The origin of psychosocial skills

The origin of psychosocial skills

This article addresses the origin of psychosocial skills according to Erik Erikson’s theory on ego development1. This approach offers a valuable viewpoint on soft skills acquisition and how they influence behavior throughout life. The World Health Organization defined ten life skills essential to lead a healthy life in society, discussed in the second part of the article. The goal of this research is to understand psychosocial skills’ and offer a learning opportunity for people willing to acquire new psychosocial skills or strengthen existing ones.

The World Health Organization defined ten psychosocial skills considered indispensable to live with others in harmony. These skills have been recognized for years, although little or no mention of them is included in technical training programs. In fact, these skills are taken for granted by most advanced educational systems because a person is expected to arrive on the job with indescribable “soft skills” to deal with any situation. Skills help a person effectively respond to the demands and challenges of daily life. This ability enables a stable mental well-being thanks to the adaptation to various cultural and linguistic environments. WHO talks about ‘essential life skills’ that promote health in its broadest sense, in terms of physical, mental and social well-being.


Psychosocial skills are learned over time, starting at an early age in the family cell and evolving throughout life. These skills are defined as “personal attributes enabling someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people”. In other words, there are competencies facilitating positive interactions with people and complementing technical or hard-skills acquired through training.

Psychosocial skills start their development at birth. The basic development starts at home and the school environment expands knowledge to group living and social rules2. The skills acquired early in life are essential even though few understand them. One way to grasp their importance and avoid undesired outcomes is to analyze why “poor social skills are thought to make people vulnerable to psychosocial problems”.3

According to Chris Segrin, “People with poor social skills tend to experience more stress and loneliness, both of which can negatively impact their health”. Risks become issues affecting the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health of a person; these factors remain mostly undetected from current evaluations.

2 De Freitas S. & Ly L. 2016. Documentary: La force de la parole. Mars Films, France.
3 Segrin C., Flora J.. 10 January 2006. Poor social skills are a vulnerability factor in the development of psychosocial problems.

In my book Journal of a social auditor, I present a survey carried out by Harvard University, Stanford Research Center and the Carnegie Foundation, where they evaluate job success during the hiring process: 85% of success directly resulted from social skills whereas 15% came from hard skills, such as technical skills and knowledge.

More recently, in an article published in the Harvard Gazette, Alvin Powell states that “strong social skills [are] increasingly valuable to employers.” 4

These two sources are almost 100 years apart and they both reveal the ongoing preponderance of psychosocial skills in human interactions.

4 Powell, Alvin. The Harvard Gazette, Oct. 23, 2017.

A. Evolution of psychosocial skills

Psychosocial skills start developing at birth and their evolution continues throughout life. Erik Erikson defined eight stages of psychosocial development, from infancy to adulthood, and each developmental stage marks an important step in the ability to lead a balanced life. Erikson describes the advantages resulting from a stable home education as well as the drawbacks linked to an unstable life unfolding. Each step inevitably leads to a temporary crisis of psychosocial nature involving the psychological needs of the individual and the adaptation to the ever changing environment. A lack of support during each phase may prevent a child, adolescent or adult from evolving in life in social and professional balanced contexts.

This section presents the eight stages with their landmarks, as is expected for an average child, adolescent and adult. Experiences affect the pace of learning differently for each of us and this theory is only one perspective in the vast field of developmental psychology and psychosocial skills.

The author whose theory is discussed is the German-American developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who trained with Anna Freud in Vienna before emigrating to the United States in 1933. Erikson’s long career in various north American academic institutions resulted in extensive research and the publication of various books. He is the first to mention the influence of the environment on a child’s development.

1. Basic trust vs. basic mistrust

 The first stage of this theory shows the impact of the first eighteen months of life in the child’s future evolution. The infant develops a sense of trust when interactions offer the attention and affection of a stable caregiver. The sense of hope develops at this stage as babies trust there is someone available in case of a crisis. Hope can only happen when there is attachment to a reliable caregiver and this virtue is at the core of the emotional development.

On the contrary, the absence of a durable caregiver leads to the sense of mistrust, suspicion and anxiety, that may result in a lack of self-confidence: helplessness leads to fear and uncertainty.

2. Autonomy versus shame

The independence that a child experiences between eighteen months and three years of age allows confidence to grow. Toddlers are in search for autonomy and distance themselves from the caregiver to venture into the world around them. The discovery of talent strengthens the virtue of will.

When a toddler feels incompetent in the quest to complete a task, shame takes over and shadows the development which is initially mostly restricted to the family cell.

3. Initiative vs. guilt

Ages three to five, a child ventures into the world with successes and failures, forging a sense of purpose that emerges and continues to grow through adolescence. Questions are frequent in the quest for answers and explanations: the vast world causes a lot of uncertainty to the child and creativity emanates in play in all possible forms.

If questions are not answered, the child feels a sense of guilt, inhibiting creativity and reducing the ability to exercise self-control. Temper tantrums appear and the lack of attention and affection turns into to a deep sense of failure.

4. Industry versus inferiority

During the elementary school years, age six to twelve, the child develops a sense of pride that results from the adequate development of confidence and self-esteem. The sense of pride becomes a virtue when the child learns to use it to his/her advantage without discriminating others.

The child learns to combine home life and social interactions: school is the learning ground on how to live in a group and the child’s development prepares him/her for life in society.

School-aged children between the ages of five and twelve develop a sense of pride through the exercise of skills in social contexts. This age sees the child become more independent when experiencing life outside the home.

Competition with others leads to successes and failures, and the latter must be accepted with serenity as an inevitable step of growth and maturity.

When a child does not feel accompanied during elementary school, s/he feels inadequate with a growing sense of inferiority affecting further emotional development.

5. Identity versus role confusion

The adolescent years start around age 12 and last until 18. The sense of self emerges through the “sexual and occupational” identities that develop with major physical and psychological changes. A new person emerges with an identity that will progressively stabilize to become final. This stage shapes the virtue of fidelity through self-acceptance with the new self.

The lack of self-identity in society leads to a sense of failure that may turn into an identity crisis. Role confusion means that the adolescent is unable to shape a personality beyond the transitional years and because s/he feels not to be given the opportunity to explore with different life-styles, including work, education, sexual discoveries and social activities. Failure to find an identity results in role confusion and unhappiness.

6. Intimacy versus isolation

The sixth stage sees the adolescent launch into adulthood and it covers the years 18 to 40. Virtues acquired after age 18 derive from childhood acquisitions and expand during life, such as the virtue of love, which complements virtues such as belonging, hope, will and purpose. The combination of these values allows the young adult to build intimacy with a sense of safety in life’s new endeavors. This effort continues while the social and professional worlds evolve outside the family cluster, bringing qualities such as a sense of usefulness and accomplishment.

A person who has not reached a personal stability by the end of adolescence or the years that follow may suffer from a sense of isolation because of a tendency to avoid intimate experiences and the risk of exposing personal shortcomings. Isolation may lead to loneliness and depression.

7. Generativity versus stagnation

The adulthood period covers ages between 40 to 65 years old. Usually, people find their marks in society and give back by raising children and being good citizens. The sense of usefulness and accomplishment comes through activities beyond the family cell. Success leads to the virtues of care.

Failure to develop a stable mark in society during this stage may lead to a sense of unproductivity towards self and society. When individuals are disconnected in their community, the outcome is a sense of stagnation and a shallow involvement towards others.

8. Ego integrity versus despair

The last stage covers the end of life. Each person lives this stage as a continuum of previous stages. It may bring wisdom for those looking back at like with acceptance and completeness, leading to a positive closure.

Wise individuals oscillate between integrity and the inevitable despair that appears as life comes to an end: the key is to keep a balance between the two extremes to reach ego integrity.

For those who have not reached the expected stage of wellbeing through their lived experiences may look back at life with a sense of failure that leads to bitterness and despair. This last stage may end with depression and loneliness when life accomplishments differ from expectations.

B. World Health Organization ten life skills

There is no age limit to acquire and master psychosocial skills knowing that they enhance relations among people. The World Health Organization defined ten life skills, which are:

  • Self-awareness and empathy for others;
  • Creative thinking and critical thinking;
  • Problem solving and decision making skills;
  • Interpersonal skills for effective communication skills;
  • Stress management and coping mechanisms.

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to understand and recognize oneself, including knowledge about one’s own strengths and weaknesses, desires and dislikes, temper and character. Stressful situations exacerbate pressure and a self-aware person is able to tame and control temper variations due to unexpected situations. Interpersonal relations and the development of empathy require self-awareness.

Self-awareness is acquired early in life, when the child learns to respect social rules as a member of a bigger world than the family cell. People lacking self-awareness can become more aware of their thoughts and actions through behavior modification techniques.

2. Empathy for others

Interactions with others are indispensable in our daily life and they require altruism and understanding of other people’s feelings, desires or needs. Empathy is the ability to imagine what life may be for someone else. The lack of communication abilities are often based on a lack of empathy because the flow tends to go one way. Tolerance is exacerbated by empathy while aggression is its worst enemy.

People who choose aggression as a means of communication exacerbate distancing and fear. Therefore, the person who is unable to understand the emotional states of others has an emotional detachment that does not leave space for empathy.

3. Creative thinking

Creative thinking is the ability to consider something in a new way” because the mind is not set on one single approach and rather analyzes a situation from different perspectives. One approach is to balance the needs and options through five the angles described in the graph enclosed (analytical, open-minded, problem solving, organization & communication).

The lack of creative thinking may be due to shyness, lack of self-confidence or lack of ability to think ‘outside the box’. Tools are available to enhance creative thinking and decrease the sense of fear or failure that prevent us from moving forward.

4. Critical thinking

Critical Thinking is the “ability to objectively analyze information and draw a rational conclusion”. Although it is an intellectual discipline, it strongly contributes to health by helping a person recognize and evaluate factors that influence behavior and attitudes towards others. These values include peer pressure and the media. In its mastery form, critical thinking provides assets such as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, consistency, evidence and fairness. The development of critical thinking skills is a life-long endeavor.    

Considered a ‘soft skill’, critical thinking may be seen as the ability for a recently hired employee to be independent and succeed in a new setting with little or no guidance. Even though the theory around critical thinking may be taught in school or college, it is difficult to grasp its meaning until one faces situations that require this tool.

5. Problem solving

Problems are at the core of any business and people spend a lot of their time trying to solve problems. Problem-solving techniques help people understand the issue at stake from different angles and reach a conclusion constructively, with minimal stress and without negative consequences. They usually divide the issue in different steps that are addressed one at a time and lead to a solution.

The inability to solve problems causes mental distress that can evolve into physical strain.

6. Decision-making

Decision-making is a set of techniques that allow a person to deal constructively with expected and unexpected life events. The asset of good decision making is that actions are geared by the analysis of different options available and their possible consequences. Well managed decision-making techniques are an invaluable asset to move successfully through life.

On the contrary, poorly managed decisions may have consequences on one’s health and personal balance.

7. Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills help individuals relate to others in a positive and constructive way: this skill appears early in life, when babies attract attention from others to make themselves notice. The behavior towards others is of great importance to create, maintain and close relationships from an early age. Throughout educational years, and independently from the context, a person interacts with others and therefore must demonstrate the ability to address others with respect.

Deficient interpersonal skills inevitably lead to mental and/or social distress.

8. Effective communication skills

Effective communication entails that a person is able to express feelings and emotions verbally and non-verbally, while respecting others’ values. The expression of thoughts may be positive or negative but ought to remain constructive.

Negative emotions may alter communication skills and one must be able to control anger, fear or sadness before they affect one’s health and relationships.

9. Stress management

According to the Mayo Clinic, a person’s wrong beliefs such as “I’m not good enough” or “something is wrong with me” may be the cause of up to 95% of all illnesses and diseases: “the membrane of the cell is the brain of the cell, not the nucleus, and our beliefs are stored in the membrane of our cells. Unless we are fully aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it at every moment, we are always acting on our unconscious programming stored as beliefs in our cells”.

Scientific research has determined that stress is the core factor in physical, mental, and emotional diseases. It is then essential to understand  why and how habits create stress that may have consequences on addiction, aging and disease. To prevent a deterioration of personal physical and mental wellbeing due to stress, a person must be aware of the changes needed to decrease stress and regain vitality.

10. Coping mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are used to manage emotions. Feelings are the barometer of our wellbeing: a person who is not entangled in negative thinking is available to understand personal feelings and manage them. A positive behavior promotes a peaceful approach while feelings remain positive. The individual who is self-aware about an emotional dysfunction may use behavior modification to work on coping mechanisms that help decrease negative thoughts.

On the contrary, a person who suffers from depression, anger or fearfulness tends to react in a negative and dysfunctional way.


Psychosocial skills are acquired since birth and Erik Erikson’s theory is used to better understand the acquisition of knowledge that turns into ‘soft-skills’. Starting with the attention of a caregiver at birth, a person goes through eight stages of development, reaching plateaus at the completion of each stage. The human psychosocial evolution gives a roadmap of expectations depending on age. These stages are defined by acquired strengths and weaknesses which contribute to a progressive development of psychosocial skills.

The World Health Organization has defined ten psychosocial skills considered indispensable to live in harmony. The second part of the paper focuses on these ten psychosocial skills defined as indispensable tools towards a balanced life. The ‘soft-skills’ derive from early education, although life events may result in occasional weaknesses in some areas. A person who becomes aware of personal deficiencies and is willing to learn can remedy the skill shortness through training programs.

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