Ego Integrity vs Despair (A Comprehensive Guide)

Erik Erikson’s work includes an infamous theory about psychosocial development throughout a person’s lifespan.

Erikson established that a person’s personality develops over a course of time in a predetermined order. He also maintained that this development went across eight stages of development.

Every stage represents a psychosocial crisis of the person and this crisis can affect the person positively or negatively in personality development. 

The eight stages of Erikson’s theory are stretched over the course of his whole life and we are going to learn about the final stage of this story which is ego integrity vs. despair.

One of the criticisms of Erikson’s theory was that it does not define each age discreetly and that’s why it can’t be said for sure when ego integrity vs. despair starts.

However, this article will throw light on the main aspects of this stage ego integrity vs. despair and what kind of challenges one faces during ego integrity vs. despair.

Before going into the depth of ego integrity vs. despair let’s know something about Erikson’s work and his theory of eight stages of psychosocial development.

We’ll discuss the introduction of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development and then we’ll explain ego integrity vs. despair in detail. 

  • Erikson’s Work

Erikson was born in 1902 and he was basically from Frankfurt, Germany.

He spent his childhood with his mother and step father and he has strained relationships with his father. He was working in Vienna when he met Anna Freud and developed an interest in research on psychoanalysis.

He got married in 1930 with an artist. He then fled the National Socialist German Workers’ Party rules and settled in Boston, United States of America.

He had three children with his wife and worked in different institutes like Yale, Harvard and Judge Baker Guidance Center.

He worked with Sioux children at a South Dakota Indian Reservation but his work’ inspiration mostly came from his own estranged relationship with his step father.

He passed away in 11994 while he was working at Massachusetts and engaged in doing behavioral research. 

  • Erikson and Freud

Who would not know about Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist who forever changed the future of psychology and made it what it is nowadays.

Freud’s work was also based on personality development and how human beings evolve over the course of time.

Freud gave the well-known ‘psychosexual stages of development’ theory.

Erikson was also interested in Freud’s work and he paid attention to it while working in Vienna but he disagreed with Freud on many instances.

He was not impressed by Freud’s overemphasis on sex and thought society and societal values also play an important role in how a person turns out.


  • Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development

In simpler terms, Erikson was convinced that human beings develop their personality throughout their lifespan.

It is contrary to Freud’s idea of personality development in early years of life. Erikson presented that every stage has its own crisis and successful completion of every stage results in resolution of that conflict.

He stated that crises at every stage are psychosocial in nature as these crises define that a person’s psychological needs are in conflict with the needs of the society (hence psychosocial).

If a person successfully completes one stage it will result in a healthy personality because of the attainment of basic virtue of that stage.

Basic virtues can be defined as characteristics strengths used by ego during the crisis of that particular stage.

If a person fails to resolve the conflict at that particular age, it can result in reduced ability of further completing stages and it will create an unhealthy personality and one’s view of self.

However, if a person wants he can sort these unsuccessful crises in later stages of his life. 

Erikson’s view of personality development throughout the course of human life seems more optimistic for most of the critics.

Moreover, the idea of personality development in later stages of life has been re-conceptualized by Erikson’s theory.

Middle and late adulthood were considered irrelevant in personality development before Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development.

After this theory every stage of life was considered active and significant for personality development.

A criticism of Erikson’s theory is that it is a tool to think rather than based on factual analysis and his theory is not considered much testable.

All the stages of Erikson’s theory are given below.

  • Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust (from birth to 12 month)
  • Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (from ages 1 to 3 years)
  • Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt (from ages 3 to 6 years)
  • Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority (from ages 6 to 12 years)
  • Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion (from ages 12 to 18 years)
  • Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation (from 20s through early 40s)
  • Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation (from 40s onwards in middle adulthood i.e. mid 60s)
  • Stage 8: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Late Adulthood i.e. from mid 60s till end of life)

Every stage has its own virtue and an existential question which needs to be answered for successful completion of that stage.

People will look at a significant figure around them for inspiration, for help to solve the conflict and existential questions at every stage of their life.

That significant relationship plays an important role in shaping their personality.

A summarized view of virtues and existential questions and that significant relationship at every stage for a person is given below.

Psychosocial crisisVirtuesSignificant relationshipExistential question
Trust vs. MistrustHopeMotherCan I trust the world?
Autonomy vs. Shame/DoubtWillParentsIs it okay to be me?
Initiative vs. GuiltPurposeFamilyIs it okay for me to do, move, and act?
Industry vs. InferiorityCompetenceNeighbors, SchoolCan I make it in the world of people and things?
Identity vs. Role ConfusionFidelityPeers, Role ModelWho am I? Who can I be?
Intimacy vs. IsolationLoveFriends, PartnersCan I love?
Generativity vs. StagnationCareHousehold, WorkmatesCan I make my life count?
Ego Integrity vs. DespairWisdomMankind, My kindIs it okay to have been me?

Now we have established that Erikson has presented eight stages of personality which is expanded throughout a person’s life, we’ll go towards the main topic which is eighth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of life i.e. ego integrity vs. despair. 

  • Ego Integrity vs. Despair

Ego integrity vs. despair is the last stage of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development.

It begins at ages of 65 and continues till the end of a person’s life. At this stage of life a person contemplates his gains and losses during his previous life.

A person develops integrity if he sees himself leading a successful life. Otherwise he can fall into despair if he thinks himself as a failure. 

Ego integrity was defined by Erikson as ‘the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be’ and he later said that ‘a sense of coherence and wholeness’. 

Erikson firmly believed that if we think of our lives as unproductive at the end of our life or we think we haven’t accomplished our goal or even we feel guilty about our past, we tend to feel in despair which can lead to depression and hopelessness.

The virtue of this stage is wisdom and if a person looks back at his life as a success he will achieve wisdom and he thinks of his life as complete and with closure.

That type of person who has achieved wisdom is not fearful of accepting death at that stage.

Wise people are not thought to be in constant state of ego integrity but they experience both despair and ego integrity.

These two are alternating states which need to be balanced at this stage. 

  • Overview of Ego Integrity vs. Despair

The eighth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial theory has the following main aspects.

  • Major Question: ‘Did I live a meaningful life?’ (thinking about productivity of life and what he has accomplished)
  • Psychosocial Conflict: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (integrity comes if a person is satisfied with the life he has spent in the past and despair is when person looks back at his life with regrets)
  • Important Event (s): Reflecting back at life (looking at his past life critically while thinking about productivity or non productivity of all those years) 
  • Basic Virtue: It is achieved if the person actually thinks he has led a meaningful and productive life. 
  • Coping with Adulthood

Success of ego integrity vs. despair does not lie in the fact that the person always feels ego integrity but it means that both of the phases of ego integrity vs. despair are varying stages and the person has to create a balance between these two phases.

With acceptance of the life which has spent comes wisdom which was defined by Erikson as “informed and detached concern with life itself even in the face of death itself’.

According to activity theory, greater satisfaction with a person’s life comes to people who are more active.

Moreover, researchers have also seen that aging and greater health are noted with people who keep active than those who remain isolated and disengaged.

People in late adulthood should remain active in order to achieve satisfaction and ego integrity at the end of their life. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Some of the most asked questions about Erikson’s eighth stage i.e. ego integrity vs. despair are given below.

What are elements for a positive outcome at ego integrity vs. despair?

A positive outcome will only come if the person feels a sense of fulfillment about life and accepts death as an inevitable reality which has no escape.

What are elements for a negative outcome at ego integrity vs. despair?

People who are not able to obtain the feeling of fulfillment and completeness will fear death and they also feel despair. 

How would one exemplify ego integrity vs. despair?

An adult person finds it compulsory to reflect and analyze about his achievement throughout life span and decide what his offspring will receive upon his death. 

  • References

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