Photo Credit Alexi Berry

"What we call normal in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don't even notice it ordinarily." This quote is by Abraham Maslow, the theorist who gave us the idea of the hierarchy of needs (once your basic needs are met you begin to seek higher needs) and the idea of self-actualization.

Maslow's point is that being normal, being average, although normally perceived as okay, is pathology. Pathology can be defined as disease or sickness. The dictionary's definition of psychopathology is "The study of the origin, development, and manifestations of mental or behavioral disorders," or "the manifestation of a mental or behavioral disorder." Most people would be offended if someone were to say that they were average. Yet, by definition, most are. Average in psychological terms is a huge category, encompassing the majority of the population. Those that are not average are outliers. Outliers are the small percentage at either end of the bell curve. They are either well below average, or well above. Average in this sense doesn't have much to do with not being an individual. You can be an individual yet fall well within the average.

So now that we are all feeling insulted, let's discuss what Maslow was saying and why it is so important. Maslow's contention was that the ultimate goal of humans is to self-actualize, to become all they can in a lifelong process of self-improvement. He also contended that all humans have this potential. But before that can happen, other needs which are positioned below self actualization must be met. These include physiological needs, needs for safety, needs for love and belonging, and the need for esteem. Once these needs are met, the individual can look toward self actualization. Not striving toward being all you can be is your pathology. He is using this bold statement to get your attention and to encourage you to take action.

It can be assumed most people in this country (particularly if you are reading this article online) have the lower needs met. Most have enough food, water, and shelter. Most do not feel constant threats to their safety. And, hopefully, we feel loved and a sense of belonging. So with these needs met, we can move toward feeling esteemed. This need encompasses self confidence, feeling competent, and believing at least some others hold you in high esteem. Again, it seems reasonable that many readers have these needs met as well. This is not to say you feel this way all of the time. There may always be flare-ups of self doubt. But it is understood that generally, most of the time, you feel confident in yourself and your abilities. So, with all of these important needs met, why aren't more people becoming self actualized?

The answer is simple: we become complacent with these lower, but important needs. Then, instead of working toward self-actualization people become consumers: keeping up with the Joneses, being the first on our block to have the newest gadget, over-indulging in "entertainment needs" (movies, television, trips) and otherwise trying to fill the yearning for a higher purpose with purchases, rather than self-improvement.

Perhaps what is keeping the majority of people from self actualizing is that they are misinterpreting their yearning for self-actualization as a need for more of something else: More love, more things, more fun. Therefore the solution is to cease filling the void with things, and instead, focus on you, and what you can be. What are you doing that is creative? What are you doing to exercise your mind? What are you doing to make the planet (and your fellow humans) better? What are you doing to be happier with you, rather than your possessions? Answer these questions and the movement toward self-actualization begins.

If you still have trouble getting started or maintaining progress, it is possible that there are unconscious forces that lie within you that are keeping you stagnated. One suggestion is to enter therapy so you can discover these blocks, remove them, and get back on track. Making the unconscious more conscious is one of the most beneficial aspects of therapy. So often today we view therapy simply as a place to vent or get some direction with other life problems. But at its best, therapy is geared toward insight, toward understanding yourself, and to becoming self-actualized. Good luck on your journey.

Copyright William Berry, 2011

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