalysis, as he was always looking for connections between his work and that of educators, cultural historians, and even authors.

He himself once said that he found his way to psychology through art. For example, he explained why his publications often had something "painterly" about them, where some readers might have wished for something more scientific.

Erikson himself had no fixed goal in mind for seven years. He repeatedly began artistic training, but never completed it. During this time he classified his mental state somewhere between neurosis and psychosis.

He first came into contact with ego psychology at the age of 25 and later even opened his own child-analytic practice. Erikson called himself a disciple of Sigmund Freud and built on his work. Thus Freud's account of child and adolescent development became a description of all the stages that human beings go through until they die. 

Erikson then connected the "I" with the effects that the environment has on one's own personality and thus went one step further than Freud. The result was the psychosocial Erikson stage model.

This is what the individual levels mean

But now we've beaten around the bush enough. It's time to take a closer look at the individual stages and the conflicts they hold for us. Let's take a journey through the eight stages together and learn more about the topic of Personality Development experienced.

Stage 1: Primordial trust vs. primordial mistrust (1st year of life)

Your path begins without any experience or special abilities. In the first stage you are dependent on the so-called basic trust. But what does that mean anyway?

  • You trust your caregivers to take care of you.
  • Your bond is strongest with your mother for now, after all she has protected and nurtured you for nine months.
  • You rely on her to continue to do that and look out for your best interests.

But if this is not the case, the basic trust turns into basic mistrust, i.e. the exact opposite. Children need closeness and security. If you are denied this, you develop fears. You feel helpless because you fear that your survival needs will not be met and that there is nothing you can do about it. This feeling can become internalized and the primal distrust becomes your constant companion. It manifests itself, for example, in strong emotional dependency, the feeling of inner emptiness, or even greedy behavior.

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. shame and doubt (2nd to 3rd year of life)

In the second stage of the Erikson stage model, you finally begin to develop autonomy. For this to work, you need caregivers whom you trust completely - in most cases your parents - and that you also have confidence in yourself. You begin to develop your identity at this stage.

It is important that you have the feeling that you are allowed to try things out and to act according to your own will without losing your basic trust. And it is at this point that the conflict you are dealing with at this second level is hidden:

  • If you become severely restricted in your discovery phase, you begin to believe that your desires are wrong and simply unacceptable.
  • Doubts arise and you feel ashamed.
  • You may develop obsessive traits and become very strict, perfectionistic, self-critical, and often doubt yourself.

Stage 3: Initiative vs. guilt (4 to 5 years of age)

Have you ever heard of the Oedipus complex? Because that's what you're looking at in stage number three. We'd like to refresh your knowledge a little bit. Oedipus comes from Greek mythology. Specifically, he was the son of the king of Thebes. In short, he killed his father, later drove the Sphinx out of Thebes, and as a reward was allowed to marry a woman named Iocaste.

But what neither of them knew: Iocaste was Oedipus' mother. Sigmund Freud derived the Oedipus complex from this, which Eriksen refers to here. Basically, it means nothing other than that sons rival their fathers and seek greater proximity to their mothers. With daughters, it's the other way around. This is part of gender identity formation and presents you with the following tasks:

  • You slowly loosen the particularly close bond with your parents and expand the circle of your caregivers to include other family members.
  • You realize that everyone has a social role and you fit into your own.
  • You want to develop yourself further and lay the foundation for your future independence.

Stage 4: Sense of achievement vs. sense of inferiority (age 6 to puberty)

Now the learning really starts and here's how:

  • Your curiosity is greater than ever and you want to be at the forefront.
  • You want to watch everywhere and be shown how to do something useful.
  • You don't want to just pretend to be in the game now, like the adults, you want to really participate in what's going on.

This is exactly what Erikson calls the sense of work. It is important here that you or your parents do not overestimate yourself and make unrealistic demands. Then failure would be pre-programmed. You could then develop the feeling of never being good enough and only enjoying recognition if you were able to shine with outstanding achievements.

However, underestimating is also the wrong approach, because a feeling of inferiority and also fear of failure can develop from this later on. In this phase, the challenge is to find a middle ground and make realistic demands.

Stage 5: Identity vs. identity diffusion (adolescence)

The question of your own identity comes up again and again, but it is particularly preoccupying during adolescence. You're on the cusp of adulthood, and you think you should have figured out who you are and what you want out of life by then. But that's easier said than done. This is what awaits you at this stage:

  • You do everything you can to put together and analyze all the knowledge you have gathered so far.
  • You hope to find answers to all your questions, form a self-image and find your place in society.
  • Your circle of friends becomes your second family and contributes to the consolidation of your personality.

In this phase you are mainly concerned with what others think of you and check whether their perception of you matches your own. The answer is: "Yes"? Then you are a big step closer to finding your identity.

Stage 6: Intimacy and solidarity vs. isolation (early adulthood)

If one's own identity is solidified, the basis for intimacy is created. Only those who know themselves are also clear about their needs and know what they want from a partnership. But in increasingly fast-moving times, maintaining a consistent relationship is not always easy. Career and mobility have a higher value than ever before and partnerships but also friendships are quickly on the back burner.

An exclusivity arises, as Erikson calls it. Basically, he means nothing other than isolation. The task you have to accomplish at this stage is to accept this contradiction and move it to the background. Only then will you be ready to fully open up and enter into a serious and long-term relationship. The sticking points at this stage are the following:

  • Your partner and friends are closest to you, so don't isolate yourself from them.
  • Find yourself in your partner and make sure you have a balanced give and take.
  • Cooperations with close associates and competitions with rivals take place.

Stage 7: Generativity vs. stagnation and self-absorption (adulthood)

When children are born from love, you have arrived at the seventh level. You are now responsible for your offspring.

  • You give him security and safety.
  • Your children are now going through all the stages that you have already gone through and need your support.
  • This includes teaching the little ones all the things they will need later in life.

Erikson speaks here of the sciences, the arts, and also of social engagement. He summarizes this "giving" as generativity. The welfare of others is currently your first priority.

Contrast this with stagnation and self-absorption. You experience rejection and push others away. You are most important to yourself and have little interest in interpersonal interaction. The challenge you face in the seventh stage is to learn to be caring and to look after others, but at the same time not to forget yourself.

Stage 8: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (High Adulthood)

In the eighth and final stage, it's time to look back. You have already experienced so much and overcome countless challenges, and now you are reviewing all of that. You accept the person you have become and now face your final crisis: accepting death.

We all have to die sometime, that's very clear. But death is something unknown. There are no testimonials to deal with and this uncertainty causes fear. Every human being has a great need for security but this is simply not available here. So what is to be done?

  • Don't run away from fear, but deal with the issue.
  • Look back on your life and accept the things that might have gone better, because they made you who you are today.
  • The goal is to face death without fear and to look back on one's life with satisfaction.
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