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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Integrity v Despair

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

(Photo credit: Jonathan Cherry)

Dealing with disappointment as we grow older: Terry Martin has been giving the subject some thought...


Ian Craib, in his book The Importance of Disappointment, writes that disappointment is what happens

'… when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise.'1

Expectations, intentions, hopes and desires are directed towards the future, but can shape our thinking and behaviour in the present. As the pace of change accelerates the future becomes increasingly unpredictable and what constitutes a realistic expectation, hope or desire becomes increasingly problematic, and we can be left confused and uncertain.

Expectations can be unfulfilled, hopes can be dashed, and desires can be frustrated. Any or all of these can contribute to feelings of disappointment, which can shift and change throughout the life cycle. In Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development, the eighth and final stage is called Integrity versus Despair.

‘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.’2

What Are Integrity and Despair?

Integrity refers to a person's ability to look back on their life with a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. Characteristics of integrity include acceptance, a sense of wholeness, lack of regret, feeling at peace, a sense of success and feelings of wisdom and acceptance.

Despair 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 and hopelessness.

The integrity versus despair stage begins as the ageing 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.3

An important personal quality to nurture and develop integrity is resilience, which is

‘… what gives people the psychological strength to cope with stress and hardship. It is the mental reservoir of strength that people are able to call on in times of need to carry them through without falling apart. Psychologists believe that resilient individuals are better able to handle adversity and rebuild their lives after a struggle.’4

Sigmund Freud said, ‘Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.’ Our families and our occupations/careers are the two major projects of our lives and in old age we may ruminate about both and the meaning they have given to our lives. Excessive rumination may be unhelpful but nevertheless reflecting upon the past may be an important process as we contemplate the meaning of our lives.


1. Craib, Ian (1994) The Importance of Disappointment. Routledge

2. Giblin JC. Successful aging: Choosing wisdom over despair. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 2011;49(3):23-6

3. Perry TE, Ruggiano N, Shtompel N, Hassevoort L. Applying Erikson's wisdom to self-management practices of older adults: Findings from two field studies. Res Aging. 2015;37(3):253–274. doi:10.1177/0164027514527974

Terry Martin is a trustee of Caraway - 'spiritually resourcing the older person', in Southampton.



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