Qualitative Personal Development

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Written by Nash Popovic

We don’t only develop competences and capacities, but we also go through the qualitatively distinct stages of development. This is an equivalent of the ‘jumps’ in complexity that suggest that biological evolution also goes through a set of stages. The stages of personal development can be applied to the same three dimensions: the information and experience dimensions (that contribute to the development of awareness) and the agency dimension (that contributes to the development of intent).

In the diagram below, these dimensions are represented by lines and the stages by dots:


Each dimension has four dots, signifying the four stages: (1) physical, (2) conventional, (3) individual and (4) transcendent[1]. This is, of course, an idealised schema – there are transition periods of various length between them as well as huge variations within them. Also, they are not inevitable; the rate of change and the final stage reached differ widely from person to person. However, despite individual differences, some commonalities can be discerned for each stage in all three dimensions. Before we do that though, we need to make some general observations.

One important point is that the subsequent stages may modify but they don’t replace the previous ones. The other is that quantitative development (developing various capacities) within each stage can continue throughout one’s life. This implies that a person on a further stage of development is not necessarily better or superior to those who are not yet there (as a third year student is not necessarily better than a second year student). Any aspect of a person can be well or poorly developed at any stage. In addition, although further stages may bring more freedom, there are more chances to abuse it, so these require greater responsibility. Life is not easier at more advanced stages either; people just face different challenges, that is all.


[1] They can be related to the four ‘worlds’ recognised in existentialism: Umwelt, Mitwet, Eigenwelt and Überwelt (Binswanger, 1946, Boss, 1963, Deurzen-Smith, 1984) and also to Jenny Wade’s stages (1996): Reactive (1); Naïve and Egocentric (the transition between 1 and 2); Conformist (2); Achievement and Affiliative (between 2 and 3); Authentic (3); Transcendent and Unity (4).

Development of Information

This dimension is concerned with knowledge acquisition and understanding that are principal ways of absorbing information[2].

The physical domain starts taking shape possibly even before birth and consists of the two processes: synthesising the body image and the world image on one hand, and separating these two on the other. The latter one derives from a discrepancy between the perceived continuity of one’s body and discontinuity of external reality (e.g. people ‘disappear’ when they walk away), and also a discrepancy between what can be directly controlled and what cannot. So, the infant starts perceiving the world as a whole, and at the same time, herself separated from the world (which often causes anxiety). This differentiation happens gradually. At the beginning, the external is internalised, a child is in a unity with the world. Infants do not know that the external world, as something outside their experiences, exists. Dreaming and reality are the same (in other words, everything is like a dream). This is why new-borns feels omnipotent; they are like gods in their own world. They also live only in the present; the abilities of temporal (the past and the future) and non-temporal (abstract) thinking are not yet developed. Kinaesthetic learning that involves touching, grasping, moving, is dominant. Language is limited to simple signifiers representing single objects (‘mama’, ‘doggy’). This domain is usually formed around age two, but it can continue to change and grow throughout the life-span (in terms of quantitative development).

The conventional domain – the most important factor for its formation is language acquisition. This domain is based not only on precepts but also concepts, which leads to further separation, expansion and greater freedom as it makes easier to manipulate available cognitive elements. Conceptual thinking is a huge step forward in organising mental constructs (for instance, it allows generalisation: the word ‘chair’ can refer to any imagined or perceived chair). Rather than relying on kinaesthetic learning, this domain relies on theoretical learning. The term ‘theoretical’ is used in a broad sense that may include, for example, stories or myths since they do not have a direct practical value. We are initiated to this kind of knowledge by others (parents, teachers, etc.) which is why this domain is called conventional. It is normally formed by puberty, but as in the previous case, the conventional domain can carry on developing throughout one’s life.

The individual domain typically starts forming around puberty or early adolescence. Usually at that time young people try to define themselves. This is not to say that self-identity does not exist before that time, but the various concepts of ‘I’ that have existed until this point begin to coalesce into the kind of person one is and will become (Lloyed et al, 1990, p.723). The fluid personality of the child gives way to the firmer, more stable personality – the ego. When the ego is fully formed, one can ‘separate the self cognitively from embeddedness in the social system’ (Wade, 1996, p.135), which leads to greater independence. The methods that contribute to this are reflection and self-reflection: examining and often reorganising beliefs about the world and oneself respectively. They are the result of an ability to separate oneself from the world and the I (self-reflection stems from self-observation, which imply the observer and the observed). Now, all the stages are formed through relations: in the case of the first one to the physical world, and in case of the second to the social world or culture. In this case, the relation is not with something outside, but with something within – the content of one’s own mind. Reflection and self-reflection enable not only objectifying and observing the elements of the mind, but also their deliberate restructuring, which increases freedom. Such freedom is often manifested through questioning existing social norms and a desire to form one’s own views. In short, the individual domain is formed by remodelling the materials from the first two as well as by producing new ones. This is not to say that it completely disposes of the previous ones. For example, somebody at this stage may not believe in Santa Claus any more, but the idea of Santa Claus is still comprehensible to them.

The transcendent domain mainly consists of general ideas and principles that can potentially have universal value. The focus is on processes and relations, so as to tease out the meaning of what is cognicised. This domain may start forming in late adolescence, which explains the tendency of that age group to ‘philosophy’ and discussion of deep issues. However, this is in most cases quickly abandoned as impractical, which is not surprising considering that this domain is abstract and of less tangible value than the previous domains. Moreover, everyday language is not always adequate to express and anchor it fully. This domain is called transcendent as it transcends the segregation of various approaches and disciplines (e.g. science and spirituality) and moves beyond ideological constrains. Also, one’s ego is transcended, as the person at this stage realises that there is more to them than their image. Intuition (that arises after climbing the ladders of reason) plays an increasing part in knowledge acquisition. Naturally, a person in this domain is often seen as impractical, difficult to comprehend, even subversive. This may bring about a degree of social isolation, which is why it is difficult to remain in this domain.

[2] Although there are some differences, the first three stages of this development can be compared with Piaget’s stages of cognitive development (preoperational thinking; concrete-operational thinking; formal-operational thinking), and all four with Fowler’s stages of faith: intuitive-projective (1); mythic-literal (between 1 and 2); synthetic-conventional (2); individuative-reflective (3); universalising (4).

Development of Experience

The ‘in depth’ dimension involves four modes of experience[3]. Although they may appear in different times in our lives, they are not mutually exclusive.

The physical mode starts possibly even in the pre-natal period and dominates early life. It is a result of the interaction between the body and the physical environment. In other words, it is bound to the physical-ness of human existence. When in this mode, we seek physical experiences and are also most attentive to the physical aspects of any event (e.g. physical appearance of a person we are interacting with). The focus in this mode is on sensations that we are aware of through our senses and also on internal sensations such hunger, thirst or  sexual arousal. The sense of physical security (or its lack) can be included here too. This mode remains important (although not necessarily dominant) throughout life.

The conventional mode goes beyond physicality of experiences and is added to the repertoire quite early. It derives mainly from a sense of belonging, being a part of a group or culture. It is typically associated with shared experiences and is especially prominent in ritualised situations such as religious and other ceremonies, or even sport events. This mode can also involve less situation-specific feelings such as empathy, sympathy or care, especially for the members of one’s group (e.g. one’s family, culture, nation or religion) and, on the other side of the spectrum, fear and animosity towards those who are perceived as different. Shame also belongs to this category – unlike guilt, shame is a learned, socially induced feeling.

The individual mode is associated with personalised experiences (even if they are initiated by external stimuli, such as a book or music). While in the conventional mode we yearn to have a collective experience, in this one we yearn to have individual experience. We seek experiences that are unique, and tend to experience things in our unique way. For example, we may be in a crowd at a concert, and yet sink inside ourselves – relating to the music, but excluding the crowd. Or, we may seek a personal, unique relationship with the other, to the exclusions of others, as in the case of romantic love. This mode can involve absorption or savouring, but also so-called existential anxiety (ensuing from the uncertainties that moving beyond the conventional mode brings). Not surprisingly, experiences are often used to feed one’s ego.

The transcendent mode transcends not only the physical boundaries, but also the socially instigated and ego boundaries, which is why it is sometimes accompanied with a sense of infinity. One clarification is needed though. The transcendent mode is different from transpersonal experiences that can happen at any stage and are often interpreted within the framework of that stage (e.g. recognisable cultural representations). Such experiences can be induced, for example, by psychotropic drugs, while the transcendent mode cannot. They can have a great value, but they happen sporadically, often accidentally, are short lived, and ‘cannot be counted as a part of the modal repertoire’ (Donaldson, 1992 p.235). The transcendent mode is more stable and transpersonal experiences in this mode merge with other ones. To use Maslow’s terminology, it is closer to a ‘plateau experience’ than ‘peak experiences’ and it does not necessarily need to have a spiritual source[4]. It may involve, for instance, non-attachment, the sense of a larger perspective, rising above petty concerns, and also the sense of connectedness, non-possessive love, or recognising beauty beyond personal inclinations. So-called existential joy that transcends existential anxiety (a characteristic of the previous mode) also belongs to this category (see Popovic, 2003). Its most important quality, though, is starting to experience reality as consisting of relations and processes rather than discrete objects. As a consequence, reality is perceived in a less segmented way: ‘Spatial boundaries no longer appear stable but open and plastic, suggesting the permeability of permanent objects’ (Wade, 1996, p.181). It is only natural that this shift of focus to interrelatedness between objects decreases attachment to them and enables greater fluidity, as well as greater fullness of experience.

Before moving on, we should clarify that the above categories refer to the different modes of experiencing rather than the specific types of experience. The further modes are, in fact, inclusive in terms of the sources and types of experience. In other words, any event that can be experienced in early modes can also be experienced (albeit differently) in further ones. Eating may be an example. Food consumption can be a purely physical experience, when the focus is on the nutritional value, satisfying the need to eat; for the second mode, a cultural embodiment is also important (e.g. a particular setting or type of food, the use of a knife and fork or chopsticks); the third would emphasise personal taste, and the fourth can be perhaps best described as mindful eating (after a form of meditative practice known in the West as mindfulness). On the other hand, certain experiences may be exclusive to further modes. For example, it is hard to derive any meaningful experience from reading Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ if in the first or second mode.

[3] This dimension has been largely neglected in developmental psychology possibly because it is more fuzzy than the other ones. The closest parallel to its four modes are Maslow’s motivational levels: physiological needs and safety (1); belongingness and love (2); esteem (the transition between 2 and 3); self-actualisation (3); and transcendence (only later included in his model) (4).
[4] Peak experiences too do not need to be linked to the spiritual. ‘Transcendent ecstasy’ can be triggered, for example, by intellectual activity, such as solving a mathematical problem (see Donaldson, 1992, p.305).

Development of Agency

This dimension has a special value because it has the potential to directly affect the other two dimensions. Akin to the previous ones, there are four levels to this type of development[5]. As our agency (the ability to exercise intent) needs to be limited to start off, these levels have a restraining role that is only gradually relaxed. So, every subsequent level has to ‘dethrone’ the previous one, but also, ideally, incorporate its useful elements. So the development in this respect is not simply a cumulative growth, but a kind of dialectic process. This said, in most cases these levels are expressed subsequently (although a propensity for any of them may exist in a latent form from the beginning of one’s life).

The physical level starts from the moment the soul and body connect.[6] It is manifested through the interaction of the body with the environment. In other words, one’s own body is the reference point (what it can do and what it cannot). Physical determinism is dominant. An infant is driven by its instincts and urges, of which the most important are the needs for body preservation and physical development (that besides physical growth also involves developing physical skills). Although a rapid enlargement and activity of the neocortex can be detected early on, the so-called R-complex part of the brain (see The Brain) may be dominant.

The conventional level is characterised by social determinism, known in psychology as nurture. The challenge here is to overcome the inertia of physical determinism. The physical level starts to be modified relatively early by significant others (i.e. parents) and culture; toilet training and upright walking are normally the first instances. This is a gradual process that requires transcending purely physical drives for our actions. The main motive on this level is social preservation, maintaining a sense of belonging and acceptance. One’s reference point are cultural norms (that may be reinforced by socially induced feelings such as shame). Not surprisingly, emotions and the limbic system assume a prominent role. As psychologist Turiel points out, ‘social behaviour is, in the main, guided by emotions; reason is, at best, secondary’ (1983, p.7).

The individual level: the main challenge of this level is to overcome social conditioning. The move to this level normally starts around puberty and can be fully reached during adolescence (although this is not a rule). It is characterised by the development of self-affirmation and relative autonomy when making choices[7]. This level involves separating oneself at least in behaviour and some actions (first of all from significant others, i.e. parents). Such a tendency facilitates forming connections based on one’s choice, so personal relationships (friends, partners) are valued most. Typical motives at this level are personal happiness and personal power. One’s ego (self-image) and personal norms become the main reference point. At this level, relative freedom from social conditioning can easily end in ego condoning – self-induced habits that can sometimes even turn into addictions.

The transcendent level can be reached (but does not have to be) in the post-adolescent period. The move to that level happens when we realise the limitations of choices and actions that are tied to self-centredness and self-importance. This requires moving beyond ego-boundaries, transcending the personal for the sake of something greater. In other words, it is a move from freedom from towards freedom to, which is why finding a meaning matters. A meaning in one’s life doesn’t require awareness of the meaning of life, although the former can be congruent with the latter without realising or acknowledging it. For example, one may find meaning in helping others, in commitment to a worthwhile idea or social cause, or in spiritual practice. All these also contribute to harmonisation or development of energy. This is a challenge as it entails giving up hard won ego-control, but through its legacy, this level, in a way, transcends even death. Rather than cognitive principles, the reference point for one’s choices and actions is universal norms that are grasped intuitively, as they cannot be easily formulated.

From which level one acts can be recognised in almost any situation that requires choice, even in the most mundane ones such as buying a pair of shoes: the determining factors, if acting from the first level, are to keep feet warm and clean, and prevent an injury; the driving force behind the second one is likely to be cultural norms (e.g. fashion); at the third level, it is important that the shoes fit the personal image. An overall motive at the fourth level could be that the shoes are meaningful, purposeful (not conspicuous or a distraction in any way, but comfortable and congruent with one’s overall goals or activities). On the surface, this choice may not seem very different from the first level, but it involves greater awareness (for example, taking into account the environmental or social impact of the shoes production).

[5] They can be related to Loevinger’s Ego Development stages: pre-social & symbiotic, impulsive, self-protective (1); conformist, self-aware (2); conscientious, individualistic, autonomous (3); integrated (4); and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development: pre-conventional (1); conventional (2); post-conventional (3); and universal – stage 6 and 7 in his system (4).
[6] When this happens exactly is difficult to say. To be sure, the offset of awareness or agency would need to be determined, but this is not easy. Almost certainly it is a pre-natal event, possibly sometime between the first heart beat and the first kick (for a more detailed discussion on this issue see Wade, 1996, chapter 2).
[7] This should not be confused with character predispositions that can manifest themselves much earlier.

Some General Observations

Several conclusions may be drawn from empirical observations:

People may not be at the same stage in all three dimensions: in fact, people are often not (which creates difficulty for theories that do not recognise the different dimensions). For example, a proverbial absent-minded professor may be on the fourth stage of development regarding his thinking and knowledge, but the development of experience and agency dimensions may lag behind; or, a monk may be at the transcendent stage on the experience dimension, but at the conventional stage regarding his agency.

People do not always remain at the same stage: a stage of development is not stable and may fluctuate from situation to situation. Reaching a particular stage means that one’s repertoire is expanded, not that the person remains always there. In fact, sometimes it is more appropriate to utilise or operate at earlier stages, in order to avoid a conflict with others or unnecessary complications. For example, the physical stage may be the most conducive when driving. Reflecting and questioning the meaning of traffic signs and rules, or contemplating the complexity of the interface between the car and the driver may be of value, but not while driving.

Quantitative development continues to play a vital role at any stage: somebody may reach further stages, but these stages can still be narrow or poorly developed. For example, some people may get to the third level of the agency development, when they start making autonomous choices, but their choices can be poor or limited (as in the case of those who end up with an addiction). Or somebody can go far intellectually, but their scope may not be very wide (as in the case of a narrow specialist). Any stage of any dimension can be well or poorly developed in this respect. We need to be particularly careful not to confuse poor quantitative development with the early stages of qualitative development. Somebody on the physical stage, for example, may be much more developed quantitatively than some on further stages.

The above shows that developmental models can be useful tools, but using them to generalise about people may not capture the complexity of real life. Saying that somebody is at a particular stage is far too simplistic, as they may not be at that stage always and in all dimensions. As already mentioned, we also cannot infer that somebody is superior because they reached further stages. What we can say is that a person is able to understand, experience or act at a particular stage of development. 

One may wonder though, what’s the point of personal development in the light of inevitable death: ‘I am going to die anyway, so why bother?’ To answer this question, we will consider next what may happen after death and how development relates to it.