Stages of Emotional Maturity (Intelligence)

I studied developmental psychology in graduate school. In fact, it was the topic of my dissertation. So I’m aware of many theories related to childhood, moral, cognitive and ego development as well as extensive literature from the new sciences of emotional intelligence and positive psychology that describe the stages of human development and especially human healthiness. These subjects have been fascinating to me but I also realize that they are not easy to quantify and measure.

Nevertheless, I’ve long taught that people live in one of four states of being, which could be considered levels of emotional development or maturity. These are: survival (fear-based living); security (duty-based living), success (ego based living) and serenity (love/trust-based living). My purpose in this article is to describe some of the major characteristics of each of these ways of living. Ultimately, I’m most interested in the characteristics of highly functioning people, self-actualized people, in the words of Abraham Maslow.

Let me make a few qualifications about the four stages I’m about to describe. First, each of these ways of living is qualitatively different. As we move from one way of being to another, a number of dimensions of our experience shift—how we view others, how we feel about ourselves, our motivation, our willingness to take responsibility for ourselves, etc. Second, we are not locked into one way of living but may shift between them in different roles, circumstances or moments of our lives. And finally, it is not “bad” to be in one state and “good” to be in another. In fact, they are all part of our human experience, and there are valuable lessons to learn in each. That said, here we go.


Life is a battleground, even painful, and yet I feel quite powerless to do anything about it. Events are happening that seem bigger than my ability to influence. Of course, painful events occur in everyone’s life, but in Survival, my awareness is relatively limited and so I don’t see options for dealing with these events. I feel victimized and simply react. I create drama. Usually, the drama takes one of two forms. I lash out and become aggressive, critical or harsh. Or, I withdraw by retreating into depression and self-pity, feeling defeated by life. A great deal of emotional energy is required to cope with the stresses of life, and so I may face any number of anxiety-related problems: ulcers, hypertension, insomnia, headaches, depression, or even mental illness.

Most life tasks are viewed as unpleasant so I spend time avoiding or just getting by. My behavior seems to be governed by “have to” or “afraid not to.”  Although my life is dominated by negative feelings such as fear, anger, or inadequacy, I have little ability to tolerate such feelings and so act them out in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others. Because I am lost in fear I have little respect for myself or others. I see only the faults of people around me. I experience myself as not okay (although I probably would not admit it) and life as a hassle.

Although a brief description, you probably get the picture. Life is not very pleasant and I don’t see a lot of options to make it better. Some people regress to a survival mode after a crisis or tragedy. It takes a while to work through what happened and get back on their feet. For others, it’s a chronic way of life, surviving, feeling victimized, just getting by.

The way out of Survival is to develop self-discipline when confronting problems and challenges. This requires the ability to delay gratification and engage in unpleasant effort and work in order to create a more stable existence. It also means being able to maintain enough emotional composure to respond rather than fly off the handle and react to problems and interpersonal difficulties.


A majority of people live in Security. Life can seem pretty challenging, even unsafe. So I create a comfort zone in which to feel emotionally safe and avoid challenging responsibilities. I don’t live to win but to avoid–discomfort, rejection, failure,  losing. I conform to the way society (my reference group) has taught me to be. My behavior is governed by “shoulds” and “oughts.”  Responsibility takes the form of doing my duty, what is expected of me. I want to be a good person, parent, worker. I’m steady, dependable, technically honest. My awareness is pretty limited. I live life mechanically, going through the motions, following pretty much the same routine every day. Maybe I find some hobbies or recreation to break up the monotony but I don’t want to stretch too far beyond what seems comfortable.

The way I feel about myself is influenced by how I perceive that others think about me. I want to belong and know that I’m liked. I often subordinate my needs to what they expect. I may change how I act depending on who I’m around and may even conform to a negative standard or behavior if it is what others are doing. I usually avoid conflict. The message I communicate is “I won’t hurt/upset you if you won’t hurt/upset me.” I may be quite dogmatic in certain beliefs and don’t associate with people who are “different” from me.

Security is not a bad life. It just lacks spark and deeper personal fulfillment. The key to moving from Security to Success is to become proactive. I need to claim my responsibility and authority; discover my passion and courage; step outside of my comfort zone and dream and then take initiative to make things happen.


I’m proactive. I’m not content with the way things are but strive for more, better and different. I want to succeed, make a difference, leave my mark. I am able to sustain discipline, hard work and goal-directed activities. For most people, success has to do with material and tangible accomplishments like wealth, power, status, or mastery of some given domain. I tend to be competitive and demanding, at least of myself if not those around me. My self esteem is based on performance and so I live with a chronic anxiety about failure and uneasiness about being found to be not quite good enough.

I’m aware of my needs, wants and opinions, although not necessarily feelings. I’m still governed by “oughts” and “shoulds,” although they come more from within than without. I project a competent image to others, want to be in control, and am uncomfortable displaying signs of weakness.  It is not uncommon for my personal relationships to pay a price for my hard work since I don’t want to feel vulnerable and may be more concerned with productivity than people. Although I get a lot done, when living from this paradigm, I often pay a high price in personal stress. Although I take responsibility to make things happen, life is a roller coaster of ups and downs based on how well things are going.

Most people can see themselves in the patterns of survival, security and success. Although we’re likely to have a “home base” that defines our basic orientation to life, we bounce back and forth between them depending on our roles and circumstances. I’d say that ten to fifteen percent of us live mostly in survival. Seventy to eighty percent in security. Another ten or fifteen percent (the movers and shakers of the world) live in the success paradigm.

Consider your life. When do you live in survival? Security? Success? What is your “home base?” And what is the evidence?

And, is there something more?

Serenity is a fourth way of living. You’ve lived there too. In my next article, I’d like to define it and illustrate what makes it different from the other themes around which we organize our lives.

About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit>.

3 responses to “Stages of Emotional Maturity (Intelligence)”

  1. […] most of us, self esteem is conditional. In the Security Paradigm (see blog post of Feb 4) it has to do with belonging and approval. In the Success Paradigm it is measured by external […]



    • Roger Allen says:

      Hi Gabriel,
      The home we grow up in makes all the difference. I agree. However, when we don’t grow up in a nurturing home, we can still learn the skills to be emotionally mature. It is much harder and takes a great willingness to assume responsibility for ourselves. Thank you for your comment. Roger

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