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Helping People to Mature: Robert Kegan and Psychotherapy (Commentary on 'In Over Our Heads')

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

dirt road in tundraI've written before about Robert Kegan's theory of the development of social maturity; what he calls Subject Object Psychology. Kegan's masterwork, in which he laid out this developmental theory, was his 1982 book, "The Evolving Self", a work which is is notorious for being difficult to read and understand. In my prior essay I had tried to translate Kegan's wonderful ideas about how people's identity and degree of social maturity develop over time into English. At the end of that piece, I had mentioned that I'd try taking a crack at translating Kegan's second book on the subject, "In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands Of Modern Life" into English as well if people were interested. As a few people did indicate that they'd like that to happen (imagine that!) I recently re-read portions of In Over Our Heads with the intention of producing this essay which you are currently reading.

In Over Our Heads (or IOOH) explores the ramifications of a single observation – that many people (half or more of people according to Kegan) are not quite developmentally evolved or mature enough to meet the demands that societal institutional tend to place upon them. Kegan suggests that this mismatch of expectations and abilities occurs frequently within a wide variety of different institutional settings, including marriage, the workplace, school and within the context of psychotherapy. So, Kegan's book suggests that married partners, employers, teachers and therapists all expect more understanding and comprehension from their partners, employees, students and clients than is reasonable to receive.

This is a loaded observation that requires careful unpacking if it is not to sound arrogant. Kegan is not suggesting that half or more people out there are immature. Instead, he is suggesting that there are levels of social maturity, and that a number of common institutions that people interact with tend to hold people to standards that make sense when you operating at a higher level of social maturity, but which don't make sense to people who, for whatever reason, have not achieved that higher degree of social maturity. So, Kegan's book is about how normal people can feel confused and conflicted when confronted by the many stressful social demands that get placed upon them, many of which they are not (yet) prepared to comprehend.

What we can comprehend; how we make sense of things; what makes sense to us at any given stage of our social development is going to be governed by the subject-object developmental stage we have achieved; our level of social maturity. In The Evolving Self, Kegan laid out five different subject-object developmental stages: Incorporative, Impulsive, Imperial, Interpersonal, and Institutional. Twelve years later, in IOOH, Kegan simplified – well not really simplified so much as re-conceptualized - these five stages into four "Orders of Consciousness". What's important here is not the detail but rather the understanding that as people grow, they begin to be able to think about and consider and criticize and make decisions about stuff that before they could not consider or criticize because they were completely taken for granted before – they were initially subjective and have since become objective (and therefore manipulable). This is how stages of identity and social understanding progresses; we are initially embedded in things – we cannot criticize them because we take them utterly for granted and use them as a foundation for our very identity, and then later we expand our awareness to be able to consider those same things more objectively and compare and contrast those things to others of their kind.

  • Initially, in the Incorporative stage, we are embedded in body sensations and have no discernible sense of self
  • Next, in the Impulsive stage, sensations become an object of our awareness, and we think of ourselves as the satisfaction of impulses and hungers

  • Next, in the Imperial stage, impulses and hungers become objects of our awareness and we base our identity on the newfound idea that we can act on the world via our senses and muscles to satisfy our hungers. The stage is called Imperial because children (and adults) in this stage are very self-centered, not yet having achieved the ability to understand that other people have similar hungers which should be taken into account.

  • Next, in the Interpersonal stage, it dawns on children that other people have hungers and needs just like they do, and so other people's hungers and impulses become objects of awareness and identity becomes relational in nature and embraces mutuality for the first time.

  • Next, in the Institutional stage, an abstraction occurs when it dawns on children that there can and should be principles and standards to guide behavior so as to help insure the common good. Where an Imperial child might do something because it feels good (without appreciation of the consequences), an an Interpersonal child might do something because it would make someone else feel good, the newly evolved Institutional child might do something because it is the "right thing to do" (e.g., because of the principle involved). The Institutional child absorbs values and comes to define him or herself in terms of those values. This is the stage that Kegan suggests most adolescents achieve and which also tends to linger into adulthood for some significant fraction of the population.

  • A values-based sense of self sounds like a good thing, and it is in many contexts. However, the question must be raised, "Whose values?", as there are always more than one set of values to choose among in a diverse and multicultural society such as America in the 21st century. Where traditionally minded people (who by definition will remain Institutionally minded throughout their lives) find comfort in remaining true to the values they were raised up with, Kegan suggests that there is a further development of self that is possible and useful, which he termed the Interindividual self; a self that is able to appreciate multiple and conflicting value systems without feeling crushed by their incompatible demands; a self that decides on its own what values it will venerate and which it will disregard rather than capitulate to those values it happen to have been raised with.

    Traditional minded people fail to see why this new Interindividual mindset is a positive thing and instead see it through their own single lens as a destruction of important shared values. However, traditional minded people are also by definition prone to intolerance, both towards outsiders (e.g, people from different value traditions who think differently) and towards themselves (e.g., they end up rejecting impulses and aspects of themselves that do not fit with their value system). The primary virtue of the interindividual mind, then, is that it is the first adult mindset that is free to be tolerant and accepting, of self and of others.

In IOOH, Kegan stops using the five stages described above in favor of the newer "orders of consciousness" scheme.

  • First order consciousness corresponds (roughly) to Incorporative and Impulsive stages and describes awareness which is fixed upon sensation and movement and impulse. It is awareness but it is not really yet a self.

  • Second order consciousness corresponds roughly to the Imperial self stage. It is awareness of self as a singular point of view without any real comprehension of others as independent selves in their own right.

  • Third order consciousness corresponds to Interpersonal and Institutional self stages, and describes a sense of self which is aware of both self and other as independent needful beings all of which are (or ought to be) guided by a consistent set of values.

  • 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.