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Who Was Erik Erikson?

By Katharine Swan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Erik Erikson was an important psychological theorist in the development of the field. Born in Germany in 1902, Erikson apparently struggled with his identity during childhood. He never knew his father, and he grew up with a borrowed name: Erik Homberger, after his stepfather, Dr. Theodore Homberger. Also, although Erik was a blond, blue-eyed boy, his mother and stepfather raised him in the Jewish faith, causing him even more identity conflict.

In a highly symbolic act, as an adult he gave himself the name of Erikson, indicating that his identity was dependent on himself and no one else – making him, in effect, his own father. These identity issues undoubtedly had as much of an impact on the developmental stage theory Erik Erikson founded as did the education that he received.

As a young man, Erik Erikson traveled and studied in Europe. One of his teachers and mentors was Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. In 1933, after studying under Anna Freud for six years, Erikson moved to the United States, where he taught psychology at several prestigious schools. Because the bulk of his career – and his theorizing – was carried out in the United States, Erikson is considered to have been an American psychologist.

Erik Erikson’s theories showed influence from his Freudian training, as well as from his personal quest for identity. His developmental stage theory adapted and expanded on Freud’s theories of child development. Whereas Freud’s theory stopped at the end of childhood, Erikson believed that development continued throughout the lifespan. His theory included eight stages, rather than Freud’s five, and each was marked by a crucial identity conflict.

For example, Erik Erikson theorized that in infancy, a child struggled with the decision to trust or mistrust his caregivers. The decision to trust prepares the child for the conflict experienced in the next stage – the potty training stage of toddlerhood, in which a child learns autonomy over his bodily functions. However, if the child’s environment or experiences lead him to learn mistrust, the consequences follow him for the rest of his development, eventually producing a maladjusted adult.

Each stage has its own unique crisis. Infants deal with trust issues, toddlers learn either to be autonomous or to doubt oneself, young children learn either to take initiative or feel inadequate, and grade school children experience either industry or inferiority. Adolescents, unsurprisingly, deal with identity issues, emerging from the period with either a strong sense of who they are or identity confusion. Adults, whom Freud’s theories neglect, struggle first with intimacy, then with productivity, and finally with their reflections on their lives.

A wrong turn during any of these stages could produce any number of psychological problems. Therefore, Erik Erikson believed that psychoanalysis could help maladjusted adults to relearn the lessons that they’d struggled with in childhood. Erikson died in 1994.

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