Erik Erikson & the Mid-life Crisis

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For some time now, I have always thought of Erik Erickson’s psychosocial stages model to be a model that offers insight into issues specific to development. Many of our sub-disciplines have a tendency to attribute abnormal behavior to physiological and biological causes, solely. We see this trend being encouraged by sub-disciplines such as neuroscience, bio-psychiatry, behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology and a few others, all of which are considered mainstream in the pop-culture of our health sciences. However, these mainstream sub-disciplines of the health sciences, especially in the area of mental health, do not guarantee efficacy in treatment or much insight into the workings behind the issue at hand. Research done into cognitive development offer insight in to particular issues and passages in certain parts of human life. This is why I think it is important to direct attention to other explanatory avenues, particularly developmental perspectives, regarding the issue that I will explore here called: a mid-life crisis. In this blog, I will be focusing on the developmental model of Erick Erickson and look at what insight that it can provide as to the etiology of the problem of mid-life crisis that some individuals face.

The Issue

The issue around the mid-life crisis stems from panic that results of identity formation and a sense of independence being undeveloped at the time of mid-adulthood (40-60 yrs)(1). In many instances, adolescence does not provide the requisite experiences that help one develop a sense of self and independence necessary for adult life. While realizing this undeveloped sense of self, there becomes, consequently, a result of fantasizing and longings for youth and cause the sufferer to use compensative measures in order to feel complete and “safe” from the alarm that is caused as a result of unrequited life of the sufferer(2). Which is why you would sometimes see the proverbial example of a grown man in a sports car or an older woman trying to find an young stud sometimes; popularized examples of compensative measures these are, but it no less shows the characteristics seen in sufferers of a mid-life crisis.

Moreover, many of the problems that arise from mid-life crises stem from the inability to separate the social and the family identity(3). Through this inability, the sufferer becomes maladapted and what might seem like symptoms such as chronic anxiety, mood imbalance, aggression, grandiose thinking, or severe depression that indicate severe disorder, are the transient affects coming from the problems surrounding a mid-life crisis. So it is important for the healthcare professional to successfully identify the source of the malignancy in the sufferer’s psyche. If you consider the fact that the unresolved issues that cause a mid-life crisis can be easily dealt with, treatment could be steadfast and relatively seamless

Lastly, the issue of coming to terms with your mortality is another phenomenon known in a mid-life crisis(4). We often hear about the “immortality of youth” and the feats it can cause the young to undertake; performing or participating in dangerous activities, spending vast amounts of money on certain possessions they might want at the moment, or maybe having the urge to travel around the world on some impetus.  In this sense, a lot of our eccentric ambitions and flamboyant pursuits in youth are what can create fun memories that we can laugh at, and maybe they can also be a time where we critically reflected on what we want for our adult and later adult life, as well. Regardless, this restlessness in youth can become habit-forming and destructive in some cases if constructive preemptive planning does not take place. For such less then desired events are the recipe for undergoing a mid-life crisis later in adult life. Of course, in youth, no one thinks that their lives will end in regards to their mortality. It is only when we reach the point of mid-life when we realize we are reaching the latter half of our lives. By then we hope to have taken the proper steps to avoid the negative reaction of our reflections and realizations in the form of a mid-life crisis.

Erikson & Psychosocial Stages of Development

As I mentioned earlier, when it comes to developmental models, I feel that Erikson’s psychosocial model is one that offers insight into certain problems that could arise in particular areas of developmental life. Although Erikson assumes that passages in life are predetermined, I feel its important focus on one stage that is generally agreed on by researchers in the fields concerning  human development: the formation of identity in adolescence. A stage that Erikson coined Identity vs Role Confusion, which he held happened during the stages of adolescence to early adulthood(5). As an article by NCBI reiterates the same concern;

“Adolescence is a developmental stage characterized by rapid and extensive physical and psychosocial changes which often present developmental crises that challenge the adolescent’s coping ability. Successful coping culminates in the formation of a clear and positive identity that can facilitate future development and productive use of personal resources” (6)

Depending on societal standards and context, an adolescent may feel the pressures of identity formation to a more or lesser degree. It is important to keep in mind factors such as culture, religion, education, and parental authority that determine that degree of pressure an adolescent might feel. Regardless of how you look at it, some form of change does occur, whether the adolescent becomes committed to their identity, that is, chooses for there not to be a drastic change, or whether they are ambitious in achievement and have a progressively changing in identity. To a more or lesser extent, then, it is safe to say that Erikson’s conception of development is not to far off the mark as to a competent system being that it held that change nonetheless was inevitable.

In each of Erickson’s eight stages, regarding his psychosocial model, he held that successful completion of these eight stages lead to a healthy personality and a healthy interaction with others, and that so, conversely, to fail in one of the stages would lead to a “reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore a more unhealthy personality and sense of self” (7). Although in considering that adaptive and unpredictable nature of humans, maintained as well that any negative reactions resulting from each stage could be resolved later on in life.

Erikson’s identity vs role confusion submitted that during adolescence, transition was most important because it laid the foundations for the rest of life. He mentions that expectations lead adolescents to begin to look at careers, family, relationships, and where they want to live as soon as they move out of their caretaker’s house. During this pivotal point, the adolescent begins form an identity based off of those explorations(8). Although, however, in the negative sense, confusion can result if the adolescent does not engage in this soul-searching during that pivotal point of their lives–where they ought to apply the most energy and focus to since it has a determinative impact on the rest of their adult lives.

Where Mid-life Crisis and Erikson Interact

The reason why I think Erikson’s psychosocial model insightful, particularly the stage of identity vs role confusion, is because as I mentioned earlier regarding some of the central causes of a mid-life crisis, we see that the sufferer has a lack of self-reflection during the critical stages of development. Erikson asserts that that important stage is in the transition of adolescence and adulthood. Taking the effort of self-reflection is, in these cases, the saving grace. Many of the victims of the mid-life crisis go through this existential dilemma as a result of not taking the steps to look at things like careers, the relationships you are in and what relationships you would like to be in,  and if whether or not you would like to start a family of your own.

Identity crises, also coined by Erikson, were the result of a dystopia in the sense of self because of a negative accumulation of the undeveloped and unexplored parts of the personality. Erikson writes in his work titled Life History and The Historical Moment;

“It is characteristic of a developmental period, before which it cannot come to a head, because the somatic, cognitive, and social preconditions are only then given; and beyond which it must not be unduly delayed, because the next and all future developments depend on it. This stage of life is, of course, adolescence and youth[…]psychosocial factors can prolong the crisis (painfully, but not necessarily unduly) where a person’s idiosyncratic gifts demand a prolonged search for a corresponding ideological and occupational setting, or where historical change forces a postponement of adult commitment” (9)

Here it is mentioned “idiosyncratic gifts” (or personality traits with real world application) are in need of a “prolonged search” in order to have some sort of awareness as to what sort of the spectrum you fit into in the career and workforce fields. Of course, as I said before, the emphasis is laid in adolescence and youth, habits and encouragements go a long way if the adolescent is in an environment that encourages self-search and discovery. And as Erikson insists, and so do I, is the effect that the necessary and responsible actions done in adolescence effect later development, and even the stages of life when you considered of elderly age. Only because at that time, you reflect on your life’s accomplishments which can either form in you a sense of indignation, causing bitterness and remorse, or a proud feeling of accomplishment in your life.

It seems, from all this, that a mid-life crisis is the way of your psyche letting you know that what you have done during the important developmental stages of adolescence is not enough. But it is mostly existential. When you reach the ages of 40-60, you reach the end of the climax of life and the dawning of the reality that comes with old age; your movement is not as great, health and vitality starts to decline, sex hormones are not as potent, and you lose your idealizations of yourself, maybe you start to wrinkle a little bit, you become more timid and less assertive, and maybe you develop shame because you did not do what you wanted because you hate your job. You begin to juggle the “what ifs” in your life: what if I did this when I was younger? what if I would have studied this at school? what if I would have married her instead of my wife and vise-versa? what if I made a better effort to look at what I really wanted to do in my life? And you start to realize that you’re not in your 20’s or 30’s anymore. These sort of self-reflections and internalizations that should have gone on during adolescence, forces itself upon you during the latter half of your life. And the reaction is a mid-life crisis, or transitional panic, as some have called it.

As we can see, adolescence is the important stage in life that sets the tone for the rest of your life. As Erikson pointed out that “all future developments” depend on what is done during this time period. When this activity is undertaken, identity formation can result from the experience. Rather than having this crisis, you have the confidence and awareness in your abilities and what best they are suited for. No matter what culture or context, the individual has the pressure of providing for him/herself as an independent person in the world. Getting into work that you are passionate and uniquely fitted for, can develop your sense of worth and as a result affect your level of self-efficacy.

Conclusion

“Adolescents are the future masters of society. A clear and well-developed identity and favorable self-esteem promise positive development throughout adolescence and even across a whole life span. As   identity is organized, complex, dynamic, and amenable to social influences, it is important to incorporate significant others in the adolescents’ ecology in order to provide effective exposure and learning activities and to provide the support necessary for helping adolescents develop a healthy identity”(10)

It is important to recognize the developmental stages involved in identity formation not only because it is a precursor to setting your career-oriented ambitions, but because your identity is present with your in your personal and private life as well. Preparedness and taking the time to soul search and really discover your strengths and weaknesses/likes and dislikes you lay the platform for the “later-in-life reflection” that you will most likely do in your elderly years, or the stage that Erikson also coined ego integrity vs despair. As has been motioned many times before, a successful life begins at an early age. To avoid such a hurdle as a mid-life crisis, one has to understand that choices made at early stages in life effect parts of your life a long ways into the future. Having a clear perception of yourself, personality traits, and your abilities leaves you to make the right decisions and makes your life a lot more enjoyable for you and those around you that love you. You do not have to go through a mid-life crisis, because not only do you suffer, but your loved ones, having to deal with you, go through the crisis as well. Take the responsible route and plan your future thoroughly in your youth, know your strengths and abilities, and find a calling in life and establish your life from there then on. You avoid the possibility of this existential crisis, the mid-life crisis.

References:

1. Cohen, H. (2007). The Male Midlife Crisis. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 06 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/the-male-midlife-crisis/

2. Margolies, L. (2013). Midlife Crises Affecting Men and Families. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 06 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2013/midlife-crises-affecting-men-and-families/

3. Margolies

4. Cohen

5. Heffner, L. C. (April, 1 2001). Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. AllPsych Online. Retrieved from http://allpsych.com/psychology101/social_development.html

6. Tsang, M., K., S, & Hui, P., K., E, & Law, M., C., B. (April, 30 2012). Positive Identity as a Positive Youth Development Construct: A Conceptual Review. National Center of Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3353282/

7. Heffner

8. Heffner

9. Erikson, H. E. (1975). Life History and the Historical Moment. New York, NY. W. W. Norton & Company. pg 18-22

10. Tsang, M., K., S, & Hui, P., K., E, & Law, M., C., B

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6 responses to “Erik Erikson & the Mid-life Crisis

  1. I believe this is among the most vital info for me. And i am glad studying your article. However want to commentary on few normal issues, The web site taste is great, the articles is truly great : D. Excellent activity, cheers

  2. Pingback: The Death of Psychiatry | Reflections·

  3. Hey, Thanks. I’m writing about Erikson, Levinson & Marcia right now. Your article gives some good points and is well written! 🙂 Brett

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