Chapter 8:  Erickson – Post-Freudian Theory

Part 1: Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson is one of the few personality theorists from a Western perspective who addressed the entire lifespan.  He shifted from Freud’s emphasis on psychosexual conflicts to one of psychosocial crises, which have unique manifestations through adulthood and old age.  Erikson’s theory has always been popular, but as our society has become increasingly older, the need has grown to understand the aged individual, making Erikson’s perspective even more valuable and relevant today than it was when he first proposed it.  If, indeed, Erikson’s perspective on the personality changes occurring in adulthood and old age do become more relevant with time, it may result in an interesting change in Erikson’s place in psychology. Although most personality textbooks devote a chapter to Erikson, and he is typically covered in lifespan developmental texts as well, he is not mentioned in most history of psychology textbooks, and those that do mention him do so only briefly.  As popular as he is with students of psychology, as well as among most psychology faculty, becoming a common topic in the history of his field would be a distinct honor.

This is a black and white photograph taken of Erik Erikson. He is sitting in a chair as he stares past the camera. He is wearing a suit jacket, buttoned-up shirt, tie, and glasses. There are papers sitting on his desk.
Rupali.talan. (2016, September 4). Erik Erikson Photo2. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

It is also important to note that Erikson was first and foremost a psychoanalyst, and a child psychoanalyst at that.  He did not neglect the importance of childhood as he pursued the psychosocial changes that accompany aging.

The most curious aspect of Erik Erikson’s life is certainly that his last name was not actually Erikson.  No one alive today knows the name of his real father, and he never learned it either. He implored his mother to tell him who his father was, as did his wife, Joan, but Erikson’s mother had promised her second husband, Theodor Homburger, the man who raised Erikson and whose name Erikson had been given, that she would never reveal the truth. And she kept that promise.  When Erikson and his family moved to the United States, their son, Kai, was taunted by schoolmates who called him “hamburger, hamburger.” So, Erikson and his wife turned to the Scandinavian tradition of naming a son after his father, and they called their son Kai Erik’s son, or Kai Erikson. They then adopted the surname themselves, becoming Erik and Joan Erikson. It is also surprising to note that Joan Erikson’s name was not Joan.  Her first name was Sarah, and as a child she was called Sally. According to her daughter, Sue, she hated both names, and eventually chose to be called Joan (Sue Erikson Bloland, 2005).

Erik Homburger Erikson was born Erik Salomonsen on June 15, 1902, near Frankfurt, Germany.  His mother, Karla Abrahamsen, was from a wealthy Jewish family in Copenhagen, Denmark. She had married a man named Valdemar Salomonsen, but her husband left Europe within a day of their marriage and went to North America; she never saw him again and he seems to have had no further relationship with her.  A few years later she became pregnant, and in order to avoid scandal, she either left or was sent away from Denmark to Germany, where she would be near relatives. She settled near Frankfurt and raised Erikson alone. Shortly after Erikson was born, they received word that Valdemar Salomonsen had died, making Erikson’s mother a widow.  When Erikson became ill around the age of 3, his mother took him to a local pediatrician named Theodor Homburger. Karla Abrahamsen and Theodor Homburger fell in love, got married, and Homburger helped to raise Erikson as his own son. Erikson was 8 years old when he learned the truth that Homburger was not his birth father, but he still grew up as Erik Homburger, since his mother never revealed the truth about his actual father’s name (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

As a child, Erikson was never secure in his relationship with his mother.  They were close, and his mother delighted in his intelligence and sensitivity.  She shared her passion for philosophy and art with her son, but she had to pay special attention to her new and very proper husband, Dr. Homburger.  Erikson himself was, by all accounts, deeply traumatized by his mother shifting her attention to this new husband, and by the deception he eventually learned about regarding the fact that Homburger was not his biological father.  Although he was eventually adopted by Homburger, it was more about proper appearances than any close relationship between stepfather and stepson. Later in life, Erikson rarely ever mentioned his stepfather (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

Erikson attended a primary school for 4 years, and then went to a very traditional Gymnasium.  He studied Latin and Greek, German literature, ancient history, and art.  He was not a particularly good student, but he excelled at history and art.  Since the Homburger family was rather prestigious, and given his mother’s interest in art, their home was often entertained by many regional artists.  Erikson sought formal training as an artist, and was considered quite talented. So, rather than attending college, he spent a year wandering through Europe living a Bohemian lifestyle.  However, he was still deeply troubled by his sense of having no identity, no heritage, and by his own account, was marginally functional at best. He was able to make ends meet only because his mother secretly sent him money, something his stepfather would have been very angry about because Homburger was becoming openly intolerant of Erikson’s avoidance of social and financial responsibility.  After a year, Erikson returned home and entered an art school, and then proceeded on to Munich to study at another art school. After 2 years in Munich, he moved to Florence, Italy, where he spent most of his time wandering around and studying people. He also made friends with other wandering artists, including a writer named Peter Blos, who had actually been in his graduating class at the Gymnasium and who later became a well-known child psychoanalyst.  Eventually, however, Erikson realized he would not be successful as an artist, and he returned home, caught in the grip of a deep depression (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

In 1927, something most important happened in Erikson’s life.  His friend, Peter Blos, had been privately tutoring the children of Dorothy Burlingham, a wealthy American who had come to Vienna for psychoanalysis and to meet Sigmund Freud.  Blos had been living with the Burlinghams, and while doing so, he also came to know the Freud family well. Blos eventually decided that the time had come to move on. However, Mrs. Burlingham and her close, personal friend Anna Freud, did not want to lose a teacher they were so fond of.  So, they offered Blos the opportunity to establish a school of his own, and he invited Erikson to help him develop the curriculum and to teach art and history. Blos and Erikson were given a free hand to develop a progressive curriculum, and the two men flourished. The results were astounding.  The children had great freedom, and with Erikson, they studied art, music, poetry, German history, ancient history, geography, they read about Eskimos and American Indians, and they made tools, toys, and exhibits. The environment in what came to be known as the Hietzing School also provided much food for thought for Anna Freud, as she was just developing her ideas on the psychoanalysis of children (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

Through his relationship with the Burlingham family and Anna Freud, Erikson became well acquainted with the entire Freud family.  He greatly impressed Anna Freud with how quickly he bonded with the children in the Hietzing School. So, he was accepted into psychoanalysis, both as a patient and as a psychoanalyst in training.  Since his interests in the school had shifted from teaching to studying and observing the children as they lived their lives, Erikson, like Anna Freud, was already interested in becoming a child psychoanalyst.  As he pursued his psychoanalytic training, he also pursued training in the Montessori approach to education. He actually became one of only two men in the Vienna Montessori Women’s Teacher Association. As if all this wasn’t enough, in 1929, Erikson met Joan Serson.  Born in a small town in Ontario, Canada, Serson had moved to Vienna to pursue her own studies (she had a Master’s degree in Sociology, and had been working on a Ph.D.). The two met at a masked ball at a palace in Vienna, and before long they were living together. Serson also began teaching at the Hietzing School with Erikson and Blos.  In the spring of 1930, Serson went to Philadelphia, where her mother was very ill. While there she learned that she was pregnant. She returned to Vienna, only to find that Erikson balked at marrying her. However, a number of his friends urged him to avoid the mistakes of his own father, and that he should not abandon the woman who was carrying his child, let alone the child itself.  So, Joan and Erik Erikson were married in 1930. She joined the faculty of the Hietzing School, and there were clearly some happy times:

After our marriage we lived on the Kueniglberg, above the school.  When our son Kai was born (after some time out for Joan) we daily carried him between us in a laundry basket to the tiny schoolyard or the Rosenfelds’ back porch.  It became routine that the children would tell us during class when he was crying (“Kai weint”), and in the intermission some watched him being nursed. It was enriching for us all to share this experience. (pg. 5; Erikson & Erikson, 1980).

In 1932, however, the Hietzing School closed, in part because some of the children returned to America with their families, and in part because Mrs. Burlingham and Anna Freud had differing opinions from Erikson and Blos as to how the school should be run.  The climate in Europe was becoming increasingly hostile as the Nazis took over Germany and the surrounding areas (including Austria), and Erikson was concerned about his family (they had two sons by that point). Erikson moved his young family to America in order to escape the dangerous conditions brewing in Europe (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

Considering his illustrious credentials, having been an acquaintance of Sigmund Freud and trained by Anna Freud, Erikson was welcomed into the American psychoanalytic community, despite never having graduated from college (let alone medical school).  The Eriksons never really settled anywhere; in many ways, his career was one of unending research and clinical experience. In 1933, the Eriksons moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and Erik received appointments at the Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Judge Baker Guidance Center.  He was associated with the Harvard Psychological Clinic, and came to know Henry Murray. In 1936, he accepted a position at Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations where he met John Dollard. Dollard encouraged Erikson’s interests in cross-cultural research and in extending Freud’s theories to the entire lifespan.  Indeed, Dollard may have had a significant influence on Erikson’s eight-stage theory of development (Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

In the summer of 1938, the year that his daughter was born, Erikson joined anthropologist Scudder Mekeel on a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to study the children of the Sioux Indians.  He was able to make extensive observations of mother-child interactions and he was able to talk with employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1939, the Eriksons moved to California. Erikson practiced psychoanalysis in San Francisco, taught at the University of California, and continued his studies on Native Americans by visiting the Yurok tribe in Northern California.  During this time, he consolidated his major interests into his most significant book, Childhood and Society (Erikson, 1950), which includes sections on the influence of social life, culture (based on his Native American studies), the use of toys and playing when studying children, the evolution of identity, and the eight stages of development.  At this time, Erikson also became an American citizen (Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

This is a black and white photograph of native children standing outside in a row.
Image Source: Johnston, Frances Benjamin. (1900). Seven Indian children of uneducated parents. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CCO.

In 1944, however, a disturbing and tragic event befell the Eriksons, and this was kept secret as much as possible.  They had a fourth child named Neil. When Joan went to deliver the child, she had been heavily sedated because of a surgical procedure that had been planned ahead of time (as a result of an earlier pregnancy).  Erikson was summoned by the doctors, who told him that his newborn child was a “Mongolian Idiot” (known today as a Down Syndrome child). The case was considered severe, and he was told it was unlikely that the child would live more than a year or two.  The medical staff recommended having the child institutionalized. Erikson was not used to making such decisions, as it was Joan who ran the household and supported him while he worked. He called a close friend, Margaret Mead for advice. She assured him that the medical staff was right.  Another friend, Joseph Wheelwright (a respected Jungian analyst) agreed. Erikson signed the necessary papers, and Neil Erikson was transferred before his mother ever woke up. The decision tormented both of them. Joan felt that she had never been given a chance to participate in the decision, but she also never made any effort to bring Neil home.  They told their children that he had died, and many of their friends never knew he had even existed (no mention is made in the 1970 biography by Robert Coles). After a year or two went by, Erik and Joan did tell their oldest son, Kai, but he was strictly forbidden to mention Neil. Making the situation even more tragic was the fact that Neil lived to be 21 years old.  Since much less was known about mental retardation at the time, and this occurred well before the prevailing attitude had begun to change, what else might the doctors have been wrong about (Bloland, 2005; Friedman, 1999)?

In 1949, Erikson was appointed as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  Within a year, however, as McCarthyism gripped America, Erikson refused to sign a loyalty oath.  Erikson protested publicly, and his statement was read at conferences and published in the journal, Psychiatry.  He was not a communist and had never had any interest in communism, but he felt that signing the oath would have made him a hypocrite, as well as being a betrayal of junior colleagues who had refused to sign the oath and were promptly dismissed.  Although the tenure committee recommended that he be allowed to remain at the University of California, due in large part to the dismissal of junior colleagues, Erikson resigned his position. He was quickly offered a position at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

Erikson was something of a celebrity in Stockbridge.  He spent 10 years in Stockbridge, during which he published Young Man Luther (Erikson, 1958), a historical/psychoanalytic biography that brought together two of Erikson’s academic strengths as well as brought him a certain amount of acclaim.  He also taught a graduate seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, using Young Man Luther as a model for the course.  He was subsequently offered a professorship at Harvard, but not without some controversy.  One of the faculty who protested Erikson’s appointment, claiming that he came at too high a price (literally), was David McClelland.  Others supported Erikson, and he was eventually appointed as a professor with no particular department. It proved to be a good decision for the university.  Erikson used his influence and personal connections to invite renowned guest speakers, ranging from pediatrician Benjamin Spock, to anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.  He inspired students such as Howard Gardner, Carol Gilligan, and future congressman, senator, and Vice President of the United States, Albert Gore, Jr. (Gore wrote a biography of his father for Erikson’s class).  Erikson also continued his interest in historical biography with the publication of Gandhi’s Truth (Erikson, 1969), following a 3-month visit to India in 1962/1963.  Gandhi’s Truth won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Always afraid that he would not be recognized for his accomplishments, Erikson hoped that he would also win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he was disappointed when it did not happen (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

Erikson retired in 1970, and he and Joan returned to California.  Erikson continued writing for a number of years, focusing on issues related to personality changes that accompany old age.  Eventually, however, time began to catch up with him. In 1987, as his health deteriorated, he and Joan returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with two young professors who could help Joan care for her husband.  He died in 1994 (Bloland, 2005; Coles, 1970; Friedman, 1999).

Joan Erikson missed her husband terribly, but managed to spend some time on her own writing.  She wrote several chapters that were added as an addendum to The Life Cycle Completed, in which she proposed a ninth stage of development (Erikson & Erikson, 1997).  She spoke to their daughter Sue regularly, as Sue followed her father’s footsteps and became a psychoanalyst.  Sue Erikson Bloland was deeply concerned, however, since Lawrence Friedman was about to publish his biography on Erikson, which included extensive coverage of the Erikson’s son, Neil.  Fortunately, perhaps, Joan Erikson died in 1997, and never had to face the public reaction to Friedman’s biography (Bloland, 2005).

Placing Erikson in Context:  Psychodynamic Challenges Across the Lifespan

Erik Erikson is well-known, popular, and highly respected by most of his colleagues.  He knew Sigmund Freud personally, and he was trained in psychoanalysis by Anna Freud. And yet, it is difficult to place Erikson in context.  He believed that he had remained true to Freud’s theories, but his shift from psychosexual stages to psychosocial crises, and his extension of them throughout the lifespan, was something that Anna Freud found objectionable, and she dismissed his work as “not much… designed to make my father’s work palatable to Harvard freshman” (cited in Bloland, 2005).  Erikson was always bothered by this rejection, even when the importance of his place in psychoanalytic theory was assured by others.

Erikson also stands apart from most other theorists with his emphasis on the continuation of psychodynamic processes throughout the lifespan.  Although Jung had discussed the importance of middle age, his theorizing was based on Eastern perspectives, not on psychodynamic theory. A number of other analysts emphasized sociocultural factors in adulthood, including Adler and Horney, but only Erikson proposed a continuous, single theory from birth to old age, a theory based on traditional psychodynamic perspectives.

Erikson was not unique in his emphasis on cross-cultural studies, but other theorists typically looked to confirm their psychodynamic theory after the fact.  Erikson’s studies on the childhood of the Sioux and the Yurok helped him develop his psychosocial theory.

And finally, Erikson was one of the few theorists who addressed personality changes in old age.  As life expectancy continues to rise in America, there are many more elderly people today than ever before.  And they are healthier at older ages as well. Thus, our understanding of the unique aspects of the elderly person will become increasingly more relevant, not only to psychology, but to all of society as well.


Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.