Erik Erikson


Erik Erikson was an American developmental psychologist who was primarily known for his theory on human psychosocial development (Wikipedia, 2017).  He was borne out of wedlock to Karla Salomonsen, who at the time, was married to Valdemar Salomonsen (Wikipedia, 2017).  Having been estranged from her husband for several months when Erik was conceived, his biological father is thought to have been a Danish gentleman (Wikipedia, 2017).  Karla fled to Frankfurt , Germany when she discovered her pregnancy, where Erik was born on June 15, 1902 as Erik Salomonsen (Wikipedia, 2017).  Subsequently, Karla trained as a nurse and moved to Karlsrhue, Germany where she married Erik’s pediatrician, Theodore Homberger in 1905 (Wikipedia, 2017).  Erik’s name was changed to Erik Homberger in 1908 and he was adopted by his stepfather in 1911 (Wikipedia, 2017).  According to Wikipedia (2017), he “continued to contend with questions about his father and competing ideas of ethnic, religious, and national identity” for much of his young adult life.  He eventually dropped out of school and instead roamed Europe in search of his identity (Wikipedia, 2017).

Early Career

Erik was invited to tutor art at a school for young children in which Anna Freud was treating their parents via psychoanalysis (Wikipedia, 2017).  At Anna’s recommendation, Erik specialized in child analysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, simultaneously studying Montessori education (Wikipedia, 2017).  Receiving his diploma in 1933, this would complete Erik’s studies (Wikipedia, 2017).  In 1931 Erik married Joan Serson and in 1933 they fled Germany due to the rise of Hitler (Wikipedia, 2017).  Without even a Bachelor degree, Erik was the first child psychoanalyst in Boston and held employment at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Judge Baker Guidance Center, and at Harvard Medical School and Psychological Clinic (Wikipedia, 2017).  In 1936 he left Harvard to engage in employment at Yale University where he worked at the Institute of Human Relations and taught at the Medical School (Wikipedia, 2017).  It was during this time that he became a citizen of the United States and changed his surname to Erikson, a name of his own creation (Wikipedia, 2017).  This name change was related to his earlier identity confusions, which had resulted from his mother being secretive regarding the circumstances of his birth in addition to his varying surname (Wikipedia, 2017).

Established Career

At this time he began to explore connections between psychology and anthropology and left Yale in 1939 to move to California where he joined a study on child development for the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Child Welfare (Wikipedia, 2017).  He also opened his own practice in San Francisco for child psychoanalysis (Wikipedia, 2017).  After publishing his book, Childhood and Society in 1950, he left the University of California and worked at a psychiatric treatment facility in Stockbrodge, Massachusetts also serving as visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh and working at Arsenal Nursery School of the Western Psychiatric Institute (Wikipedia, 2017).  After returning to Harvard in the 1960s as a professor of Human Development, he retired in 1970 (Wikipedia, 2017).  In 1973 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Jefferson Lecture (the United State’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities) (Wikipedia, 2017).  His lecture was entitled “Dimensions of a New Identity” (Wikipedia, 2017).

Personality Development

Erikson’s research into personality development primarily focused on the development of the ego (Wikipedia, 2017).  He believed that the ego develops in direct relation to social crises experienced during development (Wikipedia, 2017):

  • sense of trust in others
  • sense of identity in society
  • prosperity

Epigenic Principle

Erikson expanded Freud’s theory on personality development to include the entire human lifespan (Wikipedia, 2017).  Like most developmental psychologists, Erickson, followed what is known as the epigenic principle – the idea that personality develops in a specific order and builds upon each previous stage (Wikipedia, 2017).  The result of this process of maturation is such that one is then armed with life skills and abilities which then function together within the individual (Wikipedia, 2017).  Erikson’s primary focus of research being in children and how socialization effects their sense of self (Wikipedia, 2017).

Importance of Play

According to Erikson (1964), Freud interpreted play as “the royal road to the understanding of the infantile ego’s efforts at synthesis”.  Understanding play as a “function of the ego” which is a purposeful attempt “to synchronize the bodily and social processes with the self” (Erikson, 1964), we can begin to view play as an important aspect of child development.  Play is defined by the Oxford Dictionary (2017), “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”; however, Erikson (1964) proposes that play is more meaningful than this stating that the purpose of play is “to hallucinate ego mastery and yet also to practice it in an intermediate reality between phantasy and reality”.  Therefore, in all actually, play is for the purpose of preparing to become an adult.


According to Erikson (1964), it is only within the limitations of play in which one is able to feel at one with his ego.  Erikson (1964) notes Schiller stating that “Man is perfectly human only when he plays”; however, adults must work and not play most of the time.  According to Erikson (1964), this causes a dilemma for the child because it is an adult’s view that “whoever does not work, shall not play” (Erikson, 1964).  In response to this dilemma, adults must create theories about child’s play in order to tolerate such ‘nonsense’.  Erikson (1964) states that Spencer consummated that “play uses up surplus energy in the young of a number of mammalians who do not need to feed or protect themselves because their parents do it for them.  In addition to this theory, psychoanalysis concluded that play was cathartic in which “it permits [children] to work off pent up emotions and to find imaginary relief for past frustrations” (Erikson, 1964).   Erikson (1964) points out that Freud noticed that through play a child is able to utilize mastery over objects and arrange them in such a way that he is able to imagine his being master of his life predicament.  Erikson (1964) states that Freud describes this as “turning passivity into activity” in which the child essentially plays out what is done to him.

As Erikson was once quoted: “You see a child play, and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what’s wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever’s in them rises to the surface in free play” (BrainyQuote, 2017).


Play begins in a child’s life prior to adults recognizing it as such (Erikson, 1964).  The initiation of play begins as autocosmic play, in which a child’s play centers on his own body expressing itself through sensual perceptions, kinesthetic sensations, and vocalizations etc (Erikson, 1964).  The child soon begins to instead play with objects and people (Erikson, 1964).  The child turns to his “small world of manageable toys” (Erikson, 1964)  – the microsphere –  “when he needs to overhaul his ego” (Erikson, 1964).  When play at the microsphere level is disturbed due to fright or disappointment, the child regresses into the autosphere of one’s own body (thumb sucking, daydreaming, etc); however, when play at the microsphere level is properly guided, the child is able to master the trauma caused to him (Erikson, 1964).  This is where the idea of play therapy and its effectiveness has taken its precedence.  Ultimately Erikson (1964) proposes that “child’s play is the infantile form of the human ability to deal with experience by creating model situations and to master reality by experiment and planning”.  The ability to play is; therefore, “the most self healing measure childhood affords” (Erikson, 1964).  Thus, while adults self heal through the ability to “talk it out”, children do so by “playing it out” (Erikson, 1964).  During experiences of fear, the ego is essentially able to re-synthesize through play (Erikson, 1964).


During growth, children must “derive a vitalizing sense of actuality from the awareness that his individual way of mastering experience (ego synthesis) is successful” in relation to his stage of growth and identity (Erikson, 1964).  It is in this way that children cannot be fooled by fake attempts at encouragement and praise and can only gain true ego strength through consistent, wholehearted recognition of achievement in relation to his culture (Erikson, 1964).  By minimizing the importance of play, we also “exclude our children from an early source of a sense of identity” (Erikson, 1964).  Erikson (1964) continues to point out that studies of neurosis have reflected a gap in child training and social actuality which results from this separation of childhood from adulthood, as if childhood has nothing to do with adulthood.  It is during a child’s interference into our world in which they seek only to begin to identify with it (Erikson, 1964).

Eight Ages of Man

With these thoughts, Erikson (1964) proposed the Eight Ages of Man which is now commonly known as the Psychosocial Stages of Development. Through these stages humans experience the process of personality development (Erikson, 1964).  At each stage  “the individual demonstrates that his ego is strong enough to integrate the timetable of the organism with the structure of social institutions” (Erikson, 1964).  This results in either an achievement of the associated virtue of the relevant stage or not (Erikson, 1964).  Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development were proposed in 1959, consisting of eight stages, five of which occur during childhood and three of which occur during adulthood (Erikson, 1964).  As Erikson was once quoted: “There is in every child at every stage a new miracle of vigorous unfolding, which constitutes a new hope and a new responsibility for all” (BrainyQuote, 2017).

Psychosocial Stages of Development

The eight Psychosocial Stages of Personality Development are as follows (Erikson, 1964):

  • Basic Trust vs Basic Mistrust
  • Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt
  • Initiative vs Guilt
  • Industry vs Inferiority
  • Identity vs Role Confusion
  • Intimacy vs Isolation
  • Generativity vs Stagnation
  • Ego Integrity vs Despair

Basic Trust vs Mistrust

According to Erikson (1964), “The first demonstration of social trust in the baby is the ease of his feeding, the depth of his sleep, the relaxation of his bowels”.  During the first year of life, consistency, predictability, and reliability of care serve to instill (or disrupt) development of the virtue of hope.  The central question being: Can I trust the world?  By developing this sense of trust in the world, infants are able to then face life with a sense of hope, a confidence in the world around them and support available to them.  Inconsistent, unpredictable, and unreliable care results in the infant developing mistrust in the world.  This mistrust effects the infant’s later belief in their ability to influence events.  This underlying sense of mistrust is then carried on to other relationships and is expressed through a constant feeling of anxiety and insecurity in their world.  This stage of personality development was of particular interest to Bowlby and Ainsworth in their development of the Attachment Theory.

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt

The next two years of life (1 – 3 years old) consist of a battle within regarding Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt.  The central question being: Is it okay to be me?  At a stage in life when physical mobility is prominent and independence is sought, children are increasingly aware of success and failure as interpreted by their caregivers.  According to Erikson, it is essential for children during this stage to be allowed to independently explore in an environment which is both encouraging and tolerant of failure.  It is during this stage that patience is of utmost importance in both the encouragement of  the child’s independence by allowing them to do things alone while also being supportive when they ask for help.  Instead of criticizing children for their failures; rather, the caregiver’s responsibility is to support and encourage while having the patience and tolerance to accept the child’s inevitable mistakes.  Children who are supported in this way will develop a sense of Autonomy which leads to the healthy development of the virtue of will.  This entails the ability to be secure and confident in their own abilities.  However, children who are continuously controlled and criticized for their mistakes or failures will develop a sense of Shame and Doubt leading to the development of unhealthy qualities such as codependency and low self esteem, affecting their  ability to feel capable.  As Erikson was once quoted: “Children love and want to be loved and they very much prefer the joy of accomplishment to the triumph of hateful failure. Do not mistake a child for his symptom” (BrainyQuote, 2017).

Initiative vs Guilt

The next two years of life (3 – 5 years old) are plagued by establishing a balance between Initiative and Guilt.  The central question being: Is it okay for me to do, move, and act?  During this stage of personality development play becomes a tremendously important feature of life as children at this age learn to initiate activities with others.  Children allowed to play freely in this way with others develop a sense of initiative and feel secure in their leadership and decision making abilities; however, children who are criticized or controlled and prevented from initiating play with others develop a sense of guilt and feel as though they are a nuisance to others.  Children at this age often take steps to initiate dangerous play in which parents step in to protect children.  It is in how this protection is handled that is pertinent to development.  Punishing children for their natural curiosities, treating them as though they are a nuisance, or embarrassing them restricts their initiatives through guilt; however, the same ends can be achieved by explaining and being responsive and patient when children question their boundaries.  Achieving a successful balance between initiative and guilt during this stage awards the child with the virtue of purpose, instilling within them a sense of purpose.

Industry vs Inferiority

The following seven years of life (5 – 12 years old) are spent in stage four of the Psychosocial Stages of Development.  The central question being: Can I make it in the world of people and things? This stage seeks to achieve a balance between Industry and Inferiority.  During this stage children feel compelled to demonstrate their abilities and competencies, develop a sense of pride, and feel valued.  The encouragement and support of children’s abilities allows them to feel industrious and competent; whereas, being restricted or unable to achieve certain competencies leads to the feeling of inferiority and uselessness.  On the other hand, completely sheltering children from natural failure can lead to extreme pompousness.  This balance between Industry and Inferiority leads to the virtue of  competence.

Identity vs Role Confusion

The subsequent six years (12 – 18 years old) are dominated by the need to achieve balance between Ego Identity and Role Confusion.  The central questions being: Who am I? Who can I be?  Personal values, beliefs, and goals become increasingly important during this time in which adolescents are developing a sense of self and personal identity.  Erikson states that: “The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult” (Erikson, 1963).  This transition from childhood to adulthood is of utmost importance.  An increasing need to belong to society and fit in finds children during this stage beginning to assess the future in terms of relationships, housing, family, and career.  The child will begin to reexamine himself in an effort to discover his true identity.  According to Erikson, sexual and occupational identities are most vital during this time.  In successful completion of this stage Erikson suggested that children ultimately secure a sense of what they want to do or be and of one’s appropriate sex role, achieving the virtue of fidelity.  The ability to accept others for who they are despite ideological differences entails the virtue of fidelity.  The failure to develop a sense of one’s place in society results in Role Confusion, resulting in a lack of confidence in one’s self.  Role confusion can lead to experimentation or negative identity development and unhappiness in response to pressure.  As Eriksonpoints out: “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity” (BrainyQuote, 2017).

Intimacy vs Isolation

Young adulthood (18 – 40 years old) involves the process of developing a balance between Intimacy and Isolation.  The central question being: Can I love?  It is during this stage when one begins to share themselves more intimately with those around them.  A secure sense of identity at this point allows young adults to begin to develop long term relationships with others.  The successful completion of this stage leads to a sense of commitment, care, and safety within long term relationships.  The alternative of avoiding commitments and fearing relationships and commitments leads to isolation, depression, and loneliness; whereas, success during this stage leads to the virtue of love.

Generativity vs Stagnation

During middle adulthood (ages 40 – 65 years), adults begin to grapple with Generativity and Stagnation.  The central question being: Can I make my life count?  This is a time when we start to see ourselves as part of the bigger picture through the establishment of career and settling down in a relationship.  At this time we start to focus on ways to give back to society whether it be through raising children, being a productive employee or employer, or through involvement in community organizations and activities.  By failing to achieve the goals of this stage we begin to feel stagnant and unproductive; whereas, success during this stage leads to the virtue of care.

Ego Integrity vs Despair

During older adulthood (65+ years) we begin to identify with either Ego Integrity or Despair.  During this stage achieving a balance between the two is essential to feeling adequate about how we lived our lives.  The central question being: Is it okay to have been me?  The slow down of activity at this stage starts the process of evaluating the life we lived.  Through this evaluation we either see ourselves as having led a successful life or an unsuccessful life.  Our accomplishments throughout life become important at this stage.  If one feels inadequate and regretful  in their evaluation of self at this stage despair sets in, leading to depression and hopelessness.  Successfully achieving the virtue of wisdom at this stage allows one to look back at life with a feeling of closure and is able to face death without fear.  As Erikson once stated: “Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death” (BrainyQuote, 2017).

Self Knowledge

Erikson’s life story is inspirational at best; an extraordinary example of how an imperfect life can be an inspiring agenda.  Our personal challenges are many times the fruit of our passion.  Erikson’s theory regarding psychosocial development has demonstrated the importance of achieving balance at each stage of one’s life as well as the incredible importance of being a supportive parent and of living with integrity.  Human development and psychology are both important fields in allowing us to better understand ourselves and; therefore, better understand others.  Erikson said it best himself when he stated that: “The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others” (BrainyQuote, 2017).


BrainyQuote. (2017). Erik Erikson Quotes. Retrieved February 02, 2017, from

Erikson, E. H. (1964). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Simply Psychology. (2013, September 16). Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development. Retrieved February 02, 2017, from

Wikipedia. (2017). Erik Erikson. Retrieved February 02, 2017, from

What do you think? Comment below.

Please share.