I have never made any secret of my interest in spiritual matters. Over the years I have explored a wide range of theories, perspectives, scriptures and therapies, all of which have added immense value to my personal and professional development. I have also engaged with a variety of spiritual communities and met some truly inspiring people.
There is however one issue that continually perplexes me; that is, the way that spiritually minded people (ab)use the concept of the human ego. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people deride each other’s opinion with the simple statement “that is just your ego talking”. It seems that people love to use the human ego as a verbal club to bash each other round the head with.
I grant that it may be a question of semantics but when it comes down to it, you, as in your soul, cannot actually survive on this planet without an ego.
The real question is therefore not ‘have you got an ego’ but ‘how evolved is your ego?’
I present below Jane Loevinger’s nine stages of ego development. I find this fascinating because, as with all developmental models, I cannot help but try and figure out where I am with my own development.
Where do you think you have got to?
Stage 1: Pre-social and Symbiotic Stage
We all start at this stage. This is where the ego is during infancy. A baby’s ego is solely focused on gratifying its immediate needs and little else.
Stage 2: Impulsive Stage
At the second stage, the ego continues to be focused on bodily feelings, basic impulses, and immediate needs. As it is not particularly good at meeting these needs on its own, it can become dependent and demanding. It is too immersed in the moment, and in its own needs, to think or care much about others; instead, it experiences the world in purely selfish terms. If something or someone meets its needs, it is good; if something or someone frustrates its needs, it is bad.
While this is the typical stage for toddlers, some people stay at this stage for much longer or even for the whole of their life.
Stage 3: Self-Protective Stage
At the third, self-protective stage, the ego is more mentally sophisticated than the impulsive ego. It has a greater awareness of rules, consequences and the principle of cause and effect but it is still focused on getting what it wants from others. At this stage, it tends to be exploitative, manipulative, hedonistic, and opportunistic. Its goal is simply to “get what I want without getting caught”.
While this stage is particularly common in early and middle childhood, some individuals remain at this stage throughout their lives. They are usually people who do not take responsibility for themselves and their lives and often externalise blame onto others. If something goes wrong it is never their fault.
Stage 4: Conformist Stage
The conformist stage tends to emerge around five or six years of age and continues into adolescence. Conformist individuals are very invested in belonging to, and obtaining the approval of, important reference groups, such as peer groups. They tend to view and evaluate themselves and others in terms of externals; how they look, the music that they listen to, the words or slang that they use, and the roles and status within the group. Generally speaking, they tend to view the world in simple, conventional, rule-bound and moralistic ways. What is right and wrong is clear to them; namely, what their group thinks is right or wrong. As long as their place in the group is not threatened, conformist egos are quite happy, even happier than egos at the later stages, where right and wrong can never again be so simple and clear.
Stage 5: Self-Aware Stage
The self-aware stage is the most common stage among adults. The self-aware ego shows an increased awareness of deeper issues and the inner lives of themselves and others, but this awareness is still limited. They begin to wonder what do I think as opposed to what my parents and peers think about such issues as God and religion, morality, mortality, love and relationships. They tend to not be at the point where they reach much resolution on these issues, but they are thinking about them. They are also more aware that they and others are unique. This increased self-evaluation can also lead to self-criticism and they can become dissatisfied and disgruntled with themselves and their life.
Stage 6: Conscientious Stage
At this stage the tendency towards self-evaluation and self-criticism continues. The conscientious ego values responsibility, achievement and the pursuit of high ideals and long-term goals. At this stage the ego begins to experience the self and the world in more complex ways; and this includes experiencing one’s own feelings and motives in more accurate and differentiated ways. Morality is now firmly based on personally evaluated principles, and behaviour is guided by self-evaluated standards.
(Before going on I should mention that the preceding three stages—the conformist, self-aware, and conscientious stages—are the most common for adults and there are fewer and fewer people at the stages we are about to examine. Moreover, Loevinger suggested that we all have a hard time understanding stages that are more than one level above our own, so for many of us who are at the middle stages it can be hard to fully grasp the highest stages.)
Stage 7: Individualistic Stage
At the individualistic stage, the focus on relationships increases, and although achievement is still valued, relationships tend to be valued more. The individualistic ego shows a broad-minded tolerance of, and respect for, the autonomy of both the self and others. The heightened sense of individuality and self-understanding can lead to vivid and unique ways of expressing the self, as well as to an awareness of inner conflicts and personal paradoxes. However, at this stage these inner conflicts are unlikely to be resolved within the self.
Stage 8: Autonomous Stage
At the autonomous stage, there is increasing respect for one’s own and others’ autonomy. The autonomous ego cherishes individuality, uniqueness and self-actualisation. It values the unique life paths that people follow, and appreciates relationships as interdependent systems of mutual support, not as competition. There is also greater tolerance of ambiguity. In particular, conflicts—both inner conflicts and conflicts between people—are appreciated as inevitable expressions of the fluid and multifaceted nature of people and of life in general; and accepted as such, they are more easily faced and coped with. At this stage there is a heightened and acute awareness of one’s own inner space.
Stage 9: Integrated Stage
At the final stage, the integrated stage, the ego shows wisdom, broad empathy towards oneself and others, and a capacity to not just be aware of inner conflicts like the individualistic ego, or tolerate inner conflicts like the autonomous ego, but to reconcile a number of inner conflicts and make peace with those issues. At this stage the ego can fully accept that these conflicts will remain unsolvable. The integrated ego finally has a full sense of identity and of what it is. At this stage, it is seeking to understand and actualise its own potential and to achieve integration of all those multi-faceted aspects of itself that have become increasingly vivid as it has moved through the preceding three stages. In Loevinger’s research this highest stage is reached by less than 1% of adults.