living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

The Structure of Growth: Robert Kegan’s Five Stages of Consciousness

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Some problems in life are impossible to solve; instead, they need to be transcended. One famous example that our culture continues to struggle with is the question of whether life ought to be lived by the passion of faith or, instead, by the critical application of reason. It seems to be a sensible question, yet the very terms in which the question is asked renders any solution impossible. There is no object of faith, even the most tightly held, that is immune from rational doubt, and likewise, no rational position is held in the absence of a passionate reason for holding it. But the example need not be so philosophical as this. Another more “everyday” example would be the question of how one can equally meet the relational commitments of their spouse, children, family of origin, as well as those of their professional life. The aphorism “you can’t make everyone happy” may be true, but that doesn’t stop most of us from burning ourselves out or compromising our relationships while under the illusion that it isn’t. Unlike problems that can simply be solved by the application of technical knowledge, like fixing a pipe that is leaking, or finding shelter when it starts to rain, many of life’s problems require a change in us before they can be moved past.

This may seem obvious. We might think that the person who is stuck in a crisis of faith just needs to realize that the world is a bit more complicated than their ridged concepts will allow for. The one who is struggling to balance their relational commitments simply needs to learn to say “no” and prioritize their time in a way more in line with the limitations of their life. And we might add to this that a person who wants to lose weight needs to stop eating so much and exercise more, right? Why is it, then, that such advice, though it can be seen to be perfectly logical, simply does not result in any lasting change for most of us? In fact, for most of us, problems of this nature are impossible to solve without undergoing the loss of our life as we know it.[1]

Adrian and Superior

Introducing Robert Kegan

Robert Kegan’s developmental stages theory of adult human development is a contemporary model of human maturation that has shown itself to have enormous power when it comes to clarifying the dynamics involved in human maturation. In recent years he has gone further, and with the help of Lisa Laskow Lahey he has developed a whole program designed to stimulate psychological growth. His work is enormously complex and is developed across numerous books, so I will be making no attempt to here capture the breadth of his thinking. Instead I will seek to briefly give a snapshot of his developmental theory, then relate it to the concept of “the immunity to change” that he and Laskow Lahey have recently developed. In doing this we will see, from a formal perspective, how the fear of death that Becker introduced us to is not experienced as a single reality, but manifests in qualitatively different ways at different points in our developmental journey. The contrast that Becker set up between “living a lie” and “going mad” is thus shown to be a bit too stark, yet at the threshold of developmental change his characterization probably maps quite well to the experience. Kegan will help us see why.

Kegan’s Five Orders of Consciousness

The essence of Kegan’s theory is that at each of the five transitions he identifies there develops a capacity to take the reality we see, feel, and know through, and make it an object that we can critically reflect on. In this sense, the dynamics of growth involve and ever growing capacity to move what is “subject for us,” to an object of reflection. Kegan and his colleagues have developed a what they call a “subject/object” inventory, which is a test that is able to locate what stage a person is at on the basis of which elements of their experience they are able to reflect upon and which elements constitute their act of seeing. These latter elements Kegan calls one’s “culture of embeddedness.” Such elements are not open to critical evaluation, for they constitute one’s self-experience. To transcend all cultures of embeddness would amount to what Becker felt was impossible: to live an unrepressed life.

These stages begin with infancy. What is subject for the infant is “the now.” The psyche of the infant operates atomistically and immediately. To even speak of an object of reflection at this stage strains our language, for the infant remains largely undifferentiated from its surroundings. Beyond infancy, the child starts to differentiate and is able to reflect on immediacy as an object. This makes possible the construction of “durable categories.” Peek-a-boo is no longer the thrill it once was because Mommy or Daddy cease to “magically appear” when they emerge from behind their hands. The category “Mommy” or “Daddy” thus become durable. The realities beyond the impression are understood to persist in time and space. This stage typically characterizes early childhood.

Next comes the ability move the durable categories from being subject to object and therefore being able to think trans-categorically. Mom and Dad now not only endure in time and space, but are recognized to have their own independent point of view. This stage typically characterizes early adolescence but many people operate at this stage their whole life. Kegan labels this stage as “traditionalism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the socialized mind” in Immunity to Change.

Beyond traditionalism comes the ability to move trans-categorical thinking from subject to object and therefore develop the capacity to think in terms of a system or complex. One is now able to operate from the standpoint of their own personal ideology. One attains the capacity to have a system of values distinct from Mom, Dad, and the culture at large. One can, for the first time, “be true to one’s self.” Kegan calls this stage “modernism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the self-authoring mind” in Immunity to Change. Research has shown that achieving this stage constitutes the developmental task that most of us (about 58% of the middle-class, college educated, people studied) currently face.

The last of Kegan’s five stages he calls “postmodernism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the self-transforming mind” in Immunity to Change. What characterizes this stage of mental complexity is the ability to hold one’s ideology out as an object of reflection and therefore develop the capacity to think trans-systemically. “Being true to one’s self” is here recognized as one conditioned option among many. The limits of one’s personal ideology are no longer felt as a threat. Mom and Dad are able to be forgiven for their own limited point of view. Less than one percent of all people studied have achieved this level of mental complexity.

Subjective Transcendence and the Fear of Death

Once this subject-object pattern of growth is seen, it is easy to understand how the fear of death appears in the normal course of our developmental journey. These transitions in which a whole way of knowing oneself and the world becomes dislodged and is looked at presents an enormous increase in potential perspective, but at the same time life as one had to this point known it is “lost.” All the familiar stepping stones are pulled from ones feet and a sort of nihilism washes over the self. Is it any wonder that, in view of Becker’s work, we frequently resist our own growth? Sometimes its easier to live with our impossible problems than it is to grow through them. Sometimes it’s not. But the paradox is that in order to move beyond the problem, one must cease to address it directly. Such problems are like the voice of a friend that you can hear beyond a high wall, but cannot yet see. In such a case, staring more intently at the wall is no solution. In the next section we will consider Kegan and Laskow Lahay’s attempt to facilitate growth when our impossible problems become too much to bear.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] This phrase by Kegan and Laskow Lahey beautifully disambiguates the fear of death that Becker introduced us to. As we will see, the experience of losing our life “as we know it” that occurs at the thresholds of developmental growth triggers the very same self-protective strategies that Becker identified. Kegan, 2009, 241.

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Written by Alex

December 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm

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