Reflections on Cook-Greuter’s Nine Levels

Back in 2017 when I was 33, I read Susan Cook-Greuter’s paper ‘Nine Levels Of Increasing Embrace In Ego Development: A Full-Spectrum Theory Of Vertical Growth And Meaning Making’ and recorded a short own-words summary of the stages and my personal reflections on them. I thought people interested in Kegan stages would like to see this personal context as it often helps people enjoy and engage with the material 🙂

I’ve also typed up the stage descriptions from that essay in a separate blog post for people interested in this paper to read it in an easier format. The password for that blog post is the name of this blog, all one word.

The paper is explicit on the front page that this material is not to be distributed or reproduced. I have defied the letter of that somewhat by creating that reference blog post, but in the spirit of full credit and attribution I include the author’s details here:

Copyright Susanne R. Cook-Greuter, Ed. D.
Not for distribution or translation without explicit permission.
Independent scholar, coach and consultant
34 Campbell Rd.
Wayland, MA 01778

Condensed Intro to the Cook-Greuter Stages

At least a passing familiarity with Kegan’s personal development stages is probably needed here. Even better is reading this excerpt of all the stages in full. If you don’t do that, I’ve copied three short sections from Cook-Greuter’s paper to contextualise my reflections on her theory, which builds on Kegan’s in interesting ways:

Human development in general can be looked at as a progression of different ways of making sense of reality or in a sequence of stages of meaning making. […] The stages follow each other alternating between those that emphasise, on balance, differentiation over integration and those favouring integration over differentiation […] In the mid-sixties psychologists first postulated that human beings individuate by continuously renegotiating the balance between differentiation and integration […]

Single number stages (3,4,5,6) represent stages of integration. People of these levels are embedded in a specific holding environment […][and] are generally more at ease because they feel connected in ways that fits their current cognitive, emotional and transactional needs.

Stages with a slashed number (2/3, 3/4, 4/5 etc) are stages of differentiation, separation or agency. Individuals at this stage can step back and distance themselves from the previous known holding environment […] They can take a look at what went before and react to what was experienced as undesirable and difficult. They tend to assert their newly won independence … but at the same time they generally express some distress because of the loss of the certainty they leave behind.

My writing

In reflecting on the paper, I wanted to go back to the earliest stage that was still relevant to my adult life. Here are my descriptions of two of the pre-conventional stages:

2/3 Self-protective

No insight into others in a psychological sense, but more aware of what works and what doesn’t. Self protective focus on protecting themselves. Careful to maintain their fragile selves. May be two selves, an inner real self and an outer false self. Assert control by withdrawing. Rules are followed to avoid punishment. “I win, you lose”. Powerplay. Isolated. Do not understand interactions that are not power plays. Age 2-3 (but adult also).

Delta/Stage 3

Very short interlude about children entering school, starting to get feedback from an “other”, figuring out rules.

My reflections on these two stages:

Wow. I did not know how far back in the stages I would have to go as a starting point. But I feel that I had pathology at this stage. These stages are aimed at the protection of the self. I think my external self was so fragile (due to parent’s divorce). I still feel a need to “one up” everyone else, been aware / trying to let go of it since 19 years old, in early + late 20s. Still withdraw under pressure. Reading the stage summary I think I was crushed at this stage. “If others know what I want they will have power over me” – others always already had power over me, by knowing my religion, seeing me as weird (maybe this is more the later stages). God always knew. I have hyper withdrawal, extreme withdrawal. Would be alone, not speak, not eat, only read books so as not to be in my own life.

I remember very little though, this is pieced together. I was aware of others, but not aware of how they see me. I was always ignored at school by my peers, not seen by mother or grandmother. Could get physical needs met by gran, I guess, who always fed me. She didn’t respond to some needs – like brushing hair too hard. She just resorted to silence. I had no sense of looking physically good to others. No sense of outward behaviour being socially good. I suppose I did do that with teachers. Be attentive. Speak up in class. Be “good”. Acquire status by being right or clever.

The conventional stages (see full description here)

Stage 3 Conformist/Diplomat

Integration into new social container, sharing with others, protecting, group-centric thinking, want to play by rules. Self identity in relationship with the group, unexamined obedience. “See others as important people in their own right”. Diffuse boundaries between self and others. Total acceptance of group. Shared truth of group is ready made sense of how to make sense of the world.

Ok so I never had this in a peer group sense and had it forced on me in a religious sense. Only small mention is made here of going from following rules without understanding them to following rules with understanding them. The religion I was in had strict rules. There were no child peers in the religion. I became obsessed with correct procedure and rules to deal with the world. Even though religion gave me many aspects described at this stage (in-group/outgroup, desire to comply) it was never fully taken on as my own identity. Never felt safe. Never came to fully appreciate others as beings. Maybe just my sister. Understood her pains sometimes, horrified when I inflicted it on her once. Wow that made me cry. One of my few expressions of rage, and her fear & pain was shocking to me. I felt so bad. But I don’t think I ever apologised and made it up. I told Mum about it but I don’t remember her comforting me or getting us together to say sorry. Absolutely zero emotional guidance from any quarter. Fucking hell. I’ll probably ask forgiveness next time I see her.

Anyway I experienced this stage as rules, intense in-group/out-group (other Jehovah’s Witnesses / people in “the world”), but little empathy for others. I had occasional friends at secondary school, based mainly intellectually. Became a rebel, which got me esteem but I didn’t plan on it. I had no clue that my best friend would be upset when I left suddenly at 17.

I always tried to do well at school, hardly had good relationships with teachers. I didn’t learn to be pleasant and accommodating, although I was. It worked in religion & with teachers. Nothing would ever work with my peers. I was left in a group of misfits I mainly didn’t like.

Stage 3/4 Self-conscious, Expert

Able to be self-reflective, move away from values of the group, want to be recognised for personal abilities, see life in linear time, perfectionist, negative feedback hurts the whole self. Capacity for abstraction, want to fix problems, but only in their own way. Want to show off their prowess. Single contributors, show off, sure of themselves, efficient, intellectually critical, can’t delegate, adding own opinion to have last word and remain top. Enjoy oppositional battles.

This is/was me. Post-school work years (age 18-22). Only develop capacity to delegate with compassion much later (age 27). Always want to be efficient, fiercely critical of others. I’ve had all the good and bad of this stage in spades.

I was ejected from the religious group before this stage (age 16). Distance from group was unchosen, but I wanted to be free of its restrictions anyway. Gradually I had to figure out what I thought about everything religious. Later, the bottom fell out of my world when I had to confront death.

Stage 4 Conscientious, Achiever, Self-Authoring

“Re-embedding oneself in a larger cultural context but now on ideological affinities and self-chosen criteria” full awareness of linear time, past, present, goals for future, explore who they are, grasp that growth continues in adulthood, can now priorities goals, reframe the problem, explore inconsistencies. Believe science can one day explain / perfectibility of humankind, if not now then one day, feedback can now be listened to without necessarily agreeing. Likes goals, consequences and effective use of time. New levels of introspection. Ok it’s a really long description.

For me this stage was 22-27. Started with feminism, self-authored, reflective and active with it. Also, to some extent, “student”. Eventually, bisexual and polyamorous as chosen identities. Left politics, protests, meet-up groups. Felt “right”, did not question lefty belief structures or science, or validity of a real external world. Definitely felt science could explain everything.

Feel I’ve had the good and bad of this stage in spades also.

Now it’s the post-conventional stages. This essay is more fine grained than Kegan.

NB: I have typed up the post-conventional stages in full from the essay in yet another blog post here. Same password (name of this blog).

4/5 Individualist/Pluralist (= postmodernism!)

Aware of fallibility and relativity of systems and beliefs, despair of sense of self.
Got this from homeless year 27-28. After realising relativity of e.g. political systems, stopped activism, became unsure, felt evil.
Concentrated on work / turning my life around while being “evil” ages 28/29/30? ish

Stage 5 is Autonomous, Strategist

Stage where you internalise the last stage, feel comfortable integrating truths, discover you can make judgements because:context, can have a plural self. From these realisations can judge and create whole systems. This is me now.

Good-sounding stuff I never did in stage 4/5:

Ok there are two common ways to be stage 4/5: pluralist and individualist. I’ve been more of a Pluralist. The Individualist focusses on their own introspection and on the present moment. Pluralist encourages many points of view, but it can carry relativism to its logical extreme. Individualist focus on being and feeling as all that can be trusted (rather than Pluralist doing and achieving).

Jessica in winter 2020

Here’s a space for me to reflect on stage 5/6 and 6. Stage descriptions I previously understood intellectually but by no means from any kind of experience. In Kegan’s sytem, stage 6 is not theorised at all.

However, in the last three months I’ve suddenly been able to feel, much to my suprise, some of what the stage description talks about from the inside. From personal feelings and experience. This is freaky and I’m shy to talk about it still. But maybe one day.


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