Ego Integrity Versus Despair
Ego integrity versus despair is the eighth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development during which the aging individual strives to accept the value of her life experience.
Ego integrity versus despair is the eighth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development. Throughout the lifespan, the individual is faced with developmental tasks characterized by opposing personality features that must be mastered before successfully moving on to the next stage. The stages are experienced in a social context and represent a developmental sequence. During each stage, the aim of each developmental task is to develop an ego skill that will better prepare the individual and build upon previous skills, in preparation for the next psychosocial stage of development.
In each stage, there are developmental tasks characterized by conflicts that exist that correlate with the success or failure in mastery within the given stage. In each of the stages, there exists a spectrum that represents the characteristics of either failure or mastery. In relation to ego integrity versus despair, the object is mastery gained from learning and utilizing wisdom gathered from previous stages. Failure to master the eighth stage would result in a failure to acquire the ego skill of Wisdom. Erikson (1963 and 1998) purposed that failure in mastery during this stage would result in the opposite of wisdom and manifest itself as disdain.
Wisdom is the ego strength that results from experience and resolution of the dilemma of ego integrity versus despair. Erikson acknowledged that this stage is associated with aging and approaching death, which does not correlate with an individual’s chronological age. Mastery of ego integrity is denoted by an individual’s acceptance of his or her life and achievements. In moving through the process of mastering ego integrity versus despair, there must be the acceptance and disdain of life experiences. Therefore, those who attain wisdom will inevitably experience both integrity and despair as altering states that need to be balanced (Westerhof et al. 2015). This balance is necessary during this stage as it supports the gaining of wisdom and acceptance needed for mastery. The resulting balance involves acknowledging despair and its role in the individual’s experience of self. The individual’s task is ultimately accepting the choices made during the past and becoming more satisfied with one’s self, hence shifting from despair to integrity. Individuals who are satisfied with their life are not afraid to face death. This acceptance is representative of the mastery of developmental conflict and effective use of the skills learned in previous stages of psychosocial development.
According to Erikson, despair results from dissatisfaction with one’s life as one considers aging and approached death. The fear of death is an unconscious phenomenon that is ultimately a result of not being able to “start over” at this stage in life. Individuals feel as though they have “run out of time” and are anxious to complete the milestones of previous stages of development. The anxiety reflects both the fear of dying and the fear of not achieving life’s goals. The failure to achieve a sense of integrity is a reflection of stagnation or failure to fully master ego skills associated with previous psychosocial stages of development (Erikson 1963).
The Ninth Stage
Erikson later proposed a ninth stage of development in response to criticism of the eight stage model. The average life span in developed countries now extends past the age of 65, resulting in an extension of later stages of psychosocial development. For adults approaching their late eighties and nineties, Erikson and Erikson (1998) developed the ninth stage. This stage addressed the change within the ego that occurs after transitioning through ego integrity versus despair. Older adults in their late eighties and nineties first experience inconsistencies with his or her fundamental beliefs in the ninth stage. This often occurs as an effort to understand the challenges during this phase in the life cycle. In relation to the eighth stage of psychosocial development, integrity versus despair becomes despair versus integrity during the ninth stage of development. Despair in the ninth stage is in response to current experiences, for example, the loss of many important capabilities. This contrasts with the experience of retrospective despair that is associated with the eighth stage. Ninth stage losses include the death of significant others, loss of independence, and perceived loss of purpose due to a lack of social involvement (Erikson and Erikson 1998). The ninth stage challenges the individual with the previously stated losses and may potentially impact self-image. Erikson and Erikson (1998) noted that this stage is an opportunity to experience growth from the conflicts by working through despair.
Ego Integrity Versus Despair in Clinical Practice
The concept of ego integrity versus despair may be helpful in understanding the individual in a clinical setting. In a study by Westerhof, Bohlmeijer, and McAdams (2015), Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development at the ego integrity versus despair stage was explored by assessing individual status within this psychosocial stage. Integrity and despair were found to relate to personality traits and various characteristics indicative of mental health. Understanding how the individual resolves this stage of development was found to be more useful in a therapeutic setting than previously thought (Westerhof et al. 2015).
Westerhof et al. (2015) found that neuroticism is significantly related to despair and to depressive symptoms. Extraversion and higher levels of openness were found to be indirectly related to integrity when well-being served as a mediator. Well-being was defined as having a positive outlook on life and possessing positive emotions. It should be noted that the presence of well-being is not always the absence of mental health issues (Westerhof et al. 2015). In utilizing the psychosocial stages of development as a framework for clinical evaluation, the clinician is able to provide more quality interventions essential to advancing and resolving the stages of development. Marcia and Josselson (2013) proposed the use of Erikson’s stages as a means of understanding normative crisis within the context of the individual’s unique psychosocial world. Knowledge of the changes encountered during this stage provides a platform for clinicians to understand their clients as well as provides a foundation for more effective interventions for clients who are currently in the ego integrity versus despair developmental stage (Marcia and Josselson, 2013).
Achieving and maintaining ego integrity is the primary goal during this stage of development as it promotes both physical and mental well-being. To assist in the promotion of ego integrity, reminiscence therapy has been deemed a beneficial intervention to improve life quality and to conserve mental health. Interventions such as group socialization and group activities serve as a means of reminiscence therapy and support the idea of ego promotion (Jo and Song 2015). The presence of family members also serves as an intervention strategy that promotes ego integrity. The ability to reconnect through socialization and activities when one may be stagnant provides an opportunity to resolve some of the tasks that were not completed in previous stages and assists in providing balance between the integrity versus despair dichotomy.
Integrity versus despair is Erikson’s eighth stage of development and offers the individual an opportunity to acquire the ego skill of wisdom. During the eighth stage, many of the stages (trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, etc.) are experienced again; however, this time, the individual has the opportunity to fine-tune his or her skills in an effort to improve personal experience and to move towards ego integrity. In response to increases in average life span in developed countries, Erikson developed the ninth stage as a supplement to the original psychosocial stages of development. Erikson and Erikson (1998) understood that psychosocial development presented itself differently during late, older adulthood. Studies have shown that the clinical utility of ego integrity versus despair may contribute to a higher quality of care for the elderly receiving mental health treatment. The framework of ego integrity versus despair has utility as a means of understanding normative development as well as psychopathology in an effort to provide better quality of mental health services.
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