Erik Erikson Biography

Photograph of Psychologist Erik Erikson

Photograph of Psychologist Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson was a prominent psychologist who made numerous contributions to the field of psychology. Erikson is perhaps best known for developing the concept of an Identity Crisis. While practicing and teaching in California, the young Dr. Eric Berne became an analyst of Erikson. While Berne made his greatest achievements after studying with Erikson, the influence of Erikson on Berne and Transactional Analysis should not be underestimated.

Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 15, 1902. Erikson’s biological father, who was Danish, had left before Erikson was born. He was adopted by his Jewish stepfather, and took the name Erik Homberger. But because of his blond-and-blue-eyed Nordic look, Erikson was rejected by his Jewish neighbors. At grammar school, on the other hand, he was teased for being Jewish. Feeling not fitting in with either culture, Erikson’s identity crises began at an early age.

As a young adult in Europe, Erikson was both an artist and a teacher in the late 1920’s when he met Anna Freud and began to study child psychoanalyses from her and at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Erikson immigrated to the United States in 1933. He obtained a position at the Harvard Medical School, and later on, held positions at institutions including Yale, Berkeley, the Menninger Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, and the Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.

Erikson possessed a special interest in the influence of society and culture on child development. This interest led him to study groups of American Indian children. This research enabled him to correlate personality growth with parental and societal values. Erikson was also concerned with the effects of the rapid social changes in America. He analyzed these changes on many aspects, including the generation gap, racial tensions, juvenile delinquency, changing sexual roles, and the dangers of nuclear war. Erikson is credited for widening the scope of psychoanalytic theory to take greater account of social, cultural, and other environmental factors.

Photo of Erik Erikson

Portrait Photograph of Erik Erikson

According to Erikson’s stages, the onset of the identity crisis is in the teenage years, and only individuals who succeed in resolving the crisis will be ready to face future challenges in life. But the identity crisis may well be recurring, as the changing world demands us to constantly redefine ourselves. Erikson suggested that people experience an identity crisis when they lose “a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity”. Given today’s rapid development in technology, global economy, dynamics in local and world politics, identity crises are expected to be more common now than 30 years ago, when Erikson formed his theory.

Dr. Eric Berne had the distinct privilege to work with Erikson when Erikson was working in the San Francisco area. Berne had recently relocated from Connecticut to California. Even though Berne proposed his theories of Transactional Analysis long after he stopped working with Erikson, the analytical skills that Berne learned through Erikson are evident in this theory. Berne went on to achieve both critical and commercial success with Games People Play.

For a review of Identity: Youth and Crisis from the New York Times, please visit this page.

For a review of Childhood and Society from the New York Times, please visit this page.