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Facilitating Post-Conventional Vertical Development through the Unique Self Emergence Process (Part 1 of 2)

Updated: Jan 23

In my previous blog posts, I described the broader evolutionary context within which growth occurs in each of us.  I aimed to show how your life is part of something larger and infinitely meaningful through the lens of Vertical Development. Vertical Development is a scientifically validated, cross-culturally tested model that charts how evolution occurs within humans. With solid research into Vertical Development conducted over the last 50 years, we can open ourselves to the predictable pattern of growth available to all humans throughout their lives.  


However, not everyone continues this growth trajectory; according to researchers, most individuals halt their Vertical Development around the age of 25, when there no longer is cultural support for further growth.


The Stages of Vertical Development (also known as Leadership Maturity) are the following:

  • Stage 2/3: Self-Centric

  • Stage 3: Group-Centric

  • Stage 3/4: Skill-Centric

  • Stage 4: Self-Determining

  • Stage 4/5: Self-Questioning

  • Stage 5: Self-Actualizing

  • Stage 5/6: Construct-Aware

  • Stage 6: Unitive


At stage 4, called the Self-Determining Stage, while we can author our own story much more than at previous stages, we are still bound by societal norms of success, emphasizing material achievement, individual agency, and a reification of the ego.  We are masters of our destiny.  We want to predict and control, claim our knowledge, and bolster our self-confidence. 


At least, until we realize that we are not as powerful as we think.  When we start to see the limitations of predict-and-control, it all changes.


We learn that we are impacted by others just as much as we impact others.


We start to see how little we actually know in the grand scheme of things.


As we transition to Stage 4/5, the Self-Questioning stage, we begin to explore the vast unknown of who we are.  We question or reject altogether the conventional definitions of success and discover a more authentic path that includes our deeper longings for a meaningful life.  This begins what we call the post-conventional stages of development. 


But this can be hard.  It’s disorienting.  Even lonely.


Society does not have meaningful support structures or guideposts for those of us at these stages, so we may feel unmoored and lost.  Or at the very least, we may be seeking a life of more depth and meaning and are left without good models or mentors around us.


In this article, I will share a process designed to support those at this post-conventional stage of development and beyond.


Unique Self Emergence Process:  a Practice-based Program for Post-conventional Development


The Unique Self Emergence Process is a transformative coaching program drawing from Master Coach Claire Molinard’s Integral Coaching and Dr. Marc Gafni’s pioneering Unique Self theory of enlightenment. It is optimally designed for individuals in post-conventional developmental stages. If you find yourself at these stages, feeling disoriented or lost, rest assured that you do not have to navigate this journey alone.


First, what is Unique Self?  Unique Self, as Dr. Marc Gafni has formulated it, is a precise term that responds to the most fundamental and significant questions of being a human:


  • Who am I? 

  • Where am I?

  • What am I to do?


Unique Self provides an integrated, concise, and elegant invitation to live your fullest life.


In the West, a major response to “Who am I” is something akin to a separate self: a powerful agent for creating the life that you want.  In the East, a major response to the same question is more akin to True Self or No Self, where there is no individual I, and rather that I am one with all-that-is. 

Unique Self integrates the intuitions of these two radically different approaches: you are a unique expression of the One True Self, with a unique perspective, quality of presence, and set of gifts that can be given by you in your unique circle of intimacy and influence.   

Unique Self integrates the intuitions of these two radically different approaches: you are a unique expression of the One True Self, with a unique perspective, quality of presence, and set of gifts that can be given by you in your unique circle of intimacy and influence.  While these are simply words on a page, they point to a profound shift of identity and lead to an experience of radical aliveness, clarity of purpose, and depth of wisdom.  Also, it’s important to note that this is not just an interesting theory someone made up.  It is the result of Dr. Marc Gafni’s rigorous integration of the wisdom of what is real, through hundreds of conversations with leaders in their respective fields.  It’s like a user’s guide to being human.


The Unique Self Emergence Process is a 9-month guided journey that supports you as the disillusionment of Stage 4 sets in and the values you once held dear begin to crumble. As depicted in Suzanne Cooke-Greuter’s Leadership Maturity Framework (the gold standard of Vertical Development theories), the Self-Determining Stage 4 represents the peak of ego-driven* independence and achievement-oriented pursuits.  For those transitioning into post-conventional stages, such an emphasis may manifest as burnout, depression, or a yearning for deeper meaning and purpose. The shift towards Stage 4/5 is marked by profound self-inquiry and exploration of non-rational domains of intelligence, pushing beyond the confines of conventional definitions of self and success.  The Unique Self Emergence Process is divided into four distinct modules that support the participant through this uncomfortable phase.


*Note that the term “ego” is not referring to egotistical or selfish in the conventional ways we use it.  It’s a specific term used to describe the sense of self that feels separate from everything around it.

Module 1:  The Separate Self


The Unique Self Emergence Process begins with desire — your unique desire.  Beyond the prescribed paths that society socializes into you, what is a deep longing that you have for your life?  Based on this longing, as well as your specific skills and particular context, we create your Unique Risk Statement.  This is an affirmation of sorts that serves as a North Star for the rest of the program and possibly for many years to come.  For example, your Unique Risk could sound like this:  I am centered and present to facilitate holistic healing in my clients for the sake of transforming healthcare.  You may cultivate more power in your leadership, depth in your relationships, or receptivity in your therapy practice.  In any case, it is inspiring and unique to you. 


The Unique Self Emergence Process begins with desire — your unique desire.  Beyond the prescribed paths that society socializes into you, what is a deep longing that you have for your life? 

We call it a risk because it is a risk to the ego’s attachment to comfort and its claim to be separate from the rest of reality — for this reason, we use the term ego and Separate Self interchangeably. 


I’ll tell you a little secret, though:  the real risk is to not live your fullest life, to not live your Unique Self! 


The real risk is staying in the recurring patterns of comfort and inertia that characterize your ordinary conventional experience.  When people look back at their lives, does anyone ever regret not finding more comfort?


With the Unique Risk as our overall intention for you, we begin not by fighting but by befriending the ego.  We get to know it and bring compassion to it.  Using the Enneagram model of personality, we learn your typical unconscious patterns that keep you falling into the same traps.  For example, if you are an Enneagram Seven, also known as the Enthusiast, your core motivation is to escape pain or limitation by constantly pursuing new experiences or looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. If you are an Enneagram Nine, also called the Peacemaker, you tend to neglect your own voice and needs because you are so concerned about being in harmony with everyone else.  By noticing these patterns, we can begin to see the unconscious script running the show, as well as their undesirable results.  Ultimately, these ego patterns, once befriended and made conscious, can become the source of one's greatest gifts.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!


The False Self and Your Immunity to Change


Have you ever tried to move toward your life’s deeper longings but continuously get tripped up by self-sabotage?  This is likely the result of an unconscious False Self trying to rear its head and be seen.  The False Self is part of the ego or Separate Self that is particularly distorted and insidious.  We call this false because it is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting based on a false interpretation of a painful experience early in life.  This pattern stays with us throughout our adulthood even though the conditions have changed. 


Perhaps you become paralyzed with anxiety when applying for jobs, and discover that there is a False Core belief that “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t belong.”   Once you discover your own False Core belief, we teach you a practice for sitting with these difficult experiences, inviting compassion into your being, and allowing the pattern to release over time.


The False Self almost always stands in contrast to your Unique Risk. 


For example, you may have a deep desire to leave your job and pursue a more meaningful career, but the paralyzing fear of failure induced by the False Core belief that “I am not good enough” will forever feel like you have one foot on the brake pedal.   This is what we call your Immunity to Change.   Using the Immunity to Change model created by Harvard researchers Dr. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, we uncover this “brake pedal” feeling and reveal the hidden Competing Commitments that go against your Unique Risk.  Then you test the Big Assumptions underneath these commitments that — if you believe them to be true — will prevent you from taking your Unique Risk and living the fullest life possible. 


Using the “I’m not good enough” example above, an underlying Big Assumption might be that if you leave your job, you will not make enough money which would in turn confirm that you’re not good enough. But by questioning your Big Assumption, you begin to take your foot off the brake pedal and unleash the energy to move forward in life.  For example, by questioning and testing this assumption, you may discover that money is not the only thing that defines my ‘goodness’, or while I may not be good enough for some jobs, I am indeed good enough to create a professional path to live out my deepest longing in this lifetime, which is much more important.   We hold these questions and experiments compassionately throughout the program and gather contrary evidence meant to overcome your Immunity to Change, untangle the grip of the False Self, and liberate you to pursue your Unique Risk.


Note that we simply observe the patterns of the Separate Self and the False Self with curiosity and compassion.  We do not try to fix, change, or deny any of them; any of these approaches would ultimately reinforce these egoic patterns and prevent you from realizing your Unique Self.  This introspective approach cultivates the capacity for inner exploration, clearing space to enter into the next module of the program, called the True Self module.  


It’s worth noting that from a Vertical Development perspective, Suzanne Cooke-Greuter’s Leadership Maturity Framework depicts the cornerstone of post-conventional consciousness as the ability and desire to explore realms beyond the Separate Self.  At post-conventional stages of development (Stage 4/5 Self-Questioning, Stage 5 Self-Actualizing, Stage 5/6 Construct Aware, and Stage 6 Unity), we foster connections to a broader interconnected reality that transcends the limitations of individual Separate Self consciousness.


Module 2:  True Self


As we practice resting in the spaciousness that is opened up in the Separate Self Module, we can more actively engage that which is beyond the Separate Self—The Ultimate by whatever name— through cultivating spiritual experiences and developing spiritual intelligence.  Spiritual experience refers to the direct realization of Ultimate Reality beyond the limitations of the Separate Self, whereas spiritual intelligence is how we make sense of and understand our spiritual experience.

In the True Self module, we enter through three fundamental doorways of spiritual experience: the first-, second-, and third-person doorways. 

  • The first-person doorway is the domain of “I am” and includes practices like meditation and self-inquiry to discover who you truly are beyond the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that constitute the conventional consciousness. 

  • The second-person doorway is the domain of “You/we”, and here we enter by cultivating a relationship with the Ultimate through prayer, chanting, or devotional practice, as well as spiritual practice in community. 

  • The third-person doorway is the domain of “It” and involves studying the awe-inspiring intelligence of reality through contemplation of complex scientific processes like evolution, quantum physics, or microbiology.  

Even though each doorway leads to the same Ultimate Reality, all of us tend to prefer one over the others, which can lead to an imbalanced or distorted perception of Ultimate Reality.  In this module, we give everyone a taste of these three doorways, and invite you to incorporate one or two that you neglect. This serves to build your muscle to access True Self throughout your life.


Through the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person doorways opened in the True Self Module, you can access new dimensions of self-awareness and foster a profound sense of interconnectedness with the universe.


The Self-Questioning Stage 4/5 relishes in non-ordinary experiences and seeks ongoing learning through multiple perspectives on reality, so this True Self module is a rich exploration.  However, the Unique Self Emergence Process does not leave a participant lost in endless True Self exploration, which in and of itself can lead to spiritual bypassing, a term that refers to the overuse of spiritual practices to escape the everyday manifest world.  This is where the Unique Self module comes in and weaves together the Ultimate with the manifest world. 

In part 2 of this blog post, I outline the second half of the Unique Self Emergence process! Stay tuned!


Work with me!

I am Certified Unique Self Coach by Claire Molinard of the Unique Self Institute, and as a Leadership Maturity Coach by Beena Sharma and Susanne Cooke-Greuter of the Vertical Development Academy. If you're interested in learning more about Unique Self Coaching and the Unique Self Emergence Process, please email me at


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