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Susanne Cook-Greuter & Her Insights Into The Ego

What does Susanne Cook-Greuter’s work show us about ego development? Often we associate “ego” with selfishness and with the dark underside of our psyche. To be good human beings, we have to lose the ego, apparently.

In my series of articles on Ego Development, we to take a more inclusive and complex approach, based on ego development, the theory describing how the ego evolves and changes over time. If you’re keen to discover the workings of your ego, stick with me.

Here, we’ll look at the key conclusions of renowned expert Susanne Cook-Greuter on ego development. This will revolutionise how you see yourself and others.

Cook-Greuter and Ego Development

A question that likely springs to the mind of anyone studying ego development is the following: ‘What do we mean by ego development?’

Indeed, it’s a question that practitioners, researchers, theorists, and everyone interested in understanding this aspect of human development and growth should be continually re-engaging with and contemplating.

In her treatment of human development, Cook-Greuter addresses fundamental questions about the experience of being human.

A potential stumbling block to our attempt to understand ego development is the word ‘ego’ itself. Let’s look at how Cook-Greuter uses the term.

[Developmental theory is] crucial in understanding our world full of strife and clashes among different worldviews.

Susanne cook-greuter

Cook-Greuter’s Definition of Ego

Cook-Greuter understands the ego as the shipmaster of a fundamental human drive – that of interpreting our experience and making coherent sense of it. The ego tries to integrate everything that we experience into a coherent package. She calls the ego the ‘meaning maker’ and the ‘story teller’.

Her Ego Development Theory (EDT) describes how we interpret what we’re conscious of. It turns out there are certain major stages in this process. Development is the progression of our way of making sense of reality and creating a sense of meaning from it.

Cook-Greuter’s view of ego goes right to the core of how we live our lives. It’s so fundamental that it’s easy to overlook, and it seems most of humanity does overlook it. But grasping that the stories we tell about life are directly linked to our ego development is a paradigm-shifting move.

Cook-Greuter’s Key Concepts

Key Concept 1: Meaning Making

The systems of meaning we create guide our emotional life, our behaviour and our cognition. They are coherent orienting frameworks that allow us to function as human beings.

Cook-Greuter tells us that human ego development is the process of our meaning making changing over time. Our meaning making is not static, nor is it just linked to age. Her theory is applicable to all ages and doesn’t postulate an endpoint for human growth, nor that we must reach certain stages at fixed ages, unlike Eriksson for example.

Much of Cook-Greuter’s work is based on the premise that our capacity for making meaning is reflected in language. However, the fact somebody uses certain words doesn’t necessarily point to a high level of ego development.

For example, in today’s media and business, ‘diversity’ and ‘sustainability’ are buzzwords. But behind the appearances lies a whole range of different motivations and reasons for using these words. Indeed, our understanding of different concepts actually changes as we develop, since we interpret them differently.

Maybe this sounds a little theoretical. But there are (at least) three broad dimensions of human functioning which are directly affected by human meaning making.

Key Concept 2: The Three Dimensions to Ego Development

There are three dimensions she covers in her work on ego: the behavioural dimension, the emotional dimension, and the cognitive dimension.

Just take a look at all of the components determined by our ego development. This is a broad range of factors which all profoundly shape our personal and professional lives, and which together guide the workings of entire communities, nations and cross-national efforts.

This starkly lays out the importance of the study and application of development in all human activity, and we’ll have further articles covering individual aspects such as life vision and our relationship to others.

Key Concept 3: The Influence of Our Surroundings

Another of Cook-Greuter’s contributions is her insistence that human ego development is inseparable from our surroundings. Our meaning systems are created and sustained through a continual dance with them. The individual creates (often unknowingly) these systems to help them optimally cope with the world that they perceive. (Now we’re stepping into Integral Methodological Pluralism, time to reign it in a bit!) In her words:

there is no individual interior development outside a cultural and linguistic surround, nor is individual growth possible without the external context

Susanne Cook-Greuter

Attributing all individual development to the individual themselves is a common trap. If we keep Cook-Greuter’s words in mind, we’ll have a clearer picture of human development. They also encourage us to be attuned to others in a deeper way.

Susanne Cook-Greuter: How Ego Development Unfolds

Vertical and Horizontal Growth

Cook-Greuter holds that there are two dimensions to human ego development: a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension.

The vertical dimension captures the transformation or ‘improvement’ or ‘upgrading’ of our meaning making. There is an entire spectrum of vertical ego development split into nine stages, going from the earliest pre-verbal, pre-rational stages all the way to post-rational, self-transcendent stages.

As we vertically develop upwards, we become more whole, more loving, and our embrace increases. We can also experience downward vertical development, where the exact opposite happens. This can be brought about by traumatic experiences, illness, or a change to our economic and cultural circumstances among many other factors.

Horizontal development covers the change we experience as we gain more experience, skills and competence independent of vertical growth. Most adult growth is horizontal: we enrich and expand our current paradigm without making fundamental changes in our meaning-making system. Cook-Greuter has observed that people at later stages of vertical development have more horizontal development available to them.

Development is Increasing Embrace

We now know that vertical ego development is the development of our meaning making over time. Let’s look at how that actually changes us as individuals as we operate in the world.

In a very broad sense, development means increasing embrace. In fact, each developmental stage can be seen as a new level of embrace – we cover the stages of ego development in this article. Let’s flesh out this idea of embrace.

The word ’embrace’ suggests inclusion, wholeness, expansion. And these are exactly the capacities we build on as we develop.

blooming flower, metaphor for development and growth

As we embrace more, we gain deeper understanding, wisdom and effectiveness.

We have more capacities and resources online, meaning we’re more complex, dynamic and flexible.

Another component of this increasing embrace is the move from egocentric consciousness (only I’m important), to sociocentric consciousness (me and others in my immediate surroundings are important), to worldcentric consciousness (all humans are important).

Perspective taking is one of the key markers of our level of meaning making. The perspective we can take indicates what we can see and process in both the inner and outer world. Our perspective taking can develop from a 1st-person perspective all the way to a 6th-person perspective and beyond – more on this when we cover the stages of development.

And remember that ego development is the evolution of our meaning systems. The meaning we give to life and how we make sense of it directly impacts how much we are able to embrace.

Ego Development Occurs in Stages

As like many other developmentalists, Cook-Greuter has found that vertical ego development is an entire spectrum without a clear endpoint. She has divided this spectrum into nine stages, each of which includes the previous one but has its own unique attributes.

While identifying these stages of growth is useful, it’s misleading in certain ways. Not least because we don’t experience these stages in a ‘lock-step’ fashion. Ego development is much messier than that, and we’ll need to cover more ground to paint a more accurate picture of how it unfolds.

The Mechanics of Stage Change

In her work, Cook-Greuter refers to Robert Kegan’s finding that it takes around five years for us to shift a vertical stage of development if circumstances are favourable and we’re open to change.

There’s important points to pull out here. As individuals, we need to be open to experience vertical transformation. This means that we can both support and sabotage our own development. We can consciously grab onto our meaning structures and create defence mechanisms and barriers around them, creating a kind of unyielding, rock-solid iceberg.

On the other hand, by taking our current meaning structures less seriously and being willing to examine them and be guided towards structures with more embrace, we can actually actively foster our own growth. And this intention needs to be maintained for years and decades if we’re to become highly developed humans.

The old premise that once people reach age 25, their basic psychology is fixed, is a sad reality. Indeed, most people reach the stage their culture (unknowingly) promotes and advocates and understandably sees no reason and feels no impulse to continue growing.

On top of the influence we have on our own development, there’s also that of our environment component. Conditions have to be favourable for our development.

Tip for Understanding Cook-Greuter’s Work

While stages are ubiquitous in developmental theory, we should see them as layers of complexity, and later levels are usually only reached in certain favourable life conditions and in rare individuals. We can’t judge people living in warzones in the Middle Ages through our modern eyes and in times where life conditions are much more favourable to high ego development. It’s not about demonising lower stages and worshipping higher ones, a trap that even Ken Wilber falls into.

Cook-Greuter has also gathered from her sentence completion test that people always have at least three stages active in them. We often have a trailing edge and a growth edge around the stage we most comfortably inhabit – our Centre of Gravity.

The Role of Suffering in Ego Development

And to cap off this first post on Susanne Cook-Greuter’s work, a word about suffering.

While ego development is often imagined to be a process of inspiration, expansion, a pushing of our comfort zone and a continual questioning of our systems of meaning, often it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.

Stage change itself – the crumbling of old meaning structures which are replaced by new, higher ones – is a process involving considerable suffering: our long-held structures of meaning are shown to be inadequate, they crumble, and we’re left to pick up the pieces.

Typical emotions in this process are pain, uncertainty and a sense of loss. Loved ones also may not understand our new self, one less dominated by its old meaning structures: ‘what has happened to you?’ ‘You’re not the person I used to know.’

Of course you’re not the person they used to know. But what they don’t see is that you’ve actually undergone vertical development. That rejection can be tough to take, and trust and self-love are required to create a new, flourishing identity.

And suffering, as you may well have experienced, is often a catalyst for growth. Traumatic events can show us the limitations of our structures of meaning in bold relief.