When I ask “What do YOU want” people sometimes get confused. Common responses are: “Wouldn’t that be selfish”? “I always think about others, I want others to be happy; am I not supposed to do that way”? Awareness of renowned development psychologist Robert Kegan’s Human Maturity Stages may help understand the dilemma. Kegan said humans go through several major stages of maturity in their lifetime. And not everyone reaches all of them in their lifetime.
Ego Centric Self (Stage 0-2)
This is typically the stage from birth to adolescence. At this stage, the earth revolves around them. Others are there to fulfill their needs. They hardly have the capacity to feel empathy for others. When they reach adolescence they find it difficult and confusing as they need to compete with others in the bigger system to meet their needs. They start learning to give up their egocentric agenda to become a member of the bigger society. parents of teenagers may relate to this :).
While most people successfully make that transition to the next stage, research suggests that 15% of adults never fully transition from this stage. They can be self-centered and controlling or of victim mentality (they think they are being victimized by others’ doings).
The Interpersonal of Socialized Self (Stage 3)
Most adults belong to this stage. This is where people become part of the larger society; they conform to the rules and norms and identify themselves with their roles. At this stage peoples’ goals, actions, and behaviors are mostly defined by the society they belong to.
They feel they are doing what they want, though actually they are living from “Outside–In” –driven by the motivation of belonging, being liked, needed or respected by others. At this stage people may hear a deeper calling of their heart but they often ignore it. Fear of unknown, failure, risking comfort gets in the way.
They might judge others with right/wrong filters based on accepted norms.
If you are doing everything right, working hard, and still not getting the fulfillment, don’t just label it as a mid-life crisis. You may be ready to transition to the next maturity stage. It’s your choice to pay heed to your heart’s calling or to stay comfortable and forgo any further exploration of this wonderful life you have. People sometimes see it as a midlife crisis.
The Independent Self (Stage 4)
Transitioning to this stage is a major transition, only about 35% make it to this stage. Sometimes people reach this stage but during stress, they fall back to the Socialized self. At this stage, people are able to listen to their hearts and follow that path. They are able to overcome the fear of losing comfort, disappointing others, and contradicting the social norms that make the Socialized self worthwhile.
At this stage the work is on defining “self”- it is not defined by their role or their relationship with others. They get awareness on authenticity; their action becomes an authentic expression of inner purpose. As they grow they start to see and experience the freedom and satisfaction of living from an authentic place – “Inside-Out”. A person in this stage would still get along with others and do things for others but this time they are more grounded on their intention and purpose rather than driven by others’ expectation and approval.
Kegan described two other higher stages, the integral self, and the sacred self. The integral self becomes more comfortable with other truths and other opinions. I am leaving those out for now. Two important things to note are 1. When we are transitioning from one stage to the next we stay in the in-between stage for a while.
2. Like the Russian nested dolls we all have the earlier stages inside us and when we are afraid we may fall back to those behaviors.
Now let’s come back to my original point of why focusing on “what do I want” is a good idea. It may seem like I am asking you to go back to the egocentric self (stage 0-2). My audience is those who are capable of transitioning from a socialized self to an independent self. For those, “what I truly want” is a very powerful question. It nudges them to listen to their hearts and start defining their authentic selves more independently.
Kegan’s interview (watch the first 5 mins)