Feeling Good About Yourself?April 3, 2015

I remember doing my first graduate lecture on the further reaches of adult development close to fifteen years ago. I stood up in front of a classroom of people, all whom were older than me, and began my lecture. It was an intense ride. I couldn’t feel much of anything that was going on in the students I was presenting to.

Me, I was too busy attending to the conceptual distinctions in my own mind. I was busy sharpening my intellect. Soon after finishing I could dimly see the aftermath. It was as if an intellectual gatling gun had gone off for the better part of three hours. Metaphorically, you could say I pulled the trigger and didn’t let go until the very end of class. Sure, I opened it up for questions, but my ability to be present and make heartfelt contact with the students in front of me was many years off in my own maturity.

Instead of feeling my own anxiety and uncertainty, I chose to attend rigorously to the sharp and nuanced distinctions in my conceptual world. Instead of acknowledging the nervousness in my hands and the fluttering in my gut, I turned my attention to the multilayered relationships between various theories of adult development. I wanted to deliver unparalleled resolution on the subject matter. And attending to my intellectual prowess was a lot easier than accepting and attending to my embodied sensations of inadequacy and uncertainty.

I share this brief flashback for one reason: I was profoundly wrong in one of my orientations. Then, I taught adult development from a purely conceptual vantage point. Now, I approach development entirely differently.

Today, every lecture I give on adult development comes with a caveat. From the beginning, I encourage my audiences to pay careful attention to their intellectual appetite for ever-refining conceptual distinctions. I caution my audiences—being consumed by these conceptual growth narratives can erode both your well-being and your sense of happiness.

That usually gets people’s attention.

After all, it’s not common for an expert on adult development to tell you that their theories may have negative impacts on happiness and overall well being. But in fact, that’s what some of the research tells us.

While development itself does generally lead to richer, more rewarding lives, when it primarily unfolds as  cognitive or intellectual development, things tend to take a turn for the worse.

Sadly, I’ve met far too many people who have loaded up their intellect with a tremendous arsenal of conceptual distinctions. Meanwhile, these ideas and the mental identities that tend to constellate around them remain divorced from their embodiment.

And, related to that, the quality of their relationships remains untouched by these lofty ideas.

They search for people who can commune with them in their disembodied abstractions. “If only I could find more people who are like me.”

It’s not uncommon for individuals caged in their conceptual developmental narratives to wholeheartedly believe they have outgrown the relationships around them. One of the more hilarious narratives I’ve come across is the belief that a person has more or less developmentally outgrown where humanity presently is.

This of course skips an all important point. Rarely if ever does this narrative inquire into another person’s experience to see how they might be able to serve someone else in the moment.

At least in my own mind if I had sincerely outgrown much of humanity, I might at least extend a helping hand, right?

One of the more ironic forms of this I’ve seen is in highly cognitively developed individuals who have crafted personally-tailored embodiment philosophies. Intellectually, some of us realize we can’t be just a mental symbolic self. So, the next best thing is to intellectually narrate a conceptual integration of embodiment philosophies. The next thing we know, there’s some serious high powered intellectual discourse happening about the body. Unfortunately these conceptual narratives about the body often have little impact on embodiment.

The complexity of developmental movement does not change year-in and year-out, even though the stories we rehearse mentally become more complex.

George Vaillant, one of the magnificent researchers in Harvard’s longitudinal Grant Study on life-long adult development, states in his most recent book, “Maturity makes liars us of all.”

Keep that in mind. Our developmental narratives are often imbued with distortions and flat-out lies to give us the sense that we are developing. How many of us put ourselves “above average?” How many of us are intoxicated by narratives proposing that we are either more or less developed that we actually are? Let’s stop fooling ourselves. Our stories are incredibly important—their integrative scope matters—but our lives are bigger than any story that can be told.

When we look critically at how all-consuming our narratives are to us, it’s easy to see how well-being can quickly start to erode because of an over-reliance on conceptual narratives about development:

Our developmental ideas grab hold of identity. Embodiment often suffers, and we tend to craft narratives that we’re outgrowing the very relationships our culture depends on.

That’s not good. Furthermore, we see systemic developmental limitations all around us. While we can dream up extraordinary ideas of what’s possible, we all too often remain impotent at igniting the cultural shifts our overly complex minds can see.

It’s a nasty place to get stuck. It’s a painful place to get stuck.

As I explore development in my leadership coaching, professional trainings and various teaching and speaking engagements, the dimension I focus on is embodied growth narratives.

These developmental distinctions are not rooted in more complex ideas. While I still find conceptual growth themes important, they are secondary to having a rich embodied understanding of the various stages of development. Instead of placing concepts first, this teaching methodology is grounded in the deepening felt sense of your own life.

The researcher who opened my eyes to this all-important distinction is Jack Bauer. (Not to be confused with the action hero Jack Bauer from the TV show 24.)

Bauer the devoted student, author, professor and researcher of adult development maintains, “only experiential growth narratives, not intellectual growth narratives, correlate with well-being.”

If you want greater well-being, then you should be seeking qualitative changes in the felt texture of your own sense of aliveness. Want greater happiness? Bauer explains, “Participants at the highest stage of ego development appeared to be happier and more focused on experiential growth than participants at lower stages.”

A simple way to understand the distinction I’m advocating for is this:

Experiential growth narratives reveal an increasing capacity to feel good about yourself and a broader ability to love the people around you.

In other words, reaching beyond complexity we find elegance.

No complex theories. No super-abstract distinctions. Some of the highest stages of development we know of, which are correlated with your greater well-being and happiness, come with a larger ability to love yourself and the many people around you.

Find a part of you that isn’t liked? That’s your growing edge. Find someone who you don’t love? There’s your developmental limitation.

Pursuing development is a deeply wise investment. There are very few things more valuable to invest in. However, in my experience the intellectual dimensions are the easiest. Don’t forget about the living felt textures of your experience right now in this sentence. Don’t look past the next person you relate to. Your further development and the securing of greater well-being and a broader—perhaps even “unconditioned”— happiness depends on it.


Rob McNamara
Creator of Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work
Harvard University Teaching Fellow
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program

Rob McNamara’s premiere developmental audio learning program, Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work, is now available. Learn More.


Charles Richards

Yes – when you get beyond the extreme intellectual/conceptual perspective of the Second Tier “system of systems”, I have noticed a spontaneous compassion of the Third Tier. You are no longer living in your own subtle energy body – you have the perspective of the group energy body. You aren’t limited to conceptual wisdom – which is limited by space and time. You begin to tap in gnostic wisdom -which was always there before but just obscured by the conceptual mind. I believe we are setting the bar too low in Integral by settling for Second Tier. Thanks Rob for pointing this out!

Rob McNamara

Thanks for reading Charles & for your comments here.

I’m in agreement with you, I’ve seen much of the integral community ensnared in the realm of concept. Although I don’t think this has anything necessarily to do with “integral” per se, its just reflective of a broader statement on adult development in general. Here’s a bow to the continued expansion of feeling-consciousness and the qualitative differentiations into larger embodied vitalities that, in the end, birth greater, bolder and more elegant expressions of love.

Rebecca Narva

YES!!! awesome and important. We forget again and again that thought, conceptualization and language itself breaks down our embodied wholeness. This can be imprisoning. Koans smash up the prisons of thought. So does love, dance, laughter, humility. I love your essay and feel its keen truth in so much theorizing. Thanks

Rob McNamara

Yes Rebecca, concept and language has much to offer us, if we use it as a tool serving a larger embodied wholeness to your point. Unfortunately most of us aren’t using concepts and language but instead are being used by these mental constructs. And, the engagement of this part of the brain isn’t correlated with positive emotions – in particular, happiness. Thank you kindly for reading and for your comment. Sending your embodied wholeness some good vibes from my neck of the woods…

Maryse Lepage

Touché! I can hear myself having said so many times that I was longing for “like minded people”. This was a time in my life with a painful sense of aloneness and also a comforting feeling of superiority. Having done a bit more traveling down the road of development, I uncover everyday the many riches of what is right here. On one hand, it is always fun to throw around some new intellectual concepts with people who have an appetite for the conversation, on the other hand I can feel an unfolding of my capacity to love those who travel this life with me. Thank you for the invitation to feel deeply.

terese feltes

Excellently stated Rob, I can relate on many levels. I will pass this on.
Thank you!

Laura J. Nigro, M.S.

At risk of succumbing to the welcome, incandescent abstraction which this piece itself is, I respond:
Did you catch that? If not, it’s because it happened in my chest, then low in my gut, not out through my writing fingers. An affirmation via somatic sensation. Counter-weighting the rarified thinking that far too often stunts and isolates me.
Tingling and rumbling, and bowing in your general direction.

Rob McNamara

Thank you!
Bowing back to you Laura – thank you kindly for reading and for your post here. Deeply appreciated in this here heart.


beautiful message. I am humbled. I have been noticing lately my ego hijacking all that you discussed as the intellectual “bypassing” of our embodiment. Perhaps some compassion for what I am afraid of is in order.

Rob McNamara


Here’s some compassion coming your way! Meet the intensity of your fear with kindness & allow yourself to give room for the embodied sensations of fear itself. All my best,

John Carey

Thank you for this Rob. The feeling of alienation is one I have allowed myself to succumb to many times. Returning to the real people who make up the texture of experience, whatever the developmental levels, is the thing that brings me “home” again and able to apply the intellectual discernments through conscious, caring acts.

The edge for me is working on all the unloved parts within.

Rob McNamara

John, If I may, I’d love to give you a reframe. I have found it most useful in my own life and relationships. If it’s helpful, run with it. If not, discard freely.

Instead of “returning” to the real people in your life – which is a beautiful intention by the way – consider “discovering yourself through” the many relationships of your life. For me, this reframe brings forth a more nuanced and intimate connection with the people around me. And, I find myself more flexible and delightfully surprised at how I take shape and who I become through the people in my life.

Thank you kindly for reading and for your post here John. Thanks for the kindness you’re bringing toward the unloved parts within.

Brian McConnell

I appreciate the elegance Rob, in your expression of this practical and (sometimes) all too personal, dilemma:

“Sadly, I’ve met far too many people who have loaded up their intellect with a tremendous arsenal of conceptual distinctions. Meanwhile, these ideas and the mental identities that tend to constellate around them remain divorced from their embodiment.”

Perhaps it’s because I view myself as something of a novice to group or collective work however, that mustering the courage to interact with others on their own terms, while simultaneously preserving the dignity and integrity of the whole, remains so challenging.

. . . “unconditioned” happiness? Something to think about!

Susanne Cook-Greuter

Thanks for giving “Intellectual bypassing” a label. I will gladly adopt it. It’s a phenomenon I pointed out in 1995 as part of comprehensive language awareness. Even Jane Loevinger way back when (1970’s) always pointed out that “higher development is not necessarily happier or more adapted”. Thanks for reminding us of this truth. Susann

Rob McNamara

My absolute pleasure Susanne – lovely to hear from you here! Right now I’ve got a sweetness in my eyes and a tenderness in my heart for you and the immense gifts you’ve given us. Huge – forehead to the floor – bow to you. I love that you were bringing forward these distinctions 20 years ago. What was Rob doing back in ’95? I was in still in high school! I can’t thank you enough & it’s because of your work that I discovered Bauer’s distinctions.

Big Love coming your way Susanne,

maria bailey

I was just reading by Loori, “No matter how valuable and wonderful gold dust is, when it gets in our eyes, it blinds us. Anything we attach to has that potential to blind us to what is real.” Reading your post just had an stereo effect in my soul together with Loori’s reading.
Dear friend, thank you for your unwavering curiosity and sincerity in the unfolding of the inconsequential. My heart perks up with the sound of your bell ringing. And one could be so blessed to listen.

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