Integrity versus despair is the eighth and final stage of Erik Erikson’s stage theory of psychosocial development. This stage begins at approximately age 65 and ends at death. Psychologists, counselors, and nurses today use the concepts of Erikson's stages when providing care for aging patients.
Erikson’s theory suggests that people pass through eight distinctive developmental stages as they grow and change through life.
While many developmental theories tend to focus purely on childhood events, Erikson was one of the few theorists to look at development across the entire course of the lifespan. He was also one of the first to view the aging process itself as part of human development.
At each stage of psychosocial development, people are faced with a crisis that acts as a turning point in development. Successfully resolving the crisis leads to developing a psychological virtue that contributes to overall psychological well-being. At the integrity versus despair stage, the key conflict centers on questioning whether or not the individual has led a meaningful, satisfying life.
An Overview of the Integrity vs. Despair Stage
- Psychosocial Conflict: Integrity versus despair
- Major Question: "Did I live a meaningful life?"
- Basic Virtue: Wisdom
- Important Event(s): Reflecting back on life
The integrity versus despair stage begins as the aging adult begins to tackle the problem of his or her mortality.
The onset of this stage is often triggered by life events such as retirement, the loss of a spouse, the loss of friends and acquaintances, facing a terminal illness, and other changes to major roles in life.
During this period, people reflect back on the life they have lived and come away with either a sense of fulfillment from a life well lived or a sense of regret and despair over a life misspent.
Successfully resolving the crisis at this stage leads to the development of what Erikson referred to as ego integrity. People are able to look back at their life with a sense of contentment and face the end of life with a sense of wisdom and no regrets. Erikson defined this wisdom as an "informed and detached concern with life itself even in the face of death itself."
Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back with few regrets and a general feeling of satisfaction. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.
Those who are unsuccessful during this phase will feel that their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.
An Example of the Integrity vs. Despair Stage
June just turned 65 and recently retired from her job as a school teacher. As she begins to reflect back on her life, she finds that she experiences both feelings of satisfaction as well as a few regrets. In addition to a career as a teacher that spanned over three decades, she also raised four children and has good relationships with all of her kids.
She feels proud of her years educating young children and being around her young grandchildren leaves her with a sense of pride.
On the other hand, her youngest daughter bounces from job to job and regularly has to ask June for financial assistance. June wonders at times if there is something she could have done to set her daughter on a better path. June also feels pangs of regret that she never pursued a graduate degree and moved into an administrative role.
Like most people, June looks back on her life and sees both the things she is proud of as well as the things she might regret. How she resolves this crisis determines whether she will achieve ego integrity or if she will be left only with feelings of despair.
While she realizes that there are some things she might have done differently if she had the chance, June feels an overall sense of pride and accomplishment in her life. She made valuable contributions to society, successfully raised a family and every time she thinks of her grandchildren she realizes that she has given something to the world that will ultimately outlast her.
As she faces the end of her life, June feels a sense of being complete and is able to look back and face what is ahead with a sense of wisdom and peace.
Erikson, E.H. (1982). The Life Cycle Completed. Norton, New York/London.
Giblin JC. Successful Aging. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. 2011. doi:10.3928/02793695-20110208-01.
Perry TE, Hassevoort L, Ruggiano N, Shtompel N. Applying Erikson’s Wisdom to Self-Management Practices of Older Adults: Findings from Two Field Studies. Research on aging. 2015;37(3):253-274. doi:10.1177/0164027514527974.
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