Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development

People have different understandings of what it is to become an adult. Some of us believe adulthood is defined by the perceptions one creates about the world, while others think it is the manner a person engages with the world that matters in adulthood. For others, adulthood just happens because of the lack of a framework for their development into adulthood, which makes it challenging to understand where one is and what he wants to be. However, through his framework, Kegan shows that development into adulthood entails 5 stages.

Kegan (a former Harvard psychologist) shows that adults go through 5 distinct developmental stages (just like children).

Formerly a Harvard psychologist, Kegan posits that adulthood means a transition into higher stages of development where a person develops an independent sense of self amid developing traits that characterize wisdom and social maturity. In other words, adults have more self-awareness which translates into a higher ability to control one’s behavior, and not only increased awareness about but also the ability to manage relationships and various social factors that affect us.     

However, as Kegan notes, as much as 65% of the general population never reach the stage of highly functioning adults, or on average, these people transition through only the first 3 out of the total five stages. This explains the lack of independent sense of self and the consequent vulnerability to the fear of what others may think about our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.

Transition to higher stages

Kegan’s framework of growing into an adult is made up of two principal concepts: Transformation and Subject-Object shift. Transformation entails changing our mindset, as in changing our conception and perceptions about the world, and not learning new things as many people think. The Subject-Object shift, on the other hand, is moving what we know from self to (subject) to the object; this allows us to control the object, which comes with increased clarity with which we can see the world, ourselves and the people in it.  We can always step back and analyze, reflect our own behavior, feelings, desires, and needs, etc., after which we achieve more wholeness, peace, and strength. Otherwise, what we know, for instance, concerning religious beliefs, will control us so long as it is on the subject side. In other words, we can get more peace if we learn to separate/detach ourselves (subjects) from the problems (objects), that is, learn to see things such as feelings, emotions or one’s past objectively.

The 5 Stages that Make up Kegan’s Framework of Adult Development

Stage 1 — Impulsive mind (early childhood)

Stage 2 — Imperial mind (adolescence, 6% of adult population)

Stage 3 — Socialized mind (58% of the adult population)

Stage 4 — Self-Authoring mind (35% of the adult population)

Stage 5 — Self-Transforming mind (1% of the adult population)

Stages two through five are the most important for adult development. Of importance here is to note that at all times, we are transitioning from one stage to another, and you probably want to note at what stage you are, at what time and with who.

Stage 2 — The Imperial Mind (6 years — adolescence, some adults)

Stage two at which a person has an imperial mindset commonly represent adolescents, but still, most people stagnate here. People at this stage is often egocentric as the subject is concerned with their own needs, interests, and desires, alongside an object that is made up of impulses, feelings, and perceptions. Relationships in this stage are transactional, characterized by a view of others as a means to satisfy one’s own needs and little shared internal experience. Actions or behavior under this stage are determined by a promise of rewards or punishments and not a belief in such behaviors. 

Stage 3: The Socialized Mind (most adults)

Stage three is where most adults belong. At this age, interpersonal relationships and mutuality become at the core of the subject while the needs, interests, and desires that formed the subject in stage two transform to objects. The sense of self and understanding we have about the world are shaped by external sources. As a result, we value ideas, norms, and beliefs of others and systems that surround us, among which are family, society, and culture. Other characteristics that are common under this stage are that we take thoughts, beliefs, and morals (what we know to be true) from external sources; we take a lot of personal responsibility for how others experience us; we seek external validation to derive our sense of self; our sense of self is not yet developed; relationships become less transactional since we start to internalize others’ perspectives and care about others. Actions and behavior are not influenced by a promise of punishment or rewards, but rather, one’s belief in them. Also, this is the stage where the development of social maturity mostly stops.

Stage 4 — The Self Authoring Mind

This stage consists of about 35% of adults with a remarkable sense of self-authorship, identity, and ideology. Here, we have a high level of self-awareness, and who we are is not subject to others (expectations of others), our relationships or the environment (societal standards and expectations). Objects are no longer interests, needs, or desires, but rather relationships and mutuality. Other features that define people at this stage include freedom of expression, high ability to take responsibility for our own internal states and emotions, and ability to generate our own conception of the world. We also understand that we can change; we might not be who currently we are in the future.

Stage 5 — The Interconnected Mind

This stage has nothing as a subject and the self-authorship, identity, and ideology that counted as the subject in stage four transform to object. Rarely people reach this stage. We develop a sense of self that is free from any identity or role. Instead, a person at this stage constantly creates a self that by exploring one’s identities and roles, which are further shaped by the interactions a person makes. Other characteristics that appear under this stage include the ability to hold multiple thoughts and ideologies simultaneously, freedom from self-identity, and the willingness to work with the ideologies of others amid a high sense of self-authority.    

Now what?

The review of the various stages above is important as it forms a prelude to identifying the stage in which one is and even identify the stage in which one wants to be. This is necessary because most of us place ourselves in stages higher than we actually are. The review above provides a criterion against which we can review ourselves to accurately identify our current stage and set a target of where we want to be.

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