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Beyond Freud: Erikson’s Roadmap to Resilient Living

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

The world of psychology has seen a multitude of theories that aim to explain the growth and development of individuals from birth to adulthood. Sigmund Freud, a pioneer in the realm of psychoanalysis, presented the world with his largely parleyed psychosexual theory, wherein he suggested that an individual’s personality developed through five stages, each marked by a particular conflict centered around a body part and its erogenous zone.


However, while Freud’s work has left an indelible mark on psychology, Erik Erikson, a psychologist of the mid-20th century, proposed modifications that made the theory more encompassing of the entire lifespan. Let’s delve deeper into Erikson’s psychosocial theory and understand how it shapes our societal and individual resolutions, thereby influencing our journey towards becoming confident and fully functioning individuals.


From Psychosexual to Psychosocial: The Broad Strokes

Freud proposed five stages of development: Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent, and Genital.

  1. Oral (0-18 months)/sucking or snapping/biting: During this stage, pleasure centers on the mouth, with activities like sucking and biting playing a crucial role in an infant's exploration and understanding of their world.

  2. Anal (18 months-3 years)/twisting or straining/releasing: This is when pleasure focuses on bowel and bladder elimination; control over these functions becomes a primary source of conflict between the child and their caregivers.

  3. Phallic (3-6 years)running/drifting or starting/stopping: Children become aware of the differences between male and female bodies, leading to the Oedipus complex in boys and the Electra complex in girls, where they feel attraction towards the opposite-sex parent.

  4. Latent (6 years-puberty)/swaying or birthing/surging: Sexual urges subside, and children interact and play predominantly with same-sex peers, focusing more on hobbies, learning, and other non-sexual pursuits.

  5. Genital (puberty-onward)/jumping or spurting/ramming: With the onset of puberty, sexual feelings re-emerge, directed outside the family and towards peers, marking the onset of mature adult sexuality.

Each of these stages is tied to a physical sensation and a conflict that needs resolution.



Judith Kestenberg, a renowned body psychotherapist, built upon Freud's psychosexual stages by introducing a nuanced understanding of infantile motor development and its connection to psychological development. She meticulously observed and documented rhythmic movements in infants, relating these patterns to early sensations, experiences, and their corresponding developmental stages. Kestenberg thus expanded Freud's framework by integrating these motor movements and rhythms, offering a more intricate mapping of psycho-motor development throughout the early stages of life. More on Kestenberg and the the role of movement patterns in development in a future blog post! Erikson, on the other hand, took a more societal approach. He expanded Freud’s theory into eight stages, each with its unique psychosocial crisis. Erikson’s stages were not solely tied to physical sensations but encompassed broader social challenges that arise throughout life. His theory covers infancy to late adulthood, ensuring that every phase of human life is considered.


Erikson’s Eight Stages: A Journey Through Life

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust (Infancy): Here, infants depend on caregivers. If they receive consistent care, they develop trust. An inconsistency results in mistrust.

  2. Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (Toddlerhood): This is where toddlers learn to do things for themselves. Positive encouragement fosters autonomy, while criticism can lead to feelings of shame.

  3. Initiative vs. Guilt (Preschool): Children begin to initiate activities. Successful experiences lead to a sense of initiative, while failure brings feelings of guilt.

  4. Industry vs. Inferiority (School Age): Here, children need to cope with new social and academic demands. Success leads to feelings of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.

  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (Adolescence): Teenagers work on finding a sense of self. If they can solidify a sense of identity, they move confidently into adulthood. Failure leads to role confusion.

  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young Adulthood): This is about forming intimate, loving relationships. Success leads to strong relationships, while failure results in isolation and loneliness.

  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle Adulthood): Adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them. Success brings feelings of usefulness, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world.

  8. Integrity vs. Despair (Late Adulthood): Reflecting on life, seniors can feel a sense of satisfaction or despair.

A Deeper Dive into The First Foundational Stage: Trust vs. Mistrust

The first stage of Erikson's psychosocial development, "Trust vs. Mistrust," emphasizes the significance of the bond between an infant and the primary caregiver, typically the mother. If an infant’s needs are consistently met with warmth, care, and reliability, they develop a fundamental sense of trust. However, if these needs are inconsistently met or neglected, it results in a foundational sense of mistrust.

The Need for Outside Soothing

When this foundational trust is disturbed or absent, the individual often grows with a lingering void, feeling unanchored and unsure. This lack of early emotional security can manifest later as an intense yearning for external soothing. The individual might seek to fill this void or regulate their emotional turmoil through various means, which is where the idea of pathological soothing comes into play.

Pathological Soothing: Outsourcing Comfort

Pathological soothing refers to unhealthy or maladaptive ways individuals might seek to comfort or "soothe" themselves. This could range from substance abuse, overeating, compulsive shopping, risky behaviors, or even forming codependent relationships. In essence, they're "outsourcing" their need for comfort, trying to find in external sources what was missed in their early developmental stages.


Implications for Society and Individuals

The concept of pathological soothing is vital for several reasons:

  1. Mental Health Awareness: Recognizing the signs of pathological soothing can lead to early intervention and treatment. It underscores the importance of addressing unresolved childhood traumas and issues.

  2. Societal Structures: Societies can develop supportive structures, therapeutic interventions, and educational campaigns that target these unresolved needs, offering healthier avenues for individuals seeking external validation or comfort.

  3. Personal Relationships: Understanding one's own tendencies for pathological soothing can lead to healthier interpersonal relationships. Partners and friends can offer support and understanding, steering the individual towards healthier coping mechanisms.

  4. Promotion of Positive Coping Mechanisms: Recognizing the root cause of maladaptive behaviors can help professionals guide individuals towards healthier coping strategies like meditation, meridian balancing, physical activity, art therapy, or a blend of all four in transpersonal and holistic psychotherapy.

Impact on Societal and Individual Resolution

Erikson’s theory has profound implications for both individual and societal development. Here's how:

  • Understanding Developmental Needs: Erikson’s stages provide a blueprint for what individuals need at different points in their lives. Parents, teachers, and society can cater to these needs more effectively, promoting healthier psychosocial development.

  • Formation of Identity and Belonging: Especially relevant during teenage years, the resolution of the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage is crucial. It's during this time that societal norms, peer pressures, and personal desires converge. A positive resolution instills a strong sense of self and belonging.

  • Guiding Societal Structures: Understanding these stages can influence public policies and institutional structures, ensuring they align with the psychosocial needs of its populace.

  • Promoting Mental Well-being: Being aware of these stages and their crises can equip individuals and professionals to identify and address potential mental health issues that may arise from unresolved crises.

  • Cultivating Resilience: By focusing on positive resolutions at every stage, individuals become more resilient, adaptable, and confident.


Erikson's psychosocial theory, a modification and extension of Freud's psychosexual stages, paints a vivid picture of the developmental journey humans undertake from infancy to late adulthood. While it provides a robust framework for understanding various stages of life, a crucial aspect worth exploring further is the concept of "soothing" — particularly when one's primary needs are unmet in early stages and how it translates to the "need for pathological soothing and outsourcing it" in later life.


Erikson’s modification of Freud’s theory offers a more holistic view of human development. Delving deeper into concepts like the need for external soothing illuminates the profound impact of early life experiences on later behavior.

Addressing these unmet needs and understanding the tendency to seek external soothing mechanisms, or pathological soothing are paramount in guiding individuals towards a healthier more fulfilling life. In therapy we can begin to fill in the blanks and embody clarity. It emphasizes the intertwined nature of societal structures, the ever-changing environments containing our daily functioning, and personal experiences shaping one's journey.


By understanding and addressing the challenges at each stage, and safely addressing the past in creative and mindful embodiment, therapy can play an active role in ensuring that individuals can autonomously navigate all the ebbs and flows -- becoming confident and fully functioning members of the community.


Please leave a comment if this blog post resonated with you!



Rebecca


Sources

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. Norton & Company.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. Norton & Company.

Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. W.W. Norton & Company.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Basic Books.

Kestenberg, J. S., & Sossin, K. M. (1979). The Role of Movement Patterns in Development (Vol. 2). Dance Notation Bureau Press.

McLeod, S. (2018). Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. Simply Psychology.

Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (2018). Development through life: A psychosocial approach (13th ed.). Cengage Learning.

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