Stages of Emotional Maturation

Stages of growth of a daisy are a metaphor for emotional maturation

I studied developmental psychology in graduate school. In fact, it was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. So I’m aware of many theories related to the stages of childhood, moral, cognitive, and ego development. In this article, I want to present my own theory of four stages of emotional maturation in adults.

Four States of Emotional Maturation

I’ve long perceived that people live in one of four states of being, which could be considered levels of emotional development or maturation. They are: Survival (fear-based living); Security (duty-based living), Success (ego based living) and Serenity (love/trust-based living). I want 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, those who live from Serenity (similar to Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization).

Before diving in, I want to make a few qualifications about the four stages. 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.


In this stage of emotional maturation, life is a battleground, even painful. And yet, I feel quite powerless to do anything about it. Events seem bigger than my ability to influence. Because my awareness is limited I don’t recognize the myriad choices 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.

I view most life tasks as unpleasant when living in Survival. Consequently, I avoid or simple get by. I’m governed by “have to” or “afraid not to.”  I allow negative feelings, such as fear, anger or inadequacy, to dominate my life. However, I lack the ability to tolerate such feelings and so act them out in ways that are destructive to myself and others. When lost in fear, I have little respect for myself or others. I see the faults of people around me and experience myself as not okay (although I probably would not admit it). Life is 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 learn 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 the Security stage of emotional maturation. Life can seem pretty challenging, even unsafe. So I create a comfort zone in which to feel emotionally safe and avoid big responsibilities. Rather than living to win, I live to avoid–discomfort, rejection, failure,  losing. I conform to the way society (my reference group) has taught me to be and act according to “shoulds” and “oughts.”  My understanding of self-responsibility is doing what’s expected of me. I want to be a good person, parent, worker so I’m steady, dependable, technically honest. However, I’m not aware. Therefore, I live 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 and so often subordinate my needs to what they expect. Or, 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. When living from Security, I avoid conflict. The message I communicate to others 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. I base my self esteem on performance which causes me to live with a chronic anxiety about failure and uneasiness about not being quite good enough.

I’m aware of my needs, wants and opinions, although not necessarily feelings. I govern my life by “oughts” and “shoulds,” although they come more from within than without. I project a competent image, 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 stage of emotional maturation.

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. Click here to continue reading about Serenity and what makes it different from the other themes around which we organize our lives.





    • Roger Allen

      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

  2. Patricia Jordon

    I’m @ serenity now @ This synopsis is beautifully shared; and necessary for all to glean from.

  3. Kyle Woodworth

    success stage does not have to be externally validated. this stage can be fueled by only yourself knowing that you accomplish or do things that which most are unable or unwilling to do. source: I have experienced this state of being.

  4. Roger Allen

    Thanks for your comment, Kyle. Certainly not everyone in the success paradigm is seeking external validation. The drive is internal. It begins as people learn to trust their own authority and set and go after goals that are important to them.



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