Helping People To Mature: Robert Kegan And Psychotherapy (Commentary On 'In Over Our Heads')

  • A final fourth order of consciousness is also described which corresponds to the Interindividual self stage in which self-determination and tolerance and acceptance of formerly rejected aspects of self and society becomes possible.
  • The idea is that all people pass through these various stages as they develop, but not all people make it to the end of the line. Adolescence is typically characterized by the transition from second order to third order consciousness, but not all adolescents end up achieving third order consciousness by the time they become adults. Similarly, adulthood is typically characterized by the movement from third order consciousness into fourth order consciousness, but many adults do not make this transition either. Nevertheless, the institutions we live under (in America and in the West) tend to make demands on us as though we have all achieved fourth order consciousness.

    Psychotherapy as a bridge between third and fourth orders of consciousness

    We need an example to make this all more understandable, so try this one on for size. Think of a typical adolescent or adult person who embodies third order consciousness. This woman happens to be struggling with how best to relate to her parents who are experienced as strict and controlling if also well meaning. She loves her parents very much (as befits a good daughter) but also resents their continued attempts to plan out her life and the constant and unwanted criticism they give her whenever they get together. This woman finds herself unable to resolve her mixed feelings of loyalty, love and resentment and goes to see a therapist for help.

    In Kegan's way of thinking, the young woman exhibits third order consciousness because she remains embedded in and takes for granted (cannot easily examine and criticize) the values she learned as a daughter in her family system; that good daughters respect their elders and try to live up to the standards that their elders hold them to. This value system may be crushing her individuality and opportunities for growth as a self-determining individual at this stage of her life, but she is not quite ready to shed them or rise above them either. She's simply stuck.

    Kegan suggests that all too many therapists will too often end up offering this sort of client a solution that makes sense to the therapist (who is thinking in fourth order ways) but which might be baffling or threatening to the woman herself: that she should pay her parents less heed, detach herself from them, figure out what it is that she wants to do and then do that without worrying so much about what her parents desire for her. This advice is good advice for someone who has already developed a fourth order consciousness – who has already detached from the values he or she grew up with and has become free to explore various different value systems. It will panic in someone who is still bought into the idea of being loyal and dutiful to family values at all costs because it would challenge that person's very basis for feeling good about herself (e.g. The young woman is good because she is dutiful and loyal).

    When you shift from the third order of consciousness to the fourth order, your definition of what makes you a good person necessarily shifts as well. A fourth order consciousness doesn't define the self's goodness or badness in terms of fitting in with traditional or familial values but rather in terms of fitting in with those particular values that make sense to that individual. Another way of saying this is to note that what is heresy to a third order mind is freedom to a fourth order mind.

    Kegan isn't saying that most therapists will come out and give this sort of fourth order advice directly, or that most therapists are incompetent. He is instead suggesting (I think) that the implicit goals of many psychotherapy schools (at least the insight and growth-oriented and supportive forms of psychotherapy) are fourth order by nature and that therapists will thus, by virtue of their training, tend to push people to go in the fourth order direction, often before they are ready to go there.

    There is certainly some merit to this argument, but I find myself thinking that there is a "straw man" aspect to it, too. I've known some therapists who have been stuck on the idea that there is only one true therapy goal or one true enlightenment goal and all clients must be herded towards it. I've also known many therapists who were more sensitive and less rigid than that; who intuitively understood how to meet people where they are (at the third or second order of consciousness) and how to provide intervention appropriate to their needs. It is not the case that the goal of therapy is always to promote the growth of consciousness, either. Sometimes (most of the time), the goal is simply to help someone find a way to suffer less. Productive movement and growth of coping strategies within an order of consciousness are just as valid as those which promote the transformation of order of consciousness.

    Some therapy is explicitly intended to help people "get to the next level" in terms of their social development. Much growth oriented and/or insight oriented therapy can, for instance, be seen as an attempt on the part of the therapist to create a bridge from the third order of duty and loyalty into the fourth order so as to promote greater self-acceptance and self-authoring capabilities within the client. If this is to happen successfully, Kegan suggests, it is necessary that the therapist meet the client at the level of consciousness where she lives and then gently help with the process of building out the necessary bridge from the one order or way of thinking towards the other.

    Transformation of someone's identity from third to fourth orders is not an instant movement and cannot be realized in a flash (no matter what the Zen folk say, not that I have any Zen knowledge). Instead it takes time, and even in some instances a grieving process may have to be endured before the transformation is complete. The reason for this is that it is difficult for someone to give up on values they have lived with all their lives. This is true even when those values are stifling people's development and directly contributing to the amount of emotional pain that they endure. Before a person can become comfortable with the idea that they can be the author of their own value system and can find a way to live where they don't have to hate themselves or reject important parts of themselves, they generally have to grieve the loss of their former attachments.

    Insight is not enough to promote change. It is not enough to know why you are messed up. For insight to become transforming, you must understand not only why you have become the (stuck, conflicted, dysfunctional) person you are today, but it must sink into you that you are one of the people who is perpetuating the stuckness and conflictedness. If you can really understand that you are not a passive participant in the creation of your experience but rather the primary author of that experience, then you may find the motivation to start doing things differently, and in the process help realize your authentic organismic self.

    As a client trying to move from a third order, duty-based identity to a forth order self-authoring identity, you can expect the other people around you to give you some push-back as you work to differentiate yourself from them and the values they have shared with you. There is a selfish appearing quality to this movement from the perspective of people who you leave behind or grow beyond. And from the perspective of those other people around you who remain embedded in a third order duty-based mindset, you will literally have become a selfish person by choosing to exit that old shared value system. Becoming comfortable with the idea that other people may think you are selfish is part of the work that needs to occur before a move to the forth order sort of identity can be complete. Part of what makes it possible for a decent adult and mature person to feel comfortable being perceived as selfish in this manner is that that person will realize that there are degrees of selfishness in the world, and that so long as the selfishness one displays is fourth-order mature selfishness and not second-order narcissist selfishness, it's going to be okay.

    The grieving process that accompanies the movement from third to fourth order consciousness is beautifully described on page 263 of In Over Our Heads:

    "... in loosening our identification with our former loyalties we at once seek to preserve this distance and are frightened by it. Our conflict is noticeable to us now and useful in preserving an emerging differentiation. But since we are still more identified with our third order construction than the emerging fourth order construction, we also experience the conflict from the point of view of the third order. We see ourselves abandoning our psychological duty or sacred oath. We may feel guilty about those who may not be safe or able to survive without us. We may be fearful for them or for ourselves now bereft of the protections afforded by our faith. Most of all we may feel a basic sense of wrongness or disorientation at having become so "plural", entertaining, albeit fearfully or guiltily, so many new possibilities".

    I love this quote because it describes in generic terms the sort of situation that so many closeted, conflicted or simply stuck people face in trying to become themselves. This quote could describe someone coming out of the closet sexually, someone moving away from a fundamentalist religious upbringing, someone leaving an abusive marriage, or someone who is coming to terms with the fact that it's okay for her to put a little distance between herself and her critical parents and that doesn't make her a bad child.

    Third to Fourth Order Techniques

    Kegan is more of a theorist than a practical therapist. He has a lot to say about what the proper direction of a growth oriented psychotherapy ought to be and how therapists can screw this process up by assuming too much understanding on the part of their clients. He has only a little to say about what sort of approaches therapists ought to use to help build out the bridge and provide support during the metamorphosis process. Mostly, what he says is that in his experience, the useful things to do are to: 1) assess the order of consciousness that the client is coming to you (the therapist) with and meet the client at that level (so that the client will not feel in over her head), and then 2) offer metaphors to the client to help the client see their struggle in new and flexible ways. The following, very beautiful passage makes the point nicely:

    "The images, "frames", malleable maps or metaphors that therapists of whatever theoretical inclination offer their clients have a number of salutary features, especially when they are introduced tentatively, with an ear to the client's own use of images and a readiness to abandon the offered metaphor if the client does not incorporate it into her own discourse. Metaphorical language offers the benefit of engaging the left and the right side of the brain simultaneously, combining the linear and the figurative, the descriptive and the participative, the concrete and the abstract. A metaphor is interpretive, but it is an interpretation made in soft clay rather than in cold analysis. It invites the client to put his hands on it and reshape it into something more fitting to him. Especially when the therapist's metaphor addresses the internal circumstances of being a making of meaning-structures, the client may find that, drawn to put his hands to reshaping it, he is engaged in reshaping the very way he knows." (page 260, IOOH).

    In the case of the young woman who feels squeezed between resentment of her parents for their constant criticism and duty to show her parents respect and honor, one form of metaphor that presents itself is the idea of a boundary . Family Systems therapists have gifted all therapists with the concept of boundaries – personal boundaries and system boundaries both. The abstract idea of systems boundaries helps describe ways that healthy family systems may be differentiated from unhealthy systems. The idea is also beautifully visual and evokes the literal image of an actual boundary – a fence or door or barrier that can be placed in between one person and another to prevent unwanted access. A therapist looking to help our young woman move from the third to the fourth order of consciousness can introduce her to the idea of personal boundaries in a very visual, free-form way and see how it resonates with her. What is needed is a lever to help separate the idea of being a "Good Daughter" from its embedded state in "being at parents complete disposal". If the barrier image doesn't help pry these two ideas apart (and keep in mind – it is the young woman who needs to do this prying apart, not the therapist!) there are other metaphors that can be introduced. Sleep or down-time or "systems maintenance" or "mental health days" are other way to introduce the important concept. It is just human to need a rest and reset at times. It is not healthy to constantly be vulnerable to intrusion. The important thing here is to not shove the metaphor down the young woman's throat, but rather to offer it as a seed and see if it will grow into something useful.

    What about bridging the second to third orders of consciousness?

    The question I was most interested in at the end of my previous essay was not how do you help basically good dutiful people to grow into self-authoring people (although that is an important question) but rather, how do you help those adults who persist in second order consciousness and who are consequently narcissists and antisocial personalities to grow into a more reasonable third order of consciousness. Second order consciousness, as you will recall, is basically the Imperial self stage, and typical of pre-teen children who have a good idea of who they are but not much comprehension yet of the need for mutuality and reciprocity. When this stage persists into adulthood, we call it a personality disorder and typically diagnose it as Narcissism or Antisocial Personality Disorder. From a societal standpoint, the adults who have persisted in second order consciousness are far more of a threat than those who are struggling to leave the third order. Kegan does not address this important issue of how to facilitate second to third order metamorphoses in his IOOH chapter on psychotherapy, but thankfully he does touch on it briefly in an early introductory chapter.

    A second order consciousness adult is going to be an adult who acts to meet his or her own needs without any serious consideration of how his or her actions will impact other people around them. There is no consistent mental representation of reciprocity or mutuality in the minds of second-order adults. They are prone to view other people in instrumental ways, either as tools they can use to get things they want, or barriers to get around or go through on their way to what they want. There is no empathy because there is no adequate conscious representation or understanding that other people have basically the same importance as beings as they do themselves. A therapy client like this will generally treat the therapist as an object or tool, will manipulate the therapist, and will generally not benefit from conventional therapy. Ask any therapist; it is notoriously difficult to help a narcissist or antisocial client to grow up.

    On page 45 of IOOH, Kegan relates three different approaches to trying to rehabilitate antisocial clients he had observed. Of importance here is that all three approaches were mandatory in nature; therapy was court ordered and non-optional. In my experience, too, only mandatory forms of therapy stand a decent chance of helping hardened antisocial types to grow, because, quite basically, they will only show up for mandated forms of therapy.

    Kegan describes a prison milieu therapy based on behavioral principles (e.g., a token economy in which privileges are earned for good behavior) and rejects this as anything other than a scheme for helping to promote order within the prison institution. While prisoners will generally behave in exchange for privileges, the dysfunctional and selfish way they think is not being transformed in any way.

    He next rejects a form of group therapy practiced in an inpatient psychiatric setting as similarly useless in terms of helping to transform identity and consciousness. This group therapy was run by therapists who insisted that participants talk about their "psychological motivations and internal conflicts". The problem was that the patient was not aware of having internal conflicts; he was perfectly content in his selfish second-order world, and viewed his problems as so many narcissists do as caused by external forces that he had nothing to do with. Apparently, the therapists got frustrated that the patient would not (could not) speak in the fourth order manner they were insisting upon, and kicked him out of the group more or less unchanged.

    Finally, he describes a third antisocial patient who was mandated to a job-training facility which, quite happened to offer the right combination of structure and flexibility that the patient needed in order to be reached and helped up to the next level. What occurred was that the patient, Richard, was mandated to a boat-building facility. Realizing that the fellow was selfishly motivated, they appealed to his sense of grandiosity by showing him that if he was able to finish a boat construction, that he'd be paid a bunch of money. Having engaged him with the selfish hook of money and prestige, they then put him in a position of needing to recruit the other skilled workers around him to teach him how to build the boat. This was like a judo move, because it used Richard's selfish motivation to propel him into being motivated to be a team player. He became dependent on the other more experienced workers to teach him and help him along, and their problems became his problems as they worked the various boats in the shop together. Richard was recruited into a team, in other words. It was his team membership, and his dependence on the team to complete his selfish goal that helped him up into the third order.

    "The artful features of Richard's boat works are often replicated by athletic coaches of adolescent teams, a form of teacher-student relationship or "classroom design" that should be spread far more widely throughout the junior and senior high school, beyond the gym and playing field and right into the intramural physics scrimmages, the interschool math league, or the history Olympics. The emphasis here is not on competition and rivalry as the main event but as a means to the purpose and performance of teams. Guided first by a concern for a developmental process rather than a victorious product, the basketball coach, like the master boat builder, can stand in the doorway of an alluring and valuable activity welcoming adolescents to a bounty of opportunity for increased personal competence, self-display, self-aggrandizement, and personal reward. Only later, once hooked, will the same adolescents discover, if artfully coached, that in order to get what they want for themselves, they must learn, gradually and with understandable ambivalence, the need to subordinate their own welfare to the welfare of the team, even, eventually, to feel a loyalty to and identification with the team, so that its success is experienced as their own success and their failures are assessed in terms not of their personal cost but of the cost to the team". (page 47 IOOH).

    This principle of "hook 'em into teams" would potentially also be a reasonable way to work with adult narcissists and antisocial types, although I have not yet though through what sort of teams such folk might be enticed to join and stay in in order to achieve the desired results.

    Lots of ideas to consider here, as is always the case when discussing Kegan. I hope that in reading over this material, I've helped you spark some ideas of your own. Please share your comments and observations and thoughts below as you have time and inclination.

    • Anonymous-1

      I volunteer as a Guardian ad Litem in Family Court. I advocate for children who are deliquent, abused, neglected or out of control. Many of them could be described as stuck in the second order of consciuosness. They have little remorse or empathy for their victims. It is pretty clear that to get them to function in society and avoid having them become career criminals they must be moved into third order of consciousness.

      Would you comment on the use of wilderness youth camps ,such as Eckerd Youth Alternatives ( ), where teens live in small groups of 8 to 10 and get natural consequences if they fail to function as a team? What attributes should one look for to determine if the program is likely to be successful?

      Editor's Note: I do not have experience with such wilderness programs, either on a personal level or a research level, and so feel unqualified to comment on them. The use of such programs, provided that they are run in an ethical manner, is intriguing, however. Helping people to change orders of consciousness is very difficult. It may be that wilderness programs can help this shift happen by fostering teamwork as a necessity of survival. I would question how much whatever learning occurs in such removed-from-daily-life situations generalizes to everyday life upon children's return.

    • Kim

      I work with high school students who are SED (severely emotionally disturbed) at a non-public school specifically designed with a Day Treatment Intensive aspect to assist the students in moving up the social maturity ladder. Most of the students have been kicked out of previous schools for fighting, stealing, drugs, etc and all of them have experienced extreme trauma whether it be the death of a family member, the horrendous violence of the Oakland, CA streets, parental abandonment and/or drug use, abuse, neglect, and much more. One of the students, in particular, I struggle with in terms of how to work effectively with. She is 17 years old, has experienced all of the above mentioned traumas and is very manipulative, cunning, verbally explosive, quick to fight, instaneously leaps to anger at the slightest miswording of a sentence, and is nearly impossible to reason with. She is obviously stuck in a very low level of consciousness, probably the second level, but my struggles come in my differing ideas of how to work with her effectively. Because she is making it difficult for the others to work and function in the milieu and the students and staff feel uncomfortable even approaching her, those of us who do have daily contact with her adamently push the necessity of following through on consequences and reasoning with and praising her after she has taken it upon herself to take responsibility for her actions. However, the principal of the school feels it okay to cut her consequences short after she throws a huge fit and makes a gigantic scene of threatening and verbally abusive attacks on everybody and anybody because he is convinced that she will remember only the positive interactions. In this case, I know that neither side is completely right nor completely wrong, but I would like to get your feedback on how one should best work with this young woman and help her to reach a higher level of social maturity. If she is unable to increase her social maturity, I fear that she will end up stuck in a very sad and lonely life and have extreme difficulty keeping a job, maintaining any sort of meaningful relationship and, God forbid, have children that she is unable to properly care for.

      Thank you.

    • helen

      i thoroughly enjoyed your two essays about kegan's books. so much so in fact that i now want to go out and buy his books and read them. thanks for your insight!!

    • M. Shearer

      My family has had personal experience with a wilderness program followed by a residential program and the combination took my son squarely from a destructive stage 2 to a fully functioning stage 3. Would he have matured at the same rate outside of that forced team environment? Professionals might debate it but as a parent who observed his development for the first 14 years, I feel strongly that he would not have. After 19 months of treatment total, now 16 y/o and back home, he agrees. has more information about his situation.

      The program mentioned in a previous post is generally well regarded. But as an unregulated industry it is buyer beware. Due diligence is critical. As for the comment about how it generalizes to daily life, that is clearly the hardest part. Although not a problem in the first 4 months for us, there are sometimes problems, but how do we as parents and society not try?

    • Xolani Kacela, PhD

      I am quite familiar with Kegan's materials and appreciate the manner that you have unpacked some big ideas. The notion of authoring one's own experience is the key idea to me. It undergirds the movement from level to level. Thanks for your work. Keep it up. xk

    • Rebecca Bourgault

      Currently doing research on Kegan's theory for an essay in Adult Education. I wanted to thank you for both interpretative texts you have given us on Kegan's The Evolving Self and In Over Our Heads. They were very useful in making this inspiring theory come alive through examples (and clearer enunciations!). Have passed along the links to colleagues in the course. Hopefully, we'll discuss your contribution in class next week!

      Thank you again,

      R. Bourgault, doctoral student, Teachers College

    • Anonymous-2

      Would the unabomber count as a level three or four consciousness?

      I don't think the wilderness retreat was such a good thing for him ...

    • A. Laughlin

      Thank you for such a wonderful article that makes it easy to understand Kegan's basic ideas and concepts. Your examples are very helpful for those trying to understand these challenging concepts and I plan to refer others to your articles. I just want to add a note of clarification. Kegan describes five, rather than four, orders of conciousness in IOOH (see pp. 314-315). The third order is interpersonal - where individuals are embedded in their relationships with others and can not see those relationships as object. The fourth order is institutional (also called "self-authorship" by other theorists such as Baxter Magolda) - where individuals are able to objectively view beliefs, values, and relationships and choose among them. Your discription of the transition from the third to the fourth order is exactly right, it is just that the corrisponding title for the fourth order is "institutional" rather than "interindividual". The fifth order is called "interindividual" however, development beyond the fourth order is extremely rare and has only been documented in a few individuals who are well into their senior years. The fifth order is also considered to be beyond what is required to function in modern society.I wanted to point out this small error, because I think your article is one of the most readable and understandable introductions to Kegan's theory I have read. I would like to use the the article to introduce others to the theory, but am worried about confusing those who may subsequently read his books. I am a scholar of Kegan's work and realize how difficult his theory can be to grasp - that is why I appreciate any writting that can make it easier for others to understand. Thank you for sharing!

    • Anonymous-3

      Your two articles would be a tremendous help for Educators, Courts and Police in dealing with people with FASD or FAS who are in conflict with the law. Required reading. I will get Mr. Keagan's books. You should visit a community where FASD or FAS is a challenge to the people mentioned (and they don't know why).

    • prettipear

      Thank you very much for this helpful article. I'm reading IOOH, which is required reading for a doctoral program in Adult Learning. I can see now, why this reading is important. If adult learners are not able to think at the fourth and fifth order, then how can we expect them to be critical thinkers?

      I was wondering if you may be able to direct me to any discussion forums on Kegan's theory? Do you know of any academic forums like this, that may exist?

    • Lynn Bridge

      I noticed the parallel between Kegan's ideas of social maturity stages with the idea that different breeds of dogs top out at different canine maturity stages, as measured against the wolf's developmental stages (the wolf being considered the most mature canine). For example, a mature Labrador Retriever has the personality qualities of a very immature wolf! I read an article about this in Smithsonian Magazine about 25 or 30 years ago and I've never forgotten the concept, although I could not tell you the author.

    • David

      I have no expertise or experience in the subject of your article - I simply enjoy reading all manner of subjects - and your article was very interesting, indeed.

      When reading about the "Richard's Boat" methodology and its benefit for the narcissist, I thought of the negative aspect of being in a "gang". The objectives for the this personality would be similar, would they not?

    • Anonymous-4

      I would love to hear your perspective or suggestions on how this can be applied to a narcissist in one's own family. My husband is stuck in second order consciousness and I really want to help him grow into the third, and hopefully fourth, orders. We have two children and I would much rather help to heal our family than break it up. As a typical narcissist, he tends to bully me and our children and focus mainly on his own needs without regard for the needs or feelings of the rest of us. I've found that setting boundaries without getting emotional ("I care about what you have to say and I love you but I'm not going to listen to you if you are yelling at me." etc.) has helped quite a bit.

      I think the idea of recruiting him into our "team" and helping him see our family in that way would be tremendously helpful, but I'm not sure how to do it. How can I make this appealing to the selfish side of him that dominates his personality? He mostly sees us as obstacles to him getting what he wants, while I see the needs of the family as being as important as my own individual needs and act accordingly. I don't want to end up feeling like a martyr, and I really want to help him understand that being part of our family "team" will boost his self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to do this?

    • Cyndy

      I would also love to hear more about what your suggestions would be for helping someone become a team player. I have 3 children, who I refer to, as late bloomers. They are maturing at a very slow pace. My main concern is for my middle child, my daughter. She is 26 years old and has a lot of anxiety. She is very self centered and acts like a vacuum in the center of our family. She looks to people as obstacles and ways to get what she wants. She blames them for all of her short comings, is never without a great excuse for why she fails to live up to potential, and is completely self sabotaging her live so as to remain in the denial state that is her comfort zone. My fear is that she may never accept that the choices that she makes are really what controls her life. She has never been a team player. When she was small she refused to be involved in any sport or activity that did not allow her to be center of attention. She currently lives with grandious plans that I am afraid will never come to pass. How can I help her to grow and become a happy, stable, confident, and successful adult? Learning to be part of a larger entity may be key to her realizing that life is also about giving and not just taking.

    • Lees Tevens

      The dictionary definition to tolerate is – to allow a person, opinion or religious sect to exist without interference or discrimination. A value raised to virtue status that is admired in our multicultural postmodern world but what happens when those opinions become embedded into values or actions which lead to rights of the individual or group being enforced by law and/or impinge on others values and rights (one then has to discriminate one against the other) or worse, lead to direct harm of another (ie femaie genital mutilation or honour killings).

      A direct consequence or perhaps result connected to this value of tolerance (I cannot call it a virtue) is the distain or rejection of absolute truth to be replaced by relative truth. This is found in the maxims – do what you personally feel is right and what is right for you is not necessarily right for me. Truth that is absolute is complete, perfect, independent, knowable/relational, unqualified and unconditional, not relative or comparative.

      Both tolerance and relative truth are now enshrined in psychology which has directly impacted treatment, theories of selfhood, the culture and laws which govern how we are to act as social beings and individuals. It is also in direct opposition to Christianity and its adherence to absolute truth (which is seen as traditional, conservative and outmoded). It is interesting that religious terms are used, eg heresy, venerate and transformation.

      Kegan's institutional stage of maturity is denigrated to be a lower level of maturity than the interindividual self which decides on its own (without God) what values it will venerate. The revised fourth order of consciousness dismisses the notion of sin and repentance, promotes freedom without consequence or responsibility but acknowledges that the transition is selfish. However, this is a better form of selfishness than the second order. This is relative truth in practice - selfishness is selfishness. This glorification of self, by moving to higher orders of consciousness does not deal with the root cause of selfishness which is sin in the form of pride. This dismissing of Christianity and its absolute truths, though not spoken of directly, will ensure that freedom from sin, selfishness and pride will not occur. Hence there is no real freedom. Psychology is both pseudo science and religious in that man has become godlike deciding for himself what is true.

    • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

      Hello Lees,

      While I did not write the post you are commenting about, I have read Kagan and, in my opinion, find no contradiction between Christianity and his learning theory with regard to higher levels of moral thinking. I believe you are isolating one part of his book and taking it completely out of context. I fully understand and know that other religions share your point of view about psychology: Judaism, Islam, etc. However, I believe you are mistaken.

      Psychology tries to, among other things, reduce suffering caused by problems like depression and other behavioral disorders. It also tries to understand human behavior.

      There are many psychologists who are practicing Christians and Jews and who have deep faith.

      I regret your dim view but I hope you read more, learn more and, perhaps, meet some real mental health professionals so that you can moderate your unfortunate views.

      Dr. Schwartz

    • Tammy

      My husband and I have been together for nine years, we recently underwent a difficult period where I wanted out. We have done therapy and are still working towards what has only now become clear to me. Moving my husband from the second level to the third. Up until I read your essay I was apprehensive for when/if he would change back. Now that I understand what was happening. I am feeling a great sense of relief that I made the right choice in sticking it out as our growth will also improve parenting for our sons. Thankyou a million times for dumbing down the theory as it has brought me much insight and relief. I can now enjoy my happy home.

    • Gina

      While I found value in the book's findings and your descriptions of them helpful, I found one conclusion very interesting: the one regarding "traditional values".

      Would it not be possible for a person to move to the last stage--understanding from an unbiased perspective the moral choices available--and yet choose what you call traditional values?

      It almost sounds like you are backhandedly equating traditional values with emotional immaturity. Surely mature, tolerant scientists can admit that a person can live by a moral code, doing his best to do right while recognizing he makes mistakes, slow to judge others but vigilant in protecting the weak, ready to grow in enlightenment over time?

      In fact, that is what the Christian life should be: a life lived to the best of one's own ability, relying on the perfect sacrifice of Christ to make up for one's imperfections, growing in understanding of love and other virtues over time.

      I would hate to think there was a pre-conceived bias operating in the midst of pretended tolerance.

      Dr. Dombeck's Note: This theory offers a perspective on social emotional development which you are invited to evalutate and then accept or reject as you see fit. I am also only an interpreter of Dr. Kegan's work, so I may have gotten some elements of it incorrectly. It is certainly possible I have not managed to understand it myself.

      This said, Dr. Kegan has an interesting observation which I have quoted somewhere in one of these essays about people who transcend the institutional (e.g., a committment to a particular value system). To paraphrase, he says that society tends to kill such people at a young age. He counts Jesus among those in this group. The reason for this seems to be that such people encourage others to question their committments to one and only one value system, and this tends to piss traditionally minded people off.

      You write: "Would it not be possible for a person to move to the last stage--understanding from an unbiased perspective the moral choices available--and yet choose what you call traditional values?". My own interpretation is that with this statement you are trying to have it both ways, and that it is a logically inconsistent position to take. If you are still "choosing" one set of values over another, you are by definition biased. This doesn't mean that you can't appreciate that other systems are out there and aren't "evil", but I don't think that is the same thing as actually achieving this "last stage" entirely.

      You also suggest that I'm suggesting that someone who has achived a "traditional" or Institutional state of mind is being called immature. That's not really the case, as this state is more mature than states that are more subjective than itself, and less than states that are more objective than itself. It's all relative. Kegan is clear to note (if memory serves) that this Institutional state of mind is about where most adults end up, so it's hard to suggest that it is immature except in this technical "relative" way that I've been trying to describe.

      A person viewing the world through the lens of a less objective, more subjective state of mind *by definition* cannot really comprehend the actions of someone possessing a more objective, less subjective state of mind. They will see that person behaving, but their behavior will appear heretical or nonsensical. At best you might tolerate it, but it won't feel like "home". Neither you, nor I nor most people in the world can make sense of this "last stage" sort of mentality, really. The theory points to something that may exist that we are not yet and maybe never will be prepared to really see and understand. If you want to call this a bias, you are welcome to do so, but that interpretation may be an artifact of your (our?) relatively limited vision.

    • Anonymous-5

      The sudden enlightenment of Zen is not about a shift from third to fourth order consciousness, based on what you have described here. Although I am just beginning to look at Kegans ideas it is pretty clear to me that that is not what it's about. I understand this is a fairly informal treatment of the material, but why even make the comment?

      Kegan himself has described a fifth order consciousness, he described it as the movement from self-authoring to self-transforming in this interview with EnlighteNext magazine:

    • cyprian

      I understand my self and others now. Thank u

    • Anonymous-6

      I found your article/summation very interesting. I would love it if someone actually had more strategies for moving someone out of the imperial phase into the next stage. I feel as though my brother has a stunted social maturity and could benefit from looking into this. If you do find more strategies please post.

    • Anonymous-7

      Any statistics as to how many people reach the Fourth Order? Little company in the Fourth Order. No one seems to understand you. You invest a lot of work and effort to build appropriate boundaries. After you do, you have protect them from those who want to tear them down. Peace seems to exist only in solitude. This must be the Fifth Order.

    • Robert

      I'd be very interested to know what the comparison is with other regions or countries?

      I tend to agree with the stated figures indicating the low maturity

      Of our population. So why is the professional community so silent and seemingly disinterested in crying out for acknowledgment and education to address this issue and it's social, economic, and political consequences??!!!

      Surely, it can't be that teaching is less lucrative than treating some small portion of our population for the perpetuation of what the Buddhist would call ignorance... and needless suffering?!!

    • John Caswell

      I am noticing just starting your essay that there is reference to those who are developmentally behind the status quo, but no reference to the problem caused to those who are more developmentally advanced than the social norm. This can be an excruciating position to be in, as I am learning first-hand, having been lasoed and brought to my knees and dragged through the dirt by a sadistic and fascist legal system which cares little about higher attributes such as compassion, fairness or justice, despite all it's lofty pretenses. We (as an evolving society) need to make sure that we get the right sorts of people in positions of power - not sadists who can exploit the innocent at will. I would suggest psychological testing as a pre-requisite for those we hire with public funds to "administer justice". In my own case, the jury is still out. I still have an pending appeal and can petition at the federal level for violations by two states of my constitutional rights, but in the meantime the lower courts have pushed my coping abilities to the limits with their wrongful seizure of my income, suspension of driver's license and threatening jail time - all prior to an appellate decision. It's "presumed guilty and punished before due process" time. Excruciating. So, to make a long story shorter: The "norm" can be equally as difficult for those who are at the higher of Kegan's levels. I would posit that it might even be harder, since we know that a better way is possible, as we are sucked down into the quagmire of the moronic status quo.

    • drmiller100

      Thank you for a powerful description of this system.

      I struggle with objectivity of my self. I suspect I am in a changing, or evolving place in my life, but struggle to understand which evolution I am at?

      I believe I am past the imperial, but how do I know? I wonder if I am at the Institutional threshhold, but I am an ENTP, and all my life I have bucked the rules.

      Does this mean I am stuck at Imperial? I'm looking for the correct ballpark to find myself at.



    • Lisa

      Thank you for this.

    • jayne

      Thank you so much for elucidating Robert Kegan's insights. I have had IOOH since it was published and refer to it once every few years, but have only recently re-gravitated to it while researching a thesis on approaching the problem of addiction humanistically, holistically through depth psychology.

      If find that much of what Kegan has to say dove tails so well with depth psychology, especially in terms of how the dreams can provide the very metaphors needed to cue the therapist and the client.

      For example disembling boundary lines in a dream a cue that the client is ready for support in that direction.

      Anyway, stellar job on the review. I look forward to reading it over a few more times.


    • Anna Kennan

      Hi Mark,

      Your article on Kegan's constructive development theory was so helpful to me in understanding his main premises and the key implications they hold for counselors. Your explanation of the theoretical shift from the subject - object stages to the levels of conciousness was brilliantly clear I now have a more solid understanding of the theoretical foundations and feel more confident in tackling some of the complex texts assigned. Thanks, a great article.

      Anna Kennan