Jane Loevinger (1918-2008) was an American psychologist working in the 20th century who focused on the idea of ego development across the lifespan. According to Loevinger (who worked as an assistant to Erik Erikson in graduate school), the ego (originally formulated by Sigmund Freud) was not a ”thing” but rather a ”process.” Loevinger believed that ego development emerges out of the self’s encounter with the world as it seeks to make sense of, interact with, and construct images of the world and relate to other people within it. She created a theory of ego development based on nine consecutive stages (one can’t skip stages in her theory). These stages include:
- Pre-Social (infancy): the baby, which is at the mercy of the world around it (and its own needs), really has no ego to speak of until it begins to differentiate itself from its caregivers and the demands of the outer environment.
- Impulsive: the young child is driven by its emotions, including sexual and aggressive drives, and interprets caregiver responses in black and white terms as either being ”nice to me” or ”mean to me.” The world is ”good” if it meets her needs and ”bad” if it doesn’t. The child’s focus is on present events rather than being caught up in the past or future.
- Self-Protective: the child at this stage begins to develop some rudimentary self control. His ideal is of a morally rigid and unchanging world of rules and norms that specifies how he is to act. He’s caught up in perceiving the world in terms of punishments and rewards, but also incorporates the need ”not to get caught.”
- Conformist: the child now becomes more aware of society and the need to belong to a group with its own biases and stereotypes (such as the gender groups of ”boys” or ”girls”). Good behavior is what is sanctioned by one’s group, and others outside the group are treated with suspicion. An important element in terms of cohesion to the group is a sense of trust in one’s fellow members.
- Self-Aware: Loevinger believed that this stage represents the model for most adult behavior, with few going beyond this stage before age twenty-five. Here we see the beginnings of self-criticism and the ability to envision multiple possibilities in life events. There’s an increasing awareness of the difference between ”the real me” and the ”expected me” although the ego is still partly influenced by conformist pressures.
- Conscientious: individuals in this stage have internalized the rules of society, but they also acknowledge the existence of exceptions and special contingencies. The ego feels guilt for hurting others rather than feeling remorse at breaking the rules. The person at this stage sees life in terms of the choices that she makes and the responsibility she takes for her own actions. Views of other people are more complex at this stage, and include their inner motives as well as their outer actions.
- Individualistic: this stage includes a respect for individuality in oneself and a tolerance toward the individual differences in others. The person at this stage is more sensitive to the complexities of inner experience and the conflict between subjective reality and outward appearances.
- Autonomous: Achieving a sense of self-fulfillment becomes more important than outer achievement at this stage. There is greater self-acceptance and a deeper respect for the autonomy of others. There’s a greater capacity to embrace the polarities of life, to discern complexity in individual situations, and to assess multiple facets in moral decisions.
- Integrated: this stage is similar to Maslow’s concept of ”self-actualization.” The ego shows inner wisdom, deep empathy for others, and a high degree of self-acceptance. This is the stage of a fully formed and mature ego that cherishes individuality in self and others. Loevenger says that very few people make it to this stage.
Some developmental thinkers believe there may be a 10th stage where the need to judge others and things is abandoned as a life project, and the style of life approximates a simple ”going with the flow.” A light playfulness is present alongside a serious and profound interpretation of life’s mysteries. There may be an intermingling of different states of consciousness.
For more information about different stages of human development, see my book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life.
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