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The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development

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The Evolving Self focuses upon the most basic and universal of psychological problems--the individual's effort to make sense of experience, to make meaning of life. According to Robert Kegan, meaning-making is a lifelong activity that begins in earliest infancy and continues to evolve through a series of stages encompassing childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The Evolving Self describes this process of evolution in rich and human detail, concentrating especially on the internal experience of growth and transition, its costs and disruptions as well as its triumphs.

At the heart of our meaning-making activity, the book suggests, is the drawing and redrawing of the distinction between self and other. Using Piagetian theory in a creative new way to make sense of how we make sense of ourselves, Kegan shows that each meaning-making stage is a new solution to the lifelong tension between the universal human yearning to be connected, attached, and included, on the one hand, and to be distinct, independent, and autonomous on the other. The Evolving Self is the story of our continuing negotiation of this tension. It is a book that is theoretically daring enough to propose a reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex and clinically concerned enough to suggest a variety of fresh new ways to treat those psychological complaints that commonly arise in the course of development.

Kegan is an irrepressible storyteller, an impassioned opponent of the health-and-illness approach to psychological distress, and a sturdy builder of psychological theory. His is an original and distinctive new voice in the growing discussion of human development across the life span.

336 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1982

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Robert Kegan

15 books122 followers

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5 stars
187 (46%)
4 stars
146 (36%)
3 stars
46 (11%)
2 stars
16 (3%)
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8 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews
Profile Image for Taylor Pearson.
Author 3 books721 followers
January 26, 2019
Kegan spent his career at Harvard studying psychological development. The Evolving Self outlines his model for human psychological development. I found the model insightful and the writing tight which is an unusual combination (you usually get one of the two, at best). The book focuses on the process of meaning-making, a lifelong activity that begins in infancy and continues through adulthood, a contrast to Freudian understandings of psychology which tend to be more static and focus on childhood experiences while downplaying the ability for people to continue to evolve through life.

The heart of meaning-making is the drawing and re-drawing of the distinction between self and other. I picked up the book after reading a summary which explained that many adults get stuck at Stage 3 (communal) where they identify themselves and what is right/wrong with their immediate community and are unable to transition to Stage 4 (systematic) where they can see justice, responsibility, and principles as something systemic and outside of their immediate social group. This rang true as did the observation that many get stuck in the Stage 4-Stage 5 transition and fall into a nihilistic worldview because they can’t transition from a systemic to a more fluid understanding of self and other.

I’ve found Kegan’s five-stage framework helpful for better understanding my own choices and the choices around me and understanding how to discuss those choices through a lens that makes sense to them.
Profile Image for Nancymaguire.
28 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2015
I have read this book about five times. It continues to influence my thinking and lead me towards integration, of ideas, theories and the practice of psychology with human evolution.
Profile Image for Kim.
28 reviews
October 4, 2010
Read for my Adult Development class. Not a light read at all but thought provoking if you can get over rereading a paragraph three times.
Profile Image for Nick Brown.
21 reviews6 followers
March 11, 2019
I read this book because David Chapman (https://meaningness.com/further-reading) recommended it as:

Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self is the most sophisticated explanation I’ve found of the ways we relate self and other, and the ways we relate to our selves.

The book strikes many readers as a major revelation. It’s not only intellectually fascinating, making sense of so much of our lives—it’s also useful in practice as a guide to radical personal transformation.

Other readers find nothing meaningful in it. Tentatively, I suspect that’s not because they miss the point, but because Kegan’s framework simply doesn’t apply to everyone.

No radical personal transformations on my end but an interesting framework and a few other neat points:
- Emotional Conflict as a means of internal conversation.
- Depressive sleep disturbance, people reliably sleep a lot (hypersomniac) or the don't sleep much at all (hypervigilant) as a defence mechanism. If the world is dangerous you need to stay awake if the self is dangerous you need to stay asleep.
- Also people with eating disorders deriving all their meaning/self-worth from physical appearance so anorexia can be seen as triumph of self control over very basic impulses. an interesting perspective. I certainly don't have that much self control. :)
Profile Image for Savanah Gray.
24 reviews4 followers
August 10, 2017
This is not a light read. The book takes awhile to get through but is worth the effort. Kegan presents evolutionary psychology as the outcome of Piaget's stages of development. He carefully constructs and describes the stages of the leaders of the field and then carefully pulls each stage together to describe them as a stage or transition a person is working through in their search to make meaning in their lives. Due to the subject of this book, it is not necessary to be in the field of psychology to understand the principals within it; although it is fair to say that those within the filed may have a better go of reading this.

As someone seeking a degree in Biological Anthropology, I was incredibly surprised to the the external cultures one lives in as well as the family and intimate unit, presented with a cultural understanding as well. There is something for everyone who reads this book and I will add this to my shelves to use in my own life.

I recommend this book to anyone, but want to stress that it requires work and dedicated time.
Profile Image for Willa.
68 reviews
October 21, 2009
This is a stunning work, not so easy to read (it took me reading it twice to really absorb the genius of it). Kegan re-contextualises Piaget, bringing out his passion for Human Emergence, and then goes on to build on that, in his wake showing why Freud's views are completely dated, and how we could revolutionise field of Psychology: from the science that explains how to 'fix' our lives by going back to illusory security, to understanding our lives as a process, driven by the mysterious drive we have to evolve.
Profile Image for KB.
80 reviews
October 5, 2017
This is a brilliant book merging the philosophical, psychological and biological ways of understanding human development. It will not be for everyone — its not a light read and particularly for those not already steeped in psychology it requires patience and some hard work. It was worth the work though as Kegan unveils a compassionate and engrossing look at how human beings grow in our ability to make meaning in the world and what it means to really 'meet someone where they are.'
17 reviews
May 15, 2022
So insight-dense that I had to limit myself to one chapter a day. Will read again.
Profile Image for Ivaylo Durmonski.
148 reviews33 followers
April 5, 2020
If you consider yourself a smart dude, you won’t like this book. Your grammar skills will be tested to the extreme by the sophisticated words used inside. I was personally challenged to understand what the author was trying to say throughout most of the text. On top of that, I often skipped sections and felt asleep. Not intentionally, but because I wasn’t simply getting what Rober wanted to say and my attention quickly wandered.

Yet, the elegant, but complex words and statements, were not enough to stop me from finishing the book. What Robert Kegan gathered in The Evolving Self is staggering. As a fan of human psychology and a lifelong learner of personal behavior, reading this book was like giving candy to a baby. I was able to understand so much about how the minds of the infants work that it will be hard to tell you all about it in this summary. You simply have to read the book. But be warned, the text is really complicated to grasp. First, I thought it was just me. But once I read reviews I realized that I’m not the only one struggling with sentences like:

“But how did our four-year-olds come to find themselves in this predicament in the first place? How did they get embedded in their perceptions? Why do they get disembedded? And what does disembedding do to the subject-object balance?”

Key takeaway?

You’re not the relationship with other people. You’re not the stuff you have around. You simply have these things. If you give too much attention to the objects around, they’ll cage you. You need to separate yourself from your environment (the stuff around) to find meaning.

Read more:
Profile Image for Michael.
100 reviews12 followers
March 18, 2008
I am so glad I came across this book. It is performing this crucial role in my life right now, providing exactly the ideas i needed to allow conversation between the stuff I worry about in my personal life and the problems I'm trying to work out in my writing. I think everyone should read it.

Kegan's topic is development, but unlike most developmental psychologists, he doesn't stop at adolescence. He breaks down all the data collected by his predecessors to build a convincing argument of what's going on when, say, an infant begins to realize that a toy hidden under a box is still "there," or when a seven year old, who recently accepted the idea that a stuffed animal could turn into Barney, takes on a nerdy sneer and starts critiquing the unrealistic portrayal of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. In Kegan's system, these modes of relating to the world are determined by the person's stage in the life process of defining the self against the exterior world. In other words, who is the "I" that I cannot stand outside of and think about?

Most interestingly, Kegan continues the system into adulthood. It's some serious food for thought for anyone who isn't convinced that they or most of the adults around them are done growing up. I think it's one of the great systematic books of philosophy I've ever read.

This was one of those rare books that I just devoured. Kegan comes through as this caring, thoughtful, funny guy, and his prose goes down like butter.

P.S. This isn't new age hoity-toity, the guy's a Harvard don.
Profile Image for Kyle Nelson.
34 reviews3 followers
January 4, 2020
Really powerful ideas about what it means to be human (to be one who makes meaning), how that process of development defines our maturation and psychology. Rather than a given mode of thinking, we are best understood by being in a state of change, evolution, growth. It’s not the specific or current content, but the process of meaning making that we all share and that defines our being.

I thought his stages of development, the idea of equilibrium, and the discussion of transition between states (and the loss it includes as well as the new objectivity it gains) was fascinating. I also think there is a lot to be considered by those who make up the environments within which one develops (e.g., parents/institutions/workplaces/religions) for how they support development (both by validating and contradicting a person).

The challenge of the book was its dense-ness. Quite difficult to get through. I had to re-read passages often and was glad I did because it was really good once I “got it,” but it was tough. Couldn’t read if at all tired, and honestly it helped me fall asleep a couple times.

I would love to see more hard data validating the theory. I’ve read up externally on critiques of the theory and they sum essentially to “it’s too complex to be accessible by most” (amen) and “it’s too complex to be easily tested in large scale quantitative ways.” Makes sense. The qualitative, theoretical, and logical nature of it is very strong - it rings true - but some better data wouldn’t go amiss.
Profile Image for Fiona McDonald.
19 reviews1 follower
November 24, 2018
I feel like running a victory lap. This was a really difficult book to read because it was so packed full of ideas and concepts. It’s a work of genus though and thoroughly worth it. So much of this work made a lot things make sense. Like why workplaces can be so dispiriting and why some people more than others are sooooo difficult to connect with. Let alone why personal troughs happen when and how they do. I would be fascinated to find out how much has been validated and how this connects to much of the work in positive psychology.
Profile Image for Kevin Daum.
1 review4 followers
January 5, 2020
This may end up being the most influential thing I've read in my adult life. I feel drawn to this book in ways I can't even describe yet. It's so rich, I think I could read it many times and still be finding new wisdom. In fact, I plan to.
Profile Image for Nancy.
3 reviews1 follower
March 5, 2019
One of the best ever about this subject.
Profile Image for Marinho Lopes.
Author 1 book7 followers
January 5, 2020
Gostei muito de ler este livro. Gostei em primeiro lugar da honestidade de Kegan que em vários momentos deixa claro que toda a sua teoria pode estar errada, pois de certa forma não passa de pseudociência. Isto é, não há evidências suficientes para confirmar ou refutar a sua teoria de que a personalidade evolui na sua tentativa natural de fazer sentido com e no mundo que a rodeia. Ainda assim, faz sentido. Os seis estágios talvez não sejam seis, talvez a transição nem sempre tenha que ocorrer de forma linear, talvez os estágios não sejam unidimensionais, talvez até nem existam da forma como descrita, mas ainda assim parecem ser uma imagem lógica viável para compreender o “ego”. Também gostei da discussão final sobre a forma como o terapeuta deve encarar a terapia. Em suma, um livro interessante sobre o desenvolvimento da personalidade, desde a “entrada” no mundo até à vida adulta.
Profile Image for Ronald Ombaka.
23 reviews
June 14, 2022
This thus far has been the most influential work on self development I have read. Ofcourse it coincided with my current sense of self and world view based off prior reading.

The articulation of Object-subject relations comes alive in this text the used of stories to relay developmental stages was/is master class.

The beginning three quarters of the book is a gentle exploration of the concept. Kegan one feel is conducting a therapy session in his prose and patience with the reader. Well done.

The last quarter was less poignant but indeed the points had struck home by this point.

Life changing this book. Master class.
Profile Image for Tom Check.
24 reviews
January 24, 2019
Would make a great textbook for psychologists/counsellors/therapists with lots of anecdotal examples of differing developmental stages. Never is there a concise or clear description of each stage to work from, instead the reader must draw it out of anecdotes and the prose of kegan. It's like kegan viewed this as more of a novel, needing to string the reader along and give only tidbits at a time so that the reader could stay engaged. Not what I like in my non-fiction books, especially if I'm reading for fun.
Profile Image for Abhirami Senthilkumaran.
4 reviews47 followers
October 10, 2022
A riveting read on human cognitive development that emphasizes the evolving nature of one's relationship to the world through continuous differentiation from and inclusion with other people.
I found the chapter on natural therapy (i.e., the supporting functions that long-term relationships such as family or community ties provide the growing individual) and the discussion on the limitations of modern (Western) societies in providing such long-term embedding contexts particularly illuminating.
Profile Image for Christopher Brennan.
Author 1 book2 followers
July 31, 2019
This book took a false start to be ready for but once I committed to it I was hooked. While previously unfamiliar with Kegan’s work and the constructive-development approach to psychology and development this book has reshaped some of my thinking but more importantly given me a language and framework to consolidate meaning I have already been making.
52 reviews21 followers
December 14, 2019
the content is great, though hard for me to get through. He talks in a convoluted fashion that makes digestion difficult. Wishing there was a transcription easier to understand. I prefer reading articles on his discovery on 5 stages. Also curious about stages beyond 5 when we move to witness consciousness.
Profile Image for Emily.
133 reviews1 follower
January 24, 2020
An interesting snapshot in the history of cognitive developmental psychology, of which I know very little. I'm not sure where this book lives in the development of this field, but it seems a little too old and a little to friendly with Freud to be up-to-date. I read it to better understand the idea of subject-object relationships, and for that it was helpful!
Profile Image for Erin.
119 reviews
December 18, 2018
I know this book has been around a long time and I probably should have read it long ago...but I am glad I got to it eventually. It gave me lots to think about in terms of human development and how we evolve to make meaning as we work through the tensions between differentiation and connection.
227 reviews
June 3, 2018
Challenging and dense read for those interested in adult development, and the process of meaning making.
Profile Image for Meg.
390 reviews
December 29, 2018
A seminole work though less practical than some of his others.
1 review
September 15, 2022
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Nina Simonds.
12 reviews2 followers
January 4, 2023
An essential read for anyone interested in understanding adult development. It’s a bit dense at times, but full of interesting insights into our meaning making.
Profile Image for culley.
191 reviews26 followers
November 20, 2015
This book is dense and not very readable. That said, it is a fantastic and fascinating look at human development, mapping psychological stages over Piaget’s cognitive stages, and Kohlberg’s Moral stages. Each of Kegan’s stages represent a way in which people construct meaning for themselves, and they also represent holding environments in which people can find balance. When parenting or being with people in crisis it is helpful to consider what sort of holding environment is potentially beneficial. These stages oscillate between the poles of intimacy and autonomy. Personhood is seen as constantly evolving, constantly in flux, and this seems almost obvious to me. I have gathered enough insight from this book to add it to my favorites list.

Sample Reading notes:
107 - intimacy and autonomy are the two great yearnings of humanity.
- the yearning to be included, to be a part of, close to, joined with, to be held, admitted accompanied - intimacy. The yearning to be independent or autonomous, to experience one’s distinctness, the self-chosenness of one’s directions, one’s individual integrity.
- the fearful flip sides of intimacy and autonomy - fear of being completely unseparate, of being swallowed up and taken over. The fear of being totally separate of being utterly alone, abandoned and remote beyond recall.
- these yearnings seem to be in conflict, but they are relation, they are a tension. Our experience of this fundamental ambivalence may be our experience of the unitary restless, creative motion of life itself.
108 - the process of biological evolution involves a balance between differentiation and integration— these are physical components to the emotional ideas of autonomy and intimacy.
- every developmental stage is an evolutionary truce— it sets the terms on the fundamental issue as to how differentiated the organism is from its life-surrounding and how embedded it is. A temporary solution balancing the yearnings for inclusion and distinctness.
- the balances are temporary because they are all slightly imbalanced.
109 - in our culture differentiation is favored in the language of growth and development, while integration gets spoken of in terms of dependency and immaturity.
- with each new stage we revisit old issues but at a whole new level of complexity.

142 - the two greatest yearnings of human life may be the yearning for inclusion (to be welcomed in, next to, held, connected with, a part of) and the yearning for distinctness (to be autonomous, independent, to experience my own agency, the self-chosenness of my purpose)
- every evolutionary truce sets the terms on differentiation and integration.
- the impulsive balance (balance 1) is a temporary resolution on behalf of integration; its central hopes and yearnings are hopes about the other. The balance to come, on the other side of the 5-7 shift, on the other side of the oedipal crisis, is a temporary resolution on behalf of differentiation.
143 - this shift from an overly integrated balance to an overly differentiated one is repeated later in life, usually in late adolescence or early adulthood (interpersonal to institutional, 3-4).
- how the small child navigates this first growth and loss of a full-blown yearning for inclusion must certainly have consequences for its future orientation for this side of life’s motion.
- the person is faced with the need to take leave of his or her young child. The question is where the child goes.
- it is arguable that the roles parents play at this time in the child’s development are in part human embodiments for the child of each of the two fundamental yearnings which the child itself experiences.
144 - men have tended toward overdifferentiation and women toward overintegration
- one of the most important functions of culture is to set limits on the child’s behavior
145 - without contraries there is no progression - william blake
- the best limit-setting is not merely about prevention, control, or the application of authority; it is about the exercise of just those preventions, controls or authorities which we can reasonably assume the developing person to take on her own.
147 - the cookie monster is both monstrous and unterrifying
148 - children need limits, we say; but what they need most of all is a kind of intimate participation in their personal experience of evolution
- Nightmares and fears of bogeymen in the dark may also be a function of having loosed oneself from one’s impulses, notly to have them now uncontrolled and capable of coming after one.
- nightmares are a part of the natural phenomenology of evolutionary change.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews

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