A theory of human psychology and development will be more valuable to the degree we can use it to make sense of our individual experience. Classical scientific objectivity must be counterbalanced by subjective truth, in not only explaining our topic dispassionately from a distance but also in helping us better understand what being human is all about. We are more than just objects to be explained – described, measured, and classified among the myriad other objects in existence.
We are self-conscious centers of experience who are struggling to figure this out before the curtain closes and our time is over.
The diagram above is the latest iteration of a model of human psychology and development that I have been working on for the past thirty years or so. It is focused on the self, referring to that ground of experience in each of us which gradually becomes conscious of itself as the Hero of its own story and creative agent in its own destiny. This self-conscious center, called ego (Latin for “I”), is not the totality of the self, of which it is only partially and dimly aware, but finds itself on a path – the “Hero Path” – of formation and eventual transcendence, as we seek our way to fulfillment.
A watermark image of a zig-zagging line in the background charts the critical stages in this progression of our development, starting at the bottom in Security, “zigging” left into Identity, “zagging” right with Maturity, and finally ascending to the peak where our Hero finds genuine Community. In this framework, community does not refer to any “thing” that is “out there,” but rather to a relational synergy clarified in the awareness that “Everything is connected, All is One, and we’re all in this together” (the three Truths of Wisdom).
These four terms – security, identity, maturity, and community – mark the major stages in our human development. Each one is focused psychologically on a specific priority which must be successfully incorporated into our developing sense of self for our Hero’s Journey to reach its completion. For this reason we can summarize the entire model as a developmental scheme of Four Priorities.
The value of this scheme, once again, is not only in its explanatory power, but also, and even more importantly, in the insight it gives into where we currently are on the path and what’s coming next.
Let’s take a walk through the model, following our psychological development through its major stages and corresponding priorities. A “priority” in this context refers to a focus of awareness, urgency, and concern, a kind of psychic attractor that pulls our energy and attention around a critical need that must be satisfied for healthy development to proceed.
Security and the Priority of Preservation
Positive ego formation depends on a body that is calm and relaxed. The countless physical events and processes that conspire in the generation and maintenance of biological health happen most efficiently in an internal environment that is free of distress. Our body arrives already “programmed” by natural selection to keep the fire of life alive by seeking what it needs to survive. The conditions of its external environment are perceived through the senses and translated into a nervous state and behavior that will optimize its chances of staying alive.
An external environment that provides what we need to live and thrive can be called “provident,” in the way its conditions complement and supply what our body requires. Safety, nourishment, warmth, and nurturing support are spontaneously internalized as the feeling of security, allowing the body to relax and rest in the assurance that all is well. The organism has what it needs and reality can be trusted.
Our emerging center of self-conscious identity (or ego) takes its reading from the body’s internal state to determine whether and to what extent others and the world around us are trustworthy. Our present opinions of others, our philosophy of life, and even our overarching worldview have their origins in the early days and months when we were getting our psychosomatic bearings in reality. To the degree it was not provident, we adopted an outlook that matched what we felt in our body.
Identity and the Priority of Integration
If the process of psychological development early on took the body’s lead in our emerging core belief regarding the provident nature of reality, it continued in the work of integrating our moods, motivations, feelings, and thoughts into a coherent personality structure. The priority of self-integration refers to a critical need of constructing and managing an identity across the different performance stages and role plays of society. “Performance stage” and “role play” are meant to reveal (or expose) identity as something we “put on” and “act out” in our relationships with others.
As an attractor of psychological development, the priority of self-integration generates an urgency around our need to fit in, to belong, and to be recognized as “somebody.” If the first priority of self-preservation failed to instill in us a sense of security, our pursuit of identity was to that extent complicated by the anxiety we carried inside ourselves. In that case, neurotic attachment and manipulation, instead of personal freedom and healthy love, took a greater part in shaping who we are and how we behave with others.
Maturity and the Priority of Actualization
By maturity I mean the developmental process whereby the deeper potential and full capacity of our human nature is gradually realized. Self-actualization, then, certainly speaks to what Abraham Maslow called “the farther reaches” of our spiritual growth and awakening, but it also includes the physical, emotional, and intellectual lines of development that both precede and underlie it. Using Aristotle’s idea of an entelechy or “inner aim” that drives the growth of an organism towards its epigenetic ideal – the full-grown, fully functioning adult – can help us appreciate self-actualization as a metric of progress rather than merely a final destination.
Ego formation advances in stair-step fashion by detaching (or differentiating) from the physical life of our body, attaching emotionally to Mother and others, detaching from these somewhat in order to attach intellectually at the level of common ideas and shared beliefs, and eventually detaching from our convictions in order to awaken spiritually to the All that is One and our place in it.
Each of those lower attachments (physical, emotional, and intellectual) were necessary in providing a stage for the next step in self-actualization to occur.
The final step of spiritual awakening and ego transcendence is only possible, however, to the extent that identity is sufficiently centered and stable to allow our detachment from the habits, beliefs, and associations that define who we are. Until we can get over ourselves – or as Jesus said, unless we willingly die to ourselves – the higher wholeness of community will remain out of reach.
Community and the Priority of Participation
According to this model of human psychology and development, genuine community is the true evolutionary intention of our nature. This term is not merely a synonym for a “group” or “society” of persons, and it isn’t limited only to the human realm. Com- (together) and unity (as one) names the threshold crossing where “everything is connected” becomes “All is One.” Two individuals regard themselves and each other as partners and join together as One – the One here referring to a higher wholeness that arises from their interactions, draws on their mutual contributions, and includes them in its holistic ecosystem of communion, compassion, and reciprocal care.
To understand that everything is connected and we are all in this together (the first and third truths of Wisdom) requires us to transcend the delusion of our separate existence, which was the intended product of ego formation.
Transcending identity, however, does not mean that we renounce it, break it down, and cast it aside. Instead, as participants, we are invited to join the higher wholeness of community from the position of our centered self and bring to it our unique contribution. Ego-transcendence, in other words, affirms but goes beyond our ego, includes yet surpasses our individual interests for the sake “a more perfect union,” where a greater harmony of wills presides.
From where we currently stand, psychologically speaking, on the Hero Path of our human development, the Four Priorities can serve as lenses for clarifying and discerning what’s brought us here and where we go next. The concerns of security, identity, maturity, and community define the landscape of our journey, and each one demands our attention – back then, now and again, and sometimes all at once! Our existential task is to avoid getting stuck and tangled up in unfinished business.
The fulfillment of our nature is always ahead, above and beyond.