Chapter 8:  Erickson – Post-Freudian Theory

Part 4: Identity Development

The developmental crisis that Erikson focused much of his career on was that of developing one’s identity.  From the beginning of publishing his theories, he emphasized that a lot of the psychological distress and pathological symptoms seen in childhood can be interpreted as the child expressing their right to find an identity in the world, and neurosis typically results from the loss of one’s identity (Erikson, 1950).  Erikson returned to this theme repeatedly in books such as Identity and the Life Cycle (Erikson, 1980a; originally published in 1959), Identity: Youth and Crisis (Erikson, 1968b), and Dimensions of a New Identity (Erikson, 1974).  He also published A Memorandum on Identity and Negro Youth at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America (Erikson, 1964).  The importance of identity, and the stage of identity vs. role-diffusion and confusion, is that only upon completion of the first four stages of life is the ego fully mature, the point at which a person is ready to be an adult.  But the entire period, the entire psychosocial crisis, is a critical time of transition:

Adolescents have always been especially open to conversion or to what is now called consciousness-expansion in the direction of physical, spiritual, and social experience.  Their cognitive capacities and social interests are such that they want to go to the limit of experience before they fit themselves into their culture and fit their culture to themselves. (pg. 37; Erikson cited in Evans, 1964)

 A General Definition of Identity

Since Erikson labeled his fifth stage of development identity vs. role diffusion and/or confusion, it is common to think that identity formation is something that occurs during adolescence.  Actually, identity formation begins at birth and continues throughout the lifespan. It is only in adolescence that the individual finally has the material around which to form an integrated identity that can remain somewhat stable, hence the psychosocial crisis that arises during that process of integration and more stable identity formation.  Thus, a child will have some sense of self, but it is not until adolescence that it becomes a crisis. So what is that sense of self that forms the identity? Erikson himself turned to two great men whom he described as “bearded and patriarchal founding fathers of the psychologies on which our thinking on identity is based:” William James and Sigmund Freud (Erikson, 1968).

A man’s character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive.  At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: “This is the real me!” (pg. 19; William James in a letter to his wife, cited in Erikson, 1968)

Moving beyond James’ very personal description, Freud spoke of his Jewish identity as something that provided a cultural context in which he lived his life, even though he was never religious and openly despised religion.  He felt that he shared a Jewish cultural nature, which offered an explanation for, as well as a justification for, aspects of his personality that defied any other obvious explanation.

Based on these perspectives by James and Freud, Erikson described identity as a process rooted in the core of the individual yet also rooted in the core of their communal culture.  This complicated process involves both judging oneself in light of how others judge you, as well as judging the judgments others make about you.  Eventually, the interplay between psychological and social factors results in an identity based on psychosocial relativity (Erikson, 1968).  In other words, one’s identity is very much influenced by where a person sees themselves fitting into their world.  Consequently, a person may develop a healthy identity, or they can just as easily develop a negative identity (see below).

The term identity crisis was first used by Erikson during World War II to describe a particular psychological disorder.  They encountered patients who had been fighting in the war who had become severely disturbed. However, they could not be described in the typical ways, such as being “shell-shocked” or just faking mental illness to escape combat.  Instead, they had lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity. Erikson proposed that they had lost the central control over that part of their self that psychoanalysts could only describe as the ego. Thus, he described these patients as having lost their “ego identity.”  Since World War II, Erikson felt that he and his colleagues were observing the same fundamental disorder in many severely conflicted young patients. These disturbed individuals were, in a sense, waging a war within themselves and against society. An identity crisis of this sort can affect groups as well as individuals (Erikson, 1968).  In an interesting and somewhat amusing example of group identity crisis, we can look at the reaction of the psychoanalytic community to the theories of Carl Jung. In Erikson’s view, the psychoanalytic community reacted to Jung’s proposal of the collective unconscious and archetypes as a threat to scientific approach advocated by Freud. Consequently, the majority of the psychoanalytic community ignored Jung’s reasonable observations as well as his somewhat less scientific interpretations (Erikson, 1980a).

Obstacles to the Development of Identity

Erikson talked about two obstacles to the development of identity: ratio and negative identity.  Ratio refers to the balance between the opposite poles of each psychosocial crisis:  trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, etc. Although it may be best for the ratio to favor trust, autonomy, and so on, it is unreasonable to expect a person to develop without any experience of trust being misplaced or without any feelings of shame.  This helps to ground the person in the real world, particularly as it is appropriate to the customs of their culture (see Evans, 1964). Indeed, Erikson felt that identity could be viewed as being that subsystem within the ego that is closest to social reality, based on the integrated self-representations formed during the psychosocial crises of childhood.  Thus, identity:

…could be said to be characterized by the more or less actually attained but forever-to-be-revised sense of the reality of the self within social reality; while the imagery of the ego ideal could be said to represent a set of to-be-strived-for but forever-not-quite-attainable ideal goals for the self. (pg. 160; Erikson, 1980a)

Negative identity is often expressed as an angry and snobbish rejection of the roles expected by one’s family, community, or even society.  It is a profound reaction to the loss of identity that typically arises when identity development has lost the promise of wholeness that one expects to obtain from their identity.  The consequences can be severe, for both individuals and groups of young people. Erikson worked with young people who were beginning to make choices in life that could easily lead them toward their vindictive fantasies of becoming prostitutes or drug addicts (an extreme way of rebelling against their parents).  As such disturbed young people gather together, they can form gangs, drug rings, sex clubs, and the like (Erikson, 1968b, 1980a). Society, according to Erikson, often makes the mistake of enhancing this maladaptive behavior.

Erikson believed that women and minorities (indeed, oppressed people in any situation) face special problems in the formation of their identity.  Erikson considered men and women to be fundamentally different, but more importantly, he believed that only women could ensure the future of humanity.  According to Erikson, men try to solve problems with “bigger and better wars.” And now, with the advent of nuclear bombs, men have nearly reached the limit of their ability to destroy each other.  The future, therefore, requires the feminine aspects of personality, including realistically caring for the home, responsibly raising the children, being resourceful in peacekeeping, and devotion to healing.

For Blacks in America, the identity crisis has been one of being separated from their African heritage, and yet also separated from the White American heritage that surrounds them.  Erikson recounts both clinical examples and folklore that emphasizes the value placed on being White by Blacks themselves (Erikson, 1950, 1964, 1968, 1980a). The result is often psychological distress and depression, such as that seen in the classic study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which Black children considered identification with their race as bad.  Using Black and White dolls, some of the young Black children actually cried when asked to point to the doll they looked most like (Clark & Clark, 1947). Perhaps the most dramatic example of Erikson’s theory in action occurred during the 1960s. Disenfranchised Blacks adopted a negative identity and opposed many aspects of the American society that had oppressed Black’s for so long (Note: Negative identity is used here only as Erikson’s term, not to imply that the fight for racial equality was, in any way, something negative).  With Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, some young Black men opposed both the Christianity and the Democracy that formed so much of the American national identity.  Those who did not, found themselves at odds with their own people, as we will see with Brian Copeland, author of Not a Genuine Black Man (Copeland, 2006).  It should be noted, however, that the seemingly contradictory perspective of rejecting a society that gives one the very right to oppose it is not alien to the African psyche:

…the African gods south of the Sahara always had at least two heads, one for evil and one for good.  Now people create God in their own image, what they think He – for God is always a “He” in patriarchal societies – what He is like or should be.  So the African said, in effect: I am both good and evil; good and evil are the two parts of the thing that is me… (pg. 24; Huey Newton, recorded in Kai Erikson, 1973)

The idea that Black Americans might have been adopting a negative identity was more than just an academic theory for Erikson.  In 1971, both Erikson and Huey Newton (who was then known as Supreme Commander of the Black Panther Party) presented talks to the students of Yale University.  A short time later, they met again for a series of conversations in Oakland, California, which also included the Black sociologist J. Herman Blake and Erikson’s son, Kai Erikson, also a sociologist (see K. Erikson, 1973).  Among many topics, Newton described the revolutionary actions of Black activists at that time as a process, a contradiction between old ways and new ways. Any change, he argued, might be viewed as revolutionary at a particular point in time.  Newton went on to describe how the Black community expected him to hate all White people, and how the Black community rejected many of its own because they had too many Caucasian features (such as relatively light skin). He rebelled against this discrimination, just as he did against the oppression that was so inherent in American society.  Erikson, for his part, talked mostly about just how difficult it is for people of different backgrounds to understand each other’s perspective. Most important, however, is the act of searching for some basis for understanding one another (K. Erikson, 1973).

In his autobiographical book Revolutionary Suicide (the preparation of which was assisted by J. Herman Blake; Newton, 1973), Newton begins with a tribute to a comrade who was killed in a shootout with the police, while seeking nothing more than what Newton considered the right of all men: dignity and freedom.

Identity and the Role of the Family – Perspectives from Around the World

Identity is not merely a personal phenomenon; it develops within a cultural context that is passed on through the family.  The most important social institutions of the first three stages of development are the mother, then both parents, and finally, the family as a whole.  As adults, individuals face not only their own psychosocial crises, but they serve as the parents of the next generation as their children face the early development crises.  Thus, it is important to consider the role that the family plays in general, and the perspectives that can be offered by family psychology.

It is difficult to define the word family since it includes nuclear families (two-generations, with married parents and their own children), extended families (three or more generations), foster and adoptive families (which may be multi-racial and/or multi-cultural), single-parent families, gay or lesbian couples with or without children, remarried/step families, and others (Kaslow, 2001).  Further complicating matters is the role the family plays as a microsystem of a given culture, especially when that culture is dramatically altered. For example, when the former Soviet Union collapsed, the entire economic and political structure of countries like Russia, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were wiped out. When Yugoslavia broke apart, ancient ethnic hatred led to brutal, local wars.  The role that women play in many cultures has changed in recent years, whereas in some cultures the patriarchal authority has aggressively retained its domination of the culture. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank for developing micro-credit loans, most of which go to poor women in oppressive societies in an effort to help these women and their children rise out of poverty.

This is a color image of a Black mother and her four children. The family is outside of their home. The children are wearing few articles of clothing, and the mother is nursing her infant.
ValeriaRodrigues. Retrieved from Pixabay at

Family psychology addresses issues as complex as families themselves, including male-female relationships, domestic violence, child-rearing and socialization practices, divorce, the search for identity in a dysfunctional family setting, spirituality, drug addiction, war, crime and violence, homelessness, kidnapping, immigration, etc. (Kaslow, 2001).  When the members of a family face any of these problems, or perhaps a number of them, family psychologists can help the individuals to retain their own sense of identity, in part by focusing on reconstructing the social structure of the family (as opposed to focusing on diagnosing individual disorders). Unfortunately, the problems facing families are common throughout the world.  However, since the family is the basic social structure within communities across all cultures, family therapy can play an important role in helping to solve these problems. For example, family therapy has been used to study and treat a variety of problems in different countries: conduct disorder in youth from the U.S. Virgin Islands (Dudley-Grant, 2001); community disasters, war stress, and the effects of immigration on Israeli families (Halpern, 2001); and the refusal of some children in Japan to attend school (Kameguchi & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2001).  In each of these cultures, the family is considered to play a particularly important role in identity formation.


Many theories on personality and cognitive development end with adolescence.  As one enters into adulthood, it is assumed, one has accomplished all of the tasks necessary to be an adult, including one’s identity.  And yet, if adolescence ends sometime in the late teens, many people can reasonably expect to live another 60 to 80 years. Does it really make any sense to propose that nothing meaningful happens during those years?  Of course, Erikson described development stages throughout adulthood and old age, but what about other psychologists? Srivastava, et al. (2003) examined changes in the Big Five personality traits across the years of adulthood.  They found that conscientiousness and agreeableness increased through early and middle adulthood, whereas neuroticism decreased in women, but not in men. In other words, both men and women become more responsible and cooperative as they grow through adulthood, and women become more stable.  One can speculate that these changes fit well within Erikson’s model, in which most adults take on the tasks involved in raising a family. Self-esteem rises steadily throughout adulthood, before dropping sharply in old age (Robins & Trzesniewski, 2005). Similarly, the ability to integrate cognitive and affective components of the self in order to maintain positive self-development, increases steadily during adulthood until beginning to decline with old age (Labouvie-Vief, 2003).  Thus, adulthood does appear to be a time of personality change.

Adulthood, however, means different things in different cultures.  In Adulthood (Erikson, 1978), Erikson brought together a collection of authors who examined adulthood from a variety of cultural perspectives.  For a Christian adult, growth occurs primarily through social experiences. One encounters Christ in service to others, or in other words, by loving your neighbor.  Christ himself serves as the model for adulthood (Bouwsma, 1978). Adulthood in Islam carries with it responsibility for the religious commands and obligations of Islam.  One must reconcile the reality of the world with one’s place in it, as willed by Allah. Adulthood then becomes an expression of the inner peace achieved by living in the world in accord with the divinely revealed reality (Lapidus, 1978).  In the Confucian tradition, adulthood is the complete process of becoming a person. In this patriarchal model, first a man comes of age, then he marries and has children, then he begins a career as a scholar-official, and that career is expected to be served with distinction (Wei-Ming, 1978).  In Japan, adulthood is a time of social responsibility, discipline, and perseverance in preparation for the integrity and respect typically associated with old age (Rohlen, 1978). India presents a particularly difficult challenge, and it is not really possible to speak of a single adulthood model.  The caste system inherent in India of the past created vastly different life conditions for the people of India (Rudolph & Rudolph, 1978). The problems of language and multicultural populations create unique difficulties for understanding adulthood in Russia and America (Jordan, 1978; Malia, 1978). What is clear across cultures is that adulthood is a time of continued development, it can vary quite dramatically (even within a culture), and it often involves an aspect of anticipating old age.  The anticipation of old age, however, can vary dramatically based on individual and cultural attitudes about old age, as we will see in the next section.

Adulthood can be the most productive and, in some ways, the most gratifying years of life.  Some of the unique challenges of adulthood have become popular topics in psychology, such as the midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome. And yet, adulthood is the least studied period of life.  One possible explanation for this neglect, according to Smelser (1980a), is that most research is done by adults, and they tend to be more interested in stages of development other than their own.  In a second collection of articles, entitled Themes of Work and Love in Adulthood (Smelser & Erikson, 1980), Smelser and Erikson brought together a variety of perspectives on what they viewed as two of the most important life phenomena that dominate the adulthood years.  Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that maturity is to be found in the capacity to love and to work. Throughout one’s life, both of these phenomena follow certain paths, typically involving a period of growing interest and ability, followed by a fairly stable level (which typically lasts for decades), followed by a gradual (as in work) or sudden (as in the death of a spouse) decline (Smelser, 1980a).  In examining the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, evident in their letters to one another, Erikson (1980b) found distinctly adult content related to such topics as mutual regard, confidence, affection, intimate concern for their families, both good and bad observations regarding their professional colleagues, and an ongoing debate regarding the important issues in psychodynamic theory and the psychoanalytic movement.  There are similarities, yet some interesting contrasts, between these letters and the ones Freud had written to Wilhelm Fliess years earlier. In that younger period of adulthood, Freud seemed more in need of a close friend, particularly since he was in the process of creating the field that was becoming well-established by the time Freud met Jung. Perhaps due to Freud being older when he met Jung, it seems that he interacted with Fliess and Jung in different ways: when Freud was young he interacted with his colleague, Fliess, as a colleague, but when he was older he interacted with Jung in a much more father-son type relationship (and Jung had lost his father years earlier).

Work and love interact, or don’t, depending on the nature of individual cultures.  For example, in America we compartmentalize our lives. We tend to have clearly defined career paths, and our personal relationships exist primarily outside of the workplace (Smelser, 1980b).  In contrast, the Gusii in Kenya have not traditionally had “careers,” but rather a domestically based economy. They also practice polygyny (each man having many wives, but not vice versa).  Thus, a husband must balance the resources at his command between his different wives and their children.  As such, although love plays some role in marriage, it can actually become a problem for that man who cannot maintain fair and equitable treatment of each wife and her children.  This is handled by maintaining a certain distance from each wife, including having his own house, and visiting each wife on a rotating schedule that is acceptable to everyone (LeVine, 1980).  Such a concept of love and marriage is extraordinarily alien to the symbolic and mythic nature of the love ideal that lies at the foundation of American culture: a man and a woman committed to one another in a way that ennobles and transforms them both (Swidler, 1980).

However, the romantic vision of love in American culture is not without its drawbacks.  The romantic, passionate, committed love that Americans envision completes one’s identity.  In Erikson’s terms, it stands in opposition to isolation. However, it is all too common that most marriages, as well as other long-term relationships, eventually come to an end.  What then happens to each person’s identity? Love also provides a basis for rebellion, such as when a person “marries for love” in spite of the objections of one’s family and/or friends.  Love can also lead to conformity, such as one sees in the term “settling down” or when women, in particular, are expected to take on the primary responsibility for the household as an expression of their love, even if they also have a job outside of the home as their husband does.  When one partner, more so than the other, must engage in self-sacrifice, what happens to their opportunities for self-realization? If it is possible to find fulfillment through the love of another, then self-sacrifice can be self-realization (Swidler, 1980). If not, we might see high divorce rates.  And a high divorce rate is the reality in America today.

So, whether love and work are intermingled or separate, whether simple or complex, whether fulfilling or a necessary social expectation, they dominate the years of early and middle adulthood.  No one period in adulthood is more likely than another to result in change, as different stressors impact each age differently. Work related stress is particularly likely for the young adult, but older adults face the challenge of preparing (both financially and psychologically) for retirement, and unexpected changes can occur at any age.  Love, particularly as it relates to marriage, causes stress throughout adulthood, but in different ways. Younger couples are more likely to experience separation and/or divorce, middle-aged adults experience their children leaving home and possible career transitions, and older couples are more likely to experience illness, disabilities, and perhaps the loss of a spouse.  Each of these different forms of stress brings with it a need for coping mechanisms, and if those coping mechanisms fail, the likelihood for psychological distress becomes very real (Pearlin, 1980). Perhaps the most challenging stressor in our lives, one that ultimately cannot be overcome but that may be transcended and accepted, is old age and our inevitable death.

Connections Across Cultures:  Glorifying Youth vs. Valuing the Elderly

We hear a lot in our society about how we value youth and consider the elderly to be of little worth.  The obsession with youth and appearance is such that plastic surgery has become the subject of numerous television shows.  But is our society really different than other societies, and if so, what factors might have contributed to the difference?  The matter is particularly important today, since the world’s older population is the fastest growing group. One estimate has suggested by the year 2020, the total population of people over 65 years of age will be 690 million (Hillier & Barrow, 1999).  Thus, it won’t be long before there are a billion people over the age of 65. But is 65 years old a valid point for declaring someone as old?

Old age can be defined functionally, as in whether or not a person can still do the things expected of them in their culture, it can be defined formally by some external event, such as the birth of the first grandchild, or it can be determined chronologically, as it typically is in the United States (we traditionally use the age of 65 years).  Each measure has its advantages and disadvantages, but regardless, when a person is viewed by others as old, the question becomes one of how they will be treated. Generally speaking, the more industrialized a society is, the less likely it is to treat its elderly with respect and dignity. In non-industrialized societies, the elderly play a number of important roles in the traditions and ceremonies emphasized by such cultures because they know the most about those traditions and ceremonies.  Older members of the community function as historians, vocational instructors, and often as doctors and ministers. In agrarian societies, they continue to work as long as they are able. As a result, the elderly are still vital, contributing members of the community, and as such, they are naturally treated with the respect they deserve (Hillier & Barrow, 1999).

There are, however, variations even within non-industrialized societies.  For example, nomadic societies have few resources, and often live in harsh climates.  Their geographic mobility favors youth and vigor, as well as individual autonomy, and these are all elements that fade with advanced age.  Even with minor advances in technology, the important roles that elders played in many cultures have faded with time. Among the Aleuts in Northern Russia, there were always one or two old men who educated the children.  However, the availability of printed material has largely eliminated the need for this type of education. In places such as Turkey and Nepal, the elderly have lost their place in the workforce with the urbanization and industrialization of the country.  The Igbo of Nigeria once held their elders in high regard, but mass migrations have diminished their authority, and formal education in schools has supplanted their spiritual roles (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). Many more examples can be found of changes in how communities, societies, and cultures treat the elderly more poorly than they have in the past.

As a result, many older people want to look and feel younger.  Studies have shown that one’s attitude about their body image is positively correlated with their self-esteem, and that this holds true throughout the lifespan.  In other words, people with high self-esteem feel good about their bodies, but people with low self-esteem feel bad about their bodies. People who are treated without respect or dignity, who feel that they are being discarded by society, are likely to experience lowered self-esteem, and with it a lower regard for their body image.  These people become easy targets for fraudulent cures for arthritis, cancer, weight-loss, and sexual aids. It is estimated that Americans spend as much as $27 billion dollars a year on quack medical products or services (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). There are also many products that actually do help people look younger, so even more money is spent in a vain effort to pretend that people are younger than they actually are.

Old Age and Death

In Western culture most people seem to focus on youth.  Old age and death are to be avoided, even feared. And yet, both are inevitable, unless we die young, something that is even less desirable than eventually dying of old age.  What is most curious, however, is that there is nothing in our culture to suggest that death is something bad. Most people believe in life after death, and that good people go to Heaven.  So why would we want to avoid that? In many other cultures, death is not viewed with the same finality as it is in Western culture, and ancestors are revered, and even worshipped. Even within Western culture, there are those who embrace the later years in life, and who do not fear death.  These are the perspectives we will examine here.

Growing Old: Or Older and Growing?

The title for this section was taken from an essay written by Carl Rogers (1980).  Rogers was 75 years old at the time, and he was looking back on the previous 10 years of his life.  Rogers was experiencing a number of physical problems associated with the natural deterioration of his body due to advanced age, such as some loss of vision and arthritis in his right shoulder (making it impossible to enjoy playing Frisbee), but he still enjoyed 4 mile walks on the beach and felt physically strong in many ways.  As for his career, from the age of 65 to 75 years old he had been very productive, publishing numerous books and articles. He also led many workshops and encounter groups, including some that required him to travel around the world. Professionally, he began to take many risks, experimenting with his theories and workshops in ways he might never have considered earlier in his career.  As it became necessary for him to rely on others for help due to his slowing down with age, he also found that he was able to form far more intimate relationships with those colleagues/friends who helped him. Even as his wife approached death during those years, he found that the struggle and pain led him to realize just how much he had loved her. Ten years later, as he turned 85 years old, Rogers wrote another essay, On Reaching 85 (Rogers, 1989).  Once again, he had been very productive during the 10 years between being 75 and 85 years old, most notably leading a number of peace conferences that led to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.  He felt deeply privileged to have lived long enough to see the great international influence of his work. There can be little doubt that when his life ended, which was actually before this essay was published (he wrote the essay, turned 85, and died 1 month later), he had experienced integrity and wisdom.

Erikson, in contrast, knew something of the despair that contrasts the integrity one hopes for in old age.  Never having known his own father, which resulted in an unending identity crisis, he struggled with feelings of having been an inadequate father himself.  As famous as he was, he desired the ultimate recognition of a Nobel Prize, and was disappointed that Ghandi’s Truth only won a Pulitzer Prize.  He was also very sensitive to criticism in any form.  As his own daughter pointed out, it is a tragic irony that individuals such as Erikson do not accept the vast majority of approval as commentary on their real self, but they do experience every shred of criticism as being very real (Bloland, 2005).  Erikson himself said that even when a person developed a clear identity following adolescence, significant life events later on can precipitate a renewal of the identity crisis. One can only imagine the terrible psychological burden of sending away their baby Neil to die alone and secretly in a hospital, only to have him live for 21 years.  Under such circumstances, Erikson described the search for a new identity as frantic (Evans, 1964).

One of the most interesting, important, and potentially enjoyable consequences of old age is the likelihood that one has grandchildren.  All too often in American culture there are challenges to the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Families move across the country, they are broken apart by divorce, and, in general, our culture does not place value on the experiences of the elderly.  However, only the elderly can provide generational continuity, which can be an important aspect of one’s identity. For the grandparents, they can play a vital role in supporting the emotional development of their grandchildren, especially following a traumatic event such as divorce.  They can provide adolescents with hope for continued development and purpose throughout life, a prospect that might seem quite difficult for an adolescent to comprehend on their own. And perhaps most importantly, they can simply spend quality time with their grandchildren, without the burden of being responsible for the day-to-day raising of the child (Erikson, 1959; Erikson & Erikson, 1997; Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986).

While Carl Rogers seemed to accept old age and achieve integrity, Erik Erikson struggled with despair, despite his international acclaim and many obvious accomplishments.  Thus, it should become clear that an individual’s point of view is an important aspect of one’s identity. In Still Here (Ram Dass, 2000), Ram Dass, a former Harvard University psychologist turned renowned guru of Bhakti Yoga and Kirtan, acknowledges the challenges of old age:  physical problems, illness, loneliness, embarrassment, powerlessness, loss of role/meaning, depression, and even senility. The suffering associated with these conditions is, however, self-induced, and one can choose mindfully to not suffer.  Whether or not one suffers, therefore, and whether or not one approaches the end of life with relative integrity or despair, is in many ways a choice.  And that choice will have a dramatic effect on the final stage of life: death.

Death and Dying

It is important to begin by distinguishing between death and dying.  Death is the end of life, and as far as scientific psychology is concerned, no one alive has been able to study death itself.  Dying is a process that occurs when death is imminent, but does not come immediately. The dying process begins either with old age or the diagnosis of a terminal illness.  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is well-known for her research on the dying process, as are the five stages that she described in On Death and Dying (1969):  Denial and Isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance.  When diagnosed with a terminal illness, most people naturally respond with the common defense mechanism of denial, but there is more to it.  Many psychology textbooks do not address the second aspect of this first stage: isolation. Denial is usually temporary, but the dying person may still not be ready or even able to talk about their death, so they isolate themselves psychologically.  Unfortunately, hospital staff members often foster this isolation because of their own fears and discomfort regarding death. Kubler-Ross and her colleagues found it quite difficult to stop hospital staff members from encouraging the isolation of patients clinging to denial, including such simple tasks as keeping the patient’s door open so that people passing by could look in and vice versa.  The final stage of acceptance, according to Kubler-Ross, is one that many patients do not achieve. Many people fear death, and Western culture, due in part to its emphasis on science and medicine and its movement away from religion, encourages people to challenge death. But for those who fight, struggle, and hope to the very end, even they eventually “just cannot make it anymore” (Kubler-Ross, 1969).

There are, however, many people who do come to accept the inevitability of death, either as a result of illness or old age.  Erikson seemed to finally be at peace at the very end of his life, smiling whenever he recognized his wife or daughter:

I was deeply touched on one visit to Dad when a flash of pleasure crossed his face as I entered the room, and he said faintly to himself, Meine Tochter (“my daughter” in his native tongue). (pg. 204; Bloland, 2005)

Carl Rogers was largely unconcerned about death; he seldom thought about it.  He was, however, quite interested in the work of Kubler-Ross, particularly after he experienced his wife’s dying process.  One night, when his wife was near death, he told her that she should not feel obligated to live, all was well with her family, and that she should feel free to live or die as she wished.  After Rogers left that evening, his wife called for the nurses, thanked them for all they had done, and told them she was going to die. By the next morning she was in a coma, and by the next day she was dead (Rogers, 1980).  This experience was profoundly moving for Rogers and it awakened a deep spirituality in him but with a decidedly unscientific aspect to it. Kubler-Ross joined Carl Jung in believing in synchronicity and the possibility of out-of-body experiences, life after death, and the like (see Kubler-Ross, 1983, 1997).  Rogers also came to believe in such possibilities. Helen Rogers reported seeing evil figures and the Devil by her hospital bed, as well as a white light that would come and begin to lift her from the bed. Earlier, the two of them had attended sessions with a medium who claimed to be able to contact the dead.  Rogers was thoroughly convinced that the medium’s abilities were real, and that she had contacted Helen’s deceased sister, and later Helen Rogers herself. According to Rogers, each event was “an incredible, and certainly non-fraudulent experience” (Rogers, 1980).

For the individual who is, indeed, about to die, what remains of life?  Kubler-Ross, Joan Erikson, and Ram Dass all see death itself as a final stage of growth.  For Joan Erikson, when hope and trust can no longer sustain the individual, “to face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course,” and one may then strive for gerotranscendence.  Indeed, the ninth stage of development proposed by Joan Erikson seems quite similar to the stage of acceptance proposed by Kubler-Ross (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). Ram Dass talks about the different perspectives on death in India, and how it helped him to believe that although the body and the mind, as well as their reflection in the ego/self, could die, the soul was something that would exist forever.  Accordingly, it is more common in India, and in many other cultures, to prepare for death. The failure to do so in America can have painful consequences:

When I was in my 30s, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal blood disorder.  I went to visit her in the hospital, and all the people around her were saying things like, “You look great!”  “You’ll be home in no time!” But she looked terrible, and it was likely she’d never come home again. No one – not my father, her sister or the rabbi – would tell her the truth.  In that moment I saw just how isolated she was. She was dying and no one would talk to her about death. We spoke about it, Soul to Soul, and she began to relax. (pg. 149; Ram Dass, 2000)

Kubler-Ross examined a variety of cultural perspectives on death in a collection of essays entitled Death: The Final Stage of Growth (Kubler-Ross, 1975).  Among Alaskan Indians, the time of death was a choice.  As death approaches, if it does not come suddenly, the dying person would call together relatives and friends for a time of storytelling and prayer.  The dying person’s life would be celebrated, and their death would be accepted as an inevitable matter of fact (Trelease, 1975). In the Jewish faith, tradition holds that the dying process should be met with efforts to alleviate distress as much as possible, but that death must also be accepted as the decree of human mortality by the Eternal and Righteous Judge (Rabbi Heller, 1975).  In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, there is no death, but rather a common belief in rebirth. The circumstances of one’s rebirth, however, are determined by how one lived their most recent life (based on karma). So, one’s life, as well as the preparations preceding the death of one’s body in this life, is an important factor in determining the nature of the next life. Of course, one can transcend this cycle of death and rebirth by attaining enlightenment.  Thus, it is common in countries like India and China to practice Yoga or Buddhist meditation, as well as other spiritual practices, in order to either attain nirvana or, at least, a more favorable circumstance in the next life (Long, 1975). Each of these traditions, as well as others, considers death to be an important transition between this life and something beyond. It is in anticipation of something beyond that death and dying should be approached, both in terms of one’s actions and one’s state of mind.

Supplemental Material:

Erik Erikson’s Identity Crisis:  Who Am I?

This video [7:33] describes how we form our identity and what that means for our success as an adult through Erikson’s perspective on identity development.



Erik and Joan Erikson

This video [12:12] is an interview conducted with Erik and Joan Erikson in the early 1990s.



Inspired: Normal Rockwell and Erik Erikson

This video [12:09] describes the relationship between Rockwell and Erikson, and the friendship that developed through their work together.



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

Simply Psyc.  (2014, September 16).  Erik Erikson’s identity crisis: Who am I?  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Norman Rockwell Museum. (2019, July 10).  Inspired: Norman Rockwell and Erik Erikson. [Video File].  Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Steven LoBello.  (2012, November 13).  Erik and Joan Erikson.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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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.