What stages of ego development do we go through as we grow and change?
Under the paradigm of ego development, the question is not whether we have ego or not. We all do, even if we’ve transcended it. The question lies in how developed the ego is. And there are many, many degrees of ego growth.
It’s time for our second article on Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Ego Development Theory. I highly recommend you check out our first article on Cook-Greuter’s work – it lays the foundation for this one. Together they give you a wealth of insights into human development and growth.
We have the potential to go from modest pre-personal beginnings all the way to the rare, mostly uncharted transpersonal stages of ego development.
The Keys To Ego Development
Before we look at the stages of ego development, it’s crucial to look at the general principles of human development and growth. Otherwise, our interpretation of these stages will be skewed. Many of these fine details are often missed.
As mentioned in the first article, Cook-Greuter sees developmental theory as a description of the unfolding of human potential towards deeper understanding, wisdom, and effectiveness in the world. She sums this up with the word embrace: human development is a process of increasing embrace.
She defines ego as the part of us that’s constantly assigning meaning to our experience and integrating it into a coherent framework – it’s the ‘meaning maker’.
People’s ego development plays an important part in what they’re aware of, and by extension, what they can describe, articulate, influence and change.
She describes the journey of ego development – of meaning making – as a process divided into nine fundamental stages. These stages are more a matter of fit than a matter of superiority or inferiority. They’re also more like a series of ‘downloads’ or ‘lessons’ than fixed periods of life or a stair-like sequence. Every stage has healthy and unhealthy forms of expression and its own unique strengths and weaknesses.
People often miss this point and use this theory to demonise and ridicule people they see to be at lower stages. In our view, we should use this knowledge to cultivate the exact opposite: compassion and understanding.
Six Principles Behind The Ego Development Process
We’ve trimmed down her abundance of insights into the growth process as a whole to six essential principles. These are key to understanding change in human beings.
Background to the Nine Stages of Ego Development
Let’s look at the fundamental properties of the stages before we dive into each of them:
- is qualitatively unique and brings its own capabilities and vulnerabilities,
- represents a qualitatively different, uniquely defined and increasingly complex view of self and reality,
- is a new world with its own language and rules,
- contains all preceding ones as subsets,
- is more differentiated, integrated and flexible than its predecessor,
- is a theoretical ideal that nobody fits perfectly.
Whole-numbered stages (3, 4, 5, etc.) are integrative:
- we bring together and recontextualise ideas, emotions, behaviours, perspectives
- our connection to others increases
- we feel comfortable in our environment and more at ease with ourselves.
‘Slash’ stages (3/4, 4/5, etc.) are differentiative:
- we expand beyond our old perspectives,
- this expansion brings distress and grief,
- we assert our newfound independence.
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Preconventional Stages of Ego Development
Cook-Greuter’s theory includes three preconventional stages. We won’t cover these stages here – most children by age 12 outgrow these stages in meaning making. They cover the journey from birth to the Conformist stage, common in young teenagers.
These preconventional stages are marked by dependence on others for basic functioning. Individuals here are also limited to a 1st-person, egocentric perspective. We view others as only existing to fulfil our needs, and we haven’t developed a basic sense of separation from them.
The journey through the preconventional and conventional stages is about create an ever stronger identity. We’re preoccupied with building, growing, and gaining more knowledge, skills and competency. Our identity is socially programmed.
These stages are a vital part of the evolution process, and are life stages for a considerable (but not large) percentage of the adult population. They correspond to the Infrared, Magenta and Red altitudes (or metastages) of development. We’ll cover these stages in more detail in future.
Conventional Stages of Ego Development
Now we reach stages of ego development more commonly found in adults. In fact, Cook-Greuter’s three conventional stages account for the majority of the adult US population.
We’ll break each stage down into its emotional, behavioural and cognitive characteristics. These three elements together give us a detailed account of the meaning-making structure of people centred at the stage.
Stage 3: Conformist/Diplomat
At this stage of development, we can take a 2nd-person perspective for the first time. Our identity extends to a group of individuals, and this group then defines our identity. This could be a nation, a religion, a circle of friends or a political group, among many others. The barrier between ourselves and this group is flimsy and ill-defined.
The Conformist’s sense of meaning revolves around their identity as part of this chosen group and its norms, truths and attributes. They work hard to conform and fit in. Rejection from this group threatens their sense of meaning. Truths and norms of other groups are often demonised and ridiculed.
Stage 3/4: Self-conscious/Expert
At the Expert stage, we can take a 3rd-person perspective, meaning we see ourselves and others as unique, separate people.
Having reached a new level of individuation, a degree of self-reflection is now available to us and we’re conscious of linear time. While we’re now in the early stages of self-consciousness, our individuality is not yet developed enough to assimilate information and points of view conflicting with our own.
At this stage we’re still working hard to define our unique identity and push away from our previous, group-derived identity, seeing this as fake. This newfound identity is still rather flimsy and needs affirmation.
Stage 4: Conscientious/Achiever
Now we arrive to the implicit target stage for much of Western culture. Educational systems aim to produce individuals with the Achiever mindset. This mindset attracts the highest financial reward in the US and most of the West.
This stage marks the culmination of ego differentiation. We now have an expanded 3rd-person perspective, meaning we have a developed identity of our own but can take the perspective of many other people. We have enough self-certainty to assimilate criticism into our self-view without it destroying our identity, unlike at the Diplomat and Expert stages.
This expansion also allows us to reflect on our experience within the framework of linear time and cause and effect. We can, for the first time, reflect on our actions and their results in time.
This makes us goal-orientated, with a time horizon of 5-10 years backwards and forwards, reflected in the popular interview question ‘where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?’ Robert Kegan invented the term ‘self-authoring’ to describe this stage of development. Failing to progress, achieve goals and take charge is a major source of suffering for us.
There comes an emphasis on the future, setting and achieving personal goals, self-understanding and gaining knowledge and competency.
Formal operations and abstract rationality are at their peak. This obsession with abstractions can lead to ‘aboutism’: a lot of theoretical knowledge with little embodiment or practical application.
These stages mark the beginning of the deconstruction of the independent self we constructed in Preconventional and Conventional stages. The boundaries between self and others loosen and we’re on the journey to conscious union with the entirety of existence. Here we attempt to recognise the assumptions we’ve made in constructing meaning, strip away our illusions, strive for transformation and achieve a deeper, more integrated understanding of life.
It’s crucial to note that in Cook-Greuter’s samples, composed of Westerners, the percentage of participants in Postconventional stages (4/5 – 6) varied from 7%-43% among samples: these stages are relatively rare in the population. Other estimates agree with this conclusion.
Stage 4/5: Individualist/Pluralist
This stage marks a watershed moment in our growth. A 4th-person perspective comes online for us. This has a flood of implications. For one, we can now do epistemology, allowing us to see the context of all prior meaning making. Mainstream society doesn’t support the transition to Stage 4/5 and in certain ways demonises it.
We’re also now aware of our own position relative to what we’re trying to know, and that the former influences the latter. We see that pure, detached observation doesn’t really exist and view ourselves as participant-observers. This is relativistic thinking.
Accompanying this is an opening up to new knowledge and worldviews we’d previously dismissed. With this humbling realisation often comes the view that all beliefs, claims to truth or values must be equally valid. Or, in the extreme, we may even consider all claims to truth to be completely invalid due to their inherently constructed nature (this is the classic postmodern perspective).
The system we grew up in is now clear to us, and we analyse, question and appraise it, undoing the cultural programming we received.
We move beyond dichotomising logic and are open to discovering truth through other modalities like intuition, dreams, emotions and reflection. We’re now more embodied, reach conclusions through our subjective experience and find wisdom in emotions and sensations.
Stage 5: Autonomous/Strategist
At the Autonomous/Strategist stage we experience a reintegration after the thorough differentiation of the Individualist stage. Here we go beyond pluralism and relativism to an integrated perspective. Many developmentalists – Wilber, Graves, Beck – consider the transition to Stage 5 as the most important of all.
This stage brings an expanded 4th-person perspective. This allows us to operate from multiple perspectives simultaneously. We see ourselves and others as part of ongoing, evolving history.
We’ve also internalised systems thinking: we comprehend multiple interconnected systems and our involvement in them. At this level, it becomes apparent that we’ve travelled through several previous stages of development, and we can appreciate their value.
Instead of relativism, we see meaning making, judging and decision-making to be unavoidable and necessary. This allows us to interpret life according to our needs and preferences and the context we find ourselves in. We acknowledge some perspectives to be better than others, and can integrate several perspectives into broader frameworks.
Postautonomous Stages of Ego Development
Cook-Greuter postulates two further stages, which she calls postautonomous. Very few people reach them – at most 6.5% of Cook-Greuter’s subjects operated from the postautonomous stages.
Here the self’s return to conscious union with the ground of being (experienced unconsciously in the early years of life) culminates. We give up permanent identification with the human personality, and face our fundamental assumptions about life and the ego’s need for meaning.
The defining feature of these two stages is that they’re transpersonal. It may seem strange to talk about transpersonality in the context of ego development. But it turns out our ego can expand beyond itself. Our sense of identity can become so elaborate and inclusive that it begins to break beyond our individual self-sense.
That might be bewildering. But don’t worry, I’ll explain how this works.
The Transpersonal Ego: A Paradox
First off, let’s make it clear that these are rare stages that few people reach. This is the point in the growth of our identity that we’re able to let go of our sense of personhood and live beyond it.
These two stages represent a sea change in our conception of ourselves and the world around us, while also including the earlier conceptions.
At the core of these stages is our effort to move beyond life as an ego and come to terms with the fundamental mysteries of being human. These include why life exists, what individuality means, and what the deepest nature of life is.
Here we unravel the mind, realising the futility of its concepts and symbols and of language itself. Able to distance ourselves from the mind, we now question the paradigm of the separate self – our sense of being a person living inside a body. Perhaps now you can understand why most people never reach these stages!
This distancing from our personal self is accompanied by a distancing from the sensory world and a realisation that all human concepts are attempts to map out and describe the territory of life. That doesn’t mean we throw language out the window, rather we step beyond it.
We also sense the limitations of knowledge and make a home in not-knowing. We no longer run away from uncertainty – we relish it. Our focus is on living life as a witness and co-actor, rather than being lost in the drama of our ego.
Let’s look closely at the first of the two stages, then. This is Stage 5/6 (following Cook-Greuter’s unorthodox numbering system), and is called Construct-aware or Ego-aware.
Stage 5/6: Construct-Aware, Ego-Aware
This stage is our bridge from an ordinary self of sense into a transpersonal self. Unsurprisingly, it has a destabilising or uprooting flavour to it. We bring the ego drama under serious questioning.
Here we adopt a 5th-person perspective, which enables us to be aware of the large-scale unfolding of our lives and uncover our inbuilt need for cognitive frameworks and stability. Now we’re getting really transpersonal.
We get our hands dirty with metaphysical quandaries such as whether there is a permanent, outside world separate from ourselves and whether our sense of identity has any reality to it. There is often an abiding sense of uncertainty here as we become shockingly aware of our need to make sense of life and hold onto maps and explanations.
We’re concerned with existential questions and the ego’s habits and patterns. It’s constantly looking to be the protagonist in the story, weave webs of meaning and coherence, and avoid life’s fundamental dilemmas.
Let’s dive deeper into the various strands of this stage, beginning with its behavioural characteristics.
Here our need to defend ourselves and look good drops away, reflecting our insight into the illusory nature of the ego. Tied to this is a raw, vivid and authentic communication style, which Cook-Greuter underlines. These traits run in stark contrast to those from earlier levels.
Rather than bolstering the ego, we step back and observe how it’s constantly fabricating stories and seeking meaning. We’re also less concerned with results and outcomes, and instead focus on humbly serving others.
A crucial component of this stage is our newfound connection to not-knowing, available to a degree unlike at any prior stage. Wonder, awe and appreciation of life and its raw beauty replace mapmaking, categorising and analysis. Paradox and ambiguity become commonplace, and we realise that all representations of truth are limited and distorted.
Though we realise the illusion of the self as our life’s protagonist, we’re extraordinarily open to other expressions of life and appreciate the human need for coherence and meaning. We value a cornucopia of ways to be, crossing national, historical and class-based boundaries.
The abiding uncertainty common at this stage is often accompanied by existential crises, stirred by the realisation of our essential loneliness and of our futile attempts to create solid meaning. We fear that nobody understands us. The meaning-generating habit is a source of fascination for us, and we can slip into deep existential questioning, even nihilism.
But it’s not all negative. With our new awareness of the habits of the ego, we’re able to access material that’s largely unavailable to many: feelings, intuition, dreams and body states. We tend to be very self-aware and have high emotional intelligence.
Two Expressions Of This Stage
Cook-Greuter has identified two slightly different expressions of this stage. Both embody the general characteristics of stage 5/6 but add a unique touch.
The first of these is the Construct-aware type; Cook-Greuter suspects this could be a first sub-stage, preceding the second type.
In any case, this type is defined by hypercognition. Though aware that meaning is a construction and invention, we continue trying to understand life cognitively and with language. We create insanely complex maps, aiming to pack all knowledge into a super-theory. This may signify the ego’s last-ditch attempt to avoid death.
People embodying the second type, which is called Ego-aware, teeter on the line separating meaning and language from the infinite. Their focus is on deeply understanding the habits of the mind and ego and observing their need for meaning and cohesion. This brings a striking awareness of the limits of language, concepts and analysis.
So, Cook-Greuter’s Stage 5/6 is a stage of deconstruction and deep questioning. In a certain way it resembles a transition stage: with one foot in the transpersonal, we’re experiencing the challenge of fully transcending the ego.
Stage 6 is when we establish a firmer identity with the divine.
Ego Development Stage 6: Unitive
Before we unpack Stage 6, a little warning. In her research, Cook-Greuter points out that her descriptions of the Unitive stage likely graze over what is a vast territory composed of several distinct stages.
Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber’s research also suggests this. But Stage 6, whether it be one stage or many, still has defining traits. Let’s discover them.
While Stage 5/6 has a deconstructive, destablising flavour, Stage 6 is unifying and integrative.
Let’s begin with the spiritual connection available at this stage. Spiritual awareness is now the norm, not the exception. Spiritual states no longer seem other-wordly or far out there, but as contact with what is real.
We see reality to be the unity behind all objects and all apparent separation, and we’re now able to readily contact that unity. We can directly perceive truth by bypassing our rational faculties and tuning into the spiritual nature of life. Our morality expands to a transpersonal or interindividual view – our concern is with life as a whole, with nothing excluded.
Another key characteristic of this stage of ego development is its openness to all of life. This is true both experientially and “mentally”. We can readily process and digest our experience – emotions, thoughts, body sensations – with equanimity. This even includes our rational faculty: we see this as just another innate aspect of the human condition.
And in the interpersonal realm, we view others as co-actors in the drama of life, all fulfilling their destiny and that of God. We grant fierce permission for others to be as they are, no matter their apparent level of ego development, and can effortlessly flow between multiple perspectives.
While at Stage 5/6 we tend to push away the need for meaning and coherence, here we welcome it and consider it a vital part of our humanness. Our tolerance, compassion and sense of brotherhood expands to all forms of life.
And when it comes to personal matters, we hold a certain humility. Many of the following traits might seem paradoxical, but they reflect the degree of complexity of Stage 6. On one hand, we work benevolently for the good of others, but realise our own efforts are merely a grain of sand in the cosmic dance.
We aren’t motivated by a desire to improve or change, yet take bold action where it’s needed most. We’re aware of both our ego’s need for certainty and coherence and the futility of its efforts to find them. Paradoxical indeed. But the transpersonal is what guides us now, and these traits reflect that.
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