In Over Our Heads is about the societal expectations of higher orders of consciousness that most of us do not have.

All of us will spend some portion of our adult lives overmatched by the demands of modernism, the compulsory “major” in our culture’s curriculum.

The book details Robert Kegan’s model of adult development — basically a series of increasingly sophisticated ways one can approach ethical reasoning.

Growth is a process of ‘leaving home’. It is a process of leaving the mental homes they have furnished and made familiar.

Stages of Adult Development

Stage 2: Self

  • the subject (self) is a collection of short-term practical interests
  • ethics in this mode is “instrumental”: aimed at satisfying your own needs, while working with or around other people’s. Relationships are “transactional”: transient alliances for mutual benefit.

Stage 3: Communal

  • no longer a collection of interests but you have interests
  • you are in relationships and find yourself defined by them
  • the other’s point of view matters to us intrinsically, not just extrinsically as a means of satisfying our more egocentric purposes — one gains the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes
  • stage 3’s limitation is that it cannot resolve conflicts between responsibilities to different relationships. If one person wants you to do something, and another person wants you to do something different, there is no good basis for decision
  • it’s impossible to base a large-scale society on the communal mode, because it’s so ineffective at coordinating complex group activities. (If individuals frequently fail to do their specific, agreed tasks, nothing can get done.) Modern societies are based on the systematic mode — see group limits and social contracts

Stage 4: Systematic

  • you no longer are in relationships that define you; you have relationships
  • you are “self-authored”: you choose your own principles, projects, and commitments
  • it means seeing the other person for who they really are. Emotions are just something people have, from time to time. Those need to be dealt with, but should not be taken too seriously. Relating to the other person’s principles, projects, and commitments means supporting what they most care about in the longer run

Stage 5: Fluid

We do not have one fixed “self” we can simply “be”

  • systems are relativized. They move from subject to object, and are subordinated to, and organized by, the process of meaning-making itself
  • you are no longer defined as a system of principles, projects, and commitments. You have several such systems, “multiple selves,” none of them entirely coherent, and which have different values—and this is no longer a problem, because you respect all of them
  • there is sometimes an uncomfortable middle between systematic (stage 4) and fluid (stage 5) stages often referred to as stage 4.5 where nihilism and postmodernism commonly emerges. Understanding that there is no ultimate meaning, one comes to the wrong conclusion that there are no meanings at all
  • sees systems as nebulous (intangible, interpenetrating, transient, amorphous, and ambiguous) and patterned (reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite)

Independence and love

  • To want to find the answer for oneself is not to reject the advice of others
    • ”is not just rejecting the assumptions of her husband or church or culture; she is rejecting her relationship to these assumptions as truths”
    • the discovery here is not that one may have different ideas, values, or beliefs but rather ideas, values, and beliefs are by their very nature assumptive
  • What brings two people together in the first place?
    • “we find each other in love out of some correspondence we feel with our deepest personal and primordial themes of longing, hoping, and desiring."
    • "these deeply felt desires and needs animate our personal images, themes, stories, and myths. And the images, themes, stories, and myths inside our skins look for people to portray and enact them outside”
  • Marriage is a partnership between two distinct individuals who do not share one mind, heart, and soul
    • Differences need not signal the failure of their closeness or bond but rather the reality of their distinctness
    • Corollary: successful couples do not give up the pursuit of closeness in their intimate relationship but reconstruct the very definition of what closeness is about
    • Rilke: “once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky”
  • On autonomy
    • Increasing autonomy does not have to be a story of increasing aloneness
    • Deciding for myself does not have to equal deciding by myself
    • In seems true, for example, as many have argued, that North American culture promotes and expects individuation and separation while many South American, Africa, and Asian cultures promote and expect the self-in-the-collective and the maintenance of attachments.
    • It may not be true that South American, Africans, or Asians partake any less than their North American counterparts in processes of increasing psychological differentiation, self-regulation, or even autonomy. Rather, they may partake of such processes in the context of the collective.
  • On mismatched love (e.g. familial)
    • “Suppose you have a dog. A big-hearted, high-energy dog who begins to bark, and won’t shut up, every time someone approaches your door. Now one day your dog starts into howling something first. He sounds a terrible alarm. You look out the window and it’s just your friendly neighbourhood mailman. So what do you do? You aren’t going to shoot your dog dead. He’s a pain but you wouldn’t think of it. Your dog loves you. He barks to warn you when anyone approaches. He wants nothing bad to happen to you. That’s just how he is. Problem is, he’s completely indiscriminate. He thinks everyone’s a danger, barks at anyone who approaches… You’re going to have a look for yourself. You’re going to bend over and stroke your dog. ‘Down boy,’ you say. ‘It’s just the postman. No harm here, silly guy‘“
    • This is very much a metaphor for many familial relationships (especially in Asian-Canadian/Asian-American families) in which family is incredibly overprotective of their children, despite the pleas of the children to have their own independence and to not be constantly told of what to do (I am guilty of this as well)
    • Here it is noteworthy that suggested way of navigating this relationship is one that puts you the relation between you and the parents as an object rather than the subject — to realize that you no longer are in relationships that define you; you have relationships (A stage 3 to stage 4 development)

On self-confidence and being whole

Wholesomeness not in the aesthetic sense but as in the wholeness of the self

When American POWs from the Vietnam era were first released, nearly all performed the same two first acts after being flown to Wiesbaden, Germany: they took showers and called loved ones.

Interestingly, the men were far more likely to shower first and then to call loved ones. The women were more likely to call loved ones first and then to shower.

The difference is not necessarily that the men are more selfish and care more about their own bodily comfort than about their loved ones — in fact, they could have well thought what was most important was to talk to their loved ones but couldn’t do that in a ‘self’ that doesn’t feel cleansed or psychologically restored.

The difference is not between “selfish” and “altruistic” — both groups may have been doing first what they needed to do to restore the self — in that sense, could be said to be “selfish”. The difference is in how the self is made whole. For some, the self is restored by itself and is not until then capable or fit for precious connection. For others, the self is restored in and through connection.

On therapy

  • Many times the efforts in individual therapy to convert a client’s stance toward the past or present story of their life from one of helpless victim to creative agent not only fails but can cause them to feel unhappier still
  • The implicit message in such reconstructions is that “you are responsible for your life”
  • If the client already constructs the world at the fourth order, they will more likely hear this as a confirmation of their personal authority
    • A reminder that while the things that others do to me or that happen to me may not be in my control, the meaning I make of them can be
    • A reminder that while I cannot change the wind, I can change my sails
    • This is a confirmation of my own power
  • If the client constructs the world at the third order however, they are likely to hear the same message as a declaration of my blameworthiness
    • ”You are responsible for your own life” is then less an inspiring rallying call to self-authorship than a humiliating and dispiriting judgement that I have only myself to blame for the fix I am in
  • This is the essence of “In Over Our Heads” — that the systems that we are expected to function in expect much higher orders of consciousness that the vast majority of us have attained
  • Relevant: Kierkegaard on teaching — “instruction begins when you put yourself in his place so that you understand what he understands and in the way he understands it”
    • Trying to teach someone who is has a third order consciousness assuming they have fourth order is like trying to explain a three-dimensional sphere to a Flatlander: it neither sees a sphere nor has any sense that there is more than what it sees — namely, a two-dimensional circle, that piece of a sphere its plane runs through.
    • The one being taught will only recognize the fourth order teachings in third order structures.