Self-actualization post Covid
The concept of self-actualization is used pretty loosely. Coined originally by Kurt Goldstein, the concept referred to the individual becoming holistic through the realization that we comprise ‘self’ together with the environments that we inhabit. The concept was subsequently developed further by Maslow who positioned it at the apex of his hierarchy of needs. In this context Maslow defined self-actualization as ‘what a man can be, he must be’ (I assume this referred to women as well!) More contemporary thinkers have defined self-actualization as the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, emotional and social potential as the source of our primary motivation, as opposed to being motivated and driven by environmental expectation, reward, power and status.
In the world of modern coaching, self-actualization became the buzz word. Consequently, coaching clients have been guided to ‘unleash their full potential’. When one fleshes out what the cornerstone is of the existing coaching offering we note an emphasis on such functions as goal-setting, enhancing self-esteem and seeking material reward and achievement. It struck me that all these concepts were directed at enhancing oneself as an entity divorced from one’s environment, or even at the expense of the environment. The self-actualization arising from this approach would be a half-baked version still driven by environmental expectation, status and prestige. It would serve only to forever feed the narcissistic needs of our being.
The missing component is value contribution to the greater whole. Value contribution can be defined as making something better than it was before engaging with it. This applies to self, to one’s personal environment and to the greater environment. Fundamental to value contribution is the requirement that we develop a sensitivity and empathy to self and to those in the greater external environment. In this way we may see ourselves as well as our suffering in the lives and suffering of others and thereby develop the motivation for value contribution. Additionally we contribute meaningfully to our own self-actualization. This was one of the core themes in the teachings of Viktor Frankl. Frankl took the concept further by indicating that this engagement would contribute materially to finding our own personal meaning and purpose. Allied to value contribution is the concept of gratitude. Effectively, gratitude is empathy received from something bigger than self. It is an acknowledgement of one’s fortunate situation as well as the existence of an order greater than oneself. This leads poignantly on to another of Frankl’s teachings – transform the expectations that you have of life into the question rather of what the greater order of things expects of you as a unique self-actualized individual. Here lies the real driver to attaining personal meaning and purpose.
As we engage a new post-Covid order I would like to believe that somehow we will be able to transcend the half-baked version of self-actualization with its narcissistic components, its obsession with consumerism and its disparaging judgementalism, to the more authentic version. Perhaps the fear, the illness, the financial hardships and the resulting existential vacuum may just be the catalyst that spurs us on to incorporate a little more sensitivity and empathy and thereby create a more meaningful, supportive, respectful and sustaining space.