The Source of Our Immunities, Part 2


Immunity-to-Change coaching gives coaches and clients a map of a naturally occurring psychological immune response that is out of whack. Actually, a “psychological inflammation” response is out of time more than place. Just as epigenetics is showing biologists and doctors that hyper-inflammation is actually a “normal” immune response when understood in the context of biological evolution, developmental psychology shows us how much of our behavioral issues are “normal” psychological immune responses when understood in the context of socio-cultural evolution.

According to cultural theorist Jean Gebser, humans have gone through four major stages: “Archaic”; “Magic”; “Mythic”; and “Rational.” (Gebser includes a fifth stage, which he claimed is just beginning to emerge now: “Integral.”)

Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey’s “Immunity to Change” coaching method lines up with Gebser’s model of sociocultural evolution. Together, they provide a developmental framework that can help coaches to see the evolutionary patterns to which a client’s immune system is actively responding. For one, evidence from psychology consistently shows us that we “construct” much of our experience in the world. (That is, reality does not so much “happen to us,” but rather we participate in the selection and engagement with reality). Therefore, our psychological inflammatory responses are likely due to our “construction” of a world where we are caught by assumptions about thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. So far, this is standard Immunity to Change Coaching stuff; but when you add Gebser’s cultural evolution to this picture, you get an image that also shows how much our collective past might be replaying itself in our clients’ experience.

In epigenetics, it is the lack of the microbes that reveals the hyper-inflammation response of the body. In the presence of the microbes, there is no problem (in fact, quite the opposite – you would be the healthiest member of the tribe, killing microbes left and right while helping your “sick” relatives who have not yet adapted the hyper-inflammatory response). The same can be said for the psychological inflammatory response. The psychological environments being constructed by our clients will align with either the “Magic,” “Mythic,” or “Rational” stages of sociocultural evolution. These historical patterns are powerful, like magnets.


The psychological environment of the “Magic” stage is one of fantasy, emotional attachments, and psychological boundaries. We were foragers during this stage, so being nomadic (especially hunting/gathering food and escaping predators) shaped our consciousness. At the “Mythic” stage, our psychological environment was one of rules and roles, strict codes of conduct, but also group identification, where honor and respect were learned on behalf of community bonding. We were farmers during this stage, so cycles of seasons and caring for land in which we had an interest shaped our consciousness.

Although the “Rational” stage is only now beginning to spread (often with violence, as each of the other two stages were spread), it has so far reflected a psychological environment of universal rights for individuals (read: no slavery), and of free-market citizens who “speak” with their wallets as well as their voices. We are litigious and distracted, yet simultaneously informed and active. We are electronically connected, yet dramatically alone. We are becoming individual-institutions of the emerging global market, not so much “employed by” an institution as “working-with” that institution. Jack Welch, the de facto mold for future leaders captured this nuance best when he told his employees that he would not help them to be “employed” for life, but rather “employable” for life.


When we were in the “Magic” stage, seeing other people (especially people in power) as a means to an end was adaptive. Being more charming, wittier, or more ruthless than your peers was an advantage. In the “Mythic” stage, keeping your word, your honor, and your loyalty to the group (religious, familial, racial, or even governmental), was an advantage over others. In the “Rational” stage (which is largely still emerging), your ability to be a self-managing, self-starting, achievement-focused, system-maintaining leader is an advantage over others.

Because we deal with adaptive changes in the world of coaching, the best way to look at these stages is in a dynamic way – it is moving out of them that offers us specific challenges. Letting-go is the most undervalued talent in transformation. Letting-go is not as sexy as selling an expansive state experience, but it is a more accurate description of how to best transform. Adaptation requires that we overcome some type of challenge, and usually it is our identity and values that are at stake. Turning towards such challenge holds the most promise for the field of coaching.

If we can see that our clients may be making a move out of the “Magic” or “Mythic” or “Rational” stage, then we can give ourselves more tools and become better coaches. How? By translating their experience into the language of change over time. I often tell my clients precisely where, in terms of the scope of human evolution, their specific suffering can be recast. The most common reaction is relief; it allows them to fully experience the agony and ecstasy of growth, without reducing it to a hypnotic and illusory dance of neurotransmitters.


The ability to understand the challenge of change in terms of a hyper vigilant psychological immune response gives coaches a powerful lens to interpret their client’s behavior. The ability to understand the stages of human cultural evolution gives coaches a tool to help their clients connect with deep patterns while not minimizing the unique nature of their growth.

If we began to see “roadblocks” as “self-protection,” how would that change the ways that we deal with clients? In my own case, it allows me to have more compassion. A “roadblock” to achievement is often the tip of a self-protective iceberg. Protecting ourselves from a “Magical” or “Mythical” world that no longer exists means that we are contracting-away from our own life. Knowing this has helped me to find unique ways to create challenges for my clients, because a “psychological inflammation” response, placed into the evolutionary context of a specific stage, gives me both the “contracted” view of self-protection that the client is constructing as well as the “edges” that are most optimal for challenging the need to protect.

I think that excellent coaches (and teachers, friends, parents, therapists) have always been able to use their intuition to see people where they are, to see where they are going, and to help get them there. A “natural coaching,” to paraphrase Kegan, is a way of joining a proce