Cultivating Compassion to Navigate our Future

What is certain is uncertainty is given and we are all learning ways and means to navigate the different aspects of uncertainties presented in our lives.

The Ego-Development Stages

I would like to use the ego-development theory presented by Loevinger (1918-2008), an American psychologist as a lens to explore the potential of navigating such uncertainties a form of human development. According to Loevinger, the ego is not a “thing” but rather a “process”. She believed that ego development emerges out of the self’s encounter with the world as it seeks to make sense of, interact with, and construct images of the external world and relate to other people within it. Her theory of ego development is based on *nine consecutive stages.

From the pre-social stage (infancy), the baby has really no ego to speak of until interaction with people and the demands of the environment.

The second stage is the impulsive stage as a young child is driven by his/her emotions, desires. The child interprets the world as “good” or “bad”, if you satisfy my desires, you are good. If not, you are bad. The child tends to just focus on the present gratification.

As the child develops to a later stage, such as the “self-aware” stage, this stage represents the model of most adult behaviours. Here, we see the beginning of self-criticism and the ability to envision different possibilities from our varied experiences. The ego is influenced by “what is expected of me” and partly influenced by conformist pressures.

At the conscientious stage, the person sees life in terms of the choices that he/she makes and the responsibility he/she takes for his/her life. The ego feels guilt for hurting others rather than just breaking the rules.

At the last three stages, individualistic, autonomous and integrated stages, the ego has developed to include a respect for individuality in oneself and a tolerance toward the individual in others. The development of the ego at the last stage will show inner wisdom, deep empathy for others, and a high degree of self-acceptance. Here, the ego is formed and matured, a stage where it cherishes individuality in self and others. It is also at the later stages that individuals have greater capacity to embrace the polarities of life, to discern complexity in individual situations, and to assess multiple perspectives in decisions making.

Embrace polarities (vs polarised thinking) in Decision-Making

It is clear that the future needs individuals to operate at the later stages, which requires us to develop our capacity to embrace the polarities in decision making, to discern complexity as versus polarised thinking, “good and bad, or black and white”, which is represented in the earlier stages of the ego development (Impulsive, Self-Protective)

Leaders at the later stage of ego development are usually seen as going beyond their self-gratification, cherishing both themselves and others. My hypothesis is leaders who will thrive are those who have moved or moving towards the later stages of ego development, and focusing on deepening their empathy and compassion. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon immerse uncertainty, which give rise to a timely development platform for leaders to act for others in spite of fear and anxiety. This is cultivating compassion.

What is Compassion?

I define compassion simply as moving beyond our own gratification to truly acting for the well-being of others. Cultivating compassion as a means to experience the purpose of human existence, as this is what truly gives meaning to our lives. I use the word “cultivating” as compassion runs on a continuum, “Self-gratification” on one end, and “Compassion” on the other end. Throughout our life journey, if we could make an aspiration to unlock the seed of compassion within us, for it to achieve its greatest expression in our lifetime, it will be a life well-lived.

How does that apply to us at work or as a leader?

Do we have to be self-sacrificial? Compassion at the highest level, may require giving up our needs and acting for the well-being of others, but coupled with wisdom. To embrace compassionate leadership will mean to expand our hearts to step into the shoes of our people, to hold respectful debates, to listen as though we are wrong, to let go of the need to be right all the time, and to be conscious with your inner world and outer world.

The internal sensor we can use in knowing if we have balanced compassion well with wisdom is that we will experience an inner peace and balance. When we are off balanced, we get burnt-out and a creeping sense of resentment.

In a world of complexity, things are ever more interdependent. One’s actions will have ripple effect on others. We need to adopt system and not linear thinking to approach complex problem solving. Hence, if one is able to put others’ needs first in the course of any actions, the world will be a much better place for all of us.

We can start small. It can be as simple as, before we post something on the social media, think about how that action will affect others? Are you kind? Is that post necessary? What will be the impact on the person, the community? Or is that post done to satisfy your desires? Well, there is nothing wrong to do it for self-gratification but the act is limiting and not helping us to achieve the fullest expression of human’s potential.

The development of the ego at the last stage will show inner wisdom, deep empathy for others, and a high degree of self-acceptance. Here, I set an aspiration to cultivate my compassion in this lifetime. This is where, I feel make my life worthwhile. I will like to invite you to join me in making this as your aspiration too.