Skipping developmental levels

A lot of my friends and acquaintances are excited about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory (CDT). The gist of it is that at each stage of development, we’re thinking using some structure, and at the next stage, we’re able to think about that structure from the outside, using the next structure up. Stage 1 is for itty bitty kiddies. In Stage 2, you can think about objects, but identify with your preferences. In stage 3, you can think about preferences, but identify with relationships. In stage 4, you can think about relationships, but identify with your moral system. In stage 5, you can evaluate your own moral system, thinking with some sort of meaning-making faculty.

I’m not describing this very well, and it’s because the Kegan system is very unintuitive to me. I think it’s unintuitive to be because I skipped a level - level 3.

The summary everyone links to is the one by David Chapman, so I’m going to use his description of Kegan Level 3:

Stage 3 develops a more accurate, more complex understanding of the self/other boundary. For stage 2, other people are meaningless unless they directly affect one’s immediate interest. For stage 3, “the other’s point of view matters to us intrinsically, not just extrinsically as a means of satisfying our more egocentric purposes.” Epistemologically, the communal mode develops the ability to “put oneself in the other person’s shoes,” which is cognitively impossible in the self-interested mode. Stage 3 also becomes intensely sensitive to “what others think of me,” which stage 2 is mostly oblivious to.


Communal ethics seek harmony within a homogeneous social group. That is maintained by empathically monitoring others’ needs and aligning your intentions toward them. Equality here means that everyone’s needs deserve to be heard; unlike stage 2, it does not necessarily imply an exchange of equal value, because some people need more than others. Decision-making is ideally by consensus, after everyone has shared their feelings. Also, you should obey community taboos and shibboleths, even when they are unjustified and senseless. Violating them upsets people, which is not nice. Living up to what other members expect from you to is good by definition—because “who I am” is “how people feel about me.” The Golden Rule is a summary of communal ethics; note its perfect symmetry!

The communal mode also recognizes asymmetrical relationships of biological necessity, i.e. family and heterosexual pair bonds. Here the ethical imperative is to fulfill the role in the conventional prescribed way: being a “good” child, parent, or spouse. Fulfilling the role consists largely in having the correct feelings. Throughout communal ethics, emotions dominate other considerations.

Romantic relationships tend toward fusion, eliminating any emotional separation or difference in values.


Stage 3’s limitation is that it cannot resolve conflicts between responsibilities to different relationships. If one person wants you to do something, and another person wants you to do something different, there is no good basis for decision, because relationships have no internal structure; they consist simply of sharing experience.

Here is the experience of stage 3 failing to cope with irreconcilable expectations:

That impossible feeling of having to be in several places all at the same time, that feeling of being ripped apart, or being pulled in several directions, the feeling of wanting everyone you love to be happy, or even feeling you could make them all happy—if only they would cooperate.

In practice, you choose on the basis of whose feelings you feel most strongly at the moment you are forced to decide. This is often whoever happens to be there at the time, or whoever is best at displaying intense feelings. Social groups based in the communal mode tend to be dominated by people with personality disorders, who get their way by emoting histrionically.

I feel like I must have gone through Stage 2 at some point. I can also identify with much of Stage 4. But I don’t feel like I’ve fully experienced Stage 3. For instance, I can relate to the supposedly 3-typical feeling of being torn in two directions by competing claims, but I can't relate at all to the sense of just buckling to whoever makes the stronger claim at the time. As far back as I can remember, I have tried to figure out who has moral authority to make the claim and generalized.

I suspect that Skroderiders are people who passed from Kegan-2 to Kegan-4 without fully experiencing Kegan 3. Their emotions - especially their social emotions - don’t quite feel real to them, but they have explicit big-picture ethical thinking. By contrast - and as usual I am much less confident about this because I am not a Phoenix - high-level Phoenixes stay in Kegan-3 for longer than normal, and end up training their unconscious to make better tacit moral judgments, even if they don’t have conscious control over it.

If this model is right, then I expect that people who skipped Kegan-3 and are in the process of catching up will have a period of overload as they try to integrate relationship cognition with their existing big-picture moral frameworks. My experience is consonant with this.

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  1. Pingback: Kegan and Cultivating Compassion – mindlevelup

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