Ego Integrity vs. Despair
A Spiritual look at the Eighth and Final Stage of Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” ~The Dalai Lama
“We can stay young by focusing on a dream instead of on a regret.” ~Unknown
This final stage in Erickson’s psychosocial development theory culminates with the virtue of wisdom. Once we reach the age of 65 years of age and beyond we confront the dynamic between Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Since this stage involves both a physical slowing down and a mental one, our productivity rescinds as we explore life as a retired person or at least working and participating at a fraction of the level we once did.
If we feel we have made substantial contributions to the world and satisfied our own expectations, then we can feel a sense of contentment with a slower paced life: taking time to “smell the roses”, playing with the grandchildren, sitting at the park in awe of the Earth, etc. If we are filled with longing and regret, we can slide into a depressed state or even despair as we lament that we haven’t fulfilled our highest potential.
From a spiritual perspective, it could be noted that our overall sense of well being at this stage indicates one of two things: our soul’s mission has been fulfilled or is grieving the loss of this fulfillment. “Have I lived a full life?” is the key philosophical question at this stage. Our mortality is closer than it ever has been before and if the mastery of the previous stages hasn’t been attained then we have an unstable foundation to work from at this final stage.
Finding peace with the world as it is an essential component of spiritual growth and enlightenment ultimately leading to the virtue of wisdom. Living without regret is somewhat impossible when restricting the evaluation to the ego structure alone. The ego structure likes order and meaning. Spiritually, we come to trust that the order of things is the way it should be; we do not wish to change them. Meaning is in life itself not in relegating “positive” reviews due to material accomplishments and “negative” reviews for a life with “nothing to show” for it.
If we have arrived at this stage in life with a sense of regret, no connection to Spirit and a general distaste for the way we’ve lived our life, it’s easy to see how despair can overtake our life, leaving little quality at all. We basically sit around waiting to die, taking no pleasure in the present moment.
Suggestions for lifting despair at this stage:
• Go to church
• Forgive Yourself
• Tell those in your life what you like about them; what you’re proud of
• Apologize to those you’ve mistreated or neglected
• Volunteer (if you are physically able)
• Read (or books on tape) philosophy, spirituality, self help specific to aging and mortality
Exercise to prepare for this stage prior to entering it: Obituary Exercise
Answer the following questions by writing down your answers:
• Imagine you are dead after living a long and happy life. What would your obituary say?
• How will you want people to remember you when you’re gone: friends, family, co-workers?
By addressing this consciously with this type of inventory before we reach this stage, we have the opportunity to avoid a sense of regret and recognize exactly what are soul needs in order to rest peacefully at the end of our life.
As we end this series of study in Erik Erickson’s psychosocial theory of personality development, let’s recap each stage as a reminder:
• Trust vs. Mistrust (Virtue: Hope)
• Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (Virtue: Will)
• Initiative vs. Guilt (Virtue: Purpose)
• Industry vs. Inferiority (Virtue: Competence)
• Identity vs. Role Confusion (Virtue: Fidelity)
• Intimacy vs. Isolation (Virtue: Love)
• Generativity vs. Stagnation (Virtue: Care)
• Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Virtue: Wisdom)
As we see the collective list reflecting the stages of a life, we can see how each stage builds on the previous ones and how ego development is central to the awakening of the soul. As our ego is integrated, our soul awakens. This symbiotic partnership is a necessary one in order to build a deeper, more meaningful partnership with source. The co-creation often thought of as “us and spirit” is really a trio working together, each having a specific task in order to produce the whole being.
In most spiritual studies, it is often suggested that in order to have spiritual enlightenment the ego must be eradicated. In truth, the ego needs to be integrated within the structure in order to do its job but quietly letting other aspects do theirs. A negative, ego arrested in development is unable to do this and often tries to do everyone’s job, making a colossal mess of a life. A positive ego is an excellent aid in our physical reality assisting us with safety, preferences, and the joys of physical sensation.
In partnership with our Soul and Spirit the ego can help us enjoy the physical reality we have chosen on Earth. Without the integration of the ego, we live in Hell on Earth. With its integration, we allow our Soul to Shine through and for Spirit to channel through us and have Heaven on Earth. Certainly Erikson’s final stage depicts that theory with its two extremes of Ego Integrity vs. Despair and the virtue of Wisdom that can be uncovered through such integration.
Since the final developmental task is retrospection, it is not only what we look back on at this stage that matters but also how we perceive what we are remembering. Our perspective has everything to do with our sense of integration or despair and thus hinges greatly on the previous seven stages and of our spiritual and emotional growth during these stages. If we have learned to see the cup “half full” our retrospective thoughts will conjure happy memories, good times, things we cherish and look back on fondly. If we have a lens of “half empty” then we will notice all the dreams we didn’t attain, all the mistakes we made, and all the things we didn’t get. Real material accomplishments have less to do with this stage’s reflection than our perspective and thoughts about them.
Each extreme at each stage (ex. Trust vs. Mistrust) could be viewed as an energetic vibration, spiritually. Therefore, mastery of each stage culminates in the development of a high vibration virtue. Without this mastery, we vibrate lower on the emotional scale, experiencing more pain and suffering than necessary. Therefore, the mastery of each stage insures our connection to Spirit because by it’s very nature it raises our vibration enough to attain such connection. Lower vibrations although useful in learning, prove to disconnect us from Spirit. Of course, there is no judgment from Spirit where on the spectrum you reside given that the whole purpose of the spectrum of emotion is to help us gage how connected to Spirit we are. It is meant as a reminder. Feeling joy – connected to Spirit, Feeling despair – not so much!
A life fully lived means different things to different people but one sentiment seems universal and that is: I wish I spent more time with those I loved or told those I loved how I felt. If there is one truth to recognize through the whole spectrum of psychosocial and spiritual growth its that we are loving, social creatures and hiding from those aspects is likely the only true despair our soul knows. Recognizing that we are connected to the whole and choosing to participate within that whole in service and love is true wisdom.