The Maturity Continuum: Understanding The 3 Stages of Personal Growth

In a future post, I’ll write about how practicing the 7 Habits in your daily life can help you grow along the Maturity Continuum.

With 40 million book sales to his name, Stephen Covey was regarded as one of the foremost thinkers on personal development. He was also one of the most well-respected, having lived his own ideas.  

Given his success and stature, it stands to reason that Covey had a deep understanding of the principles and processes of individual growth and interpersonal relationships.

It’s why I attended one of his talks on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the work he was most well-known for. Regrettably, I was too immature (dependent, as you’ll see) to understand or appreciate the wisdom shared that day.

One of Covey’s most important insights, which underlies all seven habits, is the Maturity Continuum.

Maturity Continuum Defined

Maturity is a process of personal growth, and the word continuum refers to incremental development. So, the 7 habits Maturity Continuum is a model for how humans develop in an upward-moving spiral — from dependence to independence and ultimately to interdependence.

Understanding how we evolve, both individually and relationally, helps guide our growth.

Dependence is the first level of the Maturity Continuum. In infancy, we are totally dependent on caregivers for our needs for nourishment, physical contact, and love, without which we would soon die.

Independence is the second level. As we grow physically and mature mentally, we become increasingly independent until we are self-reliant. We have the physical, intellectual, and emotional skills necessary for meeting our needs.

The third level is interdependence. Interdependence is sharing ourselves and our resources with others for the benefit of all. Such qualities as vulnerability, open communication, and love enable us to build rich, productive, and rewarding relationships. A family working together is greater than the sum of the individuals.

Only from the maturity of independence can we choose to be interdependent.

Not to be taken too literally, each stage of development is merely a pointer to our growth, not a fixed state. Each of us is forever moving along the continuum — learning, forgetting and relearning.

Now let’s look at how paradigms shape our perceptions of growth.

Maturity Continuum Stages

Paradigms are at the heart of Covey’s Maturity Continuum. Paradigms are how we perceive and interpret the world. They are deeply entrenched beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Despite their enormous influence over our attitudes, behaviors, and actions, we’re largely unaware of the paradigms in our own minds.

Dependence. Dependence is externally focused. Other people and circumstances control my life, not me. I’m a victim and not responsible for my life, so it’s not my fault if I fail.

Rather than responding from my values, I enable others’ weaknesses and react to my unconscious thoughts and emotions. I have a fixed mindset and feel stuck and helpless. I tend to look after myself. I’m emotionally dependent and anxiously attached, and my relationships are prone to conflict.

I need others to get what I want. I rely on others’ thinking because I don’t trust my intellect. I rely on others’ validation of me because If I don’t know how to affirm myself. The more I depend on others, the less confident and motivated I am and the more defensive I become.

Dependence is rooted in disempowerment. That said, dependency is not always within our control.

Independence. Independence is internally focused. I control my destiny, not other people and circumstances. I’m both the actor and director of my life.

I’m proactive and subordinate my thoughts and emotions to my values. I’m inner-directed and think and act for myself and validate myself. A growth mindset means I’m forever learning and evolving. I take the long view and do what’s good for me, not necessarily fun or easy. I mostly look after my family and myself.

I’m responsible for getting my needs met. If I want money, I get a job. If I want more money, I get more education and get a higher-paying job. If I want a partner, I will be the person I want to be in a relationship with. If I try and fail, I take responsibility.

The more positive change I see, the more my confidence grows and the greater my motivation. This flywheel strengthens my sense of self and self-esteem and furthers my resolve to see how far I can go.

Independence is rooted in empowerment.

Note that we can be independent in some areas while dependent in others. I may be financially independent yet physically dependent or physically independent yet emotionally dependent.

Complete independence is an enormous achievement and a worthy, liberating goal, but it’s still limited. My life lacks the purpose and meaning of authentic connection.

Interdependence. Interdependence is focused both externally and internally. I look after others and myself equally. Everyone wins, or no one wins.

No longer am I a lone wolf making it on my own. I connect with others in authentic, meaningful ways and form richly rewarding, mutually satisfying, and deeply fulfilling relationships. My strengths complement yours, and together we create more than toiling alone.

My sense of self-worth is derived from within, but I experience tremendous joy in giving and receiving love. I enjoy sharing my abundance and serving others with a queen or king’s servant leadership and generative nature. I look after my family and me and the local and global communities.

Instead of being a zero-sum game, the world is abundant, friendly, and cooperative, where everyone wins. I see the goodness in others because I recognize the nobility in myself. Inclusive and built on a foundation of trust and love, interdependence goes beyond the shallow busyness of daily life to the realm of the spirit.

I haven’t yet mentioned two phases of development within the dependence stage: co-dependence and counter-dependence. These topics are beyond the scope of this article. Still, in short, co-dependence is relying too little on ourselves while relying too much on others. In contrast, counter-dependence is relying too much on ourselves while relying too little on others.

Maturity Continuum Diagram

Maturity Continuum Diagram
(Source: Franklin Covey South Asia)

Why Independence Is Revered

If interdependence is the highest level on the 7 habits Maturity Continuum, why don’t we hear more?

The firm, self-made, ruggedly independent individual personifies the supreme being, the mythical hero of the American Dream, the model of ultimate freedom. Perfection of the individual through self-improvement is the crowning glory of personal achievement.

John Wayne’s The Lone Ranger riding off into the sunset and the Marlboro Man atop his horse before a snow-covered range. The brilliant, under-30 entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the ultimate protagonist of individualism.

People like them don’t need anyone, so we want to believe. If I can write, why do I need authors to write books? If I can cook, why do I need chefs to cook? If I can travel on my own, why do I need a companion?

But John Wayne was lonely, and the Marlboro Man is dead.

The emphasis on independence is primarily a reaction against dependency. Anything, or anyone, threatening my individual liberties and freedom of expression is suspect. Such thinking leads me to abandon relationships, change jobs, and move from one promising city to another. I throw it away and get a new one if it doesn’t work.

Asserting our independence through reactive behaviors like these paradoxically reveals deeper dependencies like needing control or the inability to deal with difficulty or conflict. Rather than seeing conflict and difficulty as symptoms of dependence and opportunities for growth, I run. But no matter how much I try, I cannot escape my own inner limitations.

“When we find ourselves zigzagging—hiding out, pretending, avoiding, procrastinating, rationalizing, blaming, lying—we need to remind ourselves that running is a huge energy suck and probably way outside our values.” - Brené Brown

Absolute independence is finding freedom right where we are, regardless of circumstances.

So, How Can I Become Interdependent?

We live in an interdependent reality. In fact, “Our neural, hormonal, and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence,” writes Brené Brown. “What is the basic Buddhist philosophy,” Sogyal Rinpoche once said, “is that everything is interdependent.”

“To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome,” explains John Cacioppo.

Interdependence grows naturally from independence in accord with nature. It’s the path of least resistance.

Humans are hardwired for connection, so I remain stunted and fragmented if I stop at independence. I may be productive, but my life lacks meaning and purpose without deep, interdependent bonds.

“…the greatest lesson I have learned,” writes Jack Kornfield in A Path With Heart, “is that the universal must be wedded to the personal to be fulfilled in our spiritual life.”

Does that mean I can just let nature take her upward course? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. While you were born with the capacity for interdependence, it still needs to be cultivated within you. You can’t skip classes and expect to graduate. Or, if you prefer the Tibetan saying, “It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves.”

The same systematic practice it takes to become independent is required to reach interdependence. Forming mature relationships with others first requires building a solid relationship with yourself.

Growth is an “inside-out” process; it starts from within and moves outward into the world. Only from the “Private Victory” of independence can we experience the “Public Victories” and rewards of interdependence. To lead others effectively, first, we need to be able to lead ourselves effectively.

The first three habits - Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, and Put First Things First - are about self-mastery and developing the strength, courage, and capacity for interdependent relationships..

Am I genuinely interdependent if I’m outwardly cooperative at work while internally believing corporations are a game of survival? I may be a team player, but my beliefs are at odds with my actions and speech below the surface.

The most important quality we bring to any relationship is not what we say or do but our way of being. People will sense if we engage others disconnected from our inner core. Our interactions will be shallow, our relationships lacking depth and significance.

“I believe in the essential unity of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one person gains spiritually, the whole world gains, and that if one person falls, the whole world falls to that extent.” - Mahatma Gandhi

When I commit to getting up early, meditating for an hour, and following through (private victory), I feel better and experience greater emotional strength and mental energy. My relationships (public victory) are more fulfilling. But when I fail to keep a commitment to myself, I tend to be less patient, perhaps even irritable, with others.

Without discipline and self-love, you won’t have the mental strength and emotional resilience needed for interdependent relationships.

In my marriage, I didn’t have enough direction, sense of self, and self-worth to withstand the rigors of an intimate relationship. I attempted to have a productive, adult relationship without first understanding who I was, what I wanted, and what I valued. I was still emotionally dependent.

Intellectual understanding is not enough. The joy, meaning, and happiness of interdependence comes from connecting deeply with all of life. But first, you have to go on a spiritual journey and connect deeply with yourself. When you’re ready to practice the habits of interdependence — Think Win-Win, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, and Synergize — you’re ready to be successful with others.

The Promise of The Maturity Continuum

Humans have a remarkable capacity for personal and spiritual growth. This is easier said than done.

Growth is uncomfortable. It requires ongoing courage, effort, and vulnerability. The people who realize the highest level of maturity, or interdependence, are committed to a life of learning, exploring, and tinkering.

Following the habits of the Maturity Continuum does not guarantee growth. But suppose you can live the 7 Habits in your daily life while keeping the long view. In that case, the promise of the Maturity Continuum is quite appealing: the empowerment of independence and the profound connectedness and freedom of interdependence.