Individuals and the Group: Self-Actualization

Does your family accept your desires even if they do not agree with them?

Posted Mar 27, 2020

 coal dubya/Flickr
Source: coal dubya/Flickr

Self-actualization is a somewhat vague term that is used in slightly different ways by different psychologists. Originally used by Kurt Goldstein, it is loosely defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one's talents and potentialities.” He thought we all had a drive to achieve this, and that it was of singular importance. 

The term was then picked up by Abraham Maslow and incorporated into his hierarchy of needs, and later used by the “humanistic” schools of psychotherapy (now referred to as emotion-focused therapies) championed by Fritz Perls (gestalt therapy) and Carl Rogers (client-centered therapy).

The way that I define it is, I hope, more clear cut: It is the process by which you learn to live your life as you see fit, and not merely blindly follow your herd and going along with all of their mandates, desires for you, and beliefs regardless of whether you, deep down, believe them or endorse them.

Another way of looking at this is that it is our ability to focus on our individualistic strivings as opposed to collectivist needs. Of course, we all need other people to one extent or another, and we cannot always follow our own “druthers” and allow our family members and tribespeople to sort of get lost. We all have roles and functions to maintain within our groups or we would never survive. In fact, we also learn “who we are” from our primary attachment figures. This is something we are literally programmed to do biologically.

We all come into the world completely helpless and with absolutely no knowledge of how the world even works. We don’t even know how gravity works or that we can move our arms and legs. Because of this, our survival literally depends on our parents or parent-substitutes. Their survival, in turn, is dependent on other people within their tribe or kin group, who do for them those things of which they are incapable as well as protect them from potentially dangerous outsiders. This is why our brains develop through our interactions with them. A so-called call-and-response process with the brains of young children as this interaction progresses leads to the formation of vast numbers of new connections between brain cells.

In his classic book from the 1940s, Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm pointed out that our degree of inter-dependence has slowly decreased over history as culture and technology evolved. In the middle ages, for example, you were not Joe Blow who happened to be a knight, a serf, or an artisan. Being one of those things was all you were, in total. There were no “individuals” to speak of!

With the industrial revolution and the Renaissance, people suddenly had time to think about other things besides basic survival needs. For the first time, they could think about their own likes and dislikes. They could think about their place in society and whether or not it really made sense. The whole culture was evolving, allowing this new sense of self to develop.

So how could their brains learn to do this when they were literally designed to go along with the group and think exactly what everyone else seemed to think (groupthink)? Well, that’s the nice part of having brains that are malleable. So exactly what process bridges the brain development described earlier with these new cultural developments?

One of the mechanisms by which the call-and-response process of brain formation works is called mirroring or, in a slightly different sense, validation. When we emit various behaviors spontaneously, some of them are reflected back to us, or positively reinforced, by our parents. Seeing ourselves in the eyes of our parents makes our behavior and feelings seem real to us, while if our behavior or thoughts are not mirrored, they feel unreal. The latter event induces in us a highly noxious feeling called groundlessness, also known as anomie.

In most families, some individualistic, non-conformist thoughts and behavior are mirrored. In others, being “selfish” in this way is viciously attacked. Dysfunctional families are full of ambivalence and conflict over individualist strivings. They give off double messages, leading to confusion. Often the individualist strivings of the children are not only discouraged or disagreed with but completely invalidated as something completely insane. Even the child’s own emotions are treated as if they were “crazy.” 

When this happens, the children become trapped in behavior meant to stabilize their unstable parents—the dysfunctional family roles described in this post. Unfortunately, the wider culture at large still has some power to mirror more individualistic behavior in them, and the conflict over rules and roles within the parents is transferred to the children.

The way out so that self-actualization becomes possible is for parents and adult children to learn how to constructively discuss this whole process as it has been occurring in their family within their cultural context and their family's historical experiences. Not an easy thing to do, for sure, but well worth the effort.