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Psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902-1994) came up with the theory that the human life cycle could be understood as a series of eight developmental stages. Each stage has its own “crisis” that must be overcome before we move on to the next stage.

He is probably best known for saying that adolescents must overcome the crisis of determining who you are and what you want to do with your life. This is where the term “identity crisis” comes from.

That’s a particularly tough stage to make it through. I know plenty of people who are past the age when anyone would call them an adolescent, but they are still trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their life.

I looked up Erikson’s life-stage virtues because I was curious to see where I am and where I should be and, of course, what is ahead.

Basic trust vs. basic mistrust is the first stage in infancy (0-1 year of age). Erikson believed that whether or not the baby develops basic trust or basic mistrust is not merely a matter of nurture. He puts a lot of weight on the quality of the maternal relationship and how she influences the infant’s perceptions of trustworthiness. You can’t remain in this stage until you are 5 years old because in that year the infant either develops a sense of trust or doesn’t trust. It’s an important stage since it forms the basis in the child for a sense of identity. Another thing you can blame mom for.

Next, you move into autonomy versus shame until you are 3 years old. I won’t go deeply into mastering toilet training. You can buy the book.

Things get more interesting with “Purpose and Initiative versus Guilt. This is that preschool and kindergarten stage (3–6 years) when a child gains the ability to do things on their own. You don’t want to feel guilty about making those choices. Part of what allows it to be guilt-free is a sense of accomplishment.

I can’t believe that there is only one crisis to make it through in the next stage that runs from ages 6-11. Erikson calls this “Competence/Industry versus Inferiority” This is where we mess ourselves up, We start comparing our self-worth to others. School contributes heavily to this, for better or for worse. You start to recognize differences in your abilities relative to other kids. Even though mommy told you that you were smart and good-looking and lovable, you start to realize that you’re not. Have you made it through this crisis?

You move on around age 12 to “Fidelity/Identity versus Role Confusion.” Yeah, you are an adolescent. You start questioning the self. Who am I? How do I fit in? Where am I going in life? We explore. We make big mistakes. We conform. We get confused about our identity. Some people don’t make it out alive from this stage.

In stage 6 , we enter “adulthood” with the “intimacy versus isolation” stage. This runs from 18 to 35 and it is a a long one. Friendships, dating, marriage and family. Loving relationships. Love and intimacy. Or not. If you fail to form lasting relationships, it is a lot of alone time.

According to Erikson, I should be past all that. I am in the even longer and depressingly named stage of “generativity versus stagnation.” This is 35-64.

I should be settled into my life. I am. Maybe too settled. I should know what is important to me. I think I do. I can identify with his idea that I might be “treading lightly in my career and unsure if this is what they want to do for the rest of their working lives.”  I am.

If you are in the earlier part of this stage, you may well find purpose in enjoying raising your children and participating in their activities. But in this stage, particularly the second half, if you are not comfortable with the way your life has progressed, it can be a time of regret and a feeling of uselessness.

grnlightShould I be looking ahead to that eighth and final stage? Although the idea of retirement and the “retirement age” seems to be changing, when Erikson was writing his stages in the late 1950s, the age was generally 65 and that is where he starts the final stage.

He titles this stage “ego integrity versus despair.” I’m certainly hoping for ego integrity in my approaching retirement.  The final crisis seems to be settled before we reach the stage. Actually, that’s my problem with Erikson’s eight stages. If the one or the ones before ended on the wrong side of the crisis equation, it seems that it makes the next stage very difficult to turn around.

If you have achieved what was important to you, then in the last stage you can look back with a sense of accomplishment and integrity.  If middle adulthood was a difficult time, you might look back and feel a sense of despair.

I saw the new film version of The Great Gatsby recently. It’s a book I love and no film will ever capture all of it for me, but the film versions I have seen all have something appealing about them. This new version is pretty faithful to the book and includes a lot of quotes in the dialogue and the narration.

A friend who saw the film asked me how I felt about the final lines of the book and film.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning ——  So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Do I believe that we are constantly fighting to move on with our lives into the future while simultaneously fighting to let go of the past. Talk about a crisis – since the present is constantly becoming the past, the struggle to push forward doesn’t end.

I like those lines, but I don’t believe them. I don’t believe that if you stand still for a moment, you will find yourself in the past. I don’t feel the pull to the past is impossible to overcome. People row against the current all the time. It is tough, but it can be done.

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