February 18

Embracing Wholeness: The 8th Stage of Life


As we age, according to Erikson’s theory of development, we move through 8 stages of life. Each stage is associated with potential successes and possible pitfalls, depending on how we develop. Erikson’s 8th stage, Integrity vs. Despair, begins around age 65 and continues for the remainder of life.

Understanding this stage of life is important as we navigate our final decades and reflect upon (and appreciate) the decades we’ve already lived. Taking time to understand this stage enables us to make the most not only of the time we are now in, but we’re also able to make the most of the years we’ve lived through. We’ve developed and progressed through 7 other stages before Erikson’s 8th stage, and understanding where we’ve been helps us navigate where we’re heading next.

The key elements of this final life stage are:

  • Integrity
  • Despair
  • Reflection
  • Ego Integration

Let’s explore each element and how it shapes the 8th stage of life.

What is Integrity?

Integrity is associated with the feeling we’ve had a life well-lived. We experience feelings of acceptance, a sense of wholeness and peace. We don’t regret much about our lives, and we feel we’ve learned important lessons and have gained wisdom and perspective. Integrity is often linked with:

  • Healthy, supportive relationships – whether it’s close-knit family ties or community support, relationships are often the backbone of a healthy, integrated life. When we have strong bonds with people we love, respect and care for, we also feel loved, respected and cared for. We benefit physically as well as mentally and emotionally from stable relationships. If we’ve had these in our lives, we feel a sense of integrity.
  • Fulfilling work – the average American will spend 90,000 at work, about 1/3 of his or her life. When this work is fulfilling, meaningful and meets our expectations, we can look back on those 90,000 with pride, a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that the time was well spent.
  • Contribution – people who enter this stage of life feeling they’ve made valuable contributions generally feel a greater sense of integrity. They’ve contribute, perhaps, to their family or their community. Their work may have contributed to society as a whole, or their volunteer efforts have made a positive difference in the lives of people in the community. We contribute in many ways, and those of us who feel our contributions were recognized and valued find it rewarding to reflect upon during this stage.

What is Despair?

Despair is associated with feeling our lives have not been well lived. We have feelings of regret, shame, discontent and depression. We fear our lives have been unproductive, and we may ruminate over past mistakes. Many of life’s earlier experiences remain unresolved. Bitterness and feelings of hopelessness can often accompany this stage of life if these issues go unsettled. The causes of despair are often associated with:

  • Troubled relationships – whether it’s a failed marriage or estrangement from a child, relationship issues can be a major concern throughout our lives and can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair as we reach the 8th stage.
  • Unfulfilling work – many who feel despair later in life report finding their work unfulfilling or not meeting certain professional goals. Perhaps we set out with a specific career goal in mind, but changes in circumstances waylaid a career or made it impossible. Feelings of regret and disappointment can be common in these cases and lead to despair vs. integrity.
  • Contribution – what we contribute to the world, our communities, our families and ourselves is a big point of reflection as we enter the last stage of life. For those people who feel they’ve either not contributed at all or contributed negatively, these realizations can be painful and lead to despair.

Reflection and Ego Integration:

Ego integration refers to the process of synthesizing the various facet of a person’s identity with our experiences to create a coherent sense of self, an integrated identity. Throughout the various stages of life, people deal with and negotiate many conflicts. Erickson’s Stages of Life include many of these conflicts, such as trust vs. mistrust, shame vs. autonomy and intimacy vs. isolation. Successful resolution of these conflicts leads to ego integration, and we often successfully resolve these conflicts through reflection.

Reflection involves the conscious consideration and evaluation of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. This is an introspective process, when we look inward at how we respond to the external events of our lives. We consider how we feel about a 50-year marriage or an early divorce. We think about what our relationships with our children mean, how they’ve grown and developed. We consider and reflect on what we’ve contributed to the world around us, positive and negative. We think about how we’ve developed in our character through our experiences.

When we engage in this reflection, we become self-aware and adaptable. We develop wisdom.

Final Thoughts:

Erikson’s Stage of Life helps us make sense of the many phases we enter into and exit as we transition through a lifetime of experiences and develop a strong, stable sense of self.

Consider your own 8th stage of life, where you land with Integrity vs. Despair, and how reflection can help ego integration and understanding, wisdom and personal peace.

Insert Call to Action