Erik Erikson

Once described by a colleague as “Freud in sonnet form”, [5] psychological giant Erik Erikson blurred the line between science and art. A prolific researcher best known for his model of human development as a series of eight stages, Erikson’s long and abundantly rich life demonstrated a keen appreciation for the art of living. A look into the life and life’s work of Erik Erikson reveals the lasting impact of this great thinker.



Erik Homburger was born into a tumultuous family situation. His mother, a Danish Jew, was not married to Erik’s father, and moved from Copenhagen to Germany to protect the family from the stigma of having a child out of wedlock. As Erik grew up, he quickly became aware of the conflict, finding himself the only blonde and blue-eyed person in his family. His mother never revealed to Erik the identity of his biological father, and Erik was given the surname of his stepfather: Homburger.[1]

Despite the feeling of abandonment at not knowing his real father, Erik received a classical education from a proper German gymnasium, and had a happy childhood. After demonstrating talent as an artist in childhood, he decided to make it his career, and spent the years of his Wander-schaft (period of journeying) moving from city to city in Europe using only his drawings and sketches to support himself. [1]

The turning point in his life came when he met Anna Freud. Freud took notice of Erik while he was teaching in Vienna and invited him to train as a psychoanalyst. At the time, the Viennese school of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud only accepted members upon invitation. It was here that he met, fell in love with, and married fellow artist-analysand Joan Serson. Six years after he began his training, the looming threats of Nazism in Germany forced Erik and his wife to emigrate to the United States, where in short order they began long and illustrious careers. Upon arriving in the US, Erik decided to take the surname Erikson, literally meaning “son of Erik”. [5] The change in name signified that Erik Erikson had found a home, and found himself.


Life Accomplishments

Erikson was a prolific scientist whose career spanned nearly 60 years and included clinical practice as a child psychotherapist, academic appointments at Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, numerous academic publications, and several long and protracted psychological case studies. Erikson also originated the term identity crisis, [5] and won a Pulitzer prize for his book detailing the life of Mahatma Ghandi. [4]

Erikson’s Stages of Development

Many of Erikson’s contributions were built around one consistent theoretical framework, a series of eight psychosocial stages. This framework is usually referred to as “Erikson’s stages,” and forms the idea for which Erikson is best known. The concept of the stages was first laid out in a work called “Identity and the Life Cycle” that Erikson originally published as a collection of essays in 1959. In the work, Erikson establishes a view of life as a progression of eight stages, each of which are framed as a dichotomy or “crisis” between two competing ideas. For example, the sixth stage, Young Adulthood (roughly ages 18-25), is characterized by a crisis between intimacy and isolation, with a healthy synthesis lying in an individual’s ability to enter into intimate relationships without significant anxiety. [2] Once the individual resolves this conflict, they begin the transition into the next stage.

Emphasis on Young Adulthood

One of the primary sources of information Erikson drew from to establish his psychosocial stages was his clinical experience as a child analyst. However, Erikson’s beliefs on childhood diverged greatly from other Freudian psychoanalysts of his day in that it placed more emphasis on adolescence and young adulthood than on early childhood. Erikson’s belief in the importance of identity formation in the late teens and early twenties likely arose from his own wandering sojourns at this age. [4] Erik and his wife Joan would go on to extend their 8-stage theory nearly 40 years later to include a 9th stage. [3] Though the work was ultimately published after Erik’s death, his dedication to the project into his 90s serves as another indication of how Erikson integrated his own life experience into his work.

Enduring Legacy

Many of Erikson’s theories were developed during the 1950s and 60s, in a much different cultural milieu than we find in today’s world. It is a testament to the power of his theories that today’s psychologists continue to make the effort to adapt and expand them. Furthermore, it is a testament to the gracefulness of his character that this adaptation is something Erikson would have welcomed. [6] Erik Erikson will forever be remembered not only for his ceaseless pursuit of the truths of how human beings develop, but also for how he lived out these truths throughout the course of his long and meaningful life.

Additional Resources and References



  1. 1. Editors. (2008). Erikson, Erik Homburger. In Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Retrieved September 20, 2016 from
  2. 2. Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle: Selected papers. Psychological Issues.
  3. 3. Erikson, E. H., & Erikson, J. M. (1998). The life cycle completed (extended version). WW Norton & Company.
  4. 4. Gredler, Margaret. (2002). Erikson, Erik (1902–1994). In Encyclopedia of Education. Ed. James W. Guthrie. (Ed. 2, Vol. 2, pp. 751-752). New York: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved 20 September 2016 from
  5. 5. Hopkins, J. R. (1995). Erik Homburger Erikson (1902–1994): Obituary. American Psychologist, 50(9), 796-797. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.50.9.796
  6. 6. Robinson, O. (2016). Emerging adulthood, early adulthood and quarter-life crisis: Updating Erikson for the 21st Century. In Emerging adulthood in a European context, Žukauskien?, R. (Ed.). London: Routledge.