The Seven Stages of Psychological Development Model differs from most other models of human development in one important way. It looks at individual development through the lens of the ego-soul dynamic: the growth and development of the ego, the alignment of the ego with the soul, and the activation of the soul consciousness.
The first three stages of development involve establishing the ego as a viable, independent entity in its physical, social and cultural framework of existence. The fourth stage of development involves aligning the motivations of your ego with the motivations of your soul. The last three stages of development involve activating your soul’s consciousness.
The Seven Stages of Psychological Development are shown in the diagram below along with the approximate age ranges when they occur and the developmental tasks associated with each stage of development.
Between the moment, we are born and the time we reach physical and mental maturity, around 20–25 years old, we pass through three stages of psychological development: surviving, conforming and differentiating. What we are learning during these stages of psychological development is how to satisfy our deficiency needs—our survival, safety and security needs—in the physical, social and cultural framework of our existence. If for any reason, you are unable to satisfy your deficiency needs you will feel anxious and fearful.
How well you were able to master your deficiency needs will, to a large extent, depend on the parental programming and cultural conditioning you experienced during your infant, childhood and teenage years. If you grew up in a safe physical environment and a loving and respectful social and cultural environment, without experiencing any traumatic experiences, you will find it relatively easy to master your deficiency needs. If, you grew up in a challenging physical, social and cultural environment where you had to struggle, and often failed, to get your deficiency needs met, you will find it difficult to master your deficiency needs.
The process of ego-soul alignment begins at the individuating stage of psychological development. Unlike the ego stages of psychological development, the individuating stage of development is not thrust upon you by the biological and societal exigencies of growing up: it is driven by the evolutionary impulse of your soul willing itself to become fully present in material awareness.
The individuating stage can be quite challenging for a number of reasons. First, it involves facing and overcoming your fears. Second, it involves becoming responsible and accountable for every aspect of your life. Third, it involves embracing your soul nature, the values that support soul consciousness. This may mean distancing yourself from your family of origin, your cultural heritage and your religious affiliation.
For various reasons, some of which are out of our control, most people find it difficult to individuate. They remain “stuck” in the self-esteem, relationship and survival levels of consciousness (not the stages of development but the levels of consciousness) because the physical, social or cultural conditions in which they live actively discourage them from embracing their true nature, finding their voice and expressing themselves.
The last three stages of psychological development represent various stages of soul activation. If you have been relatively successful in mastering the individuating stage of development, you will begin to feel the pull of the self-actualizing stage of development in your early 40s. This is the stage of development where you begin to embrace your true nature and your inborn, soul-given gifts and talents. This is also normally the stage where you begin to uncover your soul’s purpose, the activities that give your life meaning.
The next stage of soul activation—the integrating stage of development, which usually occurs in your 50s—involves connecting with others in unconditional loving relationships so you can use your gifts and talents to make a difference in the world. The hard work of understanding who you are, and embracing your soul purpose is past. Your challenge now, is to develop your empathy skills so you can connect and collaborate with others and thereby use your collective gifts and talents to make a difference in people’s lives. If you cannot reach out and connect with others, you will be unable to fulfil your purpose.
The last stage of soul activation—the serving stage of development, which usually occurs in your 60s—involves living a life of self-less service focused on future generations and the good of humanity. Having learned how to connect, what you are now tasked with doing is making a contribution to the common good. To fulfil this requirement, you will need to develop your compassion, to embrace the deepest aspects of your soul’s intelligence and wisdom to help those who are suffering, disadvantaged or are less well off than yourself. At the integrating stage you make use of your empathy skills to connect; at the serving stage, you use of your compassion skills to contribute.
The first three stages of development occur during a period when our physical brains and our minds are growing and developing; during a period of rapid emergent learning about how to establish ourselves in the physical, parental, and cultural frameworks of our existence. Furthermore, the first three stages of development are thrust upon us by the circumstances of growing up: from being a baby, through childhood and adolescence, to becoming a young adult. Not only do we have no choice in this matter, we are completely unaware of the fact that we are transitioning through the first three stages of psychological development.
As far as adult development is concerned, we can choose to individuate or not, and we can choose to self-actualize or not. If we make both of these choices, then the remaining stages of psychological development will naturally flow when we reach our 50s and 60s. Our ability to master the soul activation stages of our development is fundamentally dependent on our ability to master the ego development stages. We have to learn to meet our ego’s deficiency needs before we can learn to satisfy our soul’s growth desires.
Surviving (0–2 years)
The quest for survival starts before the human baby is born; it begins in the womb. From the moment the reptilian mind/brain becomes functional, around the end of the first trimester of gestation, the primary focus of the mind of the foetus is survival.
Because of its species programming, the foetus, and later the baby, instinctively knows how to regulate its body’s internal functioning, how to suckle once it is born and how to signal to its mother that it has unmet physiological needs. At this stage of development, the baby is completely dependent for its survival on its mother or other primary caregivers.
The first thing the baby has to learn, as soon as it is born, is to interact with the world around it so it can get its survival needs met. If the infant finds this task difficult or challenging because its parents or caregivers are not vigilant, or if it is abused or left alone or abandoned for long periods of time, the infant may form subconscious beliefs that the world is an unsafe place and that it is not loved. Thereafter, throughout his or her life, this person will seek to control their environment to assure their needs get met. Such a person will be cautious and vigilant and have a tendency to micro-manage whatever is happening in their world.
If, the infant’s parents or caregivers are attentive to its needs and are watchful and responsive to signs of distress, then the child will grow up with the feeling that the world is a safe place and people can be trusted.
Feeling competent, and confident about taking care of yourself is an essential prerequisite for mastering the self-actualization stage of development later in life.
Conforming (2–7 years)
Towards the end of the surviving stage of development, the child becomes mobile and learns to communicate. This is the time when the limbic mind/brain, also known as the emotional mind, becomes dominant. The focus of the limbic mind/brain is on physical and emotional safety—keeping the body safe from harm, and satisfying its need for love and belonging. Thus begins the conforming stage of development.
At first, the child rebels: it wants what it wants when it wants it. It has not yet learned that the people it depends on for its survival and safety also have needs. To get its needs met, the child learns to follow the rules laid down by its parents. It learns that life is more pleasant and enjoyable, less threatening and less difficult, if it can live in a state of harmony with its caregivers and siblings.
Conforming—obeying the rules—has benefits: it allows the child to meet its physical and emotional safety needs. Participating in family rituals are also important at this stage of development because they contribute to the child’s feeling of belonging and safety. If the parents make the child’s adherence to rules conditional on the child getting its desires met, or the child is coerced into behaving in specific ways, the child will learn that love is conditional.
If, because of poor parenting or lack of attention, the child feels unloved, unimportant, not accepted and not protected or it doesn’t feel a sense of belonging, the child may develop the subconscious belief that it is unlovable. When you do not get your safety needs met at a young age, they do not go away; they are imprinted in the subconscious memory of your emotional mind. You become needy, always searching for love.
If the child’s parents or caregivers are attentive to the child’s needs; if it is raised in a caring, loving environment, where its feels safe and protected, then the child will grow up with the desire and willingness to form committed relationships when it reaches adulthood.
Learning to feel safe, comfortable and loving in the presence of strangers is an essential prerequisite for mastering the integrating stage of development later in life. If you don’t feel safe with others, you will find it difficult to reach out and connect.
Differentiating (8–24 years)
Around the age of 7 or 8, the neocortex mind/brain becomes functional. The focus of the neocortex mind/brain, also known as the rational mind, is on physical and emotional security. Thus begins the differentiating stage of psychological development.
At this stage of development, the child is beginning to explore the world outside of the home. Whereas parental and sibling relations were of significant importance to satisfy the child’s safety needs when the locus of its life was the parental home, relations with peers and authority figures such as teachers, now take on added importance.
Once a child enters a community outside the home it can no longer rely on its parents for its personal safety. It must take responsibility for its self-protection by belonging to a group, community or gang. This means building friendships, fitting in, and being respected by members of the group. Taking on dares, can become a rite of passage for membership of some groups in the teenager’s or young adult’s world. This may lead young people “off the straight and narrow”. They may do things they know to be wrong simply to belong to a group where they can feel recognized and secure.
Feeling respected and recognized by parents or members of a group, enables us to establish a feeling of self-worth; feeling accepted and acknowledged, gives us a sense of belonging and security. The gifts, skills and talents that allow us to feel recognized become important to us. We focus on them because they are our passport to security.
The types of gifts or talents we develop, depend to a large extent on the type of community we belong to. These could include beauty, intelligence, strength, sporting ability, musical ability, fearlessness, etc. Developing our strengths—the things that bring us recognition—allow us to establish ourselves in a community. If, however, we want to become the group leader, we need to stand out from the crowd. We may need to prove our superiority or defend ourselves from those who also want to lead the group.
What is important at this stage of development is exploring your talents and getting positive feedback and appreciation for your efforts. If your efforts are not appreciated by those who are important to you, particularly your parents and teachers, you will stop trying, and may begin to develop a low sense of self-esteem. If instead of having your efforts appreciated, you are constantly reminded of your failures, you will grow up lacking in confidence, with a low sense of self-worth, and the belief that you are not good enough.
When you do not get your security needs met in your childhood or teenage years, they do not go away; they remain in your subconscious mind. Later in life you may become highly competitive or seek status or power so you can be acknowledged as someone important or someone to be feared.
If you do not get the approval and feedback you need from your parents, you may seek out groups, gangs or communities where you feel accepted and valued; where your gifts, skills or talents are recognized. This may create conflict in your life at home because you may get caught between two value systems: the values of your parents, and the values of the group with which you identify. If this situation is not handled sensitively by your parents, your home life will become difficult and may become intolerable. You will rebel.
From a parental perspective, guiding rather than controlling, allowing rather than preventing, encouraging rather than denigrating and trusting rather than doubting, gives teenagers the space to safely explore who they are and find their sense of identity in the larger world outside the family home.
Feeling physically and emotionally secure in your community—being respected and recognized by others—is an essential prerequisite for mastering the serving stage of development later in life. If you don’t feel secure in your community, you will not be able to contribute.
Individuating (25–39 years)
Around your mid-20s you begin to feel a new impulse: you want to explore who you really are. You want freedom, and the feeling of independence. To do this, you must let go of your parental programming and cultural conditioning and find your own way in life.
If you can transition through the first three stages of development without experiencing any significant trauma or without developing too many subconscious fears, you will find it relatively easy to establish yourself as a viable independent adult in the social and cultural framework of your existence.
So long as you can find opportunities to earn a living that allow you to explore your freedom, and work that gives you autonomy, everything will be fine. If you cannot find work that allows you to be independent of your parents, you will feel demoralized or dispirited.
The task at the individuating stage of development is to find your authentic self. You are finished with being dependent; you are seeking independence. You are no longer looking for the validation of others to feel good about yourself. You want to be responsible and accountable for every aspect of your life; you want to embrace and express your values. Without realizing it, you are disembedding yourself from your parental and cultural background, and beginning to align the motivations of your ego with the motivations of your soul.
The individuating stage of development usually begins in earnest in your mid-20s and continues through your 30s—after you have left your parental home and established yourself in the outside world.
This shift from dependence to independence can be one of the most difficult stages of human development to master because it brings us face to face with our survival, safety and security fears. Many find it difficult to extract themselves from the influence of their parents; others, such as those who live in authoritarian or repressive regimes, may be afraid to express themselves because they know they can be locked up or lose their life for speaking their truth or for being homosexual.
If you were fortunate enough to have been brought up by self-actualized parents; to have lived in a community or culture where freedom and independence are celebrated, where higher education was easily available, where men and women are treated equally, and where you are encouraged from a young age to express your needs and think for yourself, you will find it relatively easy to move through the individuating stage of psychological development.
If the contrary is true, if you were brought up by authoritarian parents, if you do not live in a democratic regime, if you are discriminated against because of your gender, sexual preferences, religion or race, and you developed fears about not being able to meet your deficiency needs, you are likely to have difficulties moving through the individuating stage of development. Struggling to survive, and seeking the safety and security you did not get when you were young can keep you anchored in the lower levels of consciousness all of your life.
Self-actualizing (40–49 years)
When you reach your 40s, sometimes a little earlier and sometimes a little later, your soul begins to make its presence felt in your life. If you have mastered your deficiency needs and successfully moved through the individuating stage of development, you will start to search for meaning and purpose in your life; you will be looking for a vocation or calling that allows you to fully express your authentic self. Welcome to the self-actualizing stage of development.
For most people, finding their vocation or calling usually begins with a feeling of unease or boredom about their job, profession or chosen career—with the work they thought would enable them to feel secure by providing them with a good income and prospects for advancement leading to increased wealth, status or power. Uncovering your soul’s purpose not only brings vitality to your life, it also sparks your creativity. You will become more intuitive and spend more time in a state of flow; being totally present to what you are doing, and feeling committed and passionate about your work.
Mastering the self-actualizing stage of development can be challenging, especially if your vocation or calling offers less security than the job, profession or career you trained for earlier in your life. You may feel scared or uncomfortable embarking in a new direction that does not pay the rent or finance your children’s education but does bring meaning and purpose to your life.
Some people find their vocation early, others discover it much later; some spend their whole lives searching. Uncovering and embracing your soul’s purpose is vitally important because it is the key to living a fulfilling life.
Your ability to manage your survival needs will significantly influence your ability to make progress at the self-actualizing stage of development. Knowing you can take care of yourself gives you the confidence you need to explore your self-expression. If you are afraid that you might not be able to survive doing what you love to do, you may deny your soul expression. This will lead to suffering later in life.
Integrating (50–59 years)
If you learned how to master your deficiency needs and were successful in traversing the individuating and self-actualizing stages of development, when you reach your 50s, you will want to embrace your soul’s purpose by making a difference in the world. To do this you will need to connect with others; to form caring relationships with those you want to help and those you want to collaborate with to leverage your impact in the world. Welcome to the integrating stage of psychological development.
Connecting with others who share your passion and purpose and connecting with those who will be the beneficiaries of your gifts and talents are essential components of this stage of development. The skills you learned at the conforming stage of development about building safe relationships will become extremely important at this stage of development. To connect with and support others, you will need to tap into your empathy skills. You will need to feel what others are feeling if you are truly going to help them.
At this stage of development, you must be able to recognize your limitations, cooperate with others, assume a larger sense of identity and shift from being independent to being interdependent.
Some people get so wrapped up in themselves and their calling at the self-actualizing stage that they are unable to make this shift. They get lost in their own creativity, focusing only on their contribution, rather than the larger contribution they could make if they connected with others. There is nothing wrong with this approach; however, in normal circumstances, learning to work with others in service to the common good is more likely to bring a sense of fulfilment to your life than working on your own.
How well you mastered the conforming stage of development will significantly influence your progress through the integrating stage of development. Knowing you can handle your relationship needs—knowing you are lovable—gives you the confidence to create unconditional loving relationships with others.
Serving (60+ years)
The last stage of development follows naturally from the integrating stage. I call this the serving stage of development. This stage of development usually begins to occur in your early 60s, sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later. The focus of this stage of development is on self-less service to the community you identify with. It is about making a contribution. It doesn’t matter how big or small your contribution is, what is important is knowing that your life has a purpose. Alleviating suffering, caring for the disadvantaged and building a better society are some of the activities you may want to explore at this stage of your life.
At you enter the serving stage of development, you will find yourself becoming more introspective and reflective—looking for ways to deepen your sense of connection to your soul and the deeper levels of your being—connecting to whatever you consider divine. You may become a keeper of wisdom, an elder of the community or a person to whom younger people turn for guidance or mentoring.
As you make progress with this stage of development, you will uncover new levels of compassion in your life. You will experience a deep sense of meaning and feelings of fulfilment and well-being that you never experienced before. You will begin to see how connected we all are; how, by serving others, you are serving your larger self. At this level of consciousness, giving becomes the same as receiving.
How well you mastered the differentiating stage of development will significantly influence your progress through the serving stage of development. Having a healthy sense of self-esteem will give you the confidence to go out into your community and make your gifts, skills and talents available to those who need them.
The degree to which you are able to master each stage of development determines your feeling of well-being. You experience a sense of flourishing when you are able to master all the stages of development.
Some people, especially those raised by self-actualized parents—those who grew up getting their needs met and feeling loved and cherished (without developing any significant limiting beliefs)—may experience the impulse of their soul to make a difference during the individuating stage of development. This does not mean they have reached the integrating stage of development. Usually the drive to make a difference during our twenties and early thirties is driven by our sense of fairness and justice--correcting the wrongs of the world, whereas at the integrating stage, our need to make a difference is driven by our empathy and compassion--caring deeply about the suffering of others.