Loevinger’s 9 Stages of Ego Development
The first stage is the pre-social and symbiotic stage. This is the stage that the ego is typically in during infancy. A baby has a very id-like ego that is very focused on gratifying immediate needs. They tend to be very attached to the primary caregiver, often the mother, and while they differentiate her from the rest of the world, they tend experience a cognitive confusion and emotional fusion between the caregiver and the self. But our understanding of this stage is more speculative than our understanding of other stages because pre-verbal infants we cannot use sentence completions and instead must rely on inferences based on observations.
The second stage is the impulsive stage. While this is the modal stage for toddlers, people can be in this stage for much longer, and in fact a small minority of people remain in this impulsive stage throughout their life. At this stage the ego continues to be focused on bodily feelings, basic impulses, and immediate needs. Not being particularly good at meeting these needs on their own, however, they are dependent and demanding. They are too immersed in the moment and in their own needs to think or care much about others; instead, they experience the world in egocentric terms, in terms of how things are affecting me. If something or someone meets my needs, it is good; if something or someone frustrates my needs, it is bad. Thus, their thinking is very simplistic and dichotomous.
The third stage is the self-protective stage. While this stage is particularly common in early and middle childhood, some individuals remain at this stage throughout their lives. The self-protective ego is more cognitively sophisticated than the impulsive ego, but they are still using their greater awareness of cause and effect, of rules and consequences, to get what they want from others. Therefore, they tend to be exploitive, manipulative, hedonistic, and opportunistic. Their goals is simply to “get what I want without getting caught”. Assuming others are like them, they are wary of what others want. They are also self-protective in the sense of externalizing blame—blaming others when anything goes wrong. Individuals who remain in the stage into adolescence and adulthood tend to, unless they are very smart, get into trouble; indeed, research using Loevinger’s sentence completion test shows that a high proportion of juvenile delinquents and inmates score at this self-protective stage.
The fourth stage is the conformist stage. We tend to see this stage emerging at the time Freud said the superego first emerges, around five or six, and is the most common stage later in elementary school and in junior high school. However, a number of people remain at this stage throughout their lives. 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 one looks, the music that you listen to, the words or slang that you use, the roles people assume to show what group they are in and their status within the group. They view themselves and others in terms of stereotypes—broad generalizations about what members of certain groups are or are not like. While from the outside such individuals may seem superficial or phony, they do not experience it that way because this group self is their real self. More generally, 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. Their feelings also tend to be simple and rule-governed, in the sense that there are some situations in which one feels happy, and other situations in which one feels sad. While Loevinger does try to avoid describing some stages as better than others, she does use the somewhat pejorative terms “banal” and “clichéd” to describe the conformist understanding of feelings. Interestingly, both feelings of happiness and feelings of shame tend to peak at this stage. Shame peaks because they are so concerned about approval from their group; consequently, the threat of shame is a powerful tool that groups can use to control individuals at this stage. On the other hand, 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.
The fifth stage is the self-aware stage. This stage is the most common stage among adults in the United States. The self-aware ego shows an increased but still limited awareness deeper issues and the inner lives of themselves and others. The being 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 have unique feelings and motives, different from those that might be prescribed by the feeling rules they have learned from movies and books and other people. They recognize that just because one is part of the group does not mean that one always feels or thinks the same as the other group members and that’s true for other people in other groups as well. In short, they are appreciating themselves and others as unique. Increasing awareness of one’s unique feelings and motives creates tension between the “real me” and the “expected me”, which can lead to increased conflicts with family and peers. Finally, this ability to wonder whether your family or peers are right about what is right and wrong, to question whether you have been right about what is right and wrong, can lead to increased self-criticism.
At the sixth stage, the conscientious stage, this tendency towards self-evaluation and self-criticism continues. The conscientious ego values responsibility, achievement and the pursuit of high ideals and long-term goals. Morality is based on personally-evaluated principles, and behavior is guided by self-evaluated standards. Consequently, violating one’s standards induces guilt. This differs from the conformist stage where the tendency is to feel shame. Shame arises from not meeting the others’ expectations; guilt arises from not meeting one’s own expectations. Greater self-reflection leads to greater conceptual complexity; experiencing 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 and expressing them in more unique and personal terms. Finally, with increasing awareness of the depth and uniqueness of others’ feelings and motives as well comes increasing concern with mutuality and empathy in relationships.
Before going on I should mention that the preceding three stages—the conformist, self-aware, and conscientious stages—are the most common for adults in the United States, 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.
At the seventh stage, the individualistic stage, the focus on relationships increases, and although achievement is still valued, relationships tend to be more valued even more. The individualistic ego shows a broad-minded tolerance of and respect for the autonomy of both the self and others. But a wish gives others the autonomy to be who they really are can conflict with needs for connection and intimacy. 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. But this is an incipient awareness of conflicting wishes and thoughts and feelings—for closeness and distance, for achievement and acceptance, and so on—but there is unlikely to yet be any resolution or integration of these inner conflicts.
At stage eight, the autonomous stage, there is increasing respect for one’s own and others’ autonomy. The autonomous ego cherishes individuality and uniqueness and self-actualization; individuals’ unique and unexpected paths are a source of joy. And these independent paths are no longer seen in opposition to depending on each other; rather relationships are appreciated as an interdependent system of mutual support; in other words, it takes a village to raise and sustain an autonomous ego. 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 easier faced and coped with. Finally, the heightened and acute awareness of one’s own inner space is manifest in vivid ways of articulating feelings.
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 inner conflicts like the individualistic ego or tolerate inner conflicts like the autonomous ego, but reconcile a number or inner conflicts and make peace with those issues that will remain unsolvable and those experiences that will remain unattainable. The integrated ego finally has a full sense of identity, of what it is, and at this stage it is seeking to understand and actualize my own potentials and to achieve integration of all those multi-faceted aspects of myself that have become increasing vivid as I’ve moved through the preceding three stages. In Loevinger’s research this highest stage is reached by less than 1% of adults in the United States.
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