How Change Works: Supporting Vertical Development

Dr. Keith Witt Cognitive, Defenses, Intrapersonal, Psychology, Video, Witt & Wisdom: Live with Dr. Keith

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Dr. Keith and Corey explore some critical strategies to help support ongoing growth to increasing wholeness in ourselves and in other people:

  • Finding a psycho-spiritual framework to help organize our knowledge, experiences, and practices (e.g. Integral metatheory)
  • engaging in change work (psychotherapy, coaching, consulting, etc.),
  • Seeking communities of people who we recognize as more developed than ourselves.


How to Support Vertical Development

by Dr. Keith Witt

What is vertical development?

  • On the self, values, interpersonal, moral, psychosocial, and psychosexual lines vertical development is more compassionate understanding in an area plus some behavioral change.
  • Someone can progress on other lines, but not necessarily on the above by enhancing skills like gymnastics or dancing. This is horizontal health.
  • Someone can appear to progress on another line, but actually stay at their current elevation or regress. For example, someone can appear to progress on the interpersonal line by becoming more adept at social manipulation (two books illustrating this are How to win Friends and Influence People, and Exactly What to Say). If the social manipulation has no component of more compassionate understanding, then it doesn’t constitute vertical development.

How to support vertical development?

  • Change work of all sorts—therapy, coaching, or consulting—seeks to enhance compassionate understanding and support positive behavior change.
  • Psychoeducation—workshops, systems, developmental frameworks—that teach vertical development while inviting and helping participants to embody the work. Integral and Spiral Dynamics are good examples of teaching stages and inviting changed perspectives and behaviors. Terri O’Fallon’s Stages system suggests that inhabiting gross, subtle, causal, and nondual stages of a particular vMEME leads someone to progress vertically to the next tier.

The process of change work

In any given session, change workers look for confusion, conflict, and yearning and intersubjectively press those points, searching for more compassionate perspectives and adaptive behaviors.

  • When there are no resistances or defenses, this is mostly straightforward education.
  • In the presence of resistances and defenses—usually the case to some extent—this involves a vast array of psychotherapeutic approaches, Shadow Work, and relational cross validation.
  • Even therapies that focus on symptom reduction, like Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and assertion training, are designed to support a new sense of a wiser and more agentic self—more compassionate understanding and changed behavior.

Interface with Wisdom traditions

In Theravada Buddhism, Right View and Right Conduct are essentially more compassionate understanding and more adaptive behaviors. The six other parts of the 8-fold path, Right Speech, Right Resolve, Right Livelihood, Right Intent, Right Mindfulness, and Right Samadhi can all be subsumed under Right View and Right Conduct.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is essentially reinterpretations of Right View (cognitive) and Right Conduct (behavioral).

Complexity and vertical development

Dynamic systems like individual consciousnesses and relationships are composed of groups of linked parts, capable of chaotic behavior, energized, arranged hierarchically, and not lost in rigidity or chaos. These systems produce repeating fractal patterns of change, that eventually create a new organization that appears simpler but are actually more complex and energy efficient. This results in a phase change to the system, which in people is generally vertical development, often experienced as a form of transcendence.

Change workers go to the fractal interfaces, often marked by yearning, conflict, or confusion, and intersubjectively help generate new fractal patterns until a phase shift occurs and the client shifts into more compassionate understanding and more energy efficient behaviors—which appear simpler but are actually more complex.

Post-issue relationships are highly complex dynamical systems that appear simple and are enormously energy efficient.


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Dr. Keith Witt

About Keith Witt

Dr. Keith Witt is a Licensed Psychologist, teacher, and author who has lived and worked in Santa Barbara, CA. for over forty years. Dr. Witt is also the founder of The School of Love.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996. Corey is also a professional woodworker, and many of his artworks can be found in his VisionLogix art gallery.