Erikson's Stages of Identity Formation
- Track Progress
- 0:20 Psychosocial Identities
- 1:09 Childhood Stages
- 3:02 Adolescence Stage
- 3:33 Adult Stages
How do we form identities as we age and grow? To answer this question, Erik Erikson came up with eight stages of identity formation that revolve around conflict and resolution. Who are you, and who will you become after completing this lesson?
How do we develop an identity, or a sense of self? Psychologists have many theories. One, named Erik Erikson, believed that we work on constructing psychosocial identities throughout our whole lives. By 'psychosocial,' he meant an interplay between our inner, emotional lives (psycho), and our outer, social circumstances (social). Erikson believed that as we grow and age, we pass through eight distinct stages of development. He thought that each stage was defined by a specific conflict between a pair of opposing impulses or behaviors. The resolution (or inability to resolve) these conflicts affects our personalities and identities.
Erikson defines four childhood stages and three adult stages, bridged together by one stage of adolescence. We'll go through each stage and define it by its central conflict, as well we give some examples of behaviors and patterns of thinking characteristic of the stage.
The first is the oral-sensory stage, encompassing the first year of life and defined by a conflict between trust and mistrust. Infants during this time learn to trust their parents if they're reliably cared for and fed; if not, if they're neglected or abused, they'll develop mistrust instead. Infants at this stage either learn that they can trust others to fulfill their needs, or that they can't, that the world is a dangerous and unreliable place.
The second stage is called muscular-anal and defined by the conflict between autonomy and shame and doubt. Parents who allow their toddlers, between the ages of about 1-3, to explore their surroundings and develop interests of their own help to foster a sense of autonomy. But parents who are too restrictive or cautious with their children can instead leave them with doubt about their abilities. Like learning mistrust instead of trust, this can have longstanding consequences. A related conflict between initiative and guilt defines the next stage, the locomotor stage. Children in this stage, between the ages of three and six, need to develop initiative, or independent decision-making, about planning and doing various activities. If they are not encouraged to do this, or if their efforts are dismissed, they may learn to feel guilt instead about their desire for independence.
The last childhood stage is called latency and is defined by a conflict between industry and inferiority. Children in this stage are between the ages of six and twelve, and during this time are starting to gain real adult skills like reading, writing and logic. If they're encouraged, they'll develop industry, or motivation to keep learning and practicing; they'll start to want to be productive instead of just wanting to play. Children who aren't encouraged to work hard at learning new skills will instead feel inferior and unmotivated.
We're halfway there! Around age twelve, children start entering the fifth stage, adolescence. Adolescents are primarily concerned with finding a personal identity, and may experiment with many identities and express it with music choices, clothing or who they hang out with. But if they're unable to commit to an identity, or regret the identity they've chosen, they may experience role confusion in the form of an identity crisis. Though what we think of now as adolescence ends with the teenage years, Erikson saw this stage potentially lasting into the twenties and as a key feature of 'coming of age.'
Erikson next characterized the struggles of young adulthood, which he thought was characterized by a struggle between intimacy and isolation. At this stage, adults have formed their identities and start looking for close, reciprocal relationships like marriage. If they cannot find such relationships, or can't keep them, they may start to feel isolated instead.
Next is middle adulthood, defined by generativity vs stagnation. Adults at this stage, typically between ages 40 and 65, start to wonder if they've really done enough with their lives, and if they've produced things of value. If they feel they haven't, they may experience a sense of stagnation.
Finally, Erikson theorized the late adulthood stage of life as defined by a conflict between ego integrity and despair. Adults at this stage, usually over age 65, feel content if they look back at their lives and feel they've been productive and happy. If not, they may feel despair, or like they've been wasting their time.
Of course, not everyone has agreed that Erikson's eight stages of psychosocial development are accurate. Some psychologists accuse it of being so broad and vague that it is impossible to falsify: it's so all-encompassing that you can't prove it right or wrong. Nonetheless, Erikson is especially significant for contributing a fluid theory of identity that can change over our whole lifespan.
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