The Stages of Life

The Seven Stages of Life, in the Cree Tradition

My friend and mentor, the late Mike Steinhauer who lived on the Saddle Lake Reserve in Alberta, told me the the Cree see life as happening in seven stages.

Not everybody goes through all the stages... some get stuck along the way. Not everyone goes through the stages at the same age either, and we usually go through them more than once, as well.

Here they are. (You can decide what stage you are at, and whether it is time to move on):

  1. Happy times - childhood until puberty - feeling generally happy about life, as long as we are safe and have the basic needs met.
  2. Confusion - puberty - don't know what to believe, don't know who we are, bodies are changing, emotions run wild... typical teenage stuff
  3. Searching - late teens, early twenties - looking for ‘the truth'. Don't buy ‘the establishment's' version any more, and need to determine our own.
  4. Truth - early to mid twenties - decide what we stand for, who we are
  5. Decisions - mid twenties on - finding a partner, getting married, choosing a profession
  6. Planting time - ‘first adulthood' (early twenties to late forties) - raise a family, establish ourselves in the community, build a career.
  7. Teaching - late forties on - move into ‘second adulthood', where we explore the meaning of our lives, and of life in general, reflect on what we have learned, and begin to pass on our knowledge to the next generation. The transition from first adulthood to second adulthood is often difficult, but can be the beginning of elderhood.

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The Eight Stages of Life, according to Eric Erikson

Adapted from a paper by Dr. C. George Boeree on the Shippensburg University website: http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/erikson.html

Eric Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, 1902, and moved to the United States when the Nazis came to power in his home country.

During his career he taught at Harvard Medical School, Yale, and University of California at Berkeley, where he did studies of modern stages of life among the Lakota and the Yurok.

In 1950, he wrote Childhood and Society, which contained summaries of his studies among the native Americans, analyses of Maxim Gorkiy and Adolph Hitler, a discussion of the "American personality," and the basic outline of his version of Freudian theory. These themes -- the influence of culture on personality and the analysis of historical figures -- were repeated in other works, one of which, Gandhi's Truth, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Award.

He died in 1994.

The epigenetic principle

Erikson is most famous for his work in refining and expanding Freud's theory of stages.

Development, he said, functions by the epigenetic principle. This principle says that we develop through a predetermined unfolding of our personalities in eight stages. Our progress through each stage is in part determined by our success, or lack of success, in all the previous stages.

A little like the unfolding of a rose bud, each petal opens up at a certain time, in a certain order, which nature, through its genetics, has determined. If we interfere in the natural order of development by pulling a petal forward prematurely or out of order, we ruin the development of the entire flower.

Each stage involves certain developmental tasks. Although he follows Freudian tradition by calling them crises, they are more drawn out and less specific than that term implies.

The child in grammar school, for example, has to learn to be industrious during that period of his or her life, and that industriousness is learned through the complex social interactions of school and family.

The various tasks are referred to by two terms. The infant's task, for example, is called "trust-mistrust." Erikson made it clear that there it is a balance we must learn: Certainly, we need to learn mostly trust; but we also need to learn a little mistrust, so as not to grow up to become gullible fools!

Each stage has a certain optimal time as well. It is no use trying to rush children into adulthood, as is so common among people who are obsessed with success. Neither is it possible to slow the pace or to try to protect our children from the demands of life. There is a time for each task.

If this one of the stages of life is managed well, we carry away a certain virtue or psychosocial strength which will help us through the rest of the stages of our lives. On the other hand, if we don't do so well, we may develop maladaptations and malignancies, as well as endanger all our future development.

A malignancy is the worse of the two, and involves too little of the positive and too much of the negative aspect of the task, such as a person who can't trust others. A maladaptation is not quite as bad and involves too much of the positive and too little of the negative, such as a person who trusts too much.

The Eight Stages

Erikson developed a theory that people go through eight stages during a normal lifetime. Because this website is written for men at midlife, I will abbreviate the first six stages, and concentrate on the final two, which cover late 20s to 50s (middle adult); and 50s and beyond (old adult).

The first stage

The first one of the stages of life, infancy or the oral-sensory stage, is approximately the first year or year and a half of life. The task is to develop trust without completely eliminating the capacity for mistrust.

If the proper balance is achieved, the child will develop the virtue hope, the strong belief that, even when things are not going well, they will work out well in the end. This ability, in later life, gets us through disappointments in love, our careers, and many other domains of life.

Stage two

The second stage is the anal-muscular stage of early childhood, from about eighteen months to three or four years old. The task is to achieve a degree of autonomy while minimizing shame and doubt.

If you get the proper, positive balance of autonomy and shame and doubt, you will develop the virtue of willpower or determination. One of the most admirable -- and frustrating -- thing about two- and three-year-olds is their determination. "Can do" is their motto. If we can preserve that "can do" attitude (with appropriate modesty to balance it) we are much better off as adults.

Stage three

Stage three is the genital-locomotor stage or play age. From three or four to five or six, the task confronting every child is to learn initiative without too much guilt.

A good balance leads to the psychosocial strength of purpose. A sense of purpose is something many people crave in their lives, yet many do not realize that they themselves make their purposes, through imagination and initiative. Perhaps an even better word for this virtue would have been courage, the capacity for action despite a clear understanding of your limitations and past failings.

Stage four

Stage four is the latency stage, or the school-age child from about six to twelve. The task is to develop a capacity for industry while avoiding an excessive sense of inferiority. Children must "tame the imagination" and dedicate themselves to education and to learning the social skills their society requires of them.

Ideally one will develop the right balance of industry and inferiority -- that is, mostly industry with just a touch of inferiority to keep us sensibly humble. Then we have the virtue called competency.

Stage five

In the stages of life, Stage five is adolescence, beginning with puberty and ending around 18 or 20 years old. The task during adolescence is to achieve ego identity and avoid role confusion. It was adolescence that interested Erikson first and most, and the patterns he saw here were the bases for his thinking about all the other stages.

If you successfully negotiate this stage, you will have the virtue Erikson called fidelity. Fidelity means loyalty, the ability to live by societies standards despite their imperfections and incompleteness and inconsistencies. We are not talking about blind loyalty, and we are not talking about accepting the imperfections. After all, if you love your community, you will want to see it become the best it can be. But fidelity means that you have found a place in that community, a place that will allow you to contribute.

Stage six

If you have made it this far, you are in the sixth of the stages of life: young adulthood, which lasts from about 18 to about 30. The ages in the adult stages are much fuzzier than in the childhood stages, and people may differ dramatically. The task is to achieve some degree of intimacy, as opposed to remaining in isolation.

If you successfully negotiate this stage, you will carry with you for the rest of your life the virtue or psychosocial strength Erikson calls love. Love, in the context of his theory, means being able to put aside differences and antagonisms through "mutuality of devotion." It includes not only the love we find in a good marriage, but the love between friends and the love of one's neighbour, co-worker, and compatriot as well.

Stage seven

The seventh of the stages of life is that of middle adulthood. It is hard to pin a time to it, but it would include the period during which we are actively involved in raising children. For most people in our society, this would put it somewhere between the middle twenties and the late fifties. The task here is to cultivate the proper balance of generativity and stagnation.

Generativity is an extension of love into the future. It is a concern for the next generation and all future generations. As such, it is considerably less "selfish" than the intimacy of the previous stage: Intimacy, the love between lovers or friends, is a love between equals, and it is necessarily reciprocal. Oh, of course we love each other unselfishly, but the reality is such that, if the love is not returned, we don't consider it a true love. With generativity, that implicit expectation of reciprocity isn't there, at least not as strongly. Few parents expect a "return on their investment" from their children; If they do, we don't think of them as very good parents!

Although the majority of people practice generativity by having and raising children, there are many other ways as well. Erikson considered teaching, writing, invention, the arts and sciences, social activism, and generally contributing to the welfare of future generations to be generativity as well -- anything, in fact, that satisfies that old "need to be needed."

Stagnation, on the other hand, is self-absorption, caring for no-one. The stagnant person ceases to be a productive member of society. It is perhaps hard to imagine that we should have any "stagnation" in our lives, but the maladaptive tendency Erikson calls overextension illustrates the problem: Some people try to be so generative that they no longer allow time for themselves, for rest and relaxation.

The person who is overextended no longer contributes well. An example is the person who belongs to so many clubs, or is devoted to so many causes, or tries to take so many classes or hold so many jobs that they no longer have time for any of them!

More obvious, of course, is the malignant tendency of rejectivity. Too little generativity and too much stagnation and you are no longer participating in or contributing to society. And much of what we call "the meaning of life" is a matter of how we participate and what we contribute.

This is the stage of the "midlife crisis." Sometimes men and women take a look at their lives and ask that big, bad question "what am I doing all this for?" Notice the question carefully: Because their focus is on themselves, they ask what, rather than whom, they are doing it for.

In their panic at getting older and not having experienced or accomplished what they imagined they would when they were younger, they try to recapture their youth.

Men are often the most flamboyant examples: They leave their long-suffering wives, quit their humdrum jobs, buy some "hip" new clothes, and start hanging around singles bars. Of course, they seldom find what they are looking for, because they are looking for the wrong thing! But if you are successful at this stage, you will have a capacity for caring that will serve you through the rest of your life.

In fact, in order to directly help you with this process, I’ve written “A Harley or My Wife?

I encourage you to click here and gain an understanding of how this resource I've developed can help you.

This book isn't about motorcycles. It is about the quandary a man often finds himself in at midlife, where it looks tempting to buy a Harley and hit the road

Stage eight

This last one of the stages of life, referred to delicately as late adulthood or maturity, or less delicately as old age, begins sometime around retirement, after the kids have gone, say somewhere around 60. Some older folks will protest and say it only starts when you feel old and so on, but that's an effect of our youth-worshipping culture, which has even old people avoiding any acknowledgement of age. In Erikson's theory, reaching this stage is a good thing, and not reaching it suggests that earlier problems retarded your development!

The task is to develop ego integrity with a minimal amount of despair. This stage, especially from the perspective of youth, seems like the most difficult of all. First comes a detachment from society, from a sense of usefulness, for most people in our culture. Some retire from jobs they've held for years; others find their duties as parents coming to a close; most find that their input is no longer requested or required.

Then there is a sense of biological uselessness, as the body no longer does everything it used to. Women go through a sometimes dramatic menopause; Men often find they can no longer "rise to the occasion." Then there are the illnesses of old age, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart problems, concerns about breast and ovarian and prostrate cancers.

There come fears about things that one was never afraid of before -- the flu, for example, or just falling down.

Along with the illnesses come concerns of death. Friends die. Relatives die. One's spouse dies. It is, of course, certain that you, too, will have your turn. Faced with all this, it might seem like everyone would feel despair.

In response to this despair, some older people become preoccupied with the past. After all, that's where things were better. Some become preoccupied with their failures, the bad decisions they made, and regret that (unlike some in the previous stage) they really don't have the time or energy to reverse them. We find some older people become depressed, spiteful, paranoid, hypochondriacal, or developing the patterns of senility with or without physical bases.

Ego integrity means coming to terms with your life, and thereby coming to terms with the end of life. If you are able to look back and accept the course of events, the choices made, your life as you lived it, as being necessary, then you needn't fear death. Although most of you are not at this point in life, perhaps you can still sympathize by considering your life up to now. We've all made mistakes, some of them pretty nasty ones; Yet, if you hadn't made these mistakes, you wouldn't be who you are.

If you had been very fortunate, or if you had played it safe and made very few mistakes, your life would not have been as rich as is.

The maladaptive tendency in stage eight is called presumption. This is what happens when a person "presumes" ego integrity without actually facing the difficulties of old age. The malignant tendency is called disdain, by which Erikson meant a contempt of life - one's own, or anyone's.

Someone who approaches death without fear has the strength Erikson calls wisdom. He called it a gift to children, because "healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death."

Are you struggling with the later stage of your life?

In order to directly help you with this process, I’ve written “A Harley or My Wife?

I encourage you to click here and gain an understanding of how this resource I've developed can help you.

This book isn't about motorcycles. It is about the quandary a man often finds himself in at midlife, where it looks tempting to buy a Harley and hit the road








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