Life crisis from psychological perspective

A crisis represents an event which has a major impact on one’s life. From a psychological perspective, the crisis is not identified with the event itself, but with the response the individual has to the event.

As a guidance, the crisis can be split in 3 categories:

  • Situational: unexpected, shocking events (a trauma, the moment when the burned-out state is installing, natural disasters)
  • Existential: they occur when the person is searching for answers related to life’s purpose, personal role on earth and so on
  • Development / evolution crisis: they represent a major stage in the individual evolution (puberty, learning to walk)

Depending on how it is managed, a crisis can have either negative effects (e.g.: neurosis, depressions) or positive effects (the person uses the information and lessons to build his life in a constructive manner).No matter the case, the crisis are not easy to experience, as the emotional spectrum, that accompanies them, is very various and intense.

Steps in managing an evolution crisis:

  • Analyzing the specific context and evolution of the individual: an event can generate deep crisis for a person or less intense process in another one.
  • Education / self-education: learning about evolution, stages, the event itself will help us integrate the crisis in a coherent system. It will help us understand better why some events appear, to discover new directions and the global vision will help diminish the intensity of emotions.
  • Identifying / learning constructive behaviors

Psychologists analyzed stages of individual development in various areas of life in order to understand better evolution crisis: cognitive development, language development, psychosocial development and so on. The book “Handbook of development psychology”, by Jaan Valsiner si Kevin Connolly, offers a good anthology of development psychology and the crisis that can occur in each stage.

Erik Erikson offers one of the most popular models of psychosocial development. His theory interprets Sigmund Freud’s stages (focused on areas of the body: mouth, anus, genital organs), adding one important component – social experiences:

Stage / age Crisis Positive effects (constructive approach) Negative effects (destructive approach)
0 – 1 years Trust vs. Mistrust
At this age, the children depend on his close ones for survival: food, security, attachment. They need to have blind trust in them.
If children’s needs are fulfilled in a responsible and constant manner, they will develop a solid attachment towards their parents and trust in life in general. If these basic needs are not fulfilled or the parents are not consistent, the children will develop a lack of trust in their parents, the world and themselves.
1-3 years Autonomy vs. Shame
The children learn to walk, to maneuver various objects; they begin to be able to do things by and for themselves. The bases of self-trust and self-control start now.
If the parents encourages the children in their explorations and support them when they do mistakes, they will develop the feelings of self-trust. These will help them later in life in decision making processes and being independent. If the parents are overprotective or discourages their children’s independence exercises, the children will develop feelings of shame. They will later rely on others to take decisions for them and will doubt their ability to be independent.
3-6 years Initiative vs. Guilt
On one side, the children develop more and more motoric abilities; on the other side they have more and more interactions with other persons around them. They begin now to manage the impulsivity given by their explorations and responsibility and self-control towards the environment.
If the parents are supportive and constant in disciplining the children, they will learn the limits of their behaviors, feeling free and confident in the same time to continue their explorations. Otherwise, the children will develop feelings of guilt and will consider that the personal initiatives are not adequate or desired.
6-12 years Competence / Industry vs. Inferiority
School becomes an important environment for the children; their life becomes more public. In the same time, they continue to learn various information and abilities in an alert manner.
If the intellectual stimulation, productivity and obtaining success are perceived as pleasant, the children will become confident in their abilities to manage various situations in life. Otherwise, they will develop feelings of inferiority which will appear later in life in various forms (attitude of superiority, constant negative judgements of others, lack of accountability for personal actions).
12-19 years Identity vs. Role confusion
“Who am I” becomes the most important question. Erikson believes that identity crisis is the most powerful one and it can be solved only solving in a constructive manner the previous ones.
The adolescents develop a strong sense of personal identity and are ready to plan their life and choose the directions they consider best for themselves. The adolescents will develop a high level of confusion. It will be extremely difficult for them to take constructive decisions, especially related to future career, sexual orientation and their role in life.
19-40 years Love / intimacy vs. Isolation
The most important dimensions of this stage are love and human relations. Erikson believes that intimacy is more important than having success in career for the development as human being.
If intimacy is experienced with pleasure, the person can develop deep and secure relations. The person will experience isolation, strong and constant feelings of loneliness, fear of commitment, personal values such as “you cannot rely on / trust anyone”.
40 – 65 years Care / generativity vs. Stagnation
“Generativity” is defined as the ability to shift the attention towards the others, in order to help / teach them. According to Erikson, the adults need the children as much as the children need the adults.
The crisis can be solved constructively by having children, helping younger generations in various manners, preserving and passing on the traditions and so on. The person will experience a pseudo-intimacy, having feelings of uselessness, regret, inner poverty.
65 years – death Wisdom / ego integrity vs. Despair
The persons start to have big loses: friends, retirement, and psychical deterioration. They reflect upon life in general and their role in particular. The analysis generates feelings of either self-content and peace or despair and general disappointment.
If the crisis generates mostly feelings of acceptance, death will become a natural step of life, part of integrative process. Erikson states that “as children don’t fear life, so balanced adults won’t fear death”. The persons will develop feelings of profound and constant despair, which will impact greatly the quality of life.

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