Integrity vs. Despair in Psychosocial Development

Integrity vs. despair is the eighth and final stage of Erik Erikson’s stage theory of psychosocial development. This stage begins at approximately age 65 and ends at death. Psychologists, counselors, and nurses today use the concepts of Erikson's stages when providing care for aging patients.

Integrity vs. Despair in psychosocial development
Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Erikson’s theory suggests that people pass through eight distinctive developmental stages as they grow and change through life. While many developmental theories tend to focus purely on childhood events, Erikson was one of the few theorists to look at development across the entire course of the lifespan. He was also one of the first to view the aging process itself as part of human development.

At each stage of psychosocial development, people are faced with a crisis that acts as a turning point in development. Successfully resolving the crisis leads to developing a psychological virtue that contributes to overall psychological well-being.

At the integrity versus despair stage, the key conflict centers on questioning whether or not the individual has led a meaningful, satisfying life.

What to Know

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Integrity versus despair
  • Major Question: "Did I live a meaningful life?"
  • Basic Virtue: Wisdom
  • Important Event(s): Reflecting back on life

What Is Integrity vs. Despair?

Integrity vs. despair involves a retrospective look back and life and either feeling satisfied that life was well-lived (integrity) or regretting choices and missed opportunities (despair). In order to understand this stage, it is important to first understand what Erikson meant by integrity and despair.

Integrity, also known as ego integrity, refers to a person's ability to look back on their life with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. Characteristics of integrity include:

  • Acceptance
  • A sense of wholeness
  • Lack of regret
  • Feeling at peace
  • A sense of success
  • Feelings of wisdom and acceptance

Despair, according to Erikson, refers to looking back on life with feelings of regret, shame, or disappointment. Characteristics of despair include:

  • Bitterness
  • Regret
  • Ruminating over mistakes
  • Feeling that life was wasted
  • Feeling unproductive
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness

The integrity versus despair stage begins as the aging adult begins to tackle the problem of his or her mortality. The onset of this stage is often triggered by life events such as retirement, the loss of a spouse, the loss of friends and acquaintances, facing a terminal illness, and other changes to major roles in life.

During the integrity versus despair stage, people reflect back on the life they have lived and come away with either a sense of fulfillment from a life well lived or a sense of regret and despair over a life misspent.

Benefits of Integrity

There are a number of benefits to successfully achieving feelings of integrity at this stage of life. These benefits include:

  • Ego integrity: Successfully resolving the crisis at this stage leads to the development of what Erikson referred to as ego integrity.
  • Peace and fulfillment: People are able to look back at their life with a sense of contentment and face the end of life with a sense of wisdom and no regrets.
  • Wisdom: Erikson defined this wisdom as an "informed and detached concern with life itself even in the face of death itself."

Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back with few regrets and a general feeling of satisfaction. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.

Causes of Integrity vs. Despair

There are a number of different factors that can influence the integrity versus despair stage of psychosocial development. Some factors that influence the outcome of this stage include:

  • Family: Having supportive relationships is an important aspect of the development of integrity and wisdom.
  • Work: People who feel a sense of pride in their work and accomplishments are more likely to experience feelings of fulfillment at this stage of life. 
  • Contributions: Those who reach this stage feeling that they have made valuable contributions to the world are more likely to achieve a sense of integrity. This often involves contributing to things that will outlast them through their children, friendships, mentorships, work, or community involvement.

Consequences of Despair

Despair can have serious consequences for a person's health and well-being as they face the end of life. Research suggests that ego integrity and despair are important life-space development indicators of well-being.

Some of the consequences of despair include:

  • Increased depressive symptoms: Feelings of despair at this stage of life can be marked by feelings of low mood, hopelessness, sadness, and feelings of worthlessness, which are also symptoms of depression.
  • Increased regret: People who look back on their life with despair are more likely to ruminate over mistakes and feel regret for the life they have lived. 
  • Decreased life satisfaction: When people feel despair at this stage, they are also less likely to feel satisfied with their lives going forward. This can have an effect on their ability to cope with stress and decrease their resilience.

Those who are unsuccessful during this phase will feel that their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.

How to Improve Integrity

This stage of psychosocial development often depends on many of the events that occurred during earlier periods of life. However, there are things that you can do to help develop a greater sense of ego integrity as you age.

  • Start early: The things you do during middle age will play a role in your feelings about life as you age. Focus on doing things that will support your emotional wellness as you grow older, such as getting involved in your community and strengthening relationships to ensure you have a strong social support network.
  • Seek meaningful relationships: High-quality relationships with people you care about and who care about you are important. Focus on those relationships and work on making peace with relationships that may not be as strong.
  • Reframe your thinking: Rather than ruminating over regrets or wishing you can change the past, focus on reframing how you think about those events. For example, you might focus on what you learned from those experiences rather than dwelling on what you wish you could do differently.
  • Practice gratitude: Focus on the positive aspects of your life rather than paying excessive attention to the negative. 

How to Decrease Despair

If you find yourself experiencing a sense of despair as you age, there are steps that you can take to improve your well-being. Some of the steps you can take include:

  • Reach out to others: Focus on building social support. Discussing your feelings with friends and family can help, or look for new connections by participating in community groups or organizations.
  • Focus on the positive: Think about the memories and events that brought you feelings of pride and happiness.
  • Explore new experiences: Seek out activities that bring you pleasure and joy in the here-and-now.
  • Engage in spiritual practice: Find ways to explore your spirituality, which may help bring feelings of peace and well-being.
  • Get help: If you continue to struggle with feelings of despair, consider talking to your doctor or mental health professional. You may be experiencing symptoms of a condition such as depression or anxiety. Your doctor can recommend treatments that will help.

A Word From Verywell

According to Erikson's theory, individuals don't experience integrity or despair all the time. Instead, most healthy individuals experience a balance between each as they begin to make sense of their lives. Understanding the factors that contribute to integrity vs. despair can help people maximize well-being as they enter the later years of life.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Perry TE, Ruggiano N, Shtompel N, Hassevoort L. Applying Erikson's wisdom to self-management practices of older adults: Findings from two field studiesRes Aging. 2015;37(3):253–274. doi:10.1177/0164027514527974

  3. Westerhof GJ, Bohlmeijer ET, McAdams DP. The relation of ego integrity and despair to personality traits and mental health. GERONB. 2017;72(3):400–407. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbv062

  4. Lim S-Y, Chang S-O. Nursing home staff members’ subjective frames of reference on residents’ achievement of ego integrity: A Q-methodology study: Achievement of ego integrity. Jpn J Nurs Sci. 2018;15(1):17-30. doi:10.1111/jjns.12166

Additional Reading
  • Erikson EH. The Life Cycle Completed; 1982.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."