Last time we looked at how consciousness evolves through various stages of development. In this post we’ll look at what happens when this process goes wrong.
Back to the house building metaphor: as the foundations for your character are being laid problems can arise which lead to difficulties later in life. If the support structures in your house aren’t stable, the walls will crumble around you and if you’re really unlucky, the roof will cave in.
It’s the same with character.
At each stage of development it’s possible to get stuck because we fail to meet the challenge of growth. Our future development can then become distorted. Life continues to grow and move forward, but often in destructive ways. Scar tissue forms over the wound, like a bad leg fracture that hasn’t set right and leaves you with a permanent limp. These kinks are your neuroses and psychoses, bad tempers, mood swings and blind spots. But they’re also the individual quirks and idiosyncrasies that make you so endearing!
How we evolve: Transcend and Include
Evolution moves towards increasing levels of complexity, and previous stages are incorporated into the next stage. For example, your body is composed of many organs, bones and blood, and these are composed of individual cells with various functions. The cells are made from atoms, which are made from subatomic particles, which are made from energy. So you are energy arranged into atoms, arranged into cells, arranged into organs, arranged into a body. Each level includes the previous one.
It’s the same with consciousness. The mind is a dynamic, evolving process in a state of constant change. It is flexible and adapts to changing conditions, creating new concepts and mental structures through learning. This process is driven by archetypes in the collective unconscious which progressively introduce new structures into the psyche – in others words, new ways of perceiving or interpreting reality. Each new structure is of a higher order than the one preceding it, more complex and so more unified or inclusive. We can’t skip a stage of development – jump ahead from the Emotional self to full-blown Ego, for example. We need to grow through the levels.
So why do we get stuck?
At every stage there’s a conflict between the current level and the new level trying to come through. Life naturally wants to grow and evolve, but sometimes it meets resistance. This leads to a crisis and a solution must be found:
Change or die.
Evolution seems to happen because of this conflict. Life is driven to transcend itself through conflict resolution driven by stress. But too much stress can make an individual, or a society, move backwards. We devolve to a prior state rather than evolve to the next natural level. There’s no guarantee that evolution will happen, or that change will always be positive or be a movement forwards.
To evolve to a new level of consciousness we must transcend the old level. But this doesn’t mean getting rid of or denying the old structure. The new structures are built on the foundations of the old ones. For example, we don’t stop crawling when we learn how to walk. We can still crawl if we want to, it’s just that walking is more efficient and involves less wear and tear on our poor knees.
It’s the same with levels of consciousness. As each new level is reached, the previous level is transcended and included. For example, when the self starts to differentiate from the body, it doesn’t deny the existence of the body. It transcends the body but still includes it in awareness.
But part of the self can remain attached at a particular level, even if the rest keeps growing. This can happen because the self isn’t a singular entity. There are many different lines of development and each can function at a different stage. Some of the lines include: cognitive, self-identity, sexuality, moral, interpersonal, conative style, empathy, and so on.
This sounds complicated (and it is!) but here’s an example: an individual could have a high level of development cognitively (Developing Ego) and yet be stuck at a lower level of development morally (Role self). This person would be rational for the most part, but when it came to moral decisions they would revert to conventional, authoritarian opinions. In other words, their rationality would be compromised and they may be easily led by people in authority over them.
When part of the self gets stuck at a particular stage, it’s because the process of transcendence hasn’t worked properly. We’re still attached at that level and so can’t transcend it fully, leaving us open to developmental problems further down the line.
Problems by Stage
For example, at the Symbiosis Stage (Infrared, Undifferentiated) problems here mean you may not feel very real as a person. You may feel drawn into activities that allow you to move back into a state of unity, looking for self dissolution or annihilation. You may suffer from a lack of clear boundaries, and may be prone to addictions and self-destructive acts, such as suicide, or experience psychosis.
At the Impulsive Stage (Magenta, Emotional self) problems can lead to oral fixations and difficulties separating from your mother. You may become a mummy’s boy or girl, or have problems with over-eating or smoking. Norman Bates from the film Psycho is a perfect, but extreme, example of a mother complex gone bad. You may also develop narcissistic or borderline personality disorders.
At the Self-Protective Stage (Red, Membership self) you start to transcend the body and if you get stuck here, you may have problems with authority and control. You may need someone to tell you what to do and so hand your power over to others. Or you become very controlling yourself, developing a need to have power over others at any cost. Developmental problems at this stage include neuroses such as anxiety and phobias, as well as depression, guilt, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
At the Conformist Stage (Amber, Role self) the mind transcends the body and this increases the feeling of being separate from other people and the world. You start to become more aware of your vulnerability in life. You are alone and isolated from others. They have their bodies and minds, you have yours. Problems here can lead to script pathologies, so the stories you tell yourself about who you are may be less than helpful. Such as, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m stupid”, or “Love always hurts.”
At the Conscientious Stage (Orange, Developing Ego) the self begins to fragment as we learn to reflect on our own thinking and roles in life. Problems here include role confusion, identity crises, as well as issues around sexuality. The problems of the Individualistic Stage (Green, Mature Ego) continue on from the previous stage with more identity crises.
With all these potential pitfalls, becoming your authentic self seems almost impossible. It’s no wonder most of us get a little lost along the way. We’re the walking wounded!
So where do all these kinks in our mind end up?
The Elephant in the Room
The mind has various defence mechanisms that kick in to protect us from suffering as we grow up. They function in four main ways:
Denial and repression are both ways of blocking information or experiences from consciousness. Denial blocks stuff coming in from outside, and repression deals with the stuff already on the inside. Distortion and rationalisation are more cerebral and manipulative. Distortion changes information as it comes in from the outside, like spin doctoring, whereas rationalisation alters what we already know to fit the way we want things to be.
In other words, we lie to ourselves.
If we return to the idea of building a house we can see how these defence mechanisms work. In the process of construction some areas of the build may not go to plan. Perhaps the internal walls aren’t quite in the right place, the windows aren’t straight, the floor slopes in places and the roof leaks. When you move in you’re going to have problems. There’ll be buckets to catch the drips from the leaky roof and some rooms won’t be useable at all. Whole areas of the house will be shut up and ignored. You can’t use the basement because the ceiling is threatening to cave in, so you fill it with all your old junk and stuff you never want to see again.
You may spend a fortune doing up the exterior of the house, get it looking fantastic so no one suspects the mess on the inside. When you have friends round you make sure they only see certain parts of the house. Of course you don’t tell them they can’t see it all, that would only draw attention to it and make them curious. You just wow them with the parts they can see, exaggerate their importance, overdo the décor, and fill the rooms with interesting possessions. Failing that you could just leave them mesmerised in front of the TV.
All the locked up rooms, hidden junk and structural anomalies masked by strategically hung pictures, represent what Jung called the Shadow.
And this is what we’ll be looking at next time in: The Dark Side of the Ego