The Stages of Life

Martin Handy

9 Dec 2018

Erik Erikson developed a model of 8 life stages:


Erikson explored that each stage of our life was guided by a conflict of opposites. Jacobs (2006) explains how this model runs ‘through the different chronological ages of an individual’s life.’ These are further explored below:

Stage and Main Event Conflict Virtue Positive Resolution
Infant 12-18mnth – Feeding Trust v Mistrust Drive/Hope Developed trust in relationships and established trust in oneself
Toddler – 18mnth-3yrs Toilet Training Autonomy v Shame/ Doubt Self-control/Willpower Ability to control one’s self. Failure to control leads to shame/doubt
Pre-schooler – 3-6yrs Independence Initiative v Guilt Direction/Purpose Developed control and power in one’s environment. Too much power can lead to disapproval and then guilt
School – 6-12yrs School Industry v Inferiority Method/Competence Coping with social and academic demands. Success leads to competence and failure with inferiority/incompetence
Adolescence – 12-18yrs Peer relationship Identity v Identity confusion Devotion/Fidelity Teens need to feel a strong sense of self identity. Success leads to a true self and failure to confusion and weak sense of self
Young Adult – 19-30yrs Love relationships Intimacy v Isolation Affiliation/Love Need to form loving and long-term relationships and failure to loneliness and isolation
Middle Adult – 30-65yrs Parenting Generativity v Stagnation Production/Care Need to create things that will outlast them, either with children or others. Success leads to accomplishment and failure to stagnation
Maturity – 65-85yrs Reflection and Acceptance Ego Integrity v Acceptance Renunciation/Wisdom Feeling a sense of fulfilment looking back at life – success leads to feelings of wisdom and failure to bitterness, regret and despair

In exploring life conflicts you can connect with a great many themes in your life. It helps you develop a more constructive and fulfilling life. You don’t have to stay stuck in the guilt, inferiority, identity confusion or isolation, for example. Even though the past doesn’t change, a new awareness and exploration of it allows you to move out of it into a better way of being, thinking, doing and seeing. Each stage is summarised below and offers questions for your own exploration and possible themes that might reveal something deeper about yourself.

A few pointers when working through this material:

  • The stages are flexible and may overlap by a few years. Sometimes you may notice that you were dealing with an intimate relationship with your significant other in your adolescence and not just in your young adult period.
  • Take into consideration any traumatic experiences you may have had even if the period you are looking at may only focus on relationships. If you had a traumatic experience at the age of 24, for example, it will no doubt have a big impact on your intimate relationship with someone at the time when you are analysing this period in your life. Alternatively, your first significant relationship may not have happened until you were in our 30s, 40s or even 60s. If that is the case analyse your first significant relationship in this stage of development. The age of experience is not significant, the stage itself is more symbolic.

1st – Infant 12-18 months (Feeding)

Conflict: Trust v Mistrust

Drive and Hope Developed or Under-developed

What were the earliest patterns of trust/mistrust established in your relationships with your parents? You may need to talk about this with a member of your family. Issues of trust might be established through no ill intention of the parents: there may have been difficulties with the birth itself, separation issues due to physical or mental illness after the birth, problems breast feeding and general connection with one or both parents. One or both parents may have been very anxious during the pregnancy and the birth may have been very painful and challenging. These are issues that may indicate the level of trust between you and your parents. Alternatively parents may have been neglectful and absent. Often parents find themselves in situations where they have to work soon after the birth and place the infant in childcare and so long periods of absence from the child can create strains on the new relationship.

This can leave impressions in the unconscious of the child – that no one can be trusted and can therefore be carried forward into other relationships. However, issues of trust/mistrust may have their original cause in later experiences and stages of development. Even if there are issues of trust/mistrust in your personality it may not necessarily mean it is coming from this period of your life. In saying that raising children is very challenging and creates all sorts of difficult emotions in the parents when the children are born. If the parents are very young when they raise children then they may not have the mental and emotional maturity, experience and life skills to deal with raising children compared to parents who are more experienced and reflective in their child-rearing practice and philosophy.

2nd Stage – Toddler – 18 months to 3 years (Toilet Training)

Conflict: Autonomy v Shame and Doubt

Self-Control and Will Power Developed or Under-developed

At this stage toddlers get to exercise more will power. Their first taste of power is choosing to help you help them start going to the toilet independently. They will basic comply or rebel.  You might remember the terrible 2s of your own child or children and those of friends and other relatives. If they don’t comply they will either go into complete melt-down or if the parent isn’t switched on they will keep them in nappies and avoid a challenging transition. Alternatively, parents can have problems themselves with strong-willed toddlers who won’t comply. Basically parents are at a loss and don’t seek help, support or advice. Then there is a host of shame and doubt inflicted into the consciousness of the child. The child may develop feelings of not being loved, being disapproved of, being scolded or maybe worse.

Coupled with this is the very challenging experience of helping a child process the ability to say ‘no’. This exercise of power can lead to all sorts of altercations and very difficult situations for parents in public as well as in the home. These situation scan leave very deep psychological impressions on the child as well as the parents.

You may not be ableto recall this time of your life and you may need the help of your own familymembers. But stage can often reveal patterns in your own current will-power, your sense of shame about yourself and maybe how well you carry things off independently. There may be patterns between this time of life and your present relationships with your parents. And also how you relate to your own children if you have them. There can also be connections with authority figures and maybe your partners – past and present.

This period of life is probably one of the most challenging for parents, especially parents who have had little experience or knowledge from supportive advice and other family members in how to deal with addressing the strong will-power of young children. Challenging behaviour in children can create long-lasting impressions between them and their parents. It can leave feelings of guilt and shame in the psyche of the child and/or the parents. It can leave memories of a traumatic time, especially if the parents used physical aggression to control the child. It can also lead to experiences where the parents have left the child in isolation and this can create another level of guilt and shame in the unconscious of both child and parent.

3rd Stage – Pre-Schooler 3-6 years (Independence)

Conflict: Initiative v Guilt

Direction and Purpose Developed or Under-developed

How did the transition to kindergarten/nursery go? Were there any difficulties or was it an easy and enthusiastic transition? How were relationships with other children? What was it like meeting adult and child strangers and developing friendships? What was play like? How did you communicate? What was the period of asserting individual autonomy like? Was it challenging for the parents? How did parents manage it? How do you manage difficult thoughts and feelings you are having now about the past? How do you soothe or regulate any negative thoughts and feelings about the past? Remember you are now older and look back with more experienced and knowledgeable eyes. You can see a bigger picture now than when you were at the time.

You might make interesting connections from your past with how you deal with meeting new groups of people now. Making the first move is often tested out at this age and can establish patterns that are present in your life now. You might find initial meetings with people tricky and uncomfortable and that they might cause some feelings of inferiority and ‘why didn’t I deal with that better?’ Again you might not remember this time of your life and you may need to connect with family members to help you out.

Then comes the initiation of joining school at the age of 5. It might have been easier, harder or the same as going to nursery/kindergarten. You might have some memories from this transition but if you reflect on it you can often identify some of those patterns of meeting new people and groups as you do in your present. Consider some of the fears and some of the good times at this time. Some experiences might have had a negative impact on you or they might have had a positive impact. Again you may see a connection between the past and how you manage new meetings with people now. Alternatively, there may have been difficult transitions to schools in the past but now you have dealt with them and have overcome difficult feelings and behaviours. It is worth noting these achievements and building your confidence and resilience to address difficult feelings of reactions with yourself and overcome problems.

4th Stage Schooling 6-12 years (Learning Skills)

Conflict: Industry v Inferiority

Method and Competence Developed or Under-developed

At this time of schooling there is an emphasis on deeper learning. Reading, writing and maths are more emphasised. The focus is more academic and this can lead to positive feelings of ability and success, an average achievement or low achievement.These experiences will have an impact on self-esteem and resilience. How did you manage at this age? What memories do you of this period of your life? Which teachers or authority figures had a significant impact on your life? What interests did you develop? Consider how well you got on with other children? Did you have one or two close friends? Did you hang out in a group? Were you more introvert?Consider some personality traits that you developed or were not so developed. If you are having any difficult thoughts or feelings about this time of your life how do you soothe and regulate some of these challenging experiences now? How does the ‘adult’ in you now look back at the child you were in the past?

The educational environment is a very big influence on the individual at this time of life. Some children will thrive and love it. Others will be affected by it more negatively. Different generations of people will have different experiences as schooling has changed enormously since the National Curriculum was introduced along with academy chains, inspections and league tables. All these things have impacted the classroom environment and the pressures on teachers and children.Teachers are more stressed and under pressure and this will have an impact on the relationships with students. Having a teacher who is very calm and centred is going to be different from a teacher who is anxious, overloaded and nervous.Children often talk about their teachers primarily as an influence on their own well-being. Consider some of the teachers you were taught by in primary school and how they may have affected you. Sometimes specific memories come to mind and these are significant because beneath these memories are beliefs and perceptions about yourself, others and schooling in general that affect how productive and creative you are or how inferior you may consider yourself or others to be.

These insights into your initial schooling may give you insights into how they are still affecting you now. Alternatively, you may remember feeling inferior at school but later experiences and learnings encouraged you to overcome these feelings and develop more creativity and confidence and self-esteem.

5th Adolescence 12-18 Years (Love Relationships)

Conflict: Identity v Identity Confusion

Devotion and Fidelity Developed or Under-developed

Moving to secondary school can trigger anxiety. It can also trigger really positive feelings of newness and excitement. What were your reactions to going to secondary school?Do they resonate with some of those experiences at primary school and/or nursery? Do they have any connections with your experiences in your present life? Consider the experiences of moving to a school where you were being taught by more teachers, being in a school with a lot more children. How did that affect you? What kinds of feelings and thoughts did you have about yourself, your peers, teachers and the school world? How do these impact you now? What kinds of feelings does it trigger when you think about it? How do you resolve and address some of these thoughts and feelings in order to soothe or regulate any difficult feelings?

As you progressed to secondary education there may have been closer relationships with peers, with other students within the school environment or outside. Sometimes there are connections with teachers, like an innocent crush or infatuation. These are interesting experiences that can generate some learning and growing up. Why did you feel attracted to these particular individuals; peers or adults? Is there a connection between these individuals and who you are attracted to or in a relationship with now? Do you like a particular type? Who do they remind you of now as you look back? This is a time of experimentation and your peer group and social media awareness is going to influence this part of your life. Consider some of your first experiences with love and intimacy. How were you identifying sexually? Did you accept it well enough or were there difficult issues with significant people in your life, either in your family or outside in the wider school or social environment? What kind of role models affected you in the media and news, music and film culture? How did technology impact your development? Were you influenced by the Internet, television, social media or information and health education at school?

Consider whether there were any issues of confusion around your individual identity and that of your social group and in your friendships and family relationships. Consider how these may have impacted your sense of self, self-esteem and resilience.

Notice how there are more external issues in your life at this stage – a larger peer group, study and curriculum pressures, hobbies and interests, sexuality, puberty, increased awareness of world events, trying to establish your own identity/independence and any conflict with parents this may trigger, conflicting feelings of trying to fit in, comply or rebel, relationships, conflict, judgement and criticism against social expectations, prejudice and discrimination, abuse and exploitation, pressure to perform and achieve, pressure to know what you want to do in your life, dealing with mental health issues like anxiety, depression,trauma, loss, grief, drugs, addiction, appearance and how you project yourself to peers, family and school.

This period of your life may be difficult but you are looking at this with more experience,understanding, learning, knowledge, wisdom and compassion. Where there may be difficult memories, how do you centre, soothe and regulate some of those difficult thoughts and feelings? Can you see some of those things that you dealt with really well, are more resilient to overcome and conquer? Can you see some issues that you would like to explore, talk about and process? Can you see some issues that you wish you had dealt with better but didn’t have the support or awareness at the time to have done anything different? How can you process any guilt and shame in a healthy positive way that leads to a feeling of achievement, learning and wisdom? How can you process any feelings of anger and aggression in a positive and healthy way? What would you like to have done differently? How can you go about soothing and regulating difficult memories and their associated thoughts and feelings?

6th Stage Young Adult – 19-30 years (Love Relationships)

Conflict: Intimacy v Isolation

Affiliation and Love Developed or Under-developed

This period of your life may be marked by a very important intimate long-term relationship you had.It may have lasted a year or more but represented something significant in your growth as someone in relationship. Reflect on how much of an impact it had on your self-awareness, self-esteem and resilience. How was this relationship perceived by your peers and your family and friends? Sometimes a relationship with someone is still very much centred in yourself and not the other. Could you listen to them and learning to develop an awareness from someone else’s perspective? Could you empathise and have compassion for their concerns,worries and anxieties? Did they listen to and empathise with your own anxieties and worries, opinions and thoughts? Did you feel you had to comply and fit in with them? Or did you want them to fit in with you and agree with you all the time? Was there a feeling of caring and love as well as intimacy physically, or was it a more superficial relationship? Even at this age relationships can be very one-sided and it is worth considering how well you related to the other person, seeing things from their perspective, talking about goals and aspirations.

7th Stage Middle Adult 31-65 years (Parenting)

Conflict: Generativity v Stagnation

Production and Care Developed or Under-developed

This period of life is not limited to child-raising. It may be a project, job, business, service work, or hobby/interest where there is an element of raising, inspiring and supporting a particular individual or group of individuals. It may be an environmental or animal project. The themes and issues analysed in this section may apply for one or more of them.

This parenting role can very much shape your personality and how you grow, develop, change and review your personality traits and overcome challenges. Raising children is not easy and in so doing will trigger memories of past experiences and traumas from your own childhood. Consider and reflect on one of these and how you worked through it.

Consider the previous stages we have analysed. For anyone who is raising children you will have to work through the very same stages you did:

  • The initial news of becoming a mother or father – thoughts, feelings, reactions from other friends and family, impact on job, money and home.
  • Pregnancy, child-birth and baby-caring.
  • Moving through the toddler phase – Terrible 2s and toilet training.
  • Transition to nursery and infant school.
  • Transition to school learning – junior school.
  • Transition to secondary school – relationships, developing self and breaking away from parental dependency.
  • Making their way in the world of intimate relationships and the world of study and/or work.
  • Creating their own family and/or business/career/contribution to the world.
  • Mid-life stage of reflection and review, achievements and successes.
  • Deepening awareness of place in world, connection to earth, people and life events,personal responsibility and contribution to self, loved ones, family, friends,community and world.

If children and family are not appropriate at this time of life for one of many possible reasons, you may be developing something of more sturdy foundation like a job role, serviceful interest, hobby or self-development. These projects generate a great deal of inner change and reflection and how you grow as a person in yourself and in your relationships with others.

8th / 9th Stage Maturity 65+ years (Reflection and Acceptance)

Conflict: Ego Integrity v Acceptance

Renunciation and Wisdom Developed or Under-developed

Erik originally developed 8 stages. The 8th stage was about reflection and acceptance around the age of retirement. Usually the individual has not developed any issues with loss of memory or mental deterioration at this stage.It is a very significant time because people might be looking forward to their retirement and doing the things they have been planning to do for a long time or they are dreading the time when they have to leave work. It is an extremely important time where review and reflection come. If you have retired or are approaching that time consider your feelings around retirement. What kinds of things are you letting go of? What kinds of things are you having to grapple with and get used to? Retirement can bring challenges if your family live at home much of the time and you will be spending more time with them. What kinds of issues does this present? How do you feel about them?  What challenges will present and how do you plan on preparing for them and working through them? At this stage of life one is also going to reflect on those elements of development from all the previous stages and build a focus for the future. In some ways the reflection one goes through at the time of retirement is similar to the reflection undertaken at mid-life (usually in the 40s). Sometimes it is done more sub-consciously than consciously but this process is more conscious here as you read these words.The benefit of doing this reflection at the life stages is that it can establish the strong foundations of self-awareness and the often difficult and overwhelming processing of experiences and memories. Often it can bring about very significant revelations of strength and perseverance, recognising achievements and dealing with traumatic experiences.

If you have cared for or lived with an elderly relative you may experiencing despair I their being –child-like fear and weeping, holding onto your hand with such fear about their demise, abandonment, deep unhappiness, lack of purpose, regrets, memories of the past or extreme lack of memory which created another level of fear. Without adequate mental capacity it is difficult for an older person to reflect with integrity and wisdom and consider their failures and successes with equanimity and acceptance, especially when they are no longer physically or mentally able to reflect.

Joan Erikson (1998),the wife of Erik, reflected on all the conflicts throughout life in an additional stage (the 9th) – the development, or lack of development, of:

  • Trust
  • Autonomy
  • Initiative
  • Industry
  • Identity
  • Intimacy
  • Generativity
  • Ego integrity

As the body does grow old and decays we have to ask ourselves the question:

Will I be able to live my life feeling whole, feeling positive and feeling like I have lived my life in a full and wholesome way knowing more about myself and my life on this planet as I lay in bed in full awareness that the body is dying and what future has in store for me when the body does die?

When I work with older people I listen to their stories and learnings from life and realise they often fall into one of two camps. One group has become very bitter, resentful and malevolent towards themselves and/or others. They have become aggressive, angry and bitter towards society and people generally. The other camp looks so different. The gentle warmth, joy, happiness, acceptance of traumatic experiences, an awareness that this life does not end at the death of the body and how the past is reflected on gently and with wisdom. There isn’t necessarily memories of being a perfect human being, actually far from it.There are regrets but there is also a deep humility towards the positive and negative experiences of life. They teach us, we learn from them, we grow, we make mistakes, we atone for them, within ourselves or through reconciliation with others. There is a bright sparkle in their eye, a soft and gentle glow of life and living. Even in terrible physical pain there is an understanding it is only temporary and a brighter, better and more fulfilling state and awareness of being awaits in the next room.

This is where we want to be throughout our life. In reflecting on death we can go back and reflect on our integration of:

  • Trust
  • Autonomy
  • Initiative
  • Industry
  • Identity
  • Intimacy
  • Generativity
  • Ego integrity

It comes full circle and through looking ahead we can look more clearly and our present and with more clarity and wisdom at the past.


Reflect on these stages of life and which ones stand out for you the most, how they have affected you in the past and how they continue to affect you now. What areas of your life feel good and whole? What areas of your life need to be reflected on more deeply for clarity and understanding?

Consider what is working for you at the moment and what needs to be addressed. Consider what those areas will look like if you work on them now and maybe see what they might look like in a years’ time or 3 years’ time.  

What is the value of doing this regularly in your life? Is there a tendency to push something away or not wanting to look at something in yourself or your past? Think about that.Why is there resistance there? What might you be avoiding? If you are you may want to put it on the shelf for a while and come back to it but know anything that makes you feel uncomfortable may just be the issue that sets you free from emotional overwhelm and negative thinking in your life. Being brave and courageous with this kind of thing is so important and is usually harder to do than the most demanding of physical feats like climbing Mount Everest or skydiving. It is the inner struggles and confrontation of self within that brings the greatest struggle but also the greatest reward.

Go forth. Go well. Go lightly.

©Martin Handy 2018