FYI: A Brief Primer on Erikson

FYI: A Brief Primer on Erikson

If you really don’t care about the bare-bones details of Erikson’s theory of human development, then if I were you I’d skip this and go looking for my posts on the meanings and applications this theory has for the church.   What follows is a general overview on Erikson’s theory and I’m mainly posting it as a reference point for future posts.  

In the late 1950s, Erikson published a theory known as “The Eight Stages of Man” as part of a larger work Childhood and Society and he later fleshed out in The Life Cycle Completed and Youth, Identity and Crisis.  In Childhood and Society, he was seeking to establish the general idea that supports theory, that Humans are psychosocial.  It is the idea that person develops their identity through the interplay of their self (physical and psychological) and their social  surroundings.    At different ages a person physically exists in the world differently (babies, toddlers, teens, etc.), because of this they psychologically engage the world differently; likewise they are engaged differently by the world.  

Erikson, being Freudian, was far more concerned with sexual and genital development as a part of his theory.  I, however, am not.  Further, I have not yet made up mind as to how sexual and genital development figures into that grander picture of human development, but I am sure it is there somehow.

Now for the stages.

The 8 Stages of Humanity
Erikson has categorized these differing engagements in 8 stages and termed them “crises”.  The crisis is between two antithesis that concern a general sense of self and the world (below I only cover the positive).  A person doesn’t come away with one or the other, but ends up somewhere on the continuum between the two.   

In each crisis the person develops a “virtue” particular to that crisis and that virtue shapes how the person engages later crises, so the stages build on each other. (A person is by no means stuck with a virtue and can revisit a crisis and away with a different virtue.)

Lastly, every stage is marked by a “ritual”, the way individuals at that invest in society.  Frankly, until the individual reaches a certain age, they way they invest in society is their reception of a ritual as opposed to acting it out.

1st Crisis: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust
This is the first crisis a person encounters where as an infant they are merely taking in, sensing the world.  The infant is dependent on their caregiver and learns through the care of the caregiver whether or not they can trust their continuation of care and whether or not they can trust themselves with their own urges and their interactions with the caregiver.

The virtue learned in this stage is hope.  If the infant is provided care that enables them to trust their caregiver(s) and they develop a sense of trust, a general sense of hopefulness will result (as opposed to apprehension).

Lastly, the binding ritual of this stage, Erikson terms numinous, described as separateness (of the child and caregiver) transcended and as distinctiveness (of the child from the caregiver) confirmed.  

2nd Crisis: Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt
The 1st crisis gives way around the time the infant begins exercising muscular and verbal control of themselves (potty training included) and their environment.  Through the child’s exertion of themselves and the caregivers care, they learn whether or not they can exist as autonomously as themselves.

The virtue learned in this stage is will.  If the child is provided with proper guidance and they develop a sense of autonomy a general sense of self-control without loss of self-esteem, that is free will, will result (as opposed to hesitancy).

The binding ritual of this stage Erikson calls judicious, described as the going ons within the individual’s inner life, where their conscious frees or condemns the individual.

3rd Crisis: Initiative vs. Guilt
The 2nd crisis bleeds into the third as the child gains sufficient master over their bodies and use of language.  Further they can think symbolically, thus allowing them to conceive mental images of things not present and to plan.  This mastery naturally leads to curiosity and enables the child to explore what they may do above and beyond what that can do.  The exploration the child develops initiative, that is a realistic sense of their own ambition and purpose.

The virtue learned in this stage is purpose.  If the child is partnered with well in their curiosity and exploration, they develop a sense of purpose, that they can put their mind to something and bring to completion.

The ritual of this stage Erikson calls dramatic, where the child, in their playing with others or not, imagines up and acts out dramatic events.

4th Crisis: Industry vs. Inferiority
The 3rd crisis gives way to 4th come school age as the child moves beyond intent and planning to attempting to produce something of worth utilizing that planning and intent.  They are able to think logically and looks like attempting and successfully accomplishing learning tasks, creating a work of art and successfully accomplishing something in a group.  This desire to produce develops as sense of industry, that the child can intend and then create something of worth and/or work together with others.

The virtue taken away from this stage is competence.  If the child is guided well by authority figures (parents, teachers, etc.) then they should come away from the stage feeling competent in their ability to work together and to create.

Erikson calls the ritual of this stage formal (technical).  Frankly he’s not succinctly clear on this, but the child in their education (school, life, parenting, etc.) engages, trains, and practices operating within their societies methods/rules of performance, the way the society formally operates.

5th Crisis: Identity vs. Identity Confusion
As they establish themselves in the midst of the ability to create successfully (or unsuccessfully) the individual also gains the ability to think abstractly (symbolically about symbolism) which enables deductive, inferential, hypothetical reasoning – that is they can think about grandiose ideas or what so-and-so thinks about them and what that means.  The individual can now concern themselves with not just creating successfully, but consider the meaning of their creation and what it means for them.  The individual can begin to establish their identity by creating themselves the way they want to be perceived.

The virtue arising from this stage is fidelity.  In the individuals (sometimes dangerous) search in identity, they can healthily come away committing their loyalty to something or someone(s).

The binding ritual for the adolescent is ideological.  The individual, as part of a group, begins to form their own rites and formalities to establish ideological confirmation.

6th Crisis: Intimacy vs. Isolation
As the individual establishes their own identity, they seek to share that identity in community – work, sexuality, friendship, etc. in a complementary manner.  The individual begins working toward a sense of how they belong as themselves amongst another(s) in the world, a sense of intimacy.  

The virtue developed in this stage is love.  The “mutuality of mature devotion that promises to resolve the antagonisms inherent in divided function.”  That’s Erikson speak for the ability to stay united with another in spite of the reality that because the other is their own person, clashes will result.

The ritual in this stage is affiliative.  The individual, as part of a group, cultivates  particular styles of living (behviors, manners, speaking, etc.) based on those they develop intimacy with.

7th Crisis: Generativity vs. Stagnation
The individual eventually moves beyond being primarily concerned about how to belong and about how they might establish and guide the generation that comes behind them.  This may be whether they have and how they care for their children and/or something they might be able to produce, create or be involved in, such as business or altruistic work.  At this stage the individual is working toward a sense of generativity.

The virtue the person comes away with in this stage is care.  Care can be understood as a committment to be care-ful, to take care of and to care for or as Erikson puts it restraint, charity and compassion.

The ritual inherent to this stage is generational.  The individual is engaged in practices that helps others in their own development.  They become a numinous model for the next generation and “act as judge of evil and transmitter of ideals.”

8th Crisis: Integrity vs. Despair
There comes the point in an individual’s life where the concern to generate is surpassed by the the concern of how to look back on their life and love it.  This is not a narcissistic love, but an “acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity permitted no substitutions.”  The individual must look at their own life and develop a sense of integrity, in which, as Erikson says, death loses its sting.

The virtue at this point in life is wisdom.  Which is a “detatched yet active concern with life bounded by dath” and at the same time “present in the simplest references to concrete and daily matters”, seen in witicisms, accumulated knowledge, mature judgment and inclusive understanding.

The ritual of this stage is philo-sophical.  It is the regular practice of “maintaining some order and meaning in the dis-integration of the body and mind.”  Further, it supports a lasting hope in wisdom.


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