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Erik Erikson and Self-Identity

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

According to Erik Erikson, a prominent developmental theorist of the 1950's, youth must resolve two life "crises" during adolescence. Unlike many other developmental theorists of his era, Erikson's psychosocial theory of human development covers the entire lifespan, including adulthood. Erikson used the term "crisis" to describe a series of internal conflicts that are linked to developmental stages. According to Erikson's theory, the way a person resolves the crisis will determine their personal identity and future development. In this article we limit our discussion to the crises of adolescence but more complete information about Erikson's theory can be found in the Introduction to Child Development article.

The first crisis typically occurs during early to middle adolescence, and is called the crisis of identity versus identity confusion. This crisis represents the struggle to find a balance between developing a unique, individual identity while still being accepted and "fitting in." Thus, youth must determine who they want to be, and how they want to be perceived by others. Erikson believed that when youth successfully navigate this crisis they emerge with a clear understanding of their individual identity and can easily share this "self" with others; therefore, they are healthy and well-adjusted. As a result, they are confident individuals who can freely associate with other people without loosing their own identity. However, when youth fail to navigate this crisis successfully, they are uncertain about who they are. Lacking this understanding, they can become socially disconnected and cut-off from others; or conversely, they can develop an exaggerated sense of their own importance and may adopt extremist positions. According to Erikson's theory, when youth become stuck at this stage, they will be unable to become emotionally mature adults.

The second crisis, occurring between late adolescence and early adulthood, is called the crisis of intimacy versus isolation. This crisis represents the struggle to resolve the reciprocal nature of intimacy; i.e., to achieve a mutual balance between giving love and support, and receiving love and support. Thus, youth must determine how to develop and to maintain close friendships outside the family, as well as how to achieve reciprocity in romantic relationships. Erikson believed that when youth successfully navigate this crisis they emerge with the ability to form honest, reciprocal relationships with others and have the capacity to bond with others to achieve common goals (e.g., marriage). When youth fail to navigate this crisis successfully, they can become distant and self-contained; or conversely, they can become needy, dependent, and vulnerable. If youth do not resolve this crisis, their emotional development becomes stalled, and as a result, they will remain isolated and lonely without social supports.

While Erikson's theory remains influential, it has been revised over time. Most developmental theorists no longer consider this developmental process as a series of "crises" per se. In addition, this developmental process is considered to be much more fluid and flexible than Erikson first thought. Contemporary theorists now believe that the process of determining one's identity is a natural process in which youth "try on" or experiment with different identities, and experience the different outcomes of their experiments, in order to determine who they are, and how they want to be perceived by others. For instance, a girl may be curious about Gothic subculture decides she might like to "go Goth." So she gets her lip pierced, dyes her hair black, and starts wearing a lot of black and purple Victorian styled clothing with a seductive flair. She starts hanging around with other Goths, and listening to Goth music. One outcome of this identity experiment might be rejection by her former set of friends, and constant friction with her parents over her "outlandish" clothing. Another outcome might be a sense belonging and camaraderie that she shares with members of this sub-culture, or perhaps she enjoys all the extra attention she now receives. These outcomes may offset the negative outcomes of her experiment. She is experimenting with a different identity and experiencing the results of her experiment. She will ultimately use this information to decide upon her identity.

Similarly, youth will experiment with different social skills and social strategies. For instance, a girl might try to be aloof and distant around boys to see if she might attract some more attention this way. Youth will also observe their peers, and adults they admire, to develop and improve their social skills. For instance, they may watch a popular teen at a party in order to learn better social skills. They might notice that this well-liked peer is very funny and tells a good joke; or they may notice how their vivacious aunt is always asking for other people's opinions, rather than monopolizing a conversation by talking about herself. This learning process enables them to create a strong, social web of family, friends, and even lifetime companions. During this process youth will experience both successes and failures along the way as they experiment with different approaches during their interactions with others. Ultimately, this social support network enables youth to create emotional intimacy with a few select people, and to find satisfaction within these relationships.

More about how youth build social bonds will be found later in this article