This is an extract from my book “Developmental Coaching”

As the self journeys through levels of consciousness, it needs to find a way of dealing with the life it creates and experiences. Like anything that perceives itself as separate, it needs defences to hold and maintain itself. These ‘defences’ or ‘adaptations’ (these words are interchangeable in this context) are the methods we use to maintain a sense of balance at a certain level – they are kind of distortions or possibly even ‘lies’ we tell ourselves that serve this end. R D Laing saw these as ‘knots’ (which is a little friendlier) and used the following to describe the lies we most often don’t know we tell ourselves:

The range of what we think and do

is limited by what we fail to notice.

And because we fail to notice

that we fail to notice

there is little we can do

to change

until we notice

how failing to notice

shapes our thoughts and deeds.

There is a spectrum to these adaptations that spans from the most primitive through to the most mature. All other things being equal, as we grow and develop there is a natural emergence of the more mature mechanisms. These mature mechanisms are more ‘acceptable’ as ways of being in the world and for the possessor they are more expansive and somehow more inclusive. If we must lie, the more mature lies are better; and as such, the quality of a person’s life can be judged by the adaptations they use. Let us try not to knot in ways that stop us enjoying life!

For coaching, I suggest it is in large part the person’s adaptations that determine whether they will be a success or not. Being a success (defining this as ‘achieving your dreams’) will be determined by the person’s internal structure and there is nothing more important as an indication of this than the defences they apply. So clearly this is a great “set of tools” for working with the coachee. You will be able to adapt and apply this as you get more used to the concepts. Before expanding on some of the coaching applications, however, I will first give an overview of the stages of adaptations.

Stages of adaptation

George Vaillant, author of Adaptation to Life, was involved in research that studied ‘healthy’ individuals over a thirty year period. This study, called the Grant Study, tracked 268 healthy men from college students into adulthood. Ok, it was only men, not women, but it still makes a great read.

The result is a beautiful movie-like journey through many of these men’s lives – through their problems and anguish, and their considerable joys. On reading Adaptation to Life, the reader is awakened to a new depth of richness in those around them. And even though it is never wise, nor kind, to point at someone’s adaptations directly, the ability to notice how a person adapts to life becomes a great aid in supporting the growth of that individual. Each stage of Vaillant’s suggested adaptations relates to one of the levels of consciousness we discussed earlier (with the addition of a ‘pre-as if’ stage).

Level of consciousness Piaget’s term Stage of adaptation
Pre-as if Pre-operational ‘Psychotic’
As if Concrete operational ‘Immature’
What if?


Formal operational ‘Neurotic’
Dialetical thinking Post-Formal operational ‘Mature’

As the table uses words that may cause concern or offence, especially ‘psychotic’, ‘immature’ and ‘neurotic’, I will explain their meaning in this context. As a person develops from a child they move up the spiral of development, taking on the associated defences for a specific level of consciousness. So for a child aged two, the psychotic adaptations are a suitable level adaptation. For a child age six, the immature adaptations are a suitable level (they can huff and puff and try to punish you, in their way). As an adult – and these are the most common in adults – the neurotic adaptations are suitable (with everyone having their funny quirks), and for the later stages in life, there are the mature defences (seeking the expression of who they are).

Now expanding this out a little, below is an overview of the stages and types of adaptations within in each stage.

Stage I – Psychotic Denial and delusion


Borderline condition

Stage II – Immature Projection


Passive aggressive and acting out

Stage III – Neurotic Intellectualisation

Repression and dissociation

Displacement and neurotic denial

Reaction formation

Stage IV – Mature Suppression


Altruism and humour


As we are considering a developmental approach, we must discuss the earliest stages to some degree, but I will focus more attention on stages II, III and IV because, as a coach, you can do more about these adaptations. I have based some of this on the Grant study findings, but have chosen a selection of adaptations and sometimes blended two similar adaptations together. Also, based on the work of Engler, Brown and Wilber (from Transformations of Consciousness) I have adapted the earliest stage of adaptation to include two classic defences that Vaillant did not code with the same language. These are ‘narcissism’ and ‘borderline condition’- both of which I have come across in coaching sessions.


Stage I adaptations

Stage I adaptations are perfectly healthy as a young child, but not for a normally developed adult, where it is the most distorted view:

Denial and delusion

Individuals who apply these adaptations alter the reality in which they live. But, as Vaillant says, they will appear ‘crazy’ to any adult observing them in another adult. ‘Denial’ denies the external world. ‘Delusion’ often involves persecution (and is frequently paranoid in nature).


Similar to distortion (using Vaillant’s term), the individual grossly reshapes the external world for their own needs. This defence keeps the individual at the centre of their universe. This is the defence of the ‘all important’.

Borderline condition

This adaptation occurs when a person is cannot hold an object as both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time. Internally the individual ‘splits’ them into two halves, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and cannot see the same object as both good and bad, e.g. the mother was such an object when we were children.


In an adult, these adaptations are crippling – it is even possible that such an individual will have a record of mental health problems if they sustain these adaptations over a long period. But as a coach it is more interesting to look at small traits within oneself or within the behaviours of others that point to elements of the self being stuck at this level. The person, then, is not always stabley at a certain level of development and employing the level of adaptation that corresponds to that level. Instead, there can be trace elements that remain at a lower level. So, keep your eyes open!

As an example, delusional paranoia could come from narcotic induced experiences that leave the person twisting their reality to make sense of the experiences they had. For instance, if the individual experiences a sense of persecution, they may create a reality of some kind of ‘plot’ against them, that their telephone is tapped, sinister forces in the universe are trying to corrupt their thinking or there are fairies at the bottom of the garden that give them messages. For the Developmental Coach, serious denial and delusion adaptations are best left for medical experts. However, if the coachee’s denial and delusion traits are mild– and a heavy dose of superstition can often fall into a delusional magical category that is not far away from these – then as the coach you may want to support them through reading. Through this process the coachee’s self may let go of that level of adaptation and bring themselves together to a higher level.  

Narcissism, on the other hand, is far more common in our culture than we may choose to believe. This is the defence of ‘me’. This is not even ‘me’ and my family – it is just about ‘me’. As Wilber puts it, it is “the overestimation of self as measured against the devaluing of others, that marks the narcissistic defence.” So, this defence is not about high self-esteem, it is an imbalance in the view between the importance of the self and others’. Narcissism is not about striving for individual achievement and success – this would only be narcissistic if the individual ignores the importance of other people (and maybe even their goals and dreams) along the way. As coach, this is actually your key to helping someone reduce the amount of narcissism present within themselves. If they don’t, it is likely that people around them will feel undervalued and unappreciated, and this will seriously affect the individual’s life. The main way for someone to grow through a high degree of narcissism is to develop increasing levels of concern for others. The first place to begin is in proximity – family and workplace.

A borderline condition is a way of preventing something ‘good’ being engulfed by its ‘bad’ attributes. It is an adaptation that keeps the parts, good and bad, separate and means that the individual is unable to see that someone or something is both good and bad simultaneously. They ‘split’ the object into two and then internally oscillate between two contradictory opinions. One minute ‘they are, or it is, the best thing in the world’ and the next minute ‘they are, or it is, the worst thing in the world.’ Really, this should be dealt with by a therapist if it is a major trait (the therapist will help build the ego to a point where the individual can integrate the two opposing halves). As a coach, it is worthwhile remembering that this adaptation exists because it may explain why someone’s opinion oscillates between two opposing views. If the person is otherwise healthy, you may choose to ask them to consider how what they are looking at has both good and bad aspects – so bringing together what was previously kept apart.

In this overview of Stage I defences, I have suggested minimal intervention by the coach. However, these defences are more common than we may think, so I do consider it relevant that the coach has an understanding of their existence. As we shall see more and more, it is the individual’s adaptations/defences that determine if they live their dreams – if they are stopping themselves in some way, their defences will have a major role. Even when the individual has the ‘intention’ to achieve a goal, their adaptive needs (i.e. the need of the having the defence mechanisms) may override that goal being achieved – the first stage of freeing ourselves is when we can see these lies or distortions in ourselves.

To recap, adaptations will change as the individual develops, and a natural progression from Stage I to Stage II will occur at an early age. This is where we go next.


Stage II adaptations

Adaptations theory suggests that, throughout a healthy life, there is a continuum of adaptations to life and a flow of the self through the stages of adaptation as the individual grows and develops. It is when the individual gets stuck at a lower stage of development and bears out its associated adaptations, that we may find ourselves as coach to an ‘emerging adult self’. The adult can develop through their less mature adaptations to become a more fulfilled, less conflicted, kinder and more caring individual. The former child becomes able to be more appreciative of the needs of those around them and develops a healthier view of life. At each stage of development, and with the use of every adaptation, the world appears to ‘be’ a certain way. This internal subjective experience gives meaning to life. For that unwell adult who has regressed to stage I defences such as delusion, they may see the world in a paranoiac way – their view of the world is determined by this level of consciousness and their corresponding defence. If the individual can move on from this adaptation, they will adapt the way they see the world as the self lets go of their former way of being.

It is likely that the adult adaptations we see at stage II, i.e. ‘immature’ defences, will be healthier than those of stage I. So even though we call these ‘immature’, they are still a step on from the most primitive defences that went before them. Stage II adaptations are called ‘immature’ but they are really healthy adaptations for anyone aged up to 15 years, and from a coaching perspective, immature adaptations tend to extend into adulthood as well.

As a coach, appreciation of this stage of development – at the ‘as if’ or concrete-operational (con-op) level of consciousness – will help provide a basis to a suitable approach with the coachee. But they may not be the easiest to manage because, for the coachee, the way they view the world is through this adaptive form and they cannot just be ‘given up’; otherwise the coachee will be unable to make sense of the world. As a Developmental Coach, it is your role to help and support the emergence of the next stages of adaptive development in the same way as we were talking about emerging levels in the last session. So, do you see the pieces starting to come together in how you will operationalise the theory? In the same way as we looked at the emergence of different levels of consciousness – ‘as if’ to ‘what if? to ‘full what if? to ‘what what if?’ – adaptations arise at the same time since they are emergent at these levels. If someone is predominantly ‘as if’ (con-op) as their current way of being, then the stages of adaptation available to them will only be stage I and stage II. Even though there is potential for later stages to emerge, they do not have the cognitive capacity for them to be realised as yet. The coachee will be using these adaptations, or defences, as a way of making meaning in the world around them. This is great from a coaching perspective as you can use their “display” to “know where they are at”. In order for them to move on, they must evolve through each stage, letting go of the previous way of being as they go. That is what you can help them to do through your sessions.

The coach, as I will discuss toward the end of the chapters on adaptations, will find that the coachee’s adaptive mechanisms are truly a clear indication of the life they live. This is why this section will prove so useful to you. The healthier and more developed the adaptations, the greater the opportunity for living a ‘good’ life. As a Developmental Coach, it can be your aim to support and aid the coachee’s development so they too can have a ‘good’ life. In return, the coachee will also find that their life quality extends out to others more and more. Stage II is, however, not a healthy adaptation for an adult, and the rest of this chapter discusses the three main manifestations of defence at this level.

Projection, hypochondriasis and passive aggressive behaviour adaptations relate more to interrelationships with others than to how an individual relates to themselves. As these adaptations manifest themselves at the ‘as if’ (con op) level of consciousness, the individual will have great difficulty fully appreciating other people’s position because of their limited ability to ‘put themselves in another’s shoes’ (which is a key aspect of this level of consciousness). As a result, it is not surprising that this level of consciousness could lead to difficulties for an adult who has the corresponding adaptations. The main adaptations will involve interpersonal exchanges and this is a clue for how to move on from these adaptations. The stage II adaptations are briefly explained below.


Vaillant describes this as “attributing one’s own unacknowledged feelings to others.” Much of the world’s prejudice and ‘witch hunting’ comes from this defence. When it is ‘not me, it’s them’ the individual may start building a case against individuals or groups that support their own negative feelings.


This adaptation manifests itself in the movement of emotional needs into a physical illness. If a person is lonely, instead of making demands on people around them more openly, they aim to gain attention through illness. This way they gain the attention they so much desire.

Passive aggressive behaviour (and acting out)

This is when an individual acts “aggressively towards others expressed indirectly and ineffectively through passivity or directed against the self”. Vaillant mentions in his summary of adaptations that it can include failures, procrastinations or illnesses that affect others as well as the individual. It may also manifest as silly and provocative behaviour.

The individual might also turn this aggression outward and it could be seen as active aggressive behaviour and delinquency (including self infliction, drug abuse and temper tantrums).


Stage II adaptations can often be seen as the least savoury of the adaptations as the main impact is in the realm of relationships with others. Whereas Stage I adaptations are seen as crazy, stage II adaptations are seen as damned rude and offensive. As a teenager a degree of flexibility may be given (and certainly a peer group will have these adaptations), but they are difficult to accept from an adult.

In coaching, the main way of supporting someone’s growth and development from stage II adaptations into more healthy ones is quite simple. As the main problem lies in the lack of appreciation of relationships, let’s say in passive aggressive behaviour, this is also the realm of the solution. It is actually through developing relationships and appreciating (not being told) how one’s own actions impacts on others, that this level of consciousness can be released, allowing the next stage to emerge. The movement from ‘as if’ to ‘what if?’ thinking (con-op to form-op) will occur as the person starts to consider alternative viewpoints more and more. The ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes will help the individual appreciate the impact of their actions. Then, when a decision to take action arises that could have a negative impact on another, the person will think through ‘what if?’ they behave in a certain way.

I said that Stage II adaptations are not healthy in normal adult conditions, but they are preferable to Stage I. This is something that is important to remember as a coach. People evolve and develop throughout their lives and they will always have adaptations. It is not a question of simply good and bad, but a question of suitability. As a coach, if a person wants to improve their relationships but they do not take responsibility for their own feelings and thoughts (and see them ‘out there’ – projection) this may be an area that needs coaching. This cannot just be about changing voice tone or physical approach – it is something far deeper. The person needs to leap a level of consciousness and in turn disembed themselves from the previous level’s adaptations.

This then, is what you can help people to do. This is Developmental Coaching.

To do this, the coach will need to gently reflect back at them how their own behaviour is at least partially responsible for the responses of another person, e.g. if the coachee doesn’t see they are partly responsible because of drug abuse, blame, personal failure and procrastination etc. In turn, this will help the coachee increase their level of awareness to what they are doing and the implications of their actions. They will begin to put themselves in other people’s shoes more often.

On a different note, this is an interesting stage of adaptation for the coach. These adaptations are actually quite commonplace in adults and it is worth exploring the left-over traits within ourselves, even if we don’t count our own consciousness as wholly within the stage II class, because stage II manifestations may still arise once in a while (especially when the times get tough!) In short, if most people are operating at stage III adaptations, the self can still regress to stage II because the stage III self still has access to the earlier stages that served so well in earlier years. For example, under stressful circumstances, the self may find itself sliding down to lower stages of adaptation when the ones usually employed no longer function to hold the self together – this regression to lower stages may happen in stressful situations, but it can also happen when we are tired, hungry etc. Aside from this, if the coach comes across an individual who predominately employs these adaptations, there is a challenge for the coach because on the whole, these are not ‘likeable’ adults. This is the hard part about coaching, especially when considering that earlier I mentioned that a prerequisite for Developmental Coaching was to like the coachee. For those coaches who possess a high level of kindness, tolerance and compassion, I tip my hat to your perseverance with my one hand whilst pointing towards more reading materials with the other. I think that through understanding Vaillant and Carl Roger’s work in particular, a coach can appreciate how best to help their coachee move on from this somewhat unsavoury stage.


Adaptations stage III

The word ‘neurosis’ has become commonplace in our culture and has some heavy associations. Even though the stage III adaptations are called ‘neurotic’, they are actually healthy adaptations to life for individuals aged three to ninety. This band of adaptations is the most common that you will come across and, even though they are seen as just quirky from the outside, they do restrict freedom of expression. As Daniel Goleman says in Vital Lies, Simple Truths, “we are piloted in part by an ingenious capacity to deceive ourselves, whereby we sink into obliviousness rather than facing threatening facts”. This is true at all stages of adaptation.

In contrast to the stage II immature defences that were in relation to interpersonal conflict, stage III adaptations are internalised problems, i.e. intrapersonal. As these adaptations cause concern to the individual, they will often seek help to resolve them. There is good news for coaching as through the process of increasing awareness and appropriate interventions, it is straightforward to change them. As I have indicated, as a Developmental Coach one of the skills you need to develop is the ability to interpret the coachee’s situation in ways that indicate their current level of development and adaptation. To develop this skill, you will need the adaptations spelling out within yourself and through personal exploration, with a few moments of ‘ah, I do that!’ before finding the same ways of coping (adaptating) in others. If the coach is happy to root around within themselves and seek suitable interventions to resolve a neurotic disorder, they too will be able to grow and develop. As you will see, it is bringing awareness to bear on them that makes a huge difference. The release of intrapsychic tension when a neurotic defence is no longer employed can feel liberating – its continuation can lead to obsession about our neurotic behaviours, i.e. neurosis about our neurosis. The stage III adaptations are briefly explained below.


This adaptation arises when an individual separates the thought from the feeling about a person or object, leaving a cold rationalisation in its place. So the thought ‘I hate them’ is present, but there is no feeling. This adaptation also includes obsessions created to avoid bringing real feelings to the surface.


Repression is when the idea has been lost, but the feeling remains. Interestingly, this process of ‘forgetting’ a problem often leaves the person doing something that points towards them ‘not really forgetting’ completely, i.e. the unconscious still provides pressure against the psyche.


Somewhere between intellectualisation and repression lie phobias – when there is a strong physical reaction to a person or object. While this is certainly a neurotic defence, I have placed it here because in phobias the original event is often lost or repressed. The person may even ‘dissociate’ from the pain completely so that there is no feeling left either. This can be done by ‘blotting out’ with alcohol or peak joyful experiences.


This occurs when the individual’s attention is shifted or ‘displaced’. For example, if someone is concerned about intimacy with their partner, they may become obsessed with a toy aeroplane, a stamp collection or a body part. In other words, the real issue is avoided and attention moved elsewhere.

Neurotic denial occurs when someone simply denies that there is a problem to be dealt with, even though there clearly is.

Reaction formation

This adaptation arises when the individual’s behaviour is the opposite to their unconscious desire. This may manifest as a reaction against a certain behaviour, such as eating chocolate, by ‘stopping it dead’. This leads the person to feel the desire but they react against it with abstinence.

As an overview, what we have looked at above is the relationship between an idea and a feeling. This is another way of looking at it:

  • intellectualisation there is the idea but no feeling
  • repression there is feeling but no idea
  • displacement of attention the feeling is associated with something else
  • reaction formation the idea and feeling at a conscious and unconscious level don’t match

For the Developmental Coach, this must be seen as just the beginning to understanding these mechanisms but this approach could be useful as an aide memoire, as the feeling moves around the place- sometimes connected, sometimes not.

To obtain a deeper appreciation of what your coachee is experiencing and the associated adaptive mechanisms they are using to cope with life, further self exploration will be needed but I will use case studies to help place your understandings. In the meantime use self-reflection and ‘defence’ spotting within yourself and you will start to get them on-board. When you turn your analysis on yourself at this level, you will find that you almost certainly employ neurotic defences – this is perfectly normal and actually healthy. Even though they may cause you initial concern, I would encourage light heartedness as we all use adaptive mechanisms to deal with life and, even though stage IV may be preferable to stage III, most people at stage IV still employ these adaptations as well. The ‘neurotic’ adaptations are the most prevalent and not too major a problem from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, but for the individual using the defence, as soon as they become aware of what they are doing, they may well want to deal with it.

Methods of dealing with neurosis

The question arises about whether awareness is enough in most circumstances when people are working with this on their own. An individual may be aware of an obsession or a phobia but in this situation it is quite likely that they will not be able to shift it. However, as Developmental Coaching is neither about conventional therapy nor trying in some way to ‘fix’ a person, it is not your responsibility to attempt to remedy the situation. Instead, your responsibility is to support the individual’s growth and development – it may well be that the neurosis is stopping the coachee’s development at this stage and it can be of concern to you that this is being employed, but it is not your role to try to fix it. Even though on occasions it is darn tempting to have a go! You may well suggest that the coachee explores a therapy route if they want and as Vaillant says, “the user of neurotic defences is a self-diagnosed sinner who gratefully confesses and thereby wins absolution.” Alternatively, you may point the coachee in the direction of suitable reading material. In some cases, increasing the coachee’s awareness will bring together the ‘idea’ and the ‘feeling’ through discussion of what is going on, but this requires considerable skill on the coach’s part. Many coaches have found that reading material (as a form of “bibliotherapy”- I like that word) has aided their coachee to move through the neurotic realms – by reading about a condition and applying what they have read, the coachee is able to ‘see through’ their patterns of behaviour and move on from that adaptation. It is through the conversational support of the coach that they are able to do so with confidence. However, this does not mean that the individual taking this route stops employing neurotic defences – on the contrary, they will find that many other neurosis are probably present, but they do not cause enough of a problem to require intense work in this area (yet). Note: If a coachee becomes an ‘expert’ on their neurosis but they have not shifted, a gentle nudge in the direction of a therapist may help them take that extra step.

In Integral Psychology, Wilber sums up how therapy works and I am suggesting that Developmental Coaching can have a similar affect as the coach becomes the ‘catalyst’. Whereby the coach can “allow consciousness to encounter (or reencounter) facets of experience that were previously alienated, malformed, distorted or ignored.” Wilber continues that the reasons this can cure is because “by experiencing these facets fully, consciousness can genuinely acknowledge these elements and thereby let go of them.” Continuing with Wilber’s perspective, this process allows for the growth or development of an individual to occur as the coachee is able to see these elements “as an object, and thus differentiate from them, de-embed from them, transcend them- and then integrate them into a more encompassing, compassionate embrace.”

NOTE: The earliest adaptations of psychosis, splitting and narcissism are not dealt with best through reflection and integration into the existing ego structure (when serious). There is simply too little ego there in the first place. As the problem occurred when there was little ego present, the treatment is generally ‘structure building’. This leads to sufficient ego to then continue with the development of it. Quality psychotherapy is still a suitable route with this in mind.


Optimal living

Overall, neurotic defences can cause the person to live a less than optimal life – a life filled with contradictory feelings, rampant obsessions and a high degree of personally restricted freedom. Trying to ‘keep it all in’ in the case of repression can lead someone to physiological problems as well as emotional concern. If the person is bubbling over with emotion, they are using heavy internal tactics (in a way that is what an adaptation is at an unconscious or conscious level) to avoid exploding when that final straw breaks the camel’s back. In ‘dissociation’, the individual may totally cut off from the issue (not just from the idea) – in ‘intellectualisation’, they can be a little ‘cold’ as the feeling has been separated. In ‘reaction formation’, the person may be denying natural urges that could be enjoyed and explored if only the defence was not used.

But these defences are often not released easily. We need our defences. Our realities are operating at a level that requires defences to hold ourselves together. But from a Developmental Coaching perspective, we do not aim to delve into the past to make sense of who we are. A perspective of the past may well be useful, but from the Grant Study research, it really is the sustained relationships with people that moulds our character. The quality of life of the members of the study was determined by the level of adaptation they used. This was irrespective of their background, including economic situation and childhood. Looking back at the lines of development we discussed earlier and bringing it together with the defences present at different levels of consciousness – the neurotic level being ‘what if?’ and ‘full what if?’ – we see that people with more development over several lines will be more balanced as individuals. When this is combined with the 4 Quadrants and their activity in those quadrants, we can begin to see how an individual might live a more fruitful life.

For the person developing through ‘what if?’ thinking (as is expressed through the neurotic adaptations), the next level will bring forth its own adaptations to life. The ‘what what if?’ level of thinking – vision logic, using Wilber’s words, post formal operational/dialectical – has defences that are even more healthy and even an appreciation that they exist at this level can help spark an individual’s interest in working through the neurotic defences. They do sound rather nice afterall. This may take some time, but it is through good quality relationships, for example with a coach, that the individual can exhaust the satisfaction gained at the neurotic defence level and move on to a higher order of self.


The mature defences stage IV

The most healthy adaptations to life are known as the ‘mature defences’ and are available to adults of any age. They are, however, considerably less common than the earlier stages of defence. Jane Loevinger in Theories of Ego Development says, “The striving to master, to integrate, to make sense of experience is not one ego function among many, but the essence of ego.” And it is at this stage of development – ‘what what if?’ – that adaptations begin to reflect the coming together, or integration, of the ego. From an integral perspective, this is the level which holds much joy and freedom for those individuals fortunate enough to stabilise it. But this fortune comes not by chance, but through high quality relationships and committing to concentrated effort. This level is not closed off to any human; it is just a case of catching the next wave and releasing from the addiction of the previous status quo. I repeat, this is not a level that is open only to academics or scholars, or artists and musicians – this level and its adaptations are free for all. But before attaining this level, the self must find its way through the previous levels, find them ultimately unsatisfactory and then move on.

For many, the description of the adaptations will be seen as if they are simply ‘good’ qualities, or ‘pleasant traits’. But they are also ways of coping with life – ways of adapting to experiences and in turn adapting those experiences back into life. For the Developmemtal Coach, these are qualities to be appreciated and maybe even sought after, but they are not just qualities. It is at this level of being that the self has begun to integrate itself into a form that is of a higher order.

The stage IV adaptations are briefly explained below.


This adaptation is active when the individual postpones action until another time. ‘I’ll deal with this on Tuesday.’ The individual does not then forget about it but chooses an appropriate time, and probably an appropriate state, to deal with a situation.



This mechanism allows the individual to prepare themselves for discomfort, such as surgery or loss. This conscious acceptance allows for realistic planning instead of avoidance.


Altruism and humour

Service towards others is a naturally emerging quality that provides a real benefit to the people who receive it. Humour allows a light hearted reflection on what may not be light hearted.



This is when energy is channelled towards, for instance team sports or artistic expression. Hobbies that are not employed to avoid reality, and maybe even give pleasure to a greater number of people, can be included here.


Even though these adaptations seem very ‘normal’ and positive, they are still ways of dealing with life. For example, the philanthropist who engages with good causes is actually adapting him or herself through the mechanism of altruism; the businessman who calmly deals with problems at an appropriate time with foresight of future consequences may be using suppression. But no matter what defences are employed, it is worth noting that the previous stages (all the way down to stage I) are still available to the individual. Because they have emerged through these stages, the individual still has access to them if the circumstances are right or, as it really is, when the circumstances are wrong. In particular, under stress the movement from Stage IV to Stage III is the easiest to occur. For many, the neurotic defences will still only be a button pressing experience away – when the button is pressed, regression to an earlier defence will occur. And if the movement to Stage III adaptations does not stabilise the situation, the individual may attempt to hold themselves together by slipping down the developmental spiral even further. When you add in that there are often remnants of the earlier stages still within the self (pathologies), the downward journey can happen quite quickly.


Comparison to neurotic defences

Mature defences often develop out of the continued use and failure of the neurotic defences (as in ‘the translations fail’). Repression, as a neurotic defence, enables the individual using it to push away the idea that is of concern to them. For instance, in a relationship if someone has behaved in a certain way and it has led to a strong emotion, the problem itself may be avoided to avoid confrontation. Repression’s natural successor is suppression, when the individual decides to face the discomfort at a suitable time. Instead of leaving the feelings to stack up, they may, using the same example, be talked through and the intrapsychic tension dissipated as a result. The process of suppression is thereby more mature, as the energy that would have been used in repression can be used elsewhere.

Similarly, instead of displacing attention (or dissociating from the issue altogether), someone at the mature stage may use anticipation to deal with problems. There is a high degree of honesty when a person does this as they have to face their own fears and troubles; they may also start to prepare for their inevitable demise – this is certainly not a stage that thinks it is immortal.

Altruism and/or humour can lead a person to be warmer and kinder in the eyes of others. But this is not its purpose as there is a high degree of satisfaction for the employer of this adaptation. Unlike wit, which uses displacement of attention, Vaillant says, humour enables the person to be inclusive and, instead of it being a distraction, it actually helps us face the unfaceable, whatever that may be. I personally went to stand-up college in San Francisco for 6 months to play with this idea. It really works! In a similar way, there is honesty in sublimation too – a person does not deny what they feel, but expresses it through a suitable medium. But Vaillant does not see that movement through adaptations up to this stage, and motion in life, is necessarily easy for the individual. “Anxiety and depression, like blisters and fractures, become the price of a venturesome life. In daring to live and grow up, we create disparities between conscience and instinct, and between that precarious balance and the people we love.”


So, mature adaptations are not just ‘good qualities’ – they are real adaptations to life. This means they are naturally emergent within the personality when it reaches a certain level of maturity. Most commonly it is later in life that people stabilise this level, but it can occur much earlier if the circumstances are optimal. This is where Developmental Coaching can assist.


Adaptive versus intentional needs


Now that we have gone through the four stages of adaptations that occur at the different stages of development, the main focus needs to shift on to how this helps the Developmental Coach. As such, let us now return back to a central coaching principle – that of “goals”. With a basis that coaching requires a good relationship with the coachee, it is necessary that this relationship develops over time so the coach can observe and assist in the development. But at every stage, the coachee will be moving on, standing still or moving backward. The reason that sits behind this is the adaptive mechanisms that the individual employs as they operate at a certain level of consciousness within the 4 quadrants of life – I, we, it and its – and with a focus on certain lines of development.

Adaptive mechanisms can hold people back just as much as a movement through them can move the person on. When we talk as a coach in terms of ‘goals’, there is a fundamental problem – the goal is itself a reflection of the coachee’s intentional needs. They ‘want’ something. But wanting is not enough. If the adaptive mechanisms are not in place to support the intention, the coachee will be unable to achieve their goals. This is key for you as a coach. The adaptive needs need to be less than the intentional needs. In other words, if the person needs to be operating at a low level of adaptation, then this will override any intentional need they might have. For instance, if a person has not felt loved enough, they may behave in an unsuitably selfish way. In this case, the person may be operating at an immature defence level. If this person wants to be kindly towards others (maybe because their boss has told them, maybe because they feel they ought, or just because they simply would ‘like to’) then they may still be unable to so because their adaptation will override the intention. The adaptation serves as a way for them to deal with life, even if this may seem strange as an outsider.

So, the individual’s adaptive needs rule their actions. Even if a goal is set, it is by no means an indication that the person has the adaptive capacity to achieve it. For example, if someone wants to give up an obsession or a habit, this is a goal (an intentional need), but they can only achieve it if their adaptive need for the obsession or habit does not hold them back. Adaptive needs always override intentional needs.

From the results of following the lives of the men in the Grant Study, Vaillant saw that “over the course of a lifetime, styles of adaptation seem to have much more effect on outcome than the insults that chance inflicted upon the men.” When Vaillant talks of outcome, he refers to a scale that considers success in career, relationships, health etc. The men with ‘good outcomes’ were using higher level adaptations than the men with ‘bad outcomes’. This has to be useful to know as a coach! “One of the great lessons that I learned from these men – one of the real lessons to be derived from the prospective study of lifetimes – is the corollary finding that the sons-of-bitches in this world are neither born that way nor self-willed. Sons-of-bitches evolve by their unconscious efforts to adapt to what for them has proven an unreasonable world.” It is this perspective that shows the importance of appreciating where a coachee is coming from. If someone is operating at a low stage of adaptation, condemnation will not help, but appreciation might. Maybe it won’t be the sons-of-bitches that will be coachees (or coaches) but at least we can increase our tolerance through appreciation that what they are doing is trying to serve the purpose of adapting to life. This is what we are all doing, in our own way.

So progression through these stages of adaptation is most often a gradual and life-long process. As a coach you cannot rush the process, but you can certainly assist in the movement through the stages of adaptation. Vaillant says that “if defences cannot be taught, they can be absorbed”. And the people we have around us are the most likely role models for us to absorb adaptations from. There is little we can do in respect of the mentors and teachers of our own upbringing, whether good or bad, but the opportunity now is to influence people through the medium of the more healthy adaptations. Even though we are talking about absorption rather than learning in a classroom, it is this type of learning that internalises the mentors and coaches that we all have. As Vaillant puts it, “If part of any talent depends upon good teachers, part of any talent comes from a continued capacity to learn and to synthesize what others teach.”

When we can influence those around us, having stabilised a level of adaptation that allows the interests of others to override the need for ourselves during coaching, we can set the scene for absorption to occur. If ever there was ‘walking the talk’, this is it. It is at the adaptive level that real substance to character can be seen and the level at which it exists. This is key to our journey and to those we are coaching.