Ego development is a basic human characteristic that reflects significant differences and similarities among individuals. Our level of ego development determines how we perceive our social environment, how well we handle our interpersonal relationships, and how well we handle our inner conflicts.
Broad levels of Ego Development -- Psychotic, Borderline, Neurotic, Normal, and Self-Actualizing.
As a clinical psychologist and a psychotherapist, I was used to conceptualizing degrees of ego developmental organization in terms of five broad categories of psychotic, borderline, neurotic, normal, and self-actualizing. I have found these categories to be extremely helpful regarding how best to treat patients according to their level of ego development.
For example, someone functioning at the psychotic level would need supportive therapy and probably psychotropic medications or even custodial care. A patient functioning at the borderline level would manifest considerable emotional drama. He or she might take one step forward and then two steps backward. Working with someone who functions at the borderline level of development requires much patience, reassurance, and structuring.
Someone with neurotic development may need what most people think of as psychotherapy. The normal client may be seeking coaching. A self-actualizing individual is more likely to be interested in transpersonal psychotherapy.
Understanding these categories has been extremely helpful when dealing with others outside of therapy as well. They have proved their importance when choosing which relationships to pursue and which to avoid. If you are not a mental health professional or a concerned and responsible friend or family member, it is best to confine your relationships to those who are functioning at least at a neurotic or normal level of ego development.
Measuring Ego Development – Loevinger’s Discoveries
Psychologist Jane Loevinger (1918 - 2008) published her ground-breaking work Ego Development in 1976. I first ran across it in 1979 in the library of the J. Hillis Miller Health Center of the University of Florida's College of Medicine and Department of Clinical Psychology, in Gainesville, Florida.
To me, Loevinger’s comprehensive model of human development was like the psychological equivalent to anthropology’s hypothetical missing link. She filled in missing details and stages, explained the process of development and the failure to develop, and, for the Western-minded psychologist, legitimized the upper end of the spectrum.
Loevinger’s theory of personality emphasized the gradual internalization of social rules and the maturing conscience as the origin of personal decisions. She focused on what she called ego development. Ego development comprises a series of changes in impulse control, interpersonal style, and conscious preoccupations.
Loevinger used the term ego to refer to the person’s core frame of reference. She defined the ego as what the person thinks of as him- or herself and described the ego as a part of the personality but not the whole personality. Integrating various lines of thought, she approached the ego as: (1) a process; (2) a structure; (3) being social in origin; (4) functioning as a whole; and (5) being guided by purpose and meaning. Loevinger acknowledged that consciousness and freedom as well as dynamic unconscious forces influence ego development and functioning.
Loevinger used the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (SCT) to measure ego development. This sentence completion test consists of 36 sentence stems to be completed. The stages of ego development are determined from the degree of psychological complexity seen in the completed responses.
Loevinger identified ten stages and sub-stages in the process of ego development. Each stage implies the existence of an underlying, coherent structure with its own characteristic way of perceiving and responding to the social world. Each stage is a frame of reference or lens through which individuals perceive and understand their social world.
Beyond early infancy, Loevinger found a range of ego development levels at every age. That is, at every chronological age there are individual differences in ego development with respect to impulse control, time perspective, and the ability to take perspective. At any given age, there are persons functioning at various stages of ego development. The pace and extent of individual ego development appear to be influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. However, ego development appears to be relatively independent of cognitive reasoning and intellectual development. It does correlate with affective sensitivity, emotional complexity, moral development, internal locus of control, and verbal fluency.
Enriching Our Understanding of the Higher Stages
In 2000 I became aware of the work by research psychologist Susanne R. Cook-Greuter in Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Cook-Greuter added details missed by Loevinger, and she especially expanded our understanding of the high end of ego development.
Research psychologist Susanne R. Cook-Greuter has continued and expanded Loevinger’s work, fleshing out each stage of ego development and further differentiating the higher stages of ego development. Cook-Greuter treated Loevinger’s presocial and symbiotic stages as one, added a subphase—the rule-oriented stage, renamed Loevinger’s integrated stage the unitive stage, and divided the integrated stage into two stages—the construct-aware stage and the unitive stage. Cook-Greuter placed her work with ego development, self-actualization, and leadership within the context of Wilber’s integral, all-quadrant model.
Regarding stages of ego development, Cook-Greuter categorized the presocial, symbiotic, impulsive, self-protective stage, and rule-oriented stages as preconventional; the conformist, self-conscious, and conscientious stages as conventional; and the individualist, autonomous, construct-aware, and unitive stages as postconventional.
The stages of ego development have also been divided into three tiers. The first tier includes the presocial, symbiotic, impulsive, self-protective, rule-oriented, conformist, self-conscious, conscientious, and individualistic stages. The second tier includes the autonomous and the construct-aware stages. The third tier includes the unitive stage.
The Twelve Stages of Ego Development
The following work represents my understanding of the theoretical work of Loevinger and Cook-Greuter. Together, it can be said that Loevinger and Cook-Greuter identified twelve possible stages and substages: (1) the presocial stage; (2) the symbiotic stage; (3) the impulsive stage; (4) the self-protective stage; (5) the rule-oriented stage; (6) the conformist stage; (7) the self-conscious stage; (8) the conscientious stage; (9) the individualistic stage; (10) the autonomous stage; (11) the construct-aware stage; and (12) the unitive stage.
Stages 1 and 2 -- Presocial Stage and Symbiotic Stage
According to Loevinger’s early work, the ego is absent at birth. Cook-Greuter described the ego of the newborn as undifferentiated. For both Loevinger and Cook-Greuter, this first stage--this presocial stage—begins with a complete lack of differentiation between the self and the world. The presocial infant’s task is to learn to separate the self from the nonself.
Once the self is distinguished from the rest of the physical environment, the symbiotic stage begins. The symbiotic stage is characterized by object constancy--that is the understanding that objects take on an independent existence which continues when they are outside of the infant’s visual range. The infant comes to differentiate between himself and his mother. The symbiotic stage is characterized by a strong attachment to the mother and an exclusive focus on the immediate gratification of basic physiological needs. Both the presocial and the symbiotic stages are preverbal or nonverbal. The infant is constructing a world of stable objects and beginning to learn a verbal language.
Adults who never grow out of the presocial and symbiotic stages as well as adults who for some reason regress to one of these stages are unable to care for themselves. If they are to survive, they must be institutionalized and cared for by adults who are functioning at higher stages of ego development.
Stage 3 -- Impulsive Stage
During the impulsive stage, the child is demanding, dependent, and present-centered. He is concerned with bodily feelings, especially sexual and aggressive feelings. Impulses are curbed by restraints, rewards, and punishments. The child is conceptually confused, and he thinks in dichotomous terms. Causation is seen as physical only. There is no understanding of psychological causation. Other people are seen in terms of what they can give. Good and bad are seen in terms of how they affect the child, i.e., they are nice to me or mean to me.
Adults who function in the impulsive stage are unable to grasp the complexities of adult life. They appear to be confused, anxious, or overwhelmed when forced to deal with the world in a typical adult manner.
Stage 4 -- Self-Protective Stage
In the self-protective stage, the child continues to be hedonistic, opportunistic, and exploitive. He is learning rules and self-control. He tends to be wary of others and is preoccupied with staying out of trouble. The child anticipates punishments and rewards, fears getting caught, complains, and externalizes blame. Frustration results in temper tantrums. This is the stage of the toddler.
Adults functioning in the self-protective stage see the world only from the perspective of their own needs and wants. They may appear opportunistic because their behavior is obviously self-serving. They go after whatever they want without forethought or patience. Thinking is concrete and dichotomous. Relationships are volatile. Feelings are projected outward. With respect to morality, they see actions as bad only if they are caught and punished. They fear being controlled, dominated, or deceived and may appear hostile in an effort to protect themselves.
Stage 5 -- Rule-Oriented Stage
The rule-oriented stage tends to begin around the time that most children enter school. In regards to cognitive functioning, children in this stage begin to use concrete mental operations. They are discovering the second person perspective. That is, they wonder how they look to significant others. They now recognize external differences regarding features or behaviors and make simple comparisons based on these externals.
Adults who continue to function in this stage are preoccupied with discovering the rules for acceptable behavior and similar social conventions. They want to be liked and accepted, and they confuse looking right with being acceptable and accepted.
Stage 6 -- Conformist Stage
The conformist stage is that of early adolescence. In this stage, the need for belonging and being part of a group is at its peak. Security is dependent on belonging to a social group. Being part of a larger group allows them to share in the group’s power. The individual experiences a loss of self if not a part of the group. The boundaries between oneself and the group are blurred. Outsiders are rejected. Those with differing views are condemned. The adolescent has successfully internalized the rules of the group but fails to distinguish between rules and norms. The rules are partially internalized and obeyed without question. Behavior is subject to both fear of punishment and the disapproval of others. Behavior of both oneself and others is seen in terms of externals and not intentions, giving rise to superficial niceness. Feelings are understood at a banal level. Concepts are simple, and thinking is still dichotomous.
The adult who is functioning in the conformist stage does not yet have a self in the sense of a separate adult identity. He values being good, nice, and pleasant. He may be described as conventional, moralistic, sentimental, and rule-bound. What is right and wrong is clear to him—namely, what his group thinks is right or wrong. His feelings tend to be simple, his thinking is dichotomous, and he approaches the world through stereotypes.
Stage 7 -- Self-Conscious Stage
In the self-conscious or self-aware stage, there is the emerging of a rudimentary awareness of one’s feelings towards both oneself and others. Self-awareness is present but limited. Feelings are banal and always in reference to others. The individual recognizes himself as distinct from both norms and the expectations of others, and he can be self-critical. There is a limited recognition of traits. Reflections on life issues, such as God, death, relationships, and health, are limited. He is beginning to appreciate the multiple possibilities available in any situation.
Loevinger believed that the self-conscious stage was the modal or most common stage found among adults. Adults in the self-conscious stage are able to step back and look at themselves as objects from a distance. They are good at seeing multiple alternatives, options, and solutions. They assert their own needs and wants and express their own unique personhood or identity. These adults want to be accepted by others for their differences. Self-conscious adults fear losing their sense of uniqueness and resist getting drawn back into the fold. They know what to believe and are quick to label those who disagree as wrong. They are self-righteous and feel morally superior. They are competitive, intellectually aggressive, and have a hostile sense of humor. They criticize and ridicule others. They offer advice and share their opinions without any awareness that their opinions are only opinions.
Stage 8 -- Conscientious Stage
In the conscientious stage, the individual has a rich and differentiated inner life. Behavior is seen as traits instead of isolated events. True conceptual complexity is displayed and perceived. There is a consistent sense of self apart from social groups. This is the achiever stage. The conscientious individual values achievement, has long-term goals and ideals, and can see the broader perspective. Standards are self-chosen and distinguished from manners. Behavior is controlled by a sense of responsibility as well as by feeling guilty over hurting another’s feelings. Morality is based on principles. Behavior is judged according to motives and not just actions.
The conscientious person is an independent thinker, capable of self-reflective thinking. He can think in terms of formal operations and is beginning to appreciate conceptual complexity. A conscientious individual tends to ask lots of questions. He can see himself from others’ perspectives or points of view. True empathy is present. The conscientious adult is rational, analytical, conscientious, fair, competent, and successful.
Stage 9 -- Individualistic Stage
Adults in the individualistic stage realize that things are not necessarily what they seem. One’s interpretation of reality always depends on the position of the observer. The individualistic adult is preoccupied with the idea of the participant observer, i.e., the observer who influences what he observes. No one can ever be totally detached or objective. Individualists distrust conventional wisdom and rational, scientific truths. They no longer need to explain everything. Adults in this stage often withdraw to some degree from external affairs or the daily workings of their companies. They turn inward in search of their unique gifts or pursuing their own burning questions.
Individualists display a non-hostile type of humor, often directed towards themselves. There is an incipient awareness of inner conflicts and personal paradoxes, without a sense of resolution or integration. One’s sense of individuality is heightened. The individual expresses himself in unique and vivid ways. There is greater tolerance for both oneself and others. Subjective experience is valued more than objective reality. Inner reality is more significant than outward appearance. Distancing of oneself from social roles begins. Interpersonal values become more important than achievement. Relationships provoke feelings of emotional dependency, which may become a source of concern. The comprehension of psychological factors is present.
Stage 10 -- Autonomous Stage
The individual in the autonomous stage exhibits considerable tolerance for ambiguity. Individuality and uniqueness are cherished. Feelings are vividly expressed. There is an increased respect for the autonomy of both the self and others. The individual has an increased capacity for coping with inner conflicts. Conflict, both intrapsychic and interpersonal, is seen as unavoidable due to the expression of the multifaceted nature of people and of life in general. There is a concern for emotional interdependence.
The autonomous individual recognizes the systemic nature of relationships. Relationships are seen as interdependent rather than in terms of independence versus dependence. Ideas that were previously seen as incompatible are integrated. The individual also integrates diverse roles and identities. There is a loosening of conscience. An individual at this stage is motivated by concerns for self-actualization and self-fulfillment.
Stages 11 and 12 – Integrated Stages
Very few individuals reach the integrated stages. The integrated individual is seen as wise and broadly empathic. There is a reconciliation of inner conflicts and personal paradoxes. This individual has fully worked out his or her sense of identity. At this stage, the person is similar to Maslow’s description of self-actualizing persons. He is growth motivated, seeking to actualize his or her potential capacities, to understand his or her intrinsic nature, and to achieve integration and synergy within the self. As previously mentioned, the integrated stage consists of the construct-aware stage and the unitive stage.
Stage 11 – Construct-Aware Stage
People who reach the construct-aware stage are aware of the constraints that ego-centricity brings. They have a profound desire to explain human nature and the mysteries of life, but they recognize the futility of trying to attain a true understanding of anything while limited by reason, language, constructs, and rationality. They easily create theories that explain existence and just as easily discover the holes in the theories they create.
Stage 12 – Unitive Stage
The rare individuals who go beyond reason, language, and similar limits of the conscious mind attain the unitive stage or unitive consciousness. They are capable of taking multiple points of view and can shift from one perspective to another. They are said to take a universal or cosmic perspective. They are capable of changing their state of consciousness at will. They view themselves and others in the context of an ongoing, evolving universe. Their thinking is holistic. They are aware of the interconnections among all things. They understand that each person has his own destiny to fulfill, and that by fulfilling his destiny, he is contributing to the destiny of the whole. They know that no stage of development is better or worse than any other because all stages are necessary to the whole.
References and Resources
1. Cook-Greuter, S. R. (1994). Rare forms of self-understanding in mature adults. In M. Miller & S. Cook-Greuter (Eds.), Transcendence and mature thought in adulthood: The further reaches of adult development (pp. 119-146). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
2. Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
3. Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. Boston, MA: Shambhala.