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Facing Life’s Overwhelm with Possibility: Embracing Vertical Development

What do you do when you’re overwhelmed?


Sometimes I watch YouTube.  Other times, I eat chocolate.  On better days, I exercise, talk it out, or meditate.


Life inevitably ushers us into phases where the world seems disjointed, where emotional turmoil - encompassing anxiety, depression, confusion, and anger - clouds our sense of self and purpose. It's in these moments, more frequent than we may realize, that we stand at a crossroads on how to navigate our internal chaos.  Our response to this chaos is everything.

The initial, and perhaps the most instinctual route for many of us, involves numbing the discomfort. This numbing can manifest in various forms, from the abuse of substances like drugs and alcohol to engaging in gossip or laying blame on others, thereby outsourcing our inner turmoil. Alternatively, we might find refuge in excessive physical activities, channeling our distress into outlets that, while healthier, still serve as distractions from confronting our emotional state.


Sometimes we simply power through discomfort. This may mean doubling down on familiar strategies, such as intensifying our work ethic or adhering even more strictly to task lists, even when such methods only amplify our stress.


Each one of these responses has its consequences, and each of us is free to choose what we're up for in any given moment.  In this article, I will propose that the optimal response usually entails a conscious pivot toward facing the discomfort in ways that lead to growth—what's known as vertical development.


Vertical Development: A Journey of Self-Transformation


Vertical development is a model of human transformation based on over 50 years of research by Susanne Cooke-Greuter and other researchers.  It offers a profound framework for understanding a person's various responses to life's challenges. We respond based on who we think we are in the situation. Each stage of unfolding of vertical development entails a more profound response to the pivotal question of "Who am I?”

The below image depicts the sequence of stages.

This evolution begins from a Self-Centric viewpoint, where our primary concern is our own needs and desires and progresses through stages that expand our sense of identity to include more than just ourselves. The next stage transitions from a Group-Centric stage, where belonging and conformity to group norms predominate, to a Skill-Centric stage, characterized by a focus on individual talents within a domain of expertise. As we evolve, we might reach the Self-Determining stage, where we view ourselves as the authors of our story, striving for mastery over our destiny.


Yet, the journey doesn't end there. We may eventually encounter the limitations of self-determination, recognizing the interplay between our choices and influences beyond our control. We may continue transforming through this realization of the Self-Questioning stage, where our identities become more fluid, and we open ourselves to a wider array of possibilities and perspectives beyond the conventional definitions and norms of identity.  I encourage you to read my other blog posts that describe these stages in depth.


As we question our beliefs and open to the possibility of new ways of thinking, being, and doing, we develop vertically.

As we question our beliefs and open to the possibility of new ways of thinking, being, and doing, we develop vertically. Later stages of development embrace more complexity and interconnectedness, opening to a more coherent (albeit dynamic) understanding and experience of our place within the evolutionary cosmos. Our personal growth is a microcosm of the universe's evolutionary process that started at the Big Bang and continued through successive transformations within matter, life, and consciousness human life over billions of years.  In other words, every individual human has encoded within them the evolutionary tracks, if you will, of the entire collective human story of transformation.  As such, the principles that govern the evolutionary process are also at work in our individual development.


Principles of Vertical Development


Below is a list of some (by no means all) principles that govern our vertical development. By learning these principles, we activate our evolutionary potential and can catalyze vertical development.


  • Wherever we are is perfect (until it's not): Each of us begins our journey at stage zero, and throughout our growth, is shaped by our individual experiences, cultural interactions, environmental factors, genetic makeup, and myriad mysterious influences. As much as we like to say someone was born “an old soul”, they still have to go through the process of learning to crawl, feed themselves, and differentiate from their caretaker, along with every other stage. We can stay in a stage as long as we want to, until we feel like something's no longer working and our desires or circumstances challenge us to let go and open up.

  • Later stages include more: As we evolve, our ability to include and integrate more complex perspectives and a wider range of viewpoints increases. This principle highlights the possible expansion of our understanding and empathy, enabling us to appreciate the diversity of experiences and insights around us.  It does not mean, however, that development happens evenly and in an integrated way.  Someone may develop complex understanding but remain unable to exhibit empathy and will suffer the consequences of uneven development until they integrate these gaps.

  • We go beyond conventional norms: Later stages of vertical development invite us to question and move beyond societal and cultural norms that have traditionally guided our behavior.  Learning this principle encourages us to explore new ways of thinking and being that transcend conventional limitations, trusting that this is part of the process and, while it may be lonelier, it can also be deeply fulfilling.  We may, for example, feel the urge to quit our jobs to pursue a meaningful vocation but find ourselves lost where society does not support us.

  • We integrate earlier stages: While later stages are not fully available until we’ve grown into them, earlier stages of growth are present in our current stage. This principle suggests that rather than discarding previous viewpoints, we build upon them, creating a more nuanced and comprehensive view of the world.  So if we're at Self-Determining, we still can retain our earlier Skill-Centric expertise and use of credentials. Also, if we experienced trauma at the earlier Group-Centric stage, we will carry a coping mechanism or emotional trigger through subsequent later stages until we can resolve that through therapy or other healing approaches.

  • Tri-stage Window:  We have a center of gravity in our stage of development where we tend to operate most of the time.  However, we can peek into the next stage at times of support or flow, or fall back to the previous stage when excessively stressed. These fluctuations can happen throughout any given day, depending on a multitude of factors, and is normal. If you are at the Self-Determining Stage, and your boss criticizes you strongly, you may temporarily fall back into Skill-Centric and feel a strong motivation to demonstrate your expertise and knowledge. An important skill to work with this tri-stage window is mindfulness: notice when you operate from an earlier stage, and recognize the gifts and limitations; notice, also when you operate from a later stage, and look for conditions and factors that contributed to that peek experience that you might replicate.

  • Development is Dynamic: Our center of gravity might shift depending on context, challenges, and personal experiences. This principle highlights the fluid and dynamic nature of vertical development, suggesting that our journey is not linear but rather a continuous process of evolution and adaptation.  Our subjective experience of development, while ultimately moving in a direction, is not easily detectible or simply about moving forward.  As indicated earlier in this article, we may need to return to earlier stages for extended periods to recover or heal aspects of ourselves.

  • Crisis is a Catalyst: Every challenge and crisis, while often perceived as a “problem” at first, is precisely what is needed to ignite a spark of transformation.  It means that the current way of seeing the world is no longer big enough to make sense of the experience.  The next stage is the antidote to that overwhelm, as it provides a bigger frame of reference with which to make sense of our lives.  For example, when we feel stifled and smothered at the Group-Centric stage, we may yearn for a newfound freedom as our Skill-Centric identity starts to take shape, clarifying our sense of uniqueness and autonomy beyond just fitting into the group.

  • Part of an evolutionary trajectory: Understanding our personal development within the broader context of the evolutionary history of the cosmos connects our growth to the unfolding complexity and interconnectedness of the universe, suggesting that our transformation is part of a larger, cosmic process toward more consciousness, wholeness and connectivity.  We can, in some sense, rest in a larger flow of a universal current that is pulsating through our lives.  We can trust that, while messy and disorienting at times, evolution is always at work and will eventually take us forward, especially if we consciously participate in it.

  • A growth mindset is our greatest ally: Emphasizing the importance of prioritizing learning and growth over fixed outcomes or static states of being, this principle encourages a mindset of continuous exploration, curiosity, and adaptability.  When we confront our challenges with an openness to grow, we invite a letting go of old limiting stories and an opening to new liberating stories.

  • Intention facilitates transformation: Amidst turmoil and confusion, our deepest intention leads the way forward.  There is an innate intelligence encoded in the human body that serves as a compass for the evolutionary process to continue to unfold.  When that intention is clear, it can be trusted.  For example, When feeling disillusionment of modern definitions of success and achievement, you can facilitate your movement into the Self-Questioning stage by finding within yourself the desire to grow, learn new viewpoints, or experience meaningful human connections. "Keep your eyes on the prize" and trust that you'll find your way through.

  • We grow in relationship. This principle is essential. We develop within a dynamic web of relationships.  No one is separate from anyone else, and so every individual in that web who engages in a transformation impacts their relationships, just as the influence of those relationships supports or thwarts the transformation of that individual. That's why it's so important to have someone you can talk with when feeling overwhelmed. You need someone who is dedicated to growth, can offer you support when you're overwhelmed, and challenge when you're overconfident. You need someone to reflect on intense feelings and experiences and question beliefs that no longer seem to work.


Embracing the Possibilities of Vertical Development


Vertical development is not merely an academic concept; it's a practical map for navigating life's tumultuous phases. When overwhelmed, it invites us to consider possibilities beyond our current perceptions and beliefs, offering a pathway out of turmoil through self-transformation.


By understanding and embracing the principles of vertical development, we can begin to see our challenges not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities for growth.

By understanding and embracing the principles of vertical development, we can begin to see our challenges not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities for growth.

So let's go back to overwhelm.

What do you do when you feel disoriented, confused, frustrated, depressed or otherwise in over your head? Do you double down on familiar reactions? Here's a practice to open up to vertical development whenever feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Pause and Pay Attention. What does it feel like right now? Where is the overwhelm located in your body? Place your hand where you located it.

  2. Breath. Continue to focus on these feelings and breath. Whenever you get distracted, go back to your breath until you can really get present to what's happening.

  3. Listen with Curiosity. What thoughts do you notice? Is it true? How do you know it's true?

  4. Focus on Desire. Ask yourself "what do I want right now?" And keep asking this question until you dig beneath the surface. Usually you'll get to a point where your deeper desire emerges, revealing direction that likely comes from the next stage.

We don’t have to grow, but the discomfort of our current stage may become too great and cause suffering.  I remember being in college, barging into the door of my professor to tell him I cannot finish the assignment to present to the class in Spanish. I was convinced that I could not do it, and I should drop the class. But I sat with it, and opened to a new possibility. Perhaps I was holding myself up to some unreasonable standard (Skill-Centric Stage) but there was a way I could complete the assignment however imperfectly, that was good enough to help me learn (Self-Determining). So I did my presentation using pictures that triggered the words necessary to remember the Spanish. This was one example, as part of many moments of overwhelm where I realized I could write my own destiny and find creative ways to achieve the results I wanted.

By continuing to double down on your current stage’s approach, you are likely acting out in ways that are destructive to yourself, others, or the biosphere on which we depend.  As we participate in the vertical development process, we not only enrich our personal journey but also enrich our contribution to the collective evolution beyond just ourselves. 


Vertical development offers a compelling narrative for understanding our place in the universe and our growth potential. This model reminds us that, even in moments of profound disarray, there lies the potential for significant transformation and renewal. By embracing this evolutionary perspective, we can navigate life's challenges with greater resilience, empathy, and a deeper sense of purpose.


Work with me!

I am certified as a Leadership Maturity Coach by Beena Sharma and Susanne Cooke-Greuter of the Vertical Development Academy and a Certified Unique Self Coach by Claire Molinard of the Unique Self Institute. If you're interested in learning how I can coach you through your vertical development, please reach out to me at You can also find more at   

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