living through death

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

One Foot on the Gas and the Other on the Brake: Kegan, Laskow Lahey and the Immunity to Change

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Over the last few posts we have witnessed Ernest Becker propose that all or our cultural activity, even our very self-identity is a massive effort to stave off our natural fear of death (here, here, here, and here). In that context, psychological growth was identified as developing an enlarged capacity to face these self-protective strategies without going mad in the process. In the previous post Robert Kegan’s five orders of consciousness were introduced as a more detailed framework for understanding psychological growth as a progression in relative degrees of un-repression. In view of this, growth is marked by moving psychological realities that “have us,” to elements that we are able to “have,” that is, look at with some degree of objectivity. In this post we will explore the structure of our resistance to growth as developed in Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.

The Use of Inherent Paradox in Psychotherapy

The need for growth arises from the fact that life has a way of never quite leaving us alone. No matter how much we may try to avoid them, impossible problems tend to find us. Such problems are what psychotherapist David Schnarch calls inherent paradoxes. Such paradoxes are naturally occurring inconsistencies in our culturally mediated beliefs and values which, under the right circumstances, can from problems that we can neither solve, nor avoid. Here inherent paradoxes become crucibles. They occur at the edges of our developmental thresholds. This is the reason they cannot be “solved,” for our attempts at a solution come from within our developmental limits, but the problem is a problem because of our developmental limits.

Pointing to the work of Weeks and L’Abate, Schnarch describes how “the solution to inherent paradox is to promote a quantum leap in the complexity of the solution.” Such a “solution,” he says, really amounts to a “paradigm shift in the process of going to a higher level of functioning.” This is essentially what constitutes a stage transition as identified by Kegan. “When the paradox results from embedded cultural values and beliefs, it is necessary to establish a viewpoint outside the culture form which the implicit cultural information can be viewed and examined.” I would add to this that such a point of view is not only, in some sense, “outside of culture,” but in the context of personal growth it must be a view from outside one’s developmental limits, in other words, from outside of oneself as one knows it.

My aim at this point is to introduce how Kegan and Laskow Lahay have put the idea of inherent paradox to work as a therapeutic tool to 1. help people see the paradoxical inconsistencies that their own lives are manifesting from a standpoint one remove beyond their usual point of view and in so doing 2. help people learn to test the hidden, self-constituting assumptions that form the limits of their current self and world understanding. In reviewing this we will gain insight into some of the dynamics of psychological death and rebirth which can occur numerous times throughout one’s life.

Inherent Paradox and the “Immunity to Change”

Doubtless the beliefs and practices of our life are filled with paradoxical inconsistencies. For practical purposes, most of these can be safely ignored in our day to day interactions since nothing critical hangs on them, nor do they force any deeper self-confrontation. Typically, we do our best to avoid this latter kind of inconsistency, but, by process of elimination, life has a way of driving us into scenarios where avoiding the situation becomes impossible without sacrificing our integrity. For example we might consider again the young person who was taught “know that you believe” and to courageously love truth like Jesus did, only to find that their love of truth led them to doubt the historical reliability of the image of Jesus, and therefore, apparently, the foundation of their love of truth itself. A paradox of this sort cannot be comfortably avoided. It has now become a crucible which, if endured, has to potential to stimulate psychological, even spiritual, growth.

Ice Shards

The reason that such crucibles are so difficult for us to negotiate amounts to what Kegan and Laskow Lahey refer to as our psychological immunity system. The metaphor of an immunity system is apt, for the function of an immunity system is to protect an organism from foreign bodies that pose a threat to its integrity. In this way, to have an immunity system is a good thing! But as those familiar with organ transplants knows, this good thing can prove fatal in situations where a foreign organ is necessary to save the life of the individual. In the same way our system of repressions, or psychological immune system, is designed to keep us safe from realities that threaten our psychological integrity, but, at the same time, life sometimes makes it necessary to transgress the boundaries of our psychological immunity system if we are to avoid death of a different sort. As can be seen from Kegan’s five orders of consciousness, each level will have an immunity system that picks out a different set of targets as possible threats to its integrity. To the socialized mind, losing the approval of one’s tribe is the ultimate threat to be guarded against. To the self-authoring mind, the ultimate threat will be failing one’s personal ideology, and so on.

Kegan and Laskow Lahey frame the possibilities and limits of our equanimity (our immunity to change) in the following way. The heart of their book is helping people to construct an “immunity map,” which is a sort of snapshot of their inherent paradox. The immunity map consists of a four column table. In the first column goes an improvement goal. An improvement goal is some area of one’s life that has shown itself to be an developmental rather than technical problem. For example, one might feel the need to either learn to delegate more tasks in a new role as supervisor. In the second column one lists all the concrete activities that one does instead of the improvement goal (i.e., “I pass off tasks to X, but micro-manage how they approach it.”). For many people this is as far as conscious awareness goes. For such people the next step can feel like a magic trick. With the first two columns in place, one is asked the question: “What do you worry would happen if you did not do the things in the second column?” In the case of our example, “What do you worry would happen if you did not micro-manage how you subordinates approach the task you have given them?” The goal here is to surface a hidden commitment that is driven by a fear. Thus our subject might respond, after a bit of reflection, “I worry that if I am not directly involved I will be viewed as merely administrative dead weight.” This fear is then translated into the commitment: “I am committed to not being administrative dead weight and thus I will work to be directly involved with all work that I am responsible for.”

immunity map

Once we step back and take a look at the shape of our three columns so far, it is easy to see that column three is in direct opposition to column one. One foot is on the gas, while the other is on the brake, as Kegan and Laskow Lahey like to say. The inherent paradox that our immunity system has created is now in full view. Getting this in view helps us see clearly why it is that change, even passionately desired change, is so often impossible from the standpoint of our current mental complexity, that is, life as we know it. What is needed, then, is a new way of knowing, a new order of mental complexity. Kegan and Laskow Lahey help people begin to take this step by moving to the forth column. Here one works on identifying a set of “big assumptions” that makes the fears that make one’s column three commitments inevitable. Such assumptions form the protective limits of one’s mental complexity. These assumptions are like “danger do not enter” signs at the edge of one’s current mental world. They may well be true and should therefore be heeded, but they might not be. The only way to know is to first see them, and then to test them.

In the final section of this chapter we will bring together what we have learned from Becker and Kegan and apply these insights to the question of the paradox of salvation. What have we learned about the meaning of Jesus’ claim that those who seek to save their life will lose it? What of those that lose their life, and yet find it?


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.

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Written by Alex

December 9, 2014 at 1:45 pm

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