Apologia to Erik Erikson

Published February 23, 2017 in Warp & Woof

Apologia to Erik Erikson

William Sundwick
Yes, Erikson’s Eight stages of psychosocial development does have a sort of poetic elegance, as I wrote two weeks ago in this blog, but I fear I was in over my head. My ground rules for Warp & Woof specified that it would not be scholarly. The main reason is that I don’t have the “cred” to write an academic critique, or knowledgeable review, of very many scholarly subjects. Major theories of ego development, like Erikson’s, clearly fall into this category. It is now time to retract some of the assertions I made in that piece two weeks ago … and, hopefully, clarify the rationale I had for writing it in the first place.

First, a quick recap, here are the eight stages, in table form:
Generalized age group
Trust vs. distrust
Autonomy vs. shame, doubt
Toddler, pre-school
Initiative vs. guilt
Pre-school, early childhood
Industry vs. inferiority
Middle childhood, “tweens”
Identity vs. role confusion
Intimacy vs. isolation
Late adolescence, early adulthood
Generativity vs. stagnation
Middle adulthood, middle age
Ego integrity vs. despair
Old age
Superficially, the table says everything I know about Erikson’s eight stages! They were first laid out in his seminal 1950 work, Childhood and Society. All his subsequent work was based upon this first book. I certainly have not made any extensive study of the literature of child psychology, much less ego development in psychoanalysis. But, further research has given me a bit more insight into Erikson (good academic, biographical piece here), but surely does not bestow any authority to my writing.
As I wrote in the conclusion of my earlier piece (p.2), Erikson, himself, tried to mollify his critics by disclaiming any prescriptive value for psychoanalysis of his theoretical structure. Any attempt I made to explain these stages by giving examples from my own life, or people I have “known”, is deserving of serious caution, if not outright retraction. I believe I was guilty of considerable hubris, even intellectual dishonesty, in my presumption that I knew what I was talking about!
Instead, I’d prefer to focus on the literary value of Erikson’s language. That was what inspired my title, “The Poetic Elegance of Erik Erikson“, and that is what has driven my fascination with the structure over nearly fifty years (I took my Developmental Psych course in Winter Quarter, 1969, at Kalamazoo College). If one were engaged in writing a novel, or a play, or long form poetry, what pool of understanding would they use in creating their characters? And, what sort of plot would these characters find themselves immersed in?
It seems to me that, were I such an author, a framework much like the one presented by Erikson would serve as my raw material. (I frankly don’t know enough interesting people … or, at least, don’t know enough about them … to say my fictional characters would come from personal life experience). But, of course, I’m not an author of fiction, any more than I am a psychoanalyst!
The beauty of Erikson’s language is that you really can feel the dialectical tension in each of these stages, especially when you draw upon a personal understanding of the definitions of those virtues. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand, but only a philosopher; or, perhaps, just a semi-literate, sentient human being.
Then, there’s the tricky problem of resolutions for each of these tensions. I confess, my lack of knowledge of the literature handicaps me here. I’m not sure I can quite grasp the important precept that resolving these conflicts throughout life should be seen as a continuous struggle … not, as I asserted in my original piece, something akin to advancing from one grade in school to the next, after completing some predetermined requirements. It seems I missed the boat on this. It deserves a full retraction. We’re all likely to revisit these struggles throughout life, there’s NEVER a resolution you can count on! Erikson defines life’s challenges as crises.  But, these crises can appear and reappear many times in an individual’s life. You’re never safe … not until you’ve completed that ninth stage, as hypothesized by Joan Erikson. It all sounds like the old Russian proverb: “First you’re born, then you suffer, then you die.”
Only after exploring the nuance, and interaction, of all the stages, can we say we’ve come to the real message of the Eight Stages. Its true poetic elegance and beauty is its portrait of the pathos of a life lived fully. We should all see our lives thus. The ultimate reward may be yet to come. Next chapter: the last works of both Erik and wife Joan Erikson, “Vital Involvement in Old Age” and “The Life Cycle Completed”; I must read them, before I write about them! 

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