Erik Erikson is less well known than Freud, but Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development in my opinion is more relevant to us today.
Briefly, Erikson says that each phase of life from infancy to the elder years has a unique challenge or crisis. Each culture offers unique challenges, but there are similarities cross culturally.
Kids these days
Identity is the adolescent challenge. And that’s interesting because these days identity is a challenge for all ages.
Erikson wrote Identity: Youth & Crisis in 1968. He says that identity formation is a process where you judge yourself based on how you think others judge you and compare that to how you think they judge themselves.
My own two cents is that the hypocrisies we see in others give us clues to our own blind spots. That is, observing other people’s lack of self-awareness clues us into our own lack of self-awareness.
Erikson adds that this is mostly an unconscious process – except when outside events cause a crisis because self-perception and our real actions are seriously misaligned. It’s those times when we protest, “I’m not usually like that.”
Your identity is relative to the social context
Social roles used to be rigid. You had your place, and options were limited. My view is that capitalism increases personal wealth such that reliance on others diminishes. And this opens up more options. Penalties for nonconformity no longer carry the same weight because you don’t need those bastards anyway.
But the flipside to that coin is that we’re less anchored to society as a whole. Our circumstances can change, and our identity can float away unmoored.
Women in the 1950s had clearly defined roles. Feminism created undreamt of opportunities for the daughter of a 1950s housewife. But what happens to a 1950s housewife when the children are grown and she finds herself divorced? Her pre-fab identity is gone and she’s faced with the hard work of forging a new identity in an uncertain and ever-changing world.
And it’s not just the housewife. It’s all of us. Young men today seem to be facing an identity crisis now that the traditional male role is no longer an automatic go to.
It doesn’t end here
Identity is a lifelong question. Erikson says that identity formation begins in infancy as the infant learns that she is separate from her parents and then actively pursues that differentiation.
This identity crisis comes to a head in adolescence. And it can’t be separated from our family history and social context.
Erikson spoke German, and he notes that the English language implies that the social context is external. But the German word umwelt is about the environment being both around and within us.
As such, identity is dynamic. It’s never established as an achievement.
But American society today still views identity as something that should be permanently established. And an identity with a higher social status is an achievement.
To shift your identity later in life is to admit failure to a certain extent. Or maybe you never really grew up. That’s why a midlife crisis is often seen as pathetic.
These preconceptions are questionable. But at the same time, what other people think does matter. After all, identity is relational.