A sad but ever-repeating truth about human nature is that we wait until the death of a loved one, diagnosis of a terminal illness, a life-altering car accident, or for shit to just hit the fan until we start to account for the importance of many of the connections and relationships in our lives. Midlife gets a bad rap because it’s such a weird time, in terms of a lifespan perspective. Stereotypes about this period in a person’s life guide the way in which many of us think about the difference between what constitutes a “crisis” and a normal reaction to an environmental stimulus. Women (and men, to some extent) above the age of 40ish move out of the spotlight of “noteworthy” people, as dictated by our culture, and into a space where society says, “Hey, you’re too old for us to really understand or care about, so we’re just going to pathologize any behaviors or responses that you have and label them as a mid-life crisis.” Ageist cultures, such as ours, do not celebrate the older generations and make strong attempts to learn from them, as more collectivist cultures tend to do. When someone in their 40s or 50s has a pattern of behavior that is labeled as a mid-life crisis, why do we poke fun instead of reaching out? Why do humans, consciously or subconsciously, experience different ebbs and flows in our level of desire for closeness and connection with others? Why does midlife tend to be known as a time in which we most yearn for acknowledgement and validation from others? I would like to offer an Eriksonian analysis of this issue within a lifespan framework, and propose that existential crises occur in different forms at each level of development.
Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages make up one of the most widely used templates with which the process of human development is understood. Erikson’s theory of development consists of a series of conflicts that are mapped onto chronological periods in a person’s life, and the outcome or shortcoming of not having specific needs met during each stage. It’s important to keep in mind that although Erikson’s theory is commonly referred to as, simply, Developmental Stages, the term Psychosocial is imperative to add because of the emphasis on how individual psychological development is in many ways shaped by, and lends to different perceptions of, social interaction.
Infancy Although this is the earliest stage of life and of Erikson’s Stages, it is arguably one of the most important times in terms of gaining the capability of bonding Self with other humans. The “crisis” here (from birth to 18 months) is Trust vs. Mistrust, and Erikson purports that if an infant does not receive physical needs, emotional support, and consistency in nurturance, the result will be a fundamental mistrust of other people. To me, this seems to be the most essential piece in accounting for oneself as a member of a local or global society. Does my caregiver make eye contact with me? Does he feed me? Does she play with me and hold me close? Does zhe speak in a soft, soothing, and gentle voice when with me? An unresolved existential crisis at this stage sets a person up for many different types of personality and insecurity issues to arise at a later age. Erikson proposes that this stage typically occurs in infants until 1.5 years of age, but the next stage does not start until 2 years, so it appears that Erikson built in some leeway for children. (In reality, I believe that many people traverse the stages in a timeframe different from the one that Erikson outlined, but I think that his ages are generally a “norm.” Depending on an abundance of environmental, familial, genetic, and physiological factors, this stage can take much longer to work through and for a person to move on in psychosocial development.
Early Childhood Ahh, the infamous time of toilet training. This type of crisis is one of learning about Self and deciding whether or not the feeling of self-determination and independence is there. Caregiver response is extremely influential at this point in time for a 2- to 3-year-old child, and chastising a child for not successfully mastering the control of their own bodily functions and fluids will cause shame and can be devastating in terms of development. Existentially speaking, feeling as though one can function on one’s own and by way of one’s intrinsically-situated virtue is extremely important, especially in our individualistically-oriented culture in the U.S.. Erikson calls this crisis Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt, and although this stage tends to occur in young individuals, even young minds are not lost on the understanding that their self-worth is too often tied in with how quickly they are able to learn how to do certain things.
Preschool During this time, usually a child is between te ages of 3 and 5. Interacting with the environment and learning about how one fits into it is key, and kids in this stage of Initiative vs. Guilt are beginning to understand that there are emotional consequences of behaving in a way that is not socially acceptable, according to peers. If a child feels that she can take an appropriate amount of control over her environment, she gains confidence in taking initiative in trying new things. The guilt that can occur when a child realizes that she has taken too much initiative and is ostracized by her peers is what creates a crisis at this stage. It also teaches a child how to exist harmoniously with peers and others.
School Age The years leading up to adolescence have, on the surface, less to do with what is happening intrapersonally with a child and more with what he is facing interpersonally. The existential crisis can arise in this stage is when the child begins to feel incompetent in comparison to his peers. Industry vs. Inferiority is what Erikson proposed as the challenge during this time and can be likened to a fork in the road of development. I think this is a very personality-shaping time; if a child is not able to capture a new concept as quickly as his peers, he begins to feel inferior and will be less likely to seek out new challenges in life. Our personality is ever-changing and shifting based on our experiences, the earliest time of our lives holds “critical periods” in which learning and experience are stored in our memory and coded a certain way in our brains.
Adolescence Notorious for being a time of mood swings, impulsive behavior, and instability, adolescence is also the time when a person’s identity begins to solidify. Erikson poses the conflict of Identity vs. Role Confusion at this time, but the whole stage can be a crisis for many people. Identity is always in flux, based on how one takes one’s self to be in relation to others. If this conceptualization is different in private, it can lead to fragmented selves that take on different identities in different contexts. The pressure that many youth feel when in social settings can exacerbate this issue, leading one to feel a separation between the ideal self and the performative self. This time is one in which many people grasp certain values and ethical ideas more strongly than others, and is strongly focused on how one’s own identity is formed. As our culture is currently saturated with the influence of social media, adolescent identity is a particularly interesting subject. Generation Z struggles with the additional challenge of integrating the selves created in public spaces and virtual social spaces with the self that they most strongly connect with internally.
Young Adulthood This stage, in Erikson’s opinion, lasts from age 19-40. It is marked by people’s need to foster relationships with others. He posits that all people have a need to form loving relationships with other people and the conflict defining this time is Intimacy vs. Isolation. As we come into the next stages of our lives, meaning in one’s life is thought to be found in how we connect with others. Many people partner with another, live with other people, get married, and spend free time with friends and family. If there is discord or conflict with others during these years causing a person to connect less with others, isolation results and can interfere with how meaningful one see’s her life to be. An important thing to note here, if we take Erikson’s stages to be relatively accurate, is that this stage sets a person up to behave in fulfillment-oriented ways during the next stage. If this is true, then stereotypically mid-life-crisis behaviors will result after loss of an important relationship, emotional distress due to isolation, loneliness, etc.
Middle Adulthood Between the ages of 40 and 65, adults are supposed to be struggling with “work and parenthood,” according to Erikson. Firstly, not everyone chooses to have children, so issues of procreation and parenting are not always important. This is the stage of life in which one’s behaviors are often labeled as “mid-life crises,” and the conflict that Erikson purported was evident here is Generativity vs. Stagnation. The trouble is, every person’s definition of ‘generativity’ is very different and each person’s conceptualization of what it is will manifest itself in a different way. Before we judge how a person is or isn’t spending money, choosing to be or not be in relationships, or changing appearances, think twice about whether or not you want to label it a mid-life crisis.
Maturity Basically, Erikson threw this stage in there as the “preparing to die” stage. “Age 65 to death.” How depressing! How many people do you know who worked way past the age of 65? How many people have you met who are vibrant, wise, and expressive that are over 65? It’s really sad how our society underemphasizes the contributions that this age group can make to society. Ego Integrity vs. Despair is the supposed conflict, and although I have seen individuals go toward both of those ends of Erikson’s outcomes, I think far fewer people would move toward an experience of despair if our culture wasn’t riddled with ageism. If we celebrated and supported individuals who are 65+ and sought out more intergenerational connections, we could gain insight that would enable younger generations to appreciate the history that made our society and culture what they are today.
So, this basically turned into a rant about why we should seek out more intergenerational friendships, but the takeaway message is this: don’t be ageist and don’t buy into the stereotype that individuals in their 40s who are exploring their identities anew are “in crisis.” Because existentially, we are all in crisis all the time. At least, according to Erikson we are.