by Julie T. Steck, Ph.D., HSPP
In undergraduate and graduate school, I was introduced to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Erikson, a German-born American psychologist, developed his theory of psychosocial development in the 1950’s and 60’s. His theory purports that there are crises that arise at each stage of development across a person’s lifespan. The crises cause a conflict between the needs of the individual (psycho) and the needs of society (social). Successful resolution of these conflicts contributes to healthy personality development and improved ability to confront future conflicts. Erikson used the term “virtue” to refer to the positive growth we experience when each stage’s conflict is resolved successfully. According to Erikson, there are eight stages of development. Those conflicts and stages that we confront in adulthood include: Intimacy vs. Isolation (ages 18-40), Generativity vs. Stagnation (ages 40-65) and Ego Integrity vs. Despair (age 65-death). Successful resolution of the conflict between intimacy and isolation leads to the virtue of love. Resolution of the conflict between generativity and stagnation leads to the virtue of care. Finally, resolution of the conflict between ego integrity and despair leads to the virtue of wisdom.
So what does Erikson have to do with mentoring? It seems that the ability to accept mentoring and to be a mentor are very much tied to these stages and how we handle the normal crises in our development. Most of us are pursuing our education and training, as well as our first jobs, in young adulthood. This is a time during which we are tempted to be single-minded, determined and competitive. However, it is also a time during which we should be learning how to love, to accept the love of others and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Those who are open to mentoring allow themselves to learn from others in a discerning way. Doing so allows us to incorporate what we have learned from role models into our work, values, and personal lives.
For those who are successful in the conflict of intimacy vs. isolation, the move into mid-life creates the drive to give to others. For many, this involves establishing a family, being productive at work, and participating in community organizations. It also includes mentoring and sharing knowledge and experience through openness to others. For those who are positive and look forward, they share optimism and encouragement. But for those who tend to be negative, the advice is often defeatist and negative. As a psychologist in the final years of this stage of my life, I recognize how important it is to surround myself with those who are positive, who have fresh ideas, and a CAN DO attitude. These are often early career professionals who likely look to me as a mentor. However, without their new ideas, optimism and enthusiasm, my career and work could stagnate. So these younger colleagues contribute to my productivity and interest in continued contributions.