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Finding Meaning Through Life's Stages

How our age impacts our values from birth to late adulthood.

The meaning of life is a giant topic—one that has preoccupied theologians, philosophers, scholars, and humankind throughout time. All kinds of theories have been posited, but have you ever noticed that your own personal viewpoint has changed over the years? For instance, your 5-year-old self might have said that the meaning of life is about learning the alphabet in order to have recess while your 19-year-old self may have suggested that meaning is about finding love. Whatever the answers, it does seem to change over one's lifetime. That's why Erik H. Erickson was pretty brilliant when he suggested in the late 1950's that people experience specific "psychosocial stages" during their life. Some of these stages borrow (but slightly differ) from Sigmund Freud, while others are added to address all of one's living years. Many lifestage theories have come about since Erikson, but you'll find strong similarities. This post is dedicated to Erikson and remembers his original stages. Take a look at them and think about how they match up to your life experiences.

0-18 months
Trust vs. Mistrust

Does infant have enough loving and nurturing to develop a sense of trust or does infant become distrustful when not consistently nurtured or heard? According to John Bowlby's Attachment Theory, this is where a secure, avoidant or anxious attachment comes into play.

18 months to 2 or 3 years
Autonomy vs. Shame or Doubt

This is where the child begins to recognize their independence. A parent's reaction to this stage can create feelings of autonomy and self-esteem or, it is suggested, that an over-bearing and punishing parent can make child feel doubt, shame and lead to lower self-esteem throughout life.

2 or 3-6 years
Initiative vs. Guilt

This is an extension of the previous stage where a child recognizes independence and takes initiative through individual acts. The child begins to develop a sense of responsibility for their own actions. Again, it is suggested that a parent's reaction will result in a child feeling guilty about this expression of independence or validated to take initiative.

6-11 years
Industry vs. Inferiority

Typically, a child at age 4 will begin to play with (interactively) other children. Similarly, this stage involves a child developing a sense of self-worth via interactions with peers. In addition, teachers and the educational environment play a critical role in helping the child to feel encouraged and industrious or insecure and inferior.

11 years to teen years
Identity vs. Identity Diffusion

Not surprisingly, this is the most well-known stage of identity development. The teenager develops an identity by literally trying out different "selves" and finding one that fits. Peers, role models and social pressure play a part in this developmental stage.

Late Teen to Early Adulthood
Intimacy vs. Isolation

The preoccupation with this stage is developing close relationships and achieving intimacy. Think marriage, partnership, family, religious commitment, career achievement...and fear of being isolated and not obtaining goals.

Middle Adulthood
Generativity vs. Self-Absorption

Assuming intimacy has been achieved, generativity now takes hold. How can one give back to their community and feel their contributions are worthwhile? The other side of the struggle is that one does not give back and remains self-absorbed.

This last stage is about looking back at one's life, facing death and overcoming despair. Integrity is about integrating the experiences of one's life and finding a sense of satisfaction and meaning.

More from Kimberly Key Ph.D.
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