You’re a human being, not a human doing

Future of Being

Imagine you’re at a party. You’ve just greeted someone you’ve never met before and are feeling excited to discover what makes them tick. That is, until they ruin it all by asking in an absent-minded-I-just-can’t-be-bothered-to-think-of-a-more-interesting-question kind of way:

“So, what do you do?”

Heart-wrenching, I know.

The sad fact is that most people collapse their identity into their job; they struggle to conceive of themselves beyond their expertise. What I’ve found is that those who are more emotionally mature tend to see themselves less in relation to their work (i.e., their external reality), and more in relation to themselves and others (i.e., within the context of their relationships). When considering how identity and ego inform how we relate to work versus other important things in our lives, it’s helpful to consider Jane Loevinger’s 9 stages of ego formation. Loevinger was a celebrated developmental psychologist who saw ego as a process, rather than an absolute. Below, I’m sharing a brief synopsis of each stage of ego formation.

Note: these are broadly re-shared from Prof. Kenneth Locke’s lecture on the subject.

Stage 1: the pre-social and symbiotic stage. As an infant, the ego is starting to separate itself from the world around them but is very focused on gratifying immediate needs.

Stage 2: the impulsive stage. This stage is where most toddlers are at. They focus on their bodily instincts, basic impulses and immediate needs. Those in the impulsive stage are at the centre of their own world; they can be demanding and dependent if their needs are not met.

Stage 3: the self-protective stage. While the ego is slightly more advanced at this stage, it is still self-protective and the aim is to get what they need and want without getting caught. This can lead to manipulative and hedonistic behaviour.

Stage 4: the conformist stage. This stage is likely familiar to us all. What characterises the conformist stage is a desire to belong to an “in-group” and receive the approval of others. This desire for approval goes hand in hand with a black and white view of the world, where things fall clearly into boxes of right vs wrong or moral vs immoral.

Stage 5: the self-aware stage. This is the most common stage among adults. At this stage, people display a deeper, but still limited, awareness of their deeper selves and the selves of others. It’s at this stage that most people start developing unique opinions, rather than absorbing them from friends and family.

Stage 6: the conscientious stage. The individual’s understanding of their values, goals and standards develops further. Shame (a feeling that arises as a result of not meeting others’ expectations) turns to guilt (a feeling that arises from failing to meet one’s own expectations). This stage is a double edged sword: with more self-reflection comes more complexity and more questioning of the world around us.

Stage 7: the individualistic stage. This stage marks a turning point, where the focus on relationships increases. Individuals at this stage have a heightened sense of self-understanding which can lead to new methods of expression and a greater awareness of inner conflicts and paradoxes.

Stage 8: the autonomous stage. This is when the inner conflicts and paradoxes start to be seen as an inevitable expression of the multifaceted nature of being human. Individuals display a greater respect for their own and others’ autonomy. The autonomous ego cherishes uniqueness and independent thinking is a source of great joy. Relationships are seen as an interdependent system of mutual support.

Stage 9: the integrated stage. At this final stage, the ego shows wisdom and empathy to both oneself and others. Inner conflicts start to be fully resolved and accepted. The goal at this stage is simply to understand and actualise one’s own potential and achieve integration of the different elements of the self.

Most adults are between Stage 4 and 6. Very few people are at Stage 7 to 9. Understanding the complexity of ego through Loevinger’s work has made me realise how many of us spend our lives focused on external reality–on the “what”–rather than focusing on our internal development. I don’t blame us. Every facet of our education system and labour market encourages this singular focus on the external. When you add social media, digital addiction and the glorification of “the hustle” to the equation, the ability to derive meaning internally becomes close to impossible. What’s worse is that our misplaced focus is arguably the biggest contributor to the meaning crisis that we’re facing.

To resolve it, we must recognise that the way we are and the way we relate to others determines the effectiveness of what we do. While it may sound counterintuitive, if you wish to achieve better external results, you must embrace the next stage of ego formation for its own sake.

We must remember, after all, that we are human beings, not human doings.

February 15, 2024