Developmental Epicycling

An “epicycle” is an ancient Greek astronomical term that was used to explain the apparent retrograde motion of planets as see from Earth (they appeared to move backwards sometimes). Everyone assumed that planets had circular orbits, and it would take centuries to learn that they are elliptical. Something similar occurs in human development, where the self engages in behaviors abandoned long ago on it’s way towards new, more complex, and better ways of making sense of itself and the world. I began noticing this in my clients years ago, and the term “developmental epicycling” kept coming to mind, because this apparent regression to old behaviors (“retrograde behaviors”) only makes sense when you realize that it is a natural aspect of growing into a new self.

My hypothesis is simple: because each level of development has an emphasis on either autonomy/agency or communion/community, the other muscles of the psyche tend to atrophy a bit. The easiest example is the Socialized level of development (a.k.a., the “Conformist” or “Conventional” level). Socialization is the highest level that is nearly guaranteed by most cultures. You are taught the rules of your culture and the roles you are expected to play. Right from wrong is clear. Any variance from “right” will cause you to face consequences. But it’s not all fire and brimstone. You also get the ability to think in abstractions for the first time, and to form hypotheses about the world around you (which is why so many teens become idealistic). You can sympathize with those to whom you feel identified (those in your tribe, however you define that tribe). And you feel a sense of kinship beyond blood ties that is liberating and exciting (hence the cliques that form in high school, which are rewarding but painful when lost).

In other words, you are in a communion oriented stage, rife with aspirations for building a community of like-minded practitioners (whether that’s vaping at a show or singing a hymn, the same mental constructions are behind the meaning you feel when connecting). Despite what the social constructionists may tell you, when you go through this stage you are as much constructing the meaning of the social surround as the social surround is constructing you. It is an entangled process; we are not a tabula rasa at birth and we are not so when we become socialized.

Wonder how this happens for the less than 40% of adults who move out of the Socialized and into the next level of development, the Self-Authoring? As you might guess from the label “Self-Authoring,” this is a level that is oriented towards autonomy/agency. What had been a nourishing connection to other like-minded souls has become a spider web of expectations from which you are attempting to escape. The experts and authorities that helped you feel that all was right with the world are now two-dimensional cutouts spouting empty rhetoric.

As a coach working with executives in the world of alternative investments (hedge funds and private equity firms), I’ve helped many analysts and some Portfolio Managers make this transition. It is a vital move for this type of work because the ability to generate a unique, differentiated view of the market requires the ability to step away from consensus (consensus = conventional), and that means becoming fully Self-Authoring.

What I began to notice about my clients is that, to a person, they would go through a period where they became brusque, even selfish. At first I thought that this could be explained by a sub-phase of development known as “negation” or “repudiation” – the tendency to reject the most recent way of making sense. So if you are rejecting a Socialized way of making sense of things, you would expect someone to roll their eyes at any expectation placed upon them to follow rules for the sake ofothers/the community/their soul. But what was happening to my clients went beyond this. They were genuinely acting like jerks.

One day I was working with a client who was going through this and I asked him about how he was feeling about his new self and this new freedom he was expressing. A few months prior to this he was nervous about expressing his opinion, and now he was practically brow-beating others with it. He told me that it felt like he was a bit of a kid again, and that he had mixed feelings. So I said, “Well what do you expect? The last time you told someone how you truly feltyou were a kid!

Once I saw this developmental epicycling – the tendency to practice the capacities of one’s new level of development by dipping into the last level where they were autonomous or community oriented – I began to see it everywhere. Teenagers who are baptized into the Socialized level spend the first month or more acting very much like their 3-6 year old counterparts – emotionally volatile about the intellectual, emotional, and physical distance forced between them and their BFF or significant other; spending inordinate amounts of time on the phone; and fused with the emotional states of their chosen group (“If Suzy was going to jump off a bridge, would you follow her?!”). Going to the other end of the spectrum, those rare adults who enter the Self-Transforming level (another communion-oriented stage) tend to spend the first several months becoming absolutist about their newly acquired relativism. This leads to a host of performative contradictions, but my point here is that the last time these adults engaged in a communion-oriented stage, they were Socialized, so one should expect them to be black-and-white about never being black-and-white; we should expect that they jump from tribe to tribe, fiercely adopting the values of that tribe (until they move on to the next tribe that tickles their multicultural fancy).

Here are a few things to consider about this interesting phenomenon:

  • As with other dynamics of development, we should expect that the later the level at which the phenomenon occurs, the more likely it is to last (earlier levels tend to be quick and tightly correlated with age).
  • Another aspect is that one can become arrested at this moment with peculiar consequences. Consider the difference between the two types of atheists – there are inspirational atheists like Howard Bloom and Sam Harris, who do not disparage Socialized “believers” unless those believers are unreasonable or violent; then there are assholes like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher (who I like, but let’s face it, he’s a dick).
  • Tell your clients and loved ones that this developmental epicycling is natural, and that they will grow out of it unless they get seduced by their own past. People who get stuck are often working through some issue from two levels ago. And let them know that others will accept that they are “all knees and elbows” for a while. (People seem to like that term.)

Developmental Epicycling is the hypothesis that, during the first few weeks of your newest level of development, you will revisit a self from two levels prior on behalf of practicing behaviors that you probably thought you’d never need again. To a person, my clients were worried about “becoming selfish again,” and so I coached them to be o.k. with feelingselfish as long as they weren’t actually beingselfish (we developed unique criteria together to avoid this). But when they begin to practice a new autonomy, it’s like they forget that session ever happened – they become much more interested in flexing their new muscles. Don’t be alarmed! Let this happen – but don’t let them get stuck there. You can help them by objectifying the process as “you are all knees and elbows now, but you will need to reintegrate the good stuff from your Socialized self if you want to succeed in your professional and personal lives.” This gets the attention of everyone at every level, save for the newly minted Self-Transforming adult – but don’t worry, chances are you won’t be coaching one of them, and even if you are, you might not know it!