From Psychology Today: Understanding the 5 Stages of Adult Development

On occasion, I will be posting thought related to our Journeys to find a life well lived on Psychology Today.

Learning about the stages of adult development has given me great perspective on knowing myself and what actions I need to take to improve and get to the next level. I’m hoping you will find this research useful as well.

Dr. Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, has been the preeminent researcher in this field. His thesis holds that developing as an adult is not about learning new things or adding things to the container of the mind. It is about personal transformation, changing the manner in which we know and view the world. Instead of changing the contents of the mind, it is akin to changing the actual container.

That transformation is metaphorically a Copernican shift, realizing that the Earth is—or you are—not at the center of our solar system, but the sun is at the center. When we realize this, nothing really changes, but rather our entire conception and perception of the world transforms.

We experience this often in life. I remember moving back to a town I’d lived in earlier in life and found the people to be so much more friendly. But I was the one who had changed! Only through transformation can we truly move from one stage of human development to a higher stage.

Most of the time, we are in transition between stages, and we behave a bit differently with different people in our lives. The goal is to know where we are, what behavior looks like at that stage, where it comes from, and how it is serving us and others—the impact. When we know those elements, and we have motivation, clarity, and focus, we can deliberately work to change ourselves at the belief, thought, and feeling levels.

Stage 1 of Kegan’s development, the Impulsive Mind, occurs in early childhood, which we won’t explore today.

Stage 2: The Imperial Mind

This stage is about getting your own needs met, as opposed to a shared internal experience with others. The fear is that your own needs will not be met. Additionally, at this stage as a teen or young adult, you follow rules not because of the goodness of the rule but because doing so will benefit you.

Stage 3: The Socialized Mind

The most important things in stage 2 are our personal needs and interests. In stage 3, the most important things are the ideas, norms, and beliefs of people in systems around us—for example, our family, society, or culture and ideology. We begin to function based more on how others experience us. For example, we take an external view of ourselves: We might tell ourselves, They’ll think I look stupid or might even internalize that and think that we are actually stupid.

In this stage, we tend to arrive at our beliefs and even morals from external sources. Those could be religion, work, culture, or friends. Additionally, in this stage, we give a great deal of responsibility to other people in terms of how they see us, so that we spend most of our time trying to avoid looking bad or hurting other people’s feelings. We tend to look for validation about our own self-worth from outside of ourselves. We also tend to internalize others’ perspectives and actually care more about their opinions than what is right and wrong.

I was able to be a part of a research study that tested the stage of development I was in. I was surprised to see that I was mostly in stage 3. I find my focus is, to a great extent, outside of myself, even though I have great independence and strong opinions. It seems more to keep me safe in relation to others. I often make decisions in response or reaction to others. I know this sounds quite wimpy, and I am not suggesting I don’t have opinions or beliefs or that I don’t work hard to center on my values. But I am very bound by this seeming need for approval or self-image reinforcement. It is a great realization, and I am always working hard to change it.

Stage 4: The Self-Authoring Mind

According to Kegan, about 35 percent of adults are in this stage of development. In stage 4, we put the priority on defining who we are, and we move away from being defined by other people, our relationships, or the environment. We believe that we are an individual with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, and that we are independent from the expectations of our culture. In this stage, we’re able to differentiate the opinions of others from our own, and we develop what Kegan calls our “seat of judgment”: This is the person I am, and this is what I stand for. In this stage, we develop an internal sense of direction and the capacity to develop and follow our own charted course. Additional characteristics include the ability to question our own expectations and beliefs, to hold strong to what we believe, to define limits, and to solve problems with a strong sense of right and wrong for ourselves. In a sense, in stage 4, we have self-authored our own beliefs.

In this stage, we also take responsibility for our own emotions. We’re clear about what our feelings are, and we attempt to self-regulate those feelings. We gain a better understanding of our outer world and are able to see things from others’ perspectives. We learn that we can change and grow and still be safe and that it is worth it to do so.

Self-authorship is about defining and reshaping what you believe, your sense of inner self, and your means of relating to others rather than uncritically accepting those ideas from other people or from a place of fear. All three of these dimensions are critical for the construction of a stage 4 set of actions. We would need to generate our own values. We would need to have a strong adherence to integrity. Finally, we will be thinking a great deal about the feelings and relationships of others rather than being subject to them and moving out of fear. The key to stage 4 is to view yourself as the object, something that can be evaluated, analyzed, and understood.

Stage 5: The Interconnected Mind

Only 1 percent of adults from the research studies are operating at stage 5. In stage 5, your sense of self is not tethered to specific identities or roles. Rather, it is regularly created through the exploration of your own identity. It is cultivated through interaction with others. In this sense, the self is ever evolving, in a constant state of change.

In this stage, we not only question authority, but we also question ourselves. We recognize the complexities of life, and we’re constantly reinventing our own identity.

A good example of this is when you find yourself disagreeing with someone about a really important issue. In stage 5, you can look at the situation more objectively and truly understand both perspectives in an effort to explore them deeply. You can then use the data from that analysis to be able to come up with sort of a third alternative, more of a win-win solution. This is very hard to do, especially when you have strong beliefs or when you feel challenged.

The Caterpillar

In conclusion, Kegan’s adult development stages lay out a clear path for how we want to show up in the world. Do we want to follow other people’s expectations for us or forge our own way? Do we want to be trapped by old patterns of thinking, or do we want to develop new ways of being for ourselves? Do we want to just get by in our relationships, or do we want to cultivate deeper more authentic relationships with other people in our lives?

I have struggled with this notion and have found that having a purpose, a project, a set of goals, a continued awareness, and most importantly feedback and openness to that feedback allows me to continue to evolve and grow into the next stages of development. I find the exciting thing here is that we don’t stop growing and learning in our twenties; we continue to evolve if we are motivated to do so. Kegan’s analogy of the caterpillar gives us that hope as we see hundreds of such examples of this change and evolution in nature. Like a caterpillar, we have the potential to transform into butterflies—that is, to reach a higher level of development and consciousness. A caterpillar does not die as a caterpillar. A caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.

Development isn’t inevitable, and Kegan found that most adults don’t experience meaningful growth. The key question becomes how we can keep developing and growing as we get older. We need to change both how we think about the world and what we think about it. It’s not just accumulating more knowledge; it’s about changing our perspective. We do this by continually questioning our hidden assumptions and beliefs.

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