The ideas in this blog post are me trying to flesh out my thinking and learning associated with a new book that I am reading: “Immunity to Change” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

Let me start with what I have come to believe as truth:

  • While we may be limited in the degree to which we can change and rewire our brain, we can always improve our mental maturity and think in increasingly complex and agile ways
  • To (1) become more of the person that we want to become and (2) solve the problems and frustrations that we currently face requires developing greater mental maturity

What is Mental Maturity?

Mental maturity relates to our ability to think in more complex and agile ways.

Let me give you an example of what this means.

Consider the conflicting needs we are all facing with the Covid-19 situation: the need for safety and the need for a healthy and working economy.

Those who are less mentally mature tend to either (1) avoid the conflict altogether, or (2) rush to take a stance on one side or the other, often with rather strong opinions.

Those who are more mentally mature do a better job sitting with the conflict. This allows them to do a better job of exploring the pros and cons associated with each side of the conflict

Thus, one indicator of our mental maturity is that we are able to sit with and effectively deal with complexity.

Levels of Mental Maturity

I don’t think mental maturity is as cut-and-dried as this, but experts on the topic have identified three levels or plateaus of mental maturity.

1. The Socialized Mind

Someone at this level is subject to the values and expectations of their surroundings. Their desire is to “fit in.” Any perceived unalignment with their social surround feels risky and dangerous because not fitting in means being cut off from the social protections of being involved in the group. One’s focus at this level of maturity is on being evaluated favorably by those around them, and their sense of self is directly related to how the group views them. They look to the group as the authority.

2. The Self-authoring Mind

Someone at this level is able to distinguish the opinions of others from their own opinions. They may take the opinions of others into account, but they choose how much and in what way those opinions influence them. Rather than seeing their membership in a group as their identity, they see their membership in a group as part of their identity. They are able to see themselves as a more complex creature. Rather than always going with the opinions, values, and beliefs of the group, they are able to prioritize them, combine them, and create new ones. This enables them to be the author of their reality. They look within them to find the source of internal authority. They are no longer anxious about being excluded from the group. They are anxious about falling short of their own standards.

3. The Self-transforming Mind

Someone at this level is more of a systems thinker. Where someone on the previous level is able to create their own value system, someone at this level is able to recognize that they have multiple value systems and that they are an even more complex creature. A key ability at this level seems to be that we possess the ability to look at our frameworks, paradigms, and mental lenses, rather than choicelessly through these things. We create a bigger emotional and mental space that allows us to see our current state, not as a finished product, but as a current draft. This is important because when we view ourselves as a finished product, we regard all suggestions to the contrary as a blow to the self. But when we view ourselves as a current draft, we regard suggestions to the contrary as being valuable pieces of information.

Why it is so Important to Improve Our Mental Maturity

We can think about the importance of improving our mental maturity in two ways: (1) overcoming problems, and (2) reaching goals or developing ourselves.

Overcoming Problems

If we are having problems or experiencing friction at our current level of mental maturity, we must realize that resolving those problems or that friction is unlikely to occur at that level. If we stay at our current level, we will be unable to activate the change and transformation to bring about solutions to the frustrations we are facing.

For example, if we struggle with anxiety of some type, or our problems are causing us anxiety, an important part of enhancing our mental maturity is building a more expansive anxiety-management system.

Reaching Goals/Developing Ourselves

If we are not yet where we want to be, we must realize there is a path that takes us where we want to go. But, that path will always take us to higher and higher levels of maturity. We just have to be willing to go there.

Generally, our first step in reaching goals and developing ourselves is to employ plans, improve our knowledge, and/or enhance our behavioral repertoire. When we do any of these things, we are focused on getting where we want to go without increasing our level of mental maturity. If this works, great! But, what we generally discover is that this rarely works.

Overall

Most personal development primarily involves learning, not unlike downloading new files and programs onto a computer. While this might give us greater range and versatility, our abilities to resolve problems and to grow will always be limited by our current operating system. Improving our mental maturity is how we upgrade our operating system.

Improving our Mental Maturity

When it comes to improving our mental maturity, there are two things to consider: (1) what generally prevents us from becoming more mentally mature, and (2) things we can proactively do to enhance our mental maturity.

What Prevents Us from Becoming More Mentally Mature?

The reality is that we do. We are the ones preventing ourselves from greater mental maturity and all the benefits that come with it.

Generally, we are comfortable on our current plane of mental maturity and much of our identity is wrapped up in this plane. Any invitation to improve our mental maturity feels uncomfortable and scary.

For example, why do only one in seven patients change their lifestyle after their doctor tells them to change (e.g., diet, exercise, stop smoking), or prematurely die? It isn’t because they don’t care about dying, and it isn’t because they don’t want to make the change. It is because they want to ‘save their life’ as they currently know it.

When we are invited to change, our current “life” is put at risk. In fact, transformation suggests that we must let our “old self” die for our “new self” to arise. This is a scary proposition.

According to Kegan and Lahey: “The implication is that we cannot succeed with adaptive challenges without recognizing that we are putting at risk what has been a very well-functioning way of taking care of ourselves.”

We have a natural immune system whose purpose is to protect us. While it is well-intended, it often rejects calls for us stepping up in our mental maturity and transforming.

When we resist the calls for enhancing our mental maturity and respective transformation, our fear of change to protect “our self” leaves us blind to possibilities, prevents new learning, and constantly prolongs any anxieties or friction that we are feeling.

Overcoming this immune system and enhancing our mental maturity takes courage. We need to take action and carry on even when we are afraid and uncertain of what life will look like as our “new selves” because that is the only way to realize the new, higher level of functioning we truly want to attain.

Something We Can Proactively Do to Enhance our Mental Maturity

When we are improving our mental maturity, one indicator of moving up a level is that we become able to look at what before we could only look through.

To better explain this, let me introduce mindsets. Mindsets are the mental lenses that we look through to view the world. They dictate how we think, learn, and behave. They are the reason why two people can see the same situation, yet interpret it differently.

Our mindsets generally reside below the level of our consciousness. While we may not be aware of them, because we are looking through them, they are dictating nearly everything that we do.

Recognizing this, it suggests that if we want to improve our mental maturity, we must have the ability to look at what we are used to looking through. In other words, we need to become conscious of our nonconscious mindsets.

As we do so, our mindsets become less of things that control us, and more of tools that we can transform and employ to more successfully navigate our situations.

As we become more conscious of our mindsets, we become able to step outside of our own ideology or framework, observe the framework’s limitations or defects, and re-author better and more comprehensive ideologies and frameworks.

And, if we really want to push the envelope with our mental maturity, consider this: Even in re-authoring better and more comprehensive ideologies and frameworks, true mental maturity is demonstrated when we recognize that our re-authored views will have its own limitations that will require eventual transformation once again.

Next Steps

As I learned this information, one thing stood out. If we want to improve our success, we must operate at a qualitatively higher level of mental maturity than we currently possess.

To help you in this effort, I have developed a free personal mindset assessment to help you look at what you generally look through. As you take the assessment, you will receive an individualized and comprehensive mindset report that is designed to help you enhance your mental maturity.

Also, my book, Success Mindsets, will deepen and speed up your mental maturity journey. Check it out: