Erik Erikson Biography (1902-1994)

A Brief Biography of His Remarkable Life

Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson.

Erik Erikson was best-known for his famous theory of psychosocial development and the concept of the identity crisis. His theories marked an important shift in thinking on personality; instead of focusing simply on early childhood events, his psychosocial theory looked at how social influences contribute to personality throughout the entire lifespan.

Best Known For:

Erik Erikson's stage theory of psychosocial development generated interest and research on human development through the lifespan. An ego psychologist who studied with Anna Freud, Erikson expanded psychoanalytic theory by exploring development throughout the life, including events of childhood, adulthood, and old age.

Learn more in this guide to Erik Erikson's life and theories.

Birth and Death:

  • Erik Erikson was born June 15, 1902.
  • He died May 12, 1994.

Childhood: Early Questions About Identity

Erik Erikson was born June 15, 1902 in Frankfurt, Germany.

"The common story was that his mother and father had separated before his birth, but the closely guarded fact was that he was his mother's child from an extramarital union. He never saw his birth father or his mother's first husband," reported Erikson's obituary that appeared in The New York Times following his death 1994.

His young Jewish mother, Karla Abrahamsen, raised Erik by herself for a time before marrying a physician, Dr. Theodor Homberger.

The fact that Homberger was not in fact his biological father was concealed from him for many years. When he finally did learn the truth, Erikson was left with a feeling of confusion about who he really was.

This early experience helped spark his interest in the formation of identity. While this may seem like merely an interesting anecdote about his heritage, the mystery over Erikson's biological parentage served as one of the key forces behind his later interest in identity formation.

He would later explain that as a child he often felt confused about who he was and how he fit into to his community.

His interest in identity was further developed based upon his own experiences in school. At his Jewish temple school he was teased for being a tall, blue-eyed, and blonde Nordic-looking boy who stood out among the rest of the kids. At grammar school, he was rejected because of his Jewish background. These early experiences helped fuel his interest in identity formation and continued to influence his work throughout his life.


It is interesting to note that Erikson never received a formal degree in medicine or psychology. While studying at the Das Humanistische Gymnasium, he was primarily interested in subjects such as history, Latin, and art. His stepfather, a doctor, wanted him to go to medical school, but Erikson instead did a brief stint in art school. He soon dropped out and spent time wandering Europe with friends and contemplating his identity.

It was an invitation from a friend that sent him to take a teaching position at a progressive school created by Dorothy Burlingham, a friend of Anna Freud's.

Anna soon noticed Erikson rapport with children and encouraged him to formally study psychoanalysis.

Erikson ultimately received two certificates from the Montessori teachers association and from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute.

He continued to work with Burlingham and Freud at the school for several years, met Sigmund Freud at a party, and even became Anna Freud's patient.

"Psychoanalysis was not so formal then," he recalled. "I paid Miss Freud $7 a month, and we met almost every day. My analysis, which gave me self-awareness, led me not to fear being myself. We didn't use all those pseudoscientific terms then -- defense mechanism and the like -- so the process of self-awareness, painful at times, emerged in a liberating atmosphere."

He met a Canadian dance instructor named Joan Serson who was also teaching at the school where he worked. The couple married in 1930 and went on to have three children. His son, Kai T. Erikson, is a noted American sociologist.

Erikson moved to the United States in 1933 and, despite having no formal degree, was offered a teaching position at Harvard Medical School. He also changed his name from Erik Homberger to Erik H. Erikson, perhaps as a way to forge is own identity. In addition to his position at Harvard, he also had a private practice in child psychoanalysis.

Later, he held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Yale, the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, Austen Riggs Center, and the Center for Advanced Studies of the Behavioral Sciences.

He published a number of books on his theories and research, including Childhood and Society and The Life Cycle Completed. His book Gandhi's Truth was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a national Book Award.

Erikson's Eight Psychosocial Stages

Erikson was a neo-Freudian psychologist who accepted many of the central tenants of Freudian theory, but added his own ideas and beliefs. His theory of psychosocial development is centered on what is known as the epigenetic principle, which proposes that all people go through a series of eight stages. At each stage, people face a crisis that needs to be successfully resolved in order to develop the psychological quality central to each stage.

The eight stage of Erikson's psychosocial theory are something that every psychology student learns about as they explore the history of personality psychology. Much like psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of stages. Erikson’s theory marked a shift from Freud's psychosexual theory in that it describes the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan instead of simply focusing on childhood events.

While Freud's theory of psychosexual development essentially ends at early adulthood, Erikson's theory described development through the entire lifespan from birth until death.

The eight key stages he described were:

  1. Trust versus Mistrust: This stage occurs between the ages of birth and age two and is centered on developing a sense of trust in caregivers and world. Children who receive responsive care are able to develop the psychological quality of hope.
  2. Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt: This stage takes place between the ages of 2 and 3 and involves gaining a sense of independence and personal control. Success in this stage allows people to develop will and determination.
  3. Initiative versus Guilt: Between the ages of 3 and 6, children begin to explore their environment and exert more control over their choices. By successfully completing this stage, children are able to develop a sense of purpose.
  4. Industry versus Inferiority: The stage that takes place between the ages of about 5 and 11 is focused on developing a sense of personal pride and accomplishment. Success at this point in development leads to a sense of competence.
  5. Identity versus Confusion: The teen years are a time of personal exploration. Those who are able to successfully forge a healthy identity develop a sense of fidelity. Those who do not complete this stage well may be left feeling confused about their role and place in life.
  6. Intimacy versus Isolation: The stage that takes place in early adulthood is all about forging health relationships with others. Success leads to the ability to form committed, lasting, and nurturing relationships with others.
  7. Generativity versus Stagnation: At the stage occurring during middle adulthood, people become concerned with contributing something to society and leaving their mark on the world. Raising a family and having a career are two key activities that contribute to success at this stage.
  8. Integrity versus Despair: The final stage of psychosocial development takes place in late adulthood and involves reflecting back on life. Those who look back and feel a sense of satisfaction develop a sense of integrity and wisdom, while those who are left with regrets may experience bitterness and despair.

Psychosocial Stages Summary Chart

This summary chart provides an outline of the stages in Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Each stage is centered on a conflict that must be resolved. Learn more about the important events in each stage and the potential outcomes of succeeding or failing to resolve these conflicts. Think you know the stages cold? This quiz will test your memory.

Erik Erikson and Identity Crisis

Have you ever felt confused about your place in life or not quite sure if you really know the 'real you?' If so, you may be experiencing an identity crisis. Erikson coined the term “identity crisis” and believed that it was one of the most important conflicts people face during the developmental process. According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself. Learn more about identity crisis, Erik Erikson, and identity research.

Contributions to Psychology

Erik Erikson spent time studying the cultural life of the Sioux of South Dakota and the Yurok of northern California. He utilized the knowledge he gained of cultural, environmental, and social influences to further develop his psychoanalytic theory.

While Freud’s theory had focused on the psychosexual aspects of development, Erikson’s addition of other influences helped to broaden and expand psychoanalytic theory. He also contributed to our understanding of personality as it is developed and shaped over the course of the lifespan.

His observations of children also helped set the stage for further research. "You see a child play," he was quoted in his New York Times obituary, "and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what's wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever's in them rises to the surface in free play."

"Hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive. If life is to be sustained hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired."

- Erik Erikson


Select Publications by Erik Erickson:

  • Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1975). Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E.H. (1996). Dialogue With Erik Erikson. Richard I. Evans (Ed.), Jason Aronson.

Biographies of Erik Erickson:

  • Friedman, L. J. (1999). Identity's Architect; A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. Scribner Book Co.
  • Coles, R. (1970). Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown.


Erik Erikson, 91, Psychoanalyst Who Reshaped Views of Human Growth, Dies. (1994, May 13) The New York Times. Retrieved from

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