Social maturity and borderline personality disorder

When I was surfing the web the other day, I came across a paper about social maturity and I found the title intriguing, as social maturity does definitely not describe me at all, yet is something I wish I had. I started to read the article, but was quickly put off it because it’s a lot of text and virtually no pictures and lots of big words and had me feeling stupid and frustrated in no time.

But one of the advantages of having a mom who’s a shrink is that I can ask her to read it and then explain to me what it’s all about in terms I can understand.

So here’s – in a nutshell – what the article says. Which is basically that this guy Kegan assumed that people’s social maturity (= the degree of understanding of the social world) develops after a similar pattern as cognitive maturity (= the degree of ability to make sense of stuff and understand logic up to abstract concepts). He assumed that it develops in stages from basically “no social understanding” up to “being able to understand even very complex social problems”.

He suggested these stages be called:

  • Incorporative
  • Impulsive
  • Imperial
  • Interpersonal
  • Institutional
  • InterIndividual

Here’s a short summary of what each is supposed to mean:

Incorporative stage: the baby not having any sense of self yet, only sensory experiences and reflexes (like crying in response to an unpleasant sensation)

Impulsive stage: the baby realizing it actually IS not its senses and reflexes, but HAS them, that there is an “I” separate from the senses and reflexes that has needs (= impulses) and can take action to make stuff happen (e.g. cry intentionally to satisfy an impulse like hunger.) Others aren’t understood to be separate beings yet, but just something that be called into action to satisfy an impulse.

Imperial stage: the child becomes aware that it IS not her needs but HAS them, and that it can consciously manipulate things or people to get them satisfied. It expresses those needs and demands them met, without considering anyone else, because while it is now aware that others are separate from them, there is no awareness that they have feelings and needs and their own perceptions, too (kind of like they were robots, I figure, that can be manipulated into satisfying needs).

Interpersonal stage: the child becomes aware that other people actually are NOT robots, but have needs and feelings and own perceptions, too, that need to be taken into account. At the same time there is no inner guideline yet that tells the child whose needs should be more important – it can be the needs of others (always putting others first) – it can be its own needs (always putting itself first) – or it might go back and forth between the two. Children can now experience things like guilt or shame and a conscience, too, because they have become aware that they are not the only ones with valid needs or feelings.

Institutional stage: the child realized that there are institutionalized (= agreed upon by society and established) values and ideas and principles that can guide her behavior, like “fairness” or “honesty” or legal boundaries. The child can grasp why those are important and can (or should) not just be ignored when they are inconvenient.

InterIndividual stage: the adult realized that his or her own institutionalized values, ideas and principles aren’t the only valid ones, and that even values that other groups of people have agreed upon can be valid and justified and can be considered and respected for social interactions, even when they are not shared, or conflict with the own set of values etc. Even many adults don’t reach this stage, though, and continue to simply condemn or disregard institutionalized ideas that don’t agree with their own.

Okay, so far so good. I got it that far.

The next point the essay talked about was how people with personality disorders are supposedly stuck in earlier stages of social maturity. Like a Narcissist who can genuinely not comprehend on a social and emotional level that other people have needs and feelings that need to be considered, too, and aren’t less important than their own. While they might KNOW that, it has no social or emotional meaning to them and they are stuck at the Imperial stage, demanding everyone satisfy their needs. Which is not generally well liked in people over three or four years old.

So what about BPD? I suppose that personally I am stuck at the Interpersonal stage, with occasional lapses to the Imperial stage. I am usually aware that other people have needs and feelings, I am utterly capable of feeling shame and guilt, but I am not yet able to reliably let institutionalized principles guide my decisions about whose needs and feelings are more important in which situation. While I KNOW about those principles and values etc, I can’t feel them in those situations and can not apply them yet.

Which makes me wonder, what do people need to advance? How do you get more socially mature? I’m sure it must have something to do with experiences, because if it was only about knowing about those things, I would be there.

I’m wondering if maybe one stage needs to be completed with a satisfactory result in order to properly “graduate” to the next? Like when those earlier stages have been somehow messed with, maybe you just don’t have collected enough of what’s needed to proceed? So maybe I need to figure out what people are supposed to learn and experience at the interpersonal stage in order to advance . . .

Gee, I don’t know, it’s complicated. My mom has no good answers ready either. The essay said Kegan wrote a book that covers those questions called “In Over Our Heads”. Maybe I need to get my mom to read it . . .  😀

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. endpicking
    Oct 20, 2012 @ 21:32:22

    This was so interesting and informative. Thanks 🙂

  2. Lola
    Oct 21, 2012 @ 06:09:09

    I think what was the biggest light bulb moment for me was that there is a big difference between being logically able to grasp a concept – I can understand each and every one of those stages just fine – and being able to emotionally understand it. Chances are that a concept that is logically understood, but holds no emotional meaning will not influence the behavior for the better in an emotionally charged situation. And in a calm moment skills that require the emotional understanding of a higher maturity level than what I’m currently on can probably only be mimicked, not truly adopted from a place of emotional understanding. Which might well be why any skills training failed so miserably with me. If that makes sense?

    • confessionsofbpd
      Oct 22, 2012 @ 00:39:30

      This is very thoughtful and insightful. I know exactly what you mean because I’ve always felt that there is a huge disconnect between my rational mind and my emotional mind. That is to say that I can rationally understand why people would feel a certain way, but sometimes I don’t feel empathy for them or share that same emotion. It’s almost as though I know what they need and why they need it, but it is forced for some reason. Like I have to fake it. 😦

      • Lola
        Oct 22, 2012 @ 07:47:05

        I know what you mean about the rational mind and the emotional mind being disconnected. Or in different stages of development. Only yesterday I talked with my mom how it can be that while I understand those concepts, they hold so little emotional meaning to me, and she said that most likely I’m not on the emotional developmental level yet to find them meaningful, like because other emotions are in the way. Maybe I need to figure out if emotional development goes in stages, too, and if so, what they are and what stage I am at and if there’s something to help me along. If I find something out about it, I’ll post it.

  3. Trackback: Emotional development, emotional maturity and BPD « Who needs normal?!
  4. Trackback: Self-soothing skills and Borderline Personality Disorder « Who needs normal?!
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