Poetic Elegance of Erik Erikson, p.1

The Poetic Elegance of Erik Erikson: An Homage to the “Eight Stages …”

William Sundwick
Eight stages of psychosocial development — such a pedestrian name for such an influential theory. But, the language and vitality of its dialectical tension has resonated with me ever since I was first introduced, in my undergraduate Developmental Psych class, 47 years ago. 
In a nutshell, Erikson (Erik, a German immigrant, and his wife and collaborator, Joan) took the concept of Hegelian dialectic (thesis à antithesis à synthesis) and constructed with it a general architecture of personality development throughout life. Influenced by Freud’s ideas about development of the id and superego, Erikson built his model, instead, around ego development.
When I was first exposed, I had already captured, from earlier philosophy courses, a similar Hegelian (even Marxian?) world view. Continuous struggle was the theme. Instead of one great reward at the end of a single monumental struggle, however, Erikson posited eight sequentially ordered struggles, resolution of one leading only to the next, with each of them having a characteristic tension, and acquisition of a labeled virtue to mark successful transition to the next struggle, up the hierarchy. Each was built upon all the preceding. This orderly structure for personality development always appealed to me. It had an aesthetic, a poetic elegance to it.
For some reason, even though I never pursued teaching as a career, despite it being my intent at the time, the language of the relational dialectics, which wouldn’t be named until the 1980s, and the description of the “virtues” at the successful completion of each stage, have always stuck with me. I’ve negotiated each successive stage’s tensions, in my mind … from ego identity, in those days, through intimacy vs. isolation; generativity vs. stagnation; and, now, I believe, integrity vs. despair.
The dialectical struggle at each stage of my own life has been palpable.
What I didn’t grasp in my youth, though, was another central theme in the theory: there is often retrograde motion as we plow through life … what may appear to be resolved doesn’t necessarily stay resolved! The role of crisis is fundamental to understanding Erikson.
While clearly something like the layers of an onion, Erikson’s writing strongly suggests that crisis floats around chronologically, each stage is not fixed to particular age ranges. He arrived at the age brackets for each stage only as statistical norms. We should always expect outliers, within one or two standard deviations. And, we should remember that he, and wife Joan, always felt that people, in times of personal crisis, would often revisit an earlier, comfortably resolved, tension later in life. External events, stressors, can throw you back, perhaps even to the very earliest stage of development, characteristic of infants! Nevertheless, the basic theory asserts that successful resolution of one stage generally advances to successfully resolving the next stage, like advancing a grade in school!
Fair enough, despite the uneven progress that many of us follow, as we negotiate through all life’s crises, large and small. Let’s look at each of the eight stages, and think of our own experiences with child rearing, or our own development through life crises. It really DOES make sense, and I will illustrate some throwback crises people close to me have experienced. The reader may easily recognize other situations. Each stage is identified by its distinctive tension, and the resolution virtue is identified in parentheses:
       1. Tension: trust vs. distrust (virtue = “hope”) … think what impact abandonment could have on an infant; but, then, what about extreme survival situations in adulthood? Perhaps failure, in such a crisis, to rely on hope, would result in death? It strikes a chord, doesn’t it? “Abandon Hope, all Ye Who Enter …”

2. Tension: autonomy vs. shame and doubt (virtue = “will”) … we think of emergence into toddlerhood from infancy (mobility and language), but what about an adult who has their livelihood stripped from them? Or, crippling disease, like Parkinson’s? Was it their fault? What shame must they feel at becoming totally dependent, once again, on others? I experienced this with my mother, who declined over her last years (almost 12 years, as I recall) little by little, from Parkinson’s, until at the end of her life, she was entirely immobile, in a skilled nursing facility, dependent on aides for all daily functions, yet still sentient, still able to talk … with a fainter and fainter vocalization ability, then one day she simply stopped breathing. It was her only release from the prison of her body.

3. Tension: initiative vs. guilt (virtue = “purpose”) … now that I have “will”, when can I use it safely? What can I get away with? Who doesn’t know this tension as an adult? I won’t elaborate, due to my desire to avoid self-incrimination … but, think of how you feel when you get caught! What if getting caught were to lead to prison time? To what stage would be beat your safest retreat?

4. Tension: industry vs. inferiority (virtue = “competence”) … although Erikson characterized this as the dominant tension among school age children, on into adolescence, don’t most of us have a gnawing feeling of incompetence through most of our professional lives? Or, for that matter, as a homeowner, or a parent, or a cook? While many of us will grow to accept that there are some things we just can’t do as well as other things, there may be cases where later progress through stages 5 -8 may have seemed assured, until suddenly one is confronted with a failure to perform competently in a life role where they have become accustomed to success. I’m reminded of the difficulty many older employees at my agency faced with new technology. Jobs which they performed perfectly well prior to the introduction of new digital technologies became impossible for them once typewriters, or word processors, or card catalogs, disappeared. I was a librarian for many years at the Library of Congress, and saw a wave of retirements, some premature, among this group back in the eighties and nineties. If they stayed on the job, many retreated to Stage 3, where they filled their time with less demanding tasks. I chose to reinvent my job, to become an IT specialist, perhaps merely a cover for a similar retreat!

   (continued in next post, p.2)

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