Erikson, epiphanies, and me

Taking It All In by Karen Offutt

Taking It All In by Karen Offutt

I was making the bed today when I started thinking about Erik Erikson. I'm not sure what it was about the mundane act of fluffing wrinkled pillows and tucking sheets that made my thoughts alight on him in particular but there he was, in my mind on a Monday morning. 

Maybe it was because it is Memorial Day back in the US. I thought of the many family members making their pilgrimages, with flowers in their arms and memories in their hearts, to stone tablets marking the lives and legacies of loved ones.  

Erikson, bless his theory-making heart, is one of my top-three developmental psychology gurus. He thought about development as a lifelong proposition, with stages progressing fully into old age. Each stage has a conflict that influences biological, social, and individual psychological development. The successful resolution of each conflict--which must be done before moving on to the next stage--leads to a resulting virtue. Each builds on the one before it. Just as a quick runthrough (that will thoroughly cheat his theory of its deserved explanation), the stages look like this:

  • Birth-1 year: Trust vs. mistrust. Leads to hope.
  • 2-3 years: Autonomy vs. shame & doubt. Leads to will.
  • 3-5 years: Intiative vs. guilt. Leads to purpose.
  • 6-12 years: Industry vs. inferiority. Leads to competence.
  • 13-18 years: Identity vs. role confusion. Leads to fidelity.
  • 18-40 years: Intimacy vs. isolation. Leads to love (and partner/family formation).
  • 40-65 years: Generativity vs. stagnation. Leads to care (giving back)
  • 65 years and older: Ego integrity vs. despair. Leads to wisdom.

I think I might be the poster child for that seventh stage right now! (Never mind how gut-dropping is it that I am now in the seventh of eight life stages! Zoinks. Oh, and we will tackle his teen identity stage another day, I promise.)  I think "generativity" could also be replaced with "creativity." If you are anywhere near that age range, maybe you can relate, too? 

This stage, says Erikson, is all about a new, dawning awareness and need to make an impact in the world, to understand the bigger picture, and use our own voices.  It's all about creating a community, a legacy beyond stone memorials, and giving back. It's the pull to keep learning and not stagnate.  It's why I returned to grad school, I think, and why I leapt into this blog project. It's why, in the middle of a rather scary series of mammograms a couple of years ago (it turned out fine, whew) I thought "but I haven't written my book yet." Oh, Erik. Spot on, sir.

This clip of an interview with the always inspiring Maira Kalman goes along with this sentiment/stage perfectly (found via Brain Pickings):

"It's love and it's work. What else could there possibly be?...What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?"


How does your life compare with Erikson's stages? Are you aware of the drive for generativity/creativity? What kinds of things are you planning for the life-after-children years? Are they the same or different from what you're doing now?