living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Laskow Lahey

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

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.

Written by Alex

December 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm