Do you know who came up with the term “identity crisis?”
If you’ve been watching my recent videos, you know it was a man named Erik Erikson. Erikson is a German-American psychologist who developed eight stages of psychosocial development. These stages don’t just involve how a person interacts with the world - the world’s perception of the person, and their place within the world, also come into account.
The identity crisis, Erikson says, happens around adolescence. This is an exciting time in a teenager’s life, but also very scary. Without a solid sense of who you are or what you are going to pursue in life, a crisis will occur. Rebellion, depression, or reckless behavior may occur.
Erikson developed his theory in the last half of the 20th century, and things have changed in the last few decades. A second round of identity crisis is starting to become more common - but not among adolescents. Seniors and retired individuals often revisit these same questions that they asked as teenagers:
Who am I?
What am I passionate about?
Where is my place in the world?
They often have a lot more time and freedom to explore their interests and passions. After all, life expectancy has increased pretty dramatically since 1950. In 1950, the life expectancy for the average American was 68. Nowadays, it’s 79.
That’s ten extra years in Erikson’s final stage of psychosocial development. In this video, I’m going to explain what this stage is, when it occurs, and what you can do to support the seniors in your life who might be in this stage.
Ego Integrity vs. Despair
If you thought “who am I” is a big question to answer, just get ready. As adults progress through the stages of psychosocial development, they start to ask more questions about their place in the world. In the previous stage, people explore the idea of whether they will leave a legacy, and how their memory will outlive them.
In the final stage, people tend to reflect. They reflect on what they’ve done in their lives and whether or not they are satisfied with the person that they became.The central question during this stage is, “Have I led a meaningful life?”
If a person feels satisfied with how they’ve lived their life, they will develop a sense of integrity. The basic virtue developed during this time is wisdom. The wise parents and grandparents who give you the best advice? They are probably handling this stage of their life pretty well.
If a person is not so satisfied when they reflect on their life, they may feel despair. Despair is a strong word: it’s defined as “the complete loss or absence of hope.” At the age of 65 and up, despair is not a great feeling to have.
Satisfaction doesn’t have to come from a lot of money in the bank or a huge family. Anyone can successfully complete this stage and develop integrity. Erikson defined ego integrity as “the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be.” A person can feel wholly developed without a library named after them or a grand accomplishment. Conversely, someone who has made big donations to charity, served in the military with many awards, or built a big family may not feel whole.
Talk To Your Loved Ones
And what about the seniors who have more time to do stuff other than sit and reflect? The seniors that find themselves at the age of 65, very healthy and free to do whatever they please? Are they in the Integrity vs. Despair stage?
Not necessarily. Just because a person hits 65 doesn’t mean they are in the final stage of psychosocial development. For many people, age 65 is still many years away from retirement. Major life events and other factors can adjust when a person enters different stages. A 40-year old man who was just diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, for example, might find himself reflecting on his life sooner than he would have thought. Divorce, the death of a family member, or getting a new job may also impact whether someone stays in one stage of psychosocial development, jumps ahead, or even spirals back to previous questions about their life and place in the world.
I mention this because there are probably people in your life who may be going through any of the last three stages of Psychosocial Development. We are all developing our relationship with others and our place in the world. Maybe you are contemplating where you fit into the world, too.
These tips can help you or a loved one come to a point of acceptance with their stage of social development and help to develop basic virtues like wisdom, care, and purpose:
Talk about it! While some people wear their feelings on their sleeves, others prefer to stay quiet. If you are struggling with these big questions, do not be afraid to reach out to your support system for help. This could be a family member, friend, sponsor, or a therapist. Talking through your feelings can be enough to settle them.
Support others. Ask questions. Check in with your support group. How are they doing? Offering support to others can help you feel better about your role in the world. Plus, you might realize that you are not alone in your questions and exploration. Another way to help others through difficult periods in their life is to remind them that they have benefitted you. If your grandpa has taught you valuable life lessons, tell him! If a friend has gotten you through hard times, let them know that you appreciate their support.
Try new things! You know that hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Or the career you’ve always wanted to break into? Exploring this could be the key to discovering your passion and your place. Encourage others to follow their passions as well. If, for example, you have a friend or a grandparent that is nervous to try a new class, go with them! Share your support.
I hope you’ve had a good time exploring the different stages of psychosocial development! We all want to feel satisfied with our place in the world. Knowing the foundational virtues and feelings that get us there can be crucial to living (or redirecting) our lives in the most fulfilling way.