Erik Erikson – Ego Psychology

Ego Psychology

Being rejected by one’s professional colleagues is not among life’s more pleasant experiences. Jung, Adler, Horney, Fromm, and Sullivan chose to abandon Freud’s psychic energy model, and they all incurred the wrath of the psychoanalytic establishment (as we have seen).

Some seminal thinkers have preferred to retain but modify libido theory. These psychologists readily accept such fundamental Freudian principles as infantile sexuality, unconscious processes and conflicts, and the structural model (id, ego, and superego). But they argue that Freud overemphasized the role of the irrational id and intrapsychic strife, and paid too little attention to more adaptive and peaceful mental functioning. Using some of Freud’s later writings as their point of departure (e.g., Freud 1937/1963w, 1940/1969a), these theorists devote consider- ably more attention to the strengths and abilities of the ego.

Accordingly, this modification of psychoanalysis has become known as ego psychology. The primary differences between ego psychology and basic Freudian (or “id”) theory are shown in the Capsule Summary on page 159.

Although various theorists have contributed to the development of ego psychology, one has achieved a singular degree of professional and popular acclaim. This unusual and creative man entered the Freudian circle in Vienna as a 25-year-old itinerant artist, with no university degree at all, and emerged as a prominent child psychoanalyst. He con- tributed the term identity crisis to our everyday language, having first faced and resolved this difficult one of his own: Erik Homburger Erikson.


  • To improve psychoanalytic theory by correcting Freud’s major errors, and do so in a way that would not alienate the psychoanalytic establishment.

  • To retain Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious but stress the social determinants of personal- ity, notably the influence of the parents and society, rather than instincts.

  • To retain but deemphasize Freud’s controversial (and unmeasurable) construct of libido.

  • To correct Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature by showing that we have both healthy and malignant inner potentials.

  • To show that identity and mastery are healthy and important human needs.

  • To show that society can have a positive effect on personality development, rather than always being in conflict with the individual about the need to sublimate illicit instincts as Freud believed.

  • To retain but modify Freud’s structural constructs of id, ego, and superego by showing that the ego is stronger, and the id is weaker, than Freud believed.

  • To show that personality development proceeds through a series of eight stages from infancy through old age, rather than ending at age 6 as Freud believed.

  • To show that adolescence and the identity crisis play an important role in personality development.

  • To devise techniques of play therapy for use with children.

  • To apply psychoanalytic theory to the lives of such famous people as Gandhi.


Erik Homburger Erikson was born of Danish parents on June 15, 1902, in Frankfurt, Germany. His father, a Protestant, abandoned the family prior to Erik’s birth. Some 3 years later his mother married Dr. Theodor Homburger, a pediatrician of the same Jewish faith as herself. Erik experienced considerable identity confusion because of this family upheaval, and because the contrast between his part-Jewish heritage and his Nordic features caused him to be rejected by childhood peers of both groups. Known as Erik Homburger during the first four decades of his life, he adopted the surname of Erikson upon becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1939, and he ultimately converted to Christianity. As he was to reflect many years later, “no doubt my best friends will insist that I needed to name [the identity] crisis and to see it in everybody else in order to really come to terms with it in myself (Erikson, 1975, p. 26; see also Coles, 1970, pp. 180–181; Roazen, 1976a, pp. 93–99).

Erikson was a mediocre student, never earning a university degree of any kind. During his early 1920s he became a wanderer, studied briefly at art schools, painted children’s portraits, and struggled with psychological problems bordering between neurosis and psychosis. “I was an artist then, which can be a European euphemism for a young man with some talent, but nowhere to go.” In the summer of 1927 he moved to Vienna, accepted a teaching position at a small school established for children of Freud’s patients and friends, and enjoyed a “truly astounding adoption by the Freudian circle” (Erikson, 1964,

p. 20; 1975, p. 29). Erikson now undertook training in child psychoanalysis, including a personal analysis by Anna Freud at the unusually low rate of 7 dollars per month. He married Joan Serson on April 1, 1930, a successful and enduring union that produced two sons and a daughter.

Erikson foresaw the coming Nazi menace and emigrated via Denmark to Boston in 1933. There he became the city’s first practicing child analyst, and joined the staff of Henry Murray’s clinic at Harvard. Like Jung, Erikson took a keen interest in cross-cultural studies and engaged in firsthand observation of two Native American tribes: the Sioux of South Dakota in 1938, and the Yurok of northern California 5 years later. His academic affiliations also included Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley, from which he resigned in 1950 rather than sign a loyalty oath. Although eventually declared “politically dependable,” he nevertheless objected to the oath on principle: “Why not acquiesce in an empty gesture…? My answer is that of a psychologist…. My field includes the study of ‘hysteria,’ private and public, in ‘personality’ and ‘culture.’ It includes the study of the tremendous waste in human energy which proceeds from irrational fear and from the irrational gestures which are part of what we call ‘history.’ I would find it difficult to ask my subject of investigation (people) and my students to work with me, if I were to participate without protest in a vague, fearful, and somewhat vindictive gesture devised to ban an evil in some magic way—an evil which must be met with much more searching and concerted effort” (Erikson, 1951). In 1950 he also published his first book, Childhood and Society, which earned wide acclaim and was reissued in an enlarged edition in 1963. His subsequent study of Gandhi (1969) was honored with both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Like Freud, Erikson was a complicated man. The emotional scars left by never knowing his biological father (whose identity was kept secret by his mother), and by a depressed and emotionally depleted mother, may have created a drive for fame that made it easier for him to relate to strangers than to his own daughter. “Despite [my father’s] brilliance as an analyst and a writer, and his great charisma, he was an insecure man.… Once, during my adolescence, when Dad and I were alone together, I burst into tears—brokenhearted over the abrupt ending of a teenage romance. I remember the look of terror and grief on his face—terror because in the context of the family he did not feel like an adult with the ability to soothe and comfort…. When a person feels so deeply flawed that he or she cannot imagine ever ‘fitting in’ in human society, a solution is to imagine rising above human society…. Becoming someone special—being charming, talented … becomes the vehicle for a desperate pursuit of emotional nourishment.” (Bloland, 1999, pp. 52, 56, 58.)

Another indication that Erikson was more comfortable with his work than with family problems: He and Joan had a fourth child, a son who suffered from severe Down’s syndrome. This child was institutionalized immediately after birth and lived for 21 years with almost no parental contact, while Erikson preoccupied himself with devising theories about healthy personality development (Friedman, 1999; see also Elms, 2001).

Erikson’s writings fill some dozen volumes. The high esteem accorded his work is evidenced by such prominent magazines as Time and Newsweek, which have referred to him as probably the most influential and outstanding psychoanalyst. Erik Erikson died on May 12, 1994, at a nursing home in Harwich, Massachusetts.


Biological Processes: Libido and Sexuality

Erikson remains true to Freudian psychoanalysis by including libido among his theoretical constructs, but not without some significant reservations. On the one hand, he expresses a marked appreciation for the “clear and unifying light … thrown into [the dark recesses of the mind] by the theory of a libido, of a mobile sexual energy which contributes to the ‘highest’ as well as to the ‘lowest’ forms of human endeavor—and often to both at the same time.” Yet he also cautions against the literal acceptance of what Freud himself regarded as only a “working hypothesis,” and warns that it makes little sense to speak of energies that cannot be demonstrated scientifically (Erikson, 1963, p. 63; see also Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, pp. 84, 86).

Erikson is similarly reserved about the importance of instinctual drives. He credits Freud for calling attention to the irrational aspects of personality, for discovering that sexuality begins with birth rather than at puberty, and for orienting psychoanalysis in a biological direction. But Erikson also regards our inborn sexual and aggressive instincts as vague drive fragments that are strongly influenced by parental training and cultural factors (such as school), and he argues that psychoanalysis must pay considerably more attention to innate adaptive forces. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 44–46, 58–71, 95–97.)

Thus Erikson retains, but deemphasizes, the constructs of instinct and libido. He prefers to stress the role played by the ego and societal forces in shaping personality.

Ego Processes: Identity and Mastery

IdentityTo Erikson, the ego is far more than a sorely tried mediator among the insistent id, punitive superego, and forbidding environment. The ego not only defends against illicit instincts and anxiety, but serves important healthy functions as well.

One of these constructive ego functions is to preserve a sense of identity. This complicated inner state includes four distinct aspects:

  1. Individuality. A conscious sense of uniqueness and existence as a separate, distinct entity.

  2. Wholeness and synthesis. A sense of inner wholeness and indivisibility. The growing child forms a variety of fragmentary self-images: more or less lovable, talented, obedient, scholarly, athletic, independent, and so forth. The healthy ego integrates these images into a meaningful whole. (See Erikson, 1968, pp. 160–161, 165; 1974, p. 27.)

  3. Sameness and continuity. An unconscious striving for a sense of inner sameness and continuity between who you have been in the past, and who you are likely to be in the future. A feeling that your life has consistency, and is headed in a meaningful direction. (See Erikson, 1959, pp. 42, 102, 118; 1963, pp. 261–263; 1964, p. 91; 1968, pp. 19, 87; 1975, pp. 18–19.)

  4. Social solidarity. Agreement with the ideals and values of some group; feeling that you receive support and recognition from significant others. (See Erikson, 1959, p. 118; 1964, pp. 90–96; 1968, pp. 22, 165.)

Although Erikson’s construct of identity is more complicated than Fromm’s, he agrees that it represents a vital need of every human being. “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of ego identity. Deprivation of identity can lead to murder” (Erikson, 1963, p. 240; see also Erikson, 1959, p. 90). The state of identity confusion (or role confusion, also often referred to as an identity crisis) involves feelings of inner fragmentation, little or no sense of where one’s life is headed, and an inability to gain the support provided by a social role or vocation. The sufferer may feel like an outcast or wanderer, or not quite somebody—as did Erikson himself during his early twenties.

Every identity includes both positive and negative aspects, which result from parental and societal rewards and punishments. Developing a primarily positive identity is likely to be more difficult for certain segments of a population, such as women in a patriarchal society or members of persecuted minority ethnic and religious groups. Since even a negative identity is likely to seem preferable to the inner turmoil of identity confusion, such individuals may adopt the debased role espoused for them by the majority. (See Erikson, 1958, p. 102; 1963, pp. 243–246; 1974; 1975, pp. 20–21.)

MasteryIn accordance with Adler and Fromm, Erikson concludes that we have a fundamental need to master our environment. Like identity, mastery is an ego function that affords pleasures unrelated to the satisfaction of id impulses, and its frustration also evokes intense rage. (See Erikson, 1963, p. 68; 1964, p. 50; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, pp. 27, 68–69.)

As with identity, a sense of mastery depends on the expectations and support of society. A child learns to walk for several reasons: to locate objects that will satisfy its drives, to feel stronger and more effective in its dealings with the external world, and because the status of “one who walks” is approved of by respected elders. “Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement…. [But] their ego identity [does gain] real strength … from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment—i.e., of achievement that has meaning in the culture” (Erikson, 1963, pp. 235–236; 1968, p. 49).

Society and Culture

Because of his more positive view of human nature, Erikson rejects Freud’s conception of society as an inevitable source of conflict:

The greatest difficulty in the path of psychoanalysis as a general psychology probably consists in the rem- nants of its first conceptualization of the environment as [a hostile] “outer world.” … Preoccupied with [symptoms and defenses,] … psychoanalysis had, at first, little to say about the way in which the ego’s synthesis grows—or fails to grow—out of the soil of social organization…. [But psychoanalysis today is shifting its emphasis] to the study of the ego’s roots in social organization. (Erikson, 1963, pp. 15–16, 282; 1975, p. 105. See also Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, p. 26.)

A firm sense of identity or mastery requires the support of significant others, as we have seen. Society also helps lighten the burdens of life by holding forth the promise of sanctioned roles, such as laborer, doctor, lawyer, mother, or father, which confirm that an individual has found a workable and effective life plan. In addition, mutually enhancing relationships (mutuality) fulfill a major human need. Such

recognition provides us with the feeling that we exist in the eyes of others, and the denial of this need arouses intense hatred. (See Erikson, 1959, pp. 20–21; 1963, p. 277; 1968, pp. 87, 219; 1977, p. 88.)

Since Erikson believes that society plays a prominent role in molding the developing ego, he (unlike Freud) has devoted some time to studying the effects of different cultures on personality. Erikson observed firsthand two contrasting Native American tribes: the trusting and generous Sioux, hunters of South Dakota; and the miserly and suspicious Yurok, salmon fishermen of northern California (Erikson, 1963, pp. 111–186). The Sioux allow their children to breast-feed for several years, whereas the Yurok prefer early weaning. The Sioux detest hoarders and insist on sharing with others even when their resources are meager, whereas the Yurok stress the importance of economic security. Thus the different identities of the typical Sioux and Yurok are due primarily to the different values in each society regarding sharing and weaning, including the Sioux “paradise of the practically unlimited privilege of the mother’s breast” versus the Yurok “residue of infantile nostalgia for the mother from whom he has been disengaged so forcefully,” rather than to some innate instinct (Erikson, 1963, pp. 63, 76).

The influence of society is not always beneficial. It may be difficult to develop a firm sense of identity because we are confronted with contradictory values, as when our society stresses both competition (“winning is the only thing”) and cooperation (“do unto others … ”). A society may emphasize question- able values, as with the miserly Yurok. Societies create oppressed minorities, whose members may adopt the negative identity imposed by the majority. A seriously pathogenic culture may even inflict this fate on a wide scale, as happened with the youths growing up in Nazi Germany (Erikson, 1963, pp. 326ff; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, p. 32).

The Unconscious‌

To Erikson, the unconscious ranks among Freud’s greatest contributions. He concludes that, except for the implicit wisdom expressed in the Bible and Shakespeare, we have learned more in the past few decades about human motivation and development than during all of the preceding centuries. Even primitive cultures express an intuitive understanding of the unconscious, as indicated by rituals that attribute unusual dreams to supernatural visitations rather than to an individual’s conscious motivation. (See Erikson, 1959, p. 99; 1963, pp. 153, 190, 216; 1964, pp. 78, 147, 243.)


The Id

Except for the greater emphasis accorded the ego, Erikson’s conception of personality structure is similar to Freud’s. The id is entirely unconscious and amoral. It is the only component that is present at birth, and includes all of our inherited instincts.

The Ego

The ego is the logical, self-preservative, problem-solving part of personality. It mediates among the demands of the external world, the id, and the superego, and is largely unconscious. As in Freudian theory, the ego guards against illicit id impulses and an overly severe superego by using various defense mechanisms, including repression, reaction formation, projection, denial of reality, and fantasy. We may attribute to our neighbors those faults of which we are most ashamed (projection), blithely ignore warnings of such impending catastrophes as nuclear war or death (denial of reality), or try to make a negative identity seem like an apparent virtue (reaction formation).

In contrast to Freud, Erikson argues that defense mechanisms may also be used in adaptive ways. For example, fantasies may produce imaginative thoughts that help to solve important problems. The capacities of the ego also include such essential constructive functions as identity and mastery, as we have seen.

The Superego

The superego includes introjected ideals and restrictions, which help the ego to control the id. As in Freudian theory, however, the superego can become oppressive and impose overly harsh standards of right and wrong upon the ego. Another drawback of the superego is that it perpetuates internally the relationship of the superior, angry adult and the small, helpless child. If parental training fails to reflect the standards of the society in which one lives, the rift between the ego and superego will deepen and lead to excessive intrapsychic conflict. “Man survives only where traditional child training provides him with a conscience which will guide him without crushing him, and which is firm and flexible enough to fit the vicissitudes of his historical era” (Erikson, 1963, p. 95; see also Erikson, 1963, pp. 60, 122, 192–194, 257,

311–312; 1964, pp. 223–224; 1968, p. 218).

Although Erikson retains Freud’s structural model, he cautions against reifying such concepts as id, ego, and superego. He stresses that these are abstract, tentative constructs designed to facilitate the discussion and understanding of personality, rather than concrete and universally established entities located somewhere within the psyche (Erikson, 1963, pp. 414–415; 1964, p. 77; 1975, p. 37).


Although Erikson occasionally devotes some attention to the Freudian concept of fixation (1963, pp. 72–97), his approach to personality development uses different constructs and principles. He also rejects Freud’s “originological” efforts to explain personality wholly in terms of the first 4 or 5 years of life. Instead Erikson stresses that personality development continues throughout the whole life cycle, and he posits eight stages that extend from infancy to old age.

The Epigenetic Psychosexual Stages, or “Eight Ages of Man”

The development of our physical organs unfolds according to a predetermined genetic schedule, and Erikson concludes that personality follows a similar course. A predisposition to adapt to each developmental stage is present at birth, and emerges at the appropriate time. Since Erikson accepts the existence of infantile sexuality, he regards these stages as both psychosexual and epigenetic (epi = upon, genesis = emergence).

Every epigenetic psychosexual stage is characterized by a specific problem or crisis (in the medical sense of a crucial turning point for better or worse, rather than in the political sense of imminent catas- trophe). Each crisis is brought on by the child’s increasing physical maturity and by the greater demands made by the parents and society, and must be resolved by the ego for personality development to proceed successfully. However, the outcome of any stage is not necessarily permanent. A severe later crisis may counteract previous successes (or even failures). (See Erikson, 1959, pp. 15, 52; 1963, pp. 248–274; 1964,

pp. 138–142; 1968, p. 16; 1982.)

The Oral-Sensory Stage: Basic Trust Versus Mistrust. As in Freudian theory, the first epigenetic psychosexual stage centers around the oral zone. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 72–80,

247–251; 1968, pp. 96–107.) Erikson agrees that orality provides libidinal pleasure. Like Sullivan, however, Erikson prefers to stress the interpersonal aspects of the oral-sensory stage—notably maternal nursing and cuddling, which represents the infant’s first significant interactions with another person.

If the mother consistently responds to her baby’s hunger with appropriate and affectionate feeding, the infant learns to trust that its needs will be satisfied. This leads to the infant’s first social achievement: “[a] willingness to let the mother out of sight without undue anxiety or rage, because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability” (Erikson, 1963, p. 247). But if the painful state of hun- ger is often ignored, or if the mother is anxious and ineffective, the infant develops a profound sense of impending discomfort and danger (basic mistrust):

The amount of trust derived from earliest infantile experience … [depends] on the quality of the maternal relationship. Mothers create a sense of trust in their children by … sensitive care of the baby’s individual needs and a firm sense of personal trustworthiness. (Erikson, 1963, p. 249. See also Erikson, 1959, p. 63.)

Not even the best parents behave ideally all of the time, so every personality includes some trust and mistrust. But if there is more mistrust than trust, the ego has been damaged and is less likely to cope with the problems of the following stages. Conversely, if there is significantly more trust than mistrust, the ego learns that its most fervent wishes will be satisfied. The emergence of this healthy ego quality (hope) signifies that personality development has proceeded successfully past the crisis of the oral-sensory stage (Erikson, 1964, p. 118).

The Muscular-Anal Stage: Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt. Just when the child begins to trust the nurturing mother and external world, its developing musculature makes possible some control over the environment. During the muscular-anal stage, therefore, the child must risk breaching the trustful relationship with the mother in order to exert its autonomy. “The strength acquired at any stage is tested by the necessity to … take chances in the next stage with what was most vulnerably precious in the previous one” (Erikson, 1963, p. 263; see also Erikson, 1963, pp. 80–85, 178, 251–254;1968, pp. 107–114).

Children in our culture soon learn that cleanliness and toilet-training are serious matters, and that they can now choose between retaining or eliminating bodily wastes. Although Erikson readily accepts such psychoanalytic constructs as anal-retentive, anal-expulsive, and the anal personality (orderly, miserly, stubborn), he continues to emphasize the role of social influences on personality development. If parental control during this stage is supportive and reassuring, the child develops a positive attitude about its displays of autonomy. But if overprotective parents impose rigid and excessive restrictions, if anxious parents respond to the child’s incontinence by becoming extremely upset and disgusted, or if over permissive parents allow the child to take chances that end in shattering failures, the child’s wishes to assert itself become associated with feelings of shame and doubt.

This whole stage, then … becomes a battle for autonomy…. The infant must come to feel that his basic trust in himself and in the world (which is the lasting treasure saved from the conflicts of the oral stage) will not be jeopardized by this sudden violent wish to have a choice. (Erikson, 1963, pp. 82, 85. See also Erikson, 1959, p. 68; 1963, pp. 84, 254.)

As with basic trust and mistrust, both autonomy and shame are aspects of every personality. Successful development occurs when there is significantly more autonomy, which results in an “unbro- ken determination to exercise free choice as well as self-restraint.” This ego quality of will power also depends on the successful resolution of the preceding oral-sensory stage. “Will cannot be trained until hope is secure … [and] no person can live, no ego remain intact without hope and will” (Erikson, 1964, pp. 115, 118, 119).

The Locomotor-Genital Stage: Initiative Versus Guilt. The third epigenetic psychosexual stage is highlighted by the development of such locomotor abilities as walking and running, which help to develop the ego’s sense of mastery. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 85–92, 255–258; 1968, pp. 115–122.) During this stage, the child becomes aware of the differences between the sexes and begins to experience vague genital urges. As in Freudian theory, these desires are at first associated with the nurturing mother; but they ultimately give way to “the boy’s assurance that he will marry his mother and make her proud of him, and … the girl’s that she will marry her father and take much better care of him” (Erikson, 1963, p. 90; see also Erikson, 1958, p. 73; 1963, pp. 87, 256, 410). The parent of the same sex, to whom the child feels vastly inferior in genital capacity, is cast in the role of rival. However, the child soon realizes that it is too small to satisfy its Oedipal wishes. So the child resorts to sexual and aggressive fantasies, which arouse a deep sense of guilt and a fear of punishment in the form of harm to the genitals.

Ideally, the child learns to divert the threatening sexual drive into such acceptable outlets as play. “Play is to the child what thinking, planning, and blueprinting are to the adult, a trial universe … [wherein] past failures can be thought through [and] expectations tested.” Erikson finds that the play of boys tends to emphasize the intrusive high-low dimension and the construction of tall objects, whereas girls concentrate on the inclusive dimension of open versus closed and build toy structures that involve containment, and he attributes this difference in part to the physiological differences between the future inseminator and the future child-bearer. (See Figure 8.1.)

Substituting play for Oedipal wishes brings relief from guilt, whereas the parents’ approval of the child’s accomplishments promotes a sense of initiative. A predominance of initiative over guilt enables the ego to develop the quality of purpose, or “the courage to envisage and pursue valued goals uninhibited by … the foiling fear of punishment” (Erikson, 1964, pp. 120, 122), which indicates that the crisis of this stage has been passed successfully.

The Latency Stage: Industry Versus Inferiority. As in Freudian theory, the fourth stage is a time of submerged sexuality and “lull before the storm of puberty” (Erikson, 1963, p. 260; see also Erikson, 1963, pp. 258–261; 1968, pp. 122–128). The latency stage is characterized by an intense curiosity and wish to learn. All cultures assist this effort by providing some sort of systematic instruction, notably school.

The child’s successes during this stage contribute to a positive sense of industry, whereas failures result in feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Successful personality development occurs when industry predominates over inferiority, and the ego learns that important tasks can be completed and become a source of pride (competence).

Adolescence: Identity Versus Role Confusion. With the development of competence and the advent of puberty, childhood comes to an end. The fifth stage consists of adolescence, a period that Erikson (like Sullivan) regards as one of considerable importance. The adolescent must contend with the reemergence of latent sexual impulses, an inner turmoil that can only be resolved by gaining recognition and support from significant others:

Like a trapeze artist, the young person in the middle of vigorous motion must let go of his safe hold on childhood and reach out for a firm grasp on adulthood, depending for a breathless interval on a relatedness between the past and the future, and on the reliability of those he must let go of, and those who will “receive” him. Whatever combination of drives and defenses, of sublimations and capacities has emerged from the young individual’s childhood must now make sense in view of his concrete opportunities in work and love … [and] he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in him- self and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be. (Erikson, 1964, p. 90; 1958, p. 14. See also Erikson, 1958, p. 43; 1959, p. 161; 1963, pp. 261–263, 306–307; 1968, pp. 128–135.)

The crucial problem of this stage is the identity crisis, a fork in the developmental road that leads either to a healthy sense of identity or to the torments of identity confusion (role confusion). As we have seen, identity confusion is a painful state that includes feelings of inner fragmentation and little sense of where one’s life is headed. Adolescents are therefore vulnerable to ideologies that offer the prospect of clearly defined roles, whether they be the benevolent principles of organizations that seek to improve society or the vicious doctrines of the Nazi movement in Hitler’s Germany. Young criminals may develop a sense of identity by joining a gang and conforming to its roles and standards. Thus the potential dangers of adolescence include not only identity confusion, but also adopting an identity that is primarily negative.

If preceding developmental crises have not been successfully resolved, it may not be possible to achieve either a primarily positive or negative identity. The individual may therefore reject the demands of adulthood and extend the adolescent stage well past the appropriate age. Examples include young adults who fail to complete their studies and adopt a vocation, and Erikson himself up until the time he joined the Freuds in Vienna at age 25. The successful resolution of the adolescent identity crisis is reflected by a predominance of identity over role confusion and the emergence of the ego quality of fidelity, or “the ability to sustain loyalties freely pledged in spite of the inevitable contradictions of value systems” (Erikson, 1964, p. 125).

Young Adulthood: Intimacy Versus Isolation. The sixth epigenetic psychosexual stage represents the beginning of adulthood, and involves such responsibilities as work and marriage. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 263–266; 1968, pp. 135–138.) During this stage, the newly acquired sense of identity must be risked in order to achieve close relationships with other people.

If the young adult’s sense of identity is very fragile, isolation and self-absorption will appear preferable to meaningful contact with others. Conversely, a firm identity can be fused with that of another person with- out the fear of losing an important part of oneself. Such intimacy is an essential aspect of close friendships and a successful marriage, and involves a sincere concern for the welfare of others. To Erikson, therefore,

only a person with a strong sense of identity can enjoy intimate personal relationships. A predominance of intimacy over isolation enables the ego to overcome the separate needs of two individuals and enjoy mutual devotion (love), which indicates that the crisis of this stage has been passed successfully.

Adulthood: Generativity Versus StagnationThe stage of adulthood is a time of generativity, which refers primarily to procreation and guiding the next generation. It also includes productivity and creativity. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 266–268; 1968, pp. 138–139.) The corresponding danger is stagnation, an extreme state of self-indulgence similar to behaving as if one were one’s own special child.

Merely having children is by no means sufficient evidence that the crisis of adulthood has been resolved. The predominance of generativity over stagnation is reflected by the ego quality of care, or “the widening concern for what has been generated by love, necessity, or accident, [which] overcomes the ambivalence adhering to irreversible obligation” (Erikson, 1964, p. 131).

Maturity: Ego Integrity Versus Despair. Only a person who has successfully resolved the preceding seven developmental crises can achieve ego integrity, the feeling that one’s life has been valuable and worthwhile. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 268–269; 1968, pp. 139–141.) The converse of ego integrity is despair, the fear that death will intervene before one can find the way to a more meaningful life. Ideally, ego integrity prevails over despair; and this results in the ego quality of wisdom. People who are wise do not fear death, because they have made the most of life. Wisdom also exerts a positive influence on subsequent generations, for “healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death” (Erikson, 1963, p. 269; 1964, p. 133).‌


Erikson (1966; 1977) has devoted some attention to ritualization’s, or interpersonal rituals that help the ego to adapt to the standards and demands of society. Among the miserly Yurok Indians, for example, the child is taught at mealtime “to put only a little food on the spoon, to take the spoon up to his mouth slowly, to put the spoon down again while chewing the food—and, above all, to think of becoming rich while he [enjoys and swallows] it” (Erikson, 1963, p. 177; 1977, p. 80). Such a ritual would be inconceivable among the generous and charitable Sioux, indicating once again the powerful influence of societal factors on the development of personality.


Dream Interpretation

As with other aspects of ego psychology, Erikson retains but modifies Freudian dream theory. He agrees that dreams provide important information about unconscious feelings and memories, that condensation produces dream symbols with more than one meaning, and that free association and day’s residues are valuable aids to interpretation. To Erikson, however, the healthy ego remains relatively powerful even during sleep. It not only makes compromises with illicit id impulses, but also produces dreams of success and achievement that enable us to awaken with a sense of wholeness and competence.

Erikson also rejects Freud’s contention that almost every dream fulfills some childhood sexual wish. Instead, dreams may deal with prior epigenetic crises. They may highlight current problems in the

dreamer’s life, such as an identity crisis, and suggest potential solutions. Or they may even be dreamed for the specific purpose of being interpreted by the dreamer, or the dreamer’s psychoanalyst. “Once we set out to study our own dreams … we may well dream them in order to study them” (Erikson, 1977, p. 134). Erikson also argues that some of Freud’s own dreams, if properly reinterpreted, support psychosocial ego theory rather than instinctual id psychoanalysis. (See Erikson, 1954; 1958, p. 142; 1959, p. 154 n. 17; 1964,

pp. 57–58, 177–201; 1968, pp. 197–204.)

One young male patient of Erikson’s had a dream so traumatic that he feared the loss of his sanity: a horrible huge and empty face surrounded by slimy hair, that might perhaps have been his mother, sitting in a motionless horse and buggy. This patient had serious doubts about his chosen religious vocation, and the empty face symbolized his lack of identity. The Medusa-like hair reflected bisexual confusion, and fears of women and heterosexuality. The horse and buggy called to mind his mother, whose longing for the rural locale of her childhood had intensified his feelings of being unable to progress in a modern and changing world. The face also represented his white-haired grandfather, against whom he had rebelled as a youth in his search for a sense of identity. Finally, the patient was concerned that Erikson (whose own hair is often quite unruly, and who had recently been compelled to interrupt therapy for an emergency operation) would desert him before he could achieve a coherent “face” or identity of his own (Erikson, 1964, pp. 57–76).

Another dream, reported by a young woman patient of Erikson, is perhaps the shortest on record: the single word S[E]INE lit up against a dark background, with the first “E” in brackets. She suffered from agoraphobia (a fear of open spaces), which had first overcome her in Paris near the river Seine. Her dream reminded her of several German and Latin words, sehen (to see), seine (his), and sine (with- out). In Paris, she had seen a shocking and frightening picture of Christ, without his loincloth, being circumsized. These thoughts led in turn to a traumatic incident in her childhood, being catheterized by her father (a pediatrician) because of a bladder condition during the locomotor-genital stage. “It will be obvious how traumatic at that stage an event was that both immobilized and exposed the little girl—in an ‘oedipal’ context.” The bracketed first letter of Erikson’s name suggested some transference resentment over the analytic requirement that such embarrassing ideas flow freely, like a river or urine, and a wish to turn the tables by exposing him instead. “This interpretation … led to some … shared laughter over the tricks of the unconscious, which can condense—and give away—all these meanings in one word” (Erikson, 1977, pp. 130–132).


Although Erikson defines the course of healthy ego development in greater detail than Freud, he agrees that the well-adjusted individual is one who can do two things well: love and work. He also shares Freud’s belief that the study of analytic patients, and their unusually severe intrapsychic conflicts, helps to clar- ify important aspects of personality that we all experience (such as the defense mechanisms). However, Erikson cautions that healthy ego functions cannot be wholly understood from the behavior of pathological individuals:

[We psychoanalysts] repeat for our own encouragement (and as an argument against others) that human nature can best be studied in a state of partial breakdown or, at any rate, of marked conflict…. As Freud himself put it, we see a crystal’s structure only when it cracks. But a crystal, on the one hand, and an organism or personality, on the other, differ in the fact that one is inanimate and the other an organic whole which cannot be broken up without a withering of the parts…. [Thus] I do not believe that we can entirely reconstruct the ego’s normal functions from an understanding of its dysfunctions … (Erikson, 1968, p. 276. See also Erikson, 1954; 1958, p. 16; 1963, pp. 45, 265, 308; 1968, p. 136.)

Origins of Psychopathology. Psychopathology occurs when the normally competent ego is seriously weakened by social trauma, physical ills, and (most importantly) by the failure to resolve

prior epigenetic crises. For example, a young boy suffered from convulsions similar to epilepsy. His ego had been impaired by the failure to develop sufficient autonomy and will power during the muscular-anal stage, primarily because of profound guilt resulting from the (incorrect) belief that his aggressiveness had caused the death of his grandmother. His ego was further weakened by a cerebral disorder predisposing him to such attacks, and by the social difficulties of being the only Jewish family in a gentile town (Erikson, 1963, pp. 23–47).

Some parental behaviors are pathogenic because they prevent effective resolutions of epigenetic crises. These include abrupt weaning or anxious and insensitive nursing during the oral-sensory stage, and overly severe or lenient toilet-training during the muscular-anal stage (as we have seen). However, the child is not without some influence of its own. “This weak and changing little being moves the whole family along. Babies control and bring up their families as much as they are controlled by them” (Erikson, 1963, p. 69; see also Erikson, 1958, p. 70; 1963, pp. 71, 207, 218, 257). For example, the child’s negative response to a nervous and ineffective mother is likely to create a vicious circle by making her upset, guilty, and even less affectionate.

Varieties of Psychopathology. Erikson makes some use of the standard psychiatric nomenclature, but he cautions that such labels may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, the sufferer may adopt the pathological classification (such as obsessive-compulsive, criminal, or even just “patient”) as a negative identity. Erikson regards Freud’s unsuccessful treatment of Dora as a typical example. She was unable to resolve her adolescent identity crisis because of the examples set by her perfidious elders, so she took great pride in being written up in scientific journals as a noted clinical case. “From Freud’s early days onward, enlightened people have adapted to his insights by mouthing the names of their neuroses— and keeping the neuroses, too…. To be a famous, if uncured, patient had become for this woman one lasting … identity element” (Erikson, 1964, p. 173; 1968, p. 28; see also Erikson, 1963, pp. 307–308, 414;1964, pp. 97, 166–174; 1968, pp. 77, 250–252).

Erikson shares Freud’s belief that sexuality and regression often play an important role in psycho- pathology, and that neurotic symptoms are usually overdetermined. One patient, a 4-year-old boy, was bloated virtually to the bursting point by a steadfast refusal to eliminate his feces. This was due partly to identification with a beloved nurse who had left his family upon becoming pregnant, with the boy concluding that babies were born through the bowels and that he himself was pregnant. It also reflected a desire to become a baby once again so that the nurse would take care of him, expressed through regression to behavior typical of the time when she was present. Fortunately, a simplified and friendly explanation of the facts of life produced a prompt cure. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 53–58.)

Erikson regards identity confusion as the major problem confronting modern psychotherapy. Patients in Freud’s day had a fairly clear idea as to what kind of person they wanted to be, and suffered from inhibitions that prevented them from reaching this goal. In contrast, today’s patients often do not know what to believe in and what personal goals to aim for. “The study of identity, then, becomes as strategic in our time as the study of sexuality was in Freud’s time” (Erikson, 1963, p. 282; see also pp. 195–208, 279).


Theoretical Foundation. Since Erikson regards himself primarily as a psychoanalyst, many of his therapeutic goals are similar to Freud’s. The patient strives to bring unconscious material to consciousness, and to achieve important insights on both an emotional and intellectual level. This strengthens the patient’s capacity for rational, ego-directed choices. However, Erikson concludes that standard psychoanalytic therapy has serious limitations. He compares the analyst’s sitting silently out of sight to “an exquisite deprivation experiment,” one that may evoke so much regression and transference as to obscure an understanding of the patient’s behavior in more normal situations. He also warns that psychoanalysis is “a cure for which a patient must be relatively healthy in the first place and gifted,” and that its use with people for whom it is unsuited may make them even more disturbed (Erikson, 1977, p. 128; see also Erikson, 1958, pp. 17, 151–154; 1964, p. 50; Roazen, 1976a, pp. 67–72).

Therapeutic Procedures. Like Freud, Erikson regards free association as the best way to unravel the meaning of important unconscious material. However, most of his therapeutic procedures are designed to reduce the mystique and potential bias of Freudian psychoanalysis. For example, he adopts the more active Sullivanian role of participant-observer. Like Jung and Adler, Erikson stresses the equality of patient and therapist by often using face-to-face interviews. He also prefers to devote less attention to childhood causes, so that patients will not be encouraged to blame their problems on their parents and refuse to take responsibility for their behavior. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 16, 33, 195; 1964, p. 58; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, pp. 31, 97.)

To Erikson, it is play rather than dreams that represents the “royal road” to a child’s unconscious. The aforementioned convulsive young boy was unable to verbalize his fear of being punished by death for his aggression toward his grandmother, but he readily expressed this threatening belief with the aid of play therapy by arranging a group of dominoes in the form of a coffin. A young girl revealed the Oedipal nature of her repressed anger by creating a play scene wherein a girl doll shuts the mother doll in the bathroom, and gives the father doll three shiny new cars:

Children are apt to express in spatial configurations what they cannot or dare not say…. A child can be counted upon to bring into the solitary play arranged for him whatever aspect of his ego has been ruffled most … for to “play it out” is the most natural self-healing measure childhood affords…. As William Blake puts it: “The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons are the fruits of the two seasons.” (Erikson, 1963, pp. 29, 222; see also pp. 98–99, 107–108, 186, 209.)

Resistance, Transference, and Countertransference. Erikson accepts the existence of unconscious resistances to therapy, such as long silences and avoiding important but unpleasant issues. But he attributes them to the patient’s fears that a weak identity will be shattered by the analyst’s stronger will, rather than to a desire to preserve illicit impulses.

Insofar as transference is concerned, Erikson takes a somewhat ambivalent position. He shares Freud’s belief that it represents an essential source of information and emotional attachment, and Jung’s concern that intensive levels (e.g., transference neurosis) will provoke excessive regressions and infantile wishes to depend on an omnipotent provider. Erikson does agree that analysts are capable of such dam- aging countertransferences as the desire to dominate or love the patient, and that a personal analysis is therefore an indispensable part of psychoanalytic training. In addition, no therapeutic approach (Freudian, Eriksonian, Jungian, or whatever) can be effective unless it is compatible with the therapist’s own identity (Erikson, 1963, pp. 190–191, 223; 1964, pp. 36–37, 43, 236; 1975, pp. 34, 105–106, 115–116; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, p. 95).

Psychotherapy and Social ReformSince society plays an integral role in the development of a firm sense of identity, the treatment of specific individuals can accomplish only so much. Our technological culture is a common source of discontent, for it turns all too many workers into mere extensions of complicated machines. Racial and other forms of prejudice contribute to identity confusion, negative identities, and psychopathology. And the danger of nuclear war creates the pressing need to recognize our allegiance to the human species as a whole. “The only alternative to armed competition seems to be the effort to activate … what will strengthen [another] in his historical development even as it strengthens the actor in his own development.” That is, mutuality may well be the only way to ward off total atomic destruction (Erikson, 1964, p. 242; see also Erikson, 1963, pp. 155, 237, 241–246, 323; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, pp. 108–110).

Like Fromm and Horney, Erikson is highly critical of the psychoanalytic approach to female sexuality. He shares Horney’s belief that penis envy is symbolic of women’s jealousy over the favored role of men in a patriarchal society, and agrees that men (consciously or unconsciously) envy women’s capacity for mother- hood. He also expresses the hope that emancipated women will help our nuclear age to replace a masculine proclivity for war with new directions for peace and survival. (See Erikson, 1963, pp. 88, 411; 1964, pp. 113, 235; 1968, pp. 261–294; 1975, pp. 225–247; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, pp. 43–47.)


Like Adler, Erikson regards the inability to choose a vocation during adolescence as indicative of psychopathology. Conversely, as we have seen, the support afforded the ego by a satisfying career helps to prevent identity confusion. Although Erikson (1958, p. 17) regards work as probably the most neglected problem in psychoanalysis, his theory (like those of his predecessors) has relatively little to say about this area of human endeavor.


Unlike Freud, Erikson does not dismiss religion as a collective neurosis. He does agree that some forms of religious thought resemble psychopathology, and seek to exploit our infantile wishes for safety by offering illusory promises that cannot be fulfilled. Erikson also shares Freud’s belief that religion is not an innate need, and that many people prefer to derive faith from productive work and artistic creation. However, religion does provide valuable support for such essential ego qualities as trust and hope. There are millions who cannot afford to be without it, and whose apparent pride in not being religious is merely whistling in the dark. (See Erikson, 1958, p. 265; 1959, pp. 64–65; 1963, pp. 250–251, 277–278; 1964, pp. 153–155.)

Erikson restates the “golden rule” in terms of mutuality. Doing unto others as we wish they would do unto us may be unwise, for their needs and tastes may differ from ours. Instead, ideal behavior is that which enhances both another’s development and one’s own. “Understood this way, the Rule would say that it is best to do to another what will strengthen you even as it will strengthen him—that is, what will develop his best potentials even as it develops your own” (Erikson, 1964, p. 233; see also Erikson, 1964, pp. 219–243; Erikson, cited by Evans, 1967/1969, pp. 72–73, 101–102). Erikson (1969) regards Mohandas Gandhi as a particularly good example, for his famous philosophy of nonviolent resistance (“Satyagraha”) stresses the need for solutions that benefit both parties to a dispute.


To Erikson, the frequent allusions of some Black writers to namelessness and facelessness reflect the identity confusion that typically befalls an exploited minority. The character Biff in Death of a Salesman suffers from a similar problem, complaining that he can’t get any sort of hold on life. However, Erikson cautions against always inferring pathology from such examples. He once discussed Tom Sawyer with a group of social workers, calling attention to Ben Rogers’s playful imitation of a steamboat and its captain. Some members of the audience promptly decided that Ben was escaping from a tyrannical father with fantasies of being an official, and others concluded that he was symbolically reliving some previous bedwetting or toilet trauma by imitating a boat displacing substantial quantities of water. Erikson regards Ben as a healthy growing boy whose play symbolically makes a well-functioning whole out of such physiological processes as the brain (captain), the nerves and muscles (signal system and engine), and the body (boat). Tom does prove to be the better psychologist by inducing Ben to take over the tiresome job of whitewashing a fence, however, “which shows that psychology is at least the second-best thing to, and under some adverse circumstances may even prove superior to ordinary adjustment” (Erikson, 1963, p. 210; see also Erikson, 1963, pp. 211, 307; 1968, pp. 25, 131).


Erikson has devoted considerable attention to the writings and lives of noted historical figures, including Luther (1958), Hitler (1963, pp. 326–358), Gorky (1963, pp. 359–402), Gandhi (1969; 1975, pp. 113–189), and Jefferson (1974). Although he warns that autobiographies cannot be interpreted in the same way as free associations, and that the psychohistorian cannot avoid all countertransferential biases, Erikson seeks to illuminate the intrapsychic world of such personages with the aid of his theoretical principles. He has also used this technique in a conversation with Black Panther leader Huey Newton (Erikson, 1973).


Criticisms and Controversies

Pro-Freudianism and Political Expediency. To some critics, Erikson’s writings reflect a pronounced and disturbing schism. On the one hand, he professes a strong allegiance to Freudian theory, characterizes himself as a psychoanalyst, and retains the controversial construct of libido. Erikson goes so far as to attribute his own original construct of identity to his illustrious predecessor, repeatedly citing a single obscure speech in which Freud merely mentioned this term in passing. Yet despite these protestations, Erikson’s theory often seems more like a radical departure from id psychology. His emphasis on positive ego and societal processes differs significantly from Freud’s theoretical pessimism; and his actual references to libido are minimal and ambivalent, varying from a casual acceptance of this construct to virtual rejection because it cannot be measured. In fact, there are critics who consider Erikson to be something of a creative genius as a personality theorist. (See, for example, McAdams, 1997.)

Erikson may simply be demonstrating an understandable loyalty to the group that took him in as a 25-year-old wanderer, and helped him to resolve his painful identity crisis. However, the gap between his self-proclaimed Freudianism and his revisionist constructs is so substantial as to give some critics (e.g., Roazen, 1976a) the impression of political expediency. That is, Erikson may well have feared the excommunication from psychoanalytic circles that befell those theorists who forthrightly rejected libido theory—a dire fate that even involved the total exclusion of their works from the reading lists given psychoanalytic trainees. Whatever the cause, Erikson’s ambivalence has at least to some extent confused the nature and direction of his own theoretical contributions.

Social Conservatism and Optimism. Although Erikson explicitly denies any desire to advocate conformity, his theory is regarded by some as antipathetic to social change. He argues that healthy ego development requires the support of existing social roles, which has been interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo. Erikson’s revised “golden rule” of mutuality has been criticized as overly optimistic, since many problems may not have solutions that benefit all of the opposing parties.

Other Criticisms. Erikson’s findings are based entirely on clinical observation, and his work lacks any quantification or statistical analyses. Some critics contend that no set of developmental stages can apply to everyone (or nearly everyone) because human personalities are too different, and Erikson’s claim that we all proceed through the same eight epigenetic stages (and in the same order) is incorrect. Erikson fails to specify the influences that contribute to favorable or unfavorable ego development in some of the later stages, such as industry versus inferiority. To those who regard anxiety as a construct of considerable importance, his superficial treatment suffers by comparison to the work of Horney and Sullivan. As we have seen, the construct of libido has been rejected by many modern psychologists. Finally, although he is overly appreciative of Freud’s influence, Erikson fails to give sufficient acknowledgment to such predecessors as Adler, Fromm, and Sullivan.

Empirical Research

Although the universality of Erikson’s epigenetic stages is open to question, the evidence is more posi- tive concerning certain aspects of his theory. Research results strongly support his belief that basic trust in and attachment to one’s mother, mistrust, hope, and autonomy play an important role in personality development. There is also some indication that a firm sense of identity increases the likelihood of devel- oping intimate relationships, and is related to the successful resolution of previous developmental crises. However, a review of this voluminous research is beyond the scope of the present text. (See for example Ainsworth, 1985; Bowlby, 1969; 1988; Karen, 1990; Marcia, 1966; 1980; 1993; McAdams, 1993; Rutter,

1995; Schiedel & Marcia, 1985; Waterman, 1982; Waterman et al., 1970.)


Perhaps Erikson’s most notable contribution has been to broaden the scope of psychoanalytic theory. By rejecting Freud’s contention that society must be a source of frustration and conflict, and by stressing the effects of social and cultural influences on personality development, Erikson has helped to integrate psychoanalysis and sociology. His psychohistories represent an attempt to combine psychoanalysis and history. Because of his emphasis on healthy and adaptive ego processes, psychoanalysis is no longer limited to the study of those characteristics that clinical cases and more healthy individuals have in common.

For these reasons, some critics regard ego psychology as the most significant new direction to be taken by psychoanalytic theory since its inception. These psychologists emphatically reject the stereotype of the rigid and dogmatic psychoanalyst, who cannot accept even the slightest deviation from the verba- tim writings of Freud. They argue that psychoanalytic thinking is a continuing evolution of new ideas, as evidenced by ego psychology and by such relatively recent modifications as object relations theory.

The term identity crisis has become part of our everyday language. Erikson was one of the first analysts to treat children, and to devise valuable techniques of play therapy. His emphasis on adolescence appears preferable to Freud’s exclusive concern with childhood. Many modern psychologists accept the importance of basic trust, mistrust, autonomy, and identity. Erikson’s stage theory has achieved greater popularity than Sullivan’s or Freud’s, as shown by college textbooks on developmental psychology that use his epigenetic stages as their organizational framework (e.g., Newman & Newman, 1999).

Erikson’s study of Gandhi has been widely acclaimed as a major contribution. Erikson was one of the early defenders of the rights of minority groups, and his view of female sexuality is more equalitarian than Freud’s. Finally, despite his pro-Freudianism, Erikson has called attention to some of the potential biases in psychoanalytic therapy that Freud preferred to overlook.

There remains some question as to whether Erikson deserves a far more illustrious reputation than theorists like Horney and Sullivan, who also stressed the importance of social forces but forthrightly rejected the currently unpopular construct of libido. To many psychologists, however, Erikson’s psycho- socially oriented ego theory retains the considerable strengths of Freudian psychoanalysis and rectifies its most serious errors.

Suggested Reading

The best place to begin a firsthand study of Erikson’s works is with his first book, Childhood and Society (1963). This eminently readable and comprehensive work includes most of his theoretical constructs, presents several interesting case histories, and describes his study of the Sioux and Yurok. Also notable is his prizewinning biography, Gandhi’s Truth (1969). Some important ideas are restated and expanded, albeit in a more dry and academic fashion, in Insight and Responsibility (1964) and Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968). Among the useful secondary sources are a laudatory biography by Coles (1970), a much more critical effort by Roazen (1976a), an even-handed biography by Friedman (1999), and an article and a book by Erikson’s daughter (Bloland, 1999, 2005).


Using some of Freud’s later writings as their point of departure, some theorists have sought to broaden psychoanalytic theory by deemphasizing the role of the irrational id and stressing the capacities of the rational ego. This approach has become known as ego psychology, and one of its leading exponents is Erik Homburger Erikson.

  1. The basic nature of human beings. Biological Processes: Erikson retains, but deemphasizes, the Freudian constructs of libido and instinct. He prefers to stress the role played by the ego, and by societal forces, in shaping the human personality. Ego Processes: The ego not only defends against illicit instincts and anxiety, but serves important healthy functions as well. These constructive and adaptive ego functions are relatively independent of id instincts. Two of the most important are identity, a complicated inner state that includes feelings of individuality and unique- ness, wholeness and synthesis, sameness and continuity, and social solidarity; and a sense of mastery over the environment. Other essential ego qualities, such as hope and will power, are related to the various developmental stages. Societal Processes: Erikson regards society as a valuable source of support to the ego. A firm sense of identity or mastery is impossible without the approval of significant others, and society holds forth the promise of sanctioned roles. Erikson regards the social affirmation provided by mutually enhancing relationships (mutuality) as another human need, and concludes that different cultures exert differing effects on the development of the ego. The Unconscious: Erikson regards the unconscious as of considerable importance.

  2. The structure of personality. Erikson retains Freud’s structural model of id, ego, and superego. He agrees that the id is the sole component of personality present at birth and includes all of our inherited instincts, and that the superego consists of introjected ideals and restrictions and is capable of becoming overly moral. But Erikson accords much greater emphasis to the capacities and strengths of the ego.

  3. The development of personalityThe Epigenetic Psychosexual Stages: Erikson posits eight developmental stages that extend from infancy to old age. A predisposition to adapt to each stage is present at birth and emerges at the appropriate time. Each stage is characterized by a specific developmental crisis brought on by increasing physiological maturity and external demands, which must be resolved by the ego during that stage for personality development to proceed successfully. The outcome of any stage is by no means permanent, however, and future benign or pathogenic conditions may counteract prior deficiencies or accomplishments. The various stages, associated crises, and ego qualities or strengths indicative of healthy development have been delineated in a preceding Capsule Summary. Ritualizations: Repeated interpersonal rituals during childhood help the ego to adapt to the standards and demands of society.
  4. Further applications. Dream Interpretation: Erikson’s approach to dream interpretation is similar in many respects to that of Freud. But he regards the ego as relatively powerful even during sleep, so that dreams are more likely to be constructive and teleological. Psychopathology: Neurosis and psychosis occur when the ego cannot maintain its usual adaptive and integrative functions because it has been seriously weakened by unresolved epigenetic crises, social trauma, and physical ills. Erikson shares Freud’s view of psychopathology as a difference in degree rather than in kind, but concludes that the ego’s normal functions can- not be entirely understood from the study of clinical cases. According to Erikson, identity confusion is the major problem confronting modern psychotherapists. Psychotherapy: Erikson

    regards himself primarily as a psychoanalyst, but cautions that this method is suitable only in some cases. He seeks to avoid some of the potential biases in Freudian therapy by using face-to- face interviews, rejecting transference neurosis, and avoiding a preoccupation with the patient’s past. Erikson uses play therapy as the royal road to a child’s unconscious. Other Applications: Unlike Freud, Erikson regards religion as a potentially valuable support for such essential ego qualities as trust and hope. He has also engaged in psychohistorical analyses of such noted figures as Luther, Gandhi, Hitler, Gorky, and Jefferson.

  5. Evaluation. Erikson has been criticized for professing a strong allegiance to Freud but espousing different theoretical constructs, a schism that may reflect excessive loyalty or a politically expedient attempt to avoid expulsion by the psychoanalytic establishment. He retains the currently unpopular construct of libido, gives some critics the impression of being overly conformist and optimistic, and eschews any quantification or statistical analyses. Nevertheless, Erikson has significantly broadened the scope of psychoanalytic theory by stressing the role of healthy and adaptive ego processes, and by integrating psychoanalysis with such disciplines as sociology and history. The identity crisis, play therapy, the study of social influences on personality development and its continuation through adolescence and adulthood, and his prize-winning study of Gandhi are widely regarded as important contributions.