The Life and Time of Erik H Erikson - The Man and His Theory

in Development

Any discussion on psychological development and three great minds will come to the surface Piaget, Freud, and Erikson. However, Erik Erikson stands out for several reasons, unlike Piaget and Freud Erikson had no advanced degree of any kind. In fact, at the age of 25 he had not established any form of professional goal and had no idea what he wanted to do.

The man who is now named Erik Homburger Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 15, 1902 to a young Jewish woman by the name of Karla Abrahamsen. At Erikson birth his mother was living with her family after leaving her husband Valdemar Salomonsen, a Jewish stockbroker. Salomonsen had left Germany four years earlier after being connected with fraud and criminal activities. Karla Abrahamsen had an extramarital affair in her husband's absence and become pregnant. She never discussed the identity of her son's biological father, beyond the fact that he was Danish. She listed her son's surname as "Salomonsen." A short time later, word arrived that Valdemar Salomonsen was dead.

Karla, a trained nurse, eventually remarried when Erik was about three years old. Erik's stepfather was also his pediatrician, Dr. Theodor Homburger. Dr. Homburger insisted on being referred to as Erik's father and in 1908 Erik Salomonsen became Erik Homburger, and in 1911 Erik was legally adopted by Homburger. However, it became apparent, with the arrival of three half sisters, that Erik held a very different place in the Homburger's family as the adopted stepson. Throughout his adolescence years Erik was increasingly identified as an outsider, both internally and in the community. At school he was teased for being Jewish and at the synagogue he was teased for being tall and blond. Furthermore, Erik's stepfather refused to accept his strong artistic inclinations and desires.

Many believe that this is when Erikson faced his own identity crisis. When Erik completed preparatory school, he refused to enroll in medical school as his stepfather wished. Instead, Erik left home to enroll in Baden State Art School. A year later he left school and travel all over Europe earning a meager keep by painting portraits. Erik had adopted what he later called a narcissistic lifestyle sketching, making wood carving, and avoiding the world's social and political problems.

While traveling in Europe Erikson found himself in Vienna, where he developed a friendship with Peter Blos, an adolescent therapist in his own rights, who suggested that Erikson should expand his efforts by tutoring and teaching art at the Hietzing School run by Dorothy Burlingham, a close friend of Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud.

Recognizing Erikson's natural skill working with children, Anna Freud begins mentoring him. It should be noted that he was still known as Erik Homburger at this time. His training, which included intensive psychoanalytic sessions with Anna Freud, resulted in being awarded a certificate from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. At the same time, Erikson also studied at the University of Vienna, and earned his teaching degree with a certificate in the Montessori methods. He continued to teach and under the guidance of Ms. Freud Erikson become more involved in psychoanalysis. Shortly thereafter, he became engaged and married to Joan Serson, a dance instructor at the Hietzing School. Eventually, economic constraints and the rise of Nazism over Europe the couple, including two sons, move to Copenhagen, and later to the United States.

After arriving in the United States his efforts to practice as a child psychoanalyst were not supported by the medical community due to his lack of an advanced degree. In other words, Erikson did not have a medical degree. During this period, he worked as an assistant professor and a research assistant at both Harvard and Yale. He also took some graduate level courses, but it was his training with Anna Freud and his connection with members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society that won him professional acceptance in the United States. Later he moved to San Francisco Bay area, where he took a position as research associate and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley.

Erikson applied for and was granted United States citizenship in 1939. Meanwhile he had changed his last name to Erikson. It is believed that the choice of name was influenced by his older son in keeping with Scandinavian tradition in keeping the father's name as part of the surname. There is a slight belief that "Erik" may have been the name of his biological father as well.

It was at Berkeley that Erikson began his groundbreaking research into childhood and childrearing among the Lakota and the Yurok tribes. Erikson was influenced by the works of cultural anthropologists like Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and by the theories of Sigmund Freud, also his own experience with psychoanalysis. From this foundation Erikson built his own highly rich and original theory on child development.

Erikson stayed quite close to the theoretical path developed by Sigmund Freud, but there were detours as well. He embraced Freudian notions of the ego the Oedipal Complex and the development of self through various stages. However, Erikson strayed from the idea of a universal drive from within the psyche to explain cognitive and personality development; as Freud did. Erikson, however, included information from anthropology including the role played by society and culture in the child's developmental process. In other words, children from different culture learn different values, different goals, and very different kinds of nurturing and guidance. These differences are powerful and shape the child's psyche while influences how the individual will navigate the challenges presented by psychological and physical development throughout their lifespan.

Also, Erikson's theory of development consists of eight distinct stages in contrast to Freud's theory of five stages. The eight stages are: Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair. To negotiate each stage successfully, the individual must find the correct balance between the two tasks. For example, the individual must feel a healthy degree of trust while maintaining a certain level of distrust to avoid gullibility.

Many psychologist and psychotherapist, surveyed by this author, agreed that Erikson's contributions to the understanding of child development are equal in impact and significance by the work of Jean Piaget. Both Piaget and Erikson came to the same conclusion that children should not be rushed in their development, each developmental stage is very important and should be allowed time to fully unfold. According to Piaget's theory cognitive development could not be rushed without forfeiting full intellectual potential. While Erikson's theory emphasized that a child's development must not be rushed, or serious emotional harm would occur, harm that would seriously undermine the child's ability to succeed in life.

After his retirement from Harvard University in 1970, Erikson continued writing, doing research, and occasionally lecturing. However, in 1980 he developed serious health problems, including prostate cancer, which forced him into full retirement. On May 12, 1994 Erikson died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 91.

References:
Wrightsman, Lawrence S., (1994), Adult Personality Development: Theories and Concepts, Sage Publications, New Delhi.
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William L. Smith Ph. D. has 1 articles online

Dr. Smith is an experienced psychologist and therapist who consults with individuals and couples as relationship coach; and on all issues that's profoundly private and confidential. For further information please visit my website at: http://www.insightconsultant.com

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This article was published on 2010/04/02