by Dr. Samara Serotkin
Much like plants, which will continuously grow toward the light and their unbounded potential, humans also have the inherent tendency to move toward greater complexity. Inevitably, people encounter roadblocks that cause them to meander off their path and sometimes stumble upon both internal and external challenges that can feel insurmountable. When these challenges are left unaddressed, individuals can become rigid rather than responsive. Trust in one’s personal agency erodes and people become increasingly fearful of the world, which inevitably stunts the process of growth, creates cycles of suffering and pain and arrests the ability to foster self-actualisation. As a psychologist and coach, I orient myself toward helping my clients re-engage with their innate tendency to self-actualise, or reach their fullest potential, assisting them in identifying and working through the blocks that emerge.
Understanding self-actualisation and self-transcendence
What motivates people to do what they do? It is difficult to overestimate the value of uncovering and unleashing an individual’s own motivational force. Any therapist who has tried to guide a client toward self-growth can appreciate the value of the client’s personal sense of motivation and agency for change. However, motivation can be a difficult force to cultivate and explain because everyone presents with a unique set of values and personal motivational factors. For example, at first glance, excluding some basic physiological motivators (avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, etc.), motivations do not appear to be universal (Goldstein, 1939/1995). Consequently, any theory of motivation must take into account a wide variety of factors.
If you recognise the term self-actualisation, you probably recall a pyramid shaped diagram, which Abraham Maslow dubbed the hierarchy of needs (see illustration). A lesser-known fact is that Maslow borrowed the term from the field of evolutionary biology. Biologists use the term self-actualisation to describe the innate tendency of all living things to grow to greater complexity. Maslow, an American psychologist, described a self-actualised person as one who is tapping into his or her fullest potential and fully thriving. The rudimentary idea of the hierarchy of needs is that one must satisfy his or her most basic needs before moving up the ladder to the next layer. The progression starts at the bottom with basic physiological and safety needs, up through belonging and love, moving into esteem needs, and topping off with self-actualisation.
As Maslow’s research progressed, he began to realise that there was a hole in his theory. If self-actualisation was truly the top goal in motivating people, then self-actualising people would be satisfied and not driven toward any higher goals. Nonetheless, he found that the self- actualising people in his research remained engaged in the pursuit of something (Maslow, 1970). As such, it became clear to Maslow that his theory was incomplete. He determined that there was indeed an additional level to his hierarchy of needs: self-transcendence. Maslow then divided his hierarchy of needs into two categories. Physiological, safety, relationship and love, and esteem needs became known as the “basic needs”, while self-actualisation and self-transcendence were grouped together as “growth needs” (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).
Self-actualisation and self-transcendence ‘growth needs’ are seen as a state of being, not a static end-point. Consistent self-growth involves cultivating patience for the process of life as it unfolds. A self-actualising/self-transcending person is able to accept and move through obstacles, maintaining an overall path forward, in spite of wibble-wobbles along the way. Self-actualised people have inherent trust in their ability to enact change and handle whatever arises. They are able to evolve through challenges, which allows self-actualising/ transcending individuals to fully participate in life and truly thrive, continually meeting their fullest potential.
The inclusivity of self-actualisation
In my therapy practice, I don’t tend to look at a client through the lens of a diagnosis. Rather, I aim to see my clients for who and what they are – whole humans. And, while we all have the tendency to grow and evolve, almost everyone gets blocked sometimes. As a mindfulness therapist and coach, it is my role to help clients identify and move past their blocks so they can cultivate their innate tendency to thrive.
Early in my career as a therapist, I oriented myself toward the idea of self-actualisation for my clients because it is inclusive, intrinsic and applicable to everyone, regardless of gender, culture, family of origin, and so on. Also, as a therapist, it helps me work against the sometimes inherent power differential that can arise in the therapy room. My training in clinical psychology sets me up as ‘Dr. Serotkin, expert in the human condition and provider of help and hope’. Clients generally come to me for guidance to help them move from a state of suffering to one of thriving. This kind of relationship can inadvertently create an artificial power differential, implying that I am somehow the expert about a client’s life or situation, which is a bias I actively work against in my office. While I have accumulated a lot of knowledge about psychology and mental health, it all essentially amounts to tools in my toolbox. Effectively using those tools relies on mutual understanding and respect, encouraging clients to remain the master of their own ship, as I sit in the first mate’s seat for a while, offering tools to help navigate choppy waters. I work to connect to the client through our common humanity and shared desire to evolve through challenges and blocks to self-actualise and thrive. Regardless of purpose or profession, we are all humans periodically encountering and resolving blocks on our path of self-actualisation and, perhaps, self- transcendence. This attitude helps me to foster a client’s independence and autonomy.
Using self-actualisation as the North Star of my theoretical orientation not only honours many cultures and lifestyles, it is also highly flexible and agile and promotes personal awareness and empowerment. Individuals innately know what is best for them. My role as a therapist isn’t to tell my clients what to do, think or feel. Rather, I help them clear their lens, tap into their innate resources and capacity for growth and (re)connect to the ideas and activities that foster the healing, vitality and excitement that take them closer to optimal and sustainable thriving.
Empowering personal healing and growth
I often find that clients simply need help calibrating their internal compass and the encouragement to tap into and follow the flow of their own intuition. When I first start working with a new client and am taking a general history, I purposely ask them not just about their education and occupation, but also inquire about what inspired them to pursue a certain job and/or degree, which oftentimes elicits a surge in attention and excitement, especially if, for example, a client earned a degree in fine arts (a true passion), but now works in finance (which pays the bills). There are many ways to do this (and various questions to ask), but essentially what I’m doing is looking for a surge of excitement, or ‘aliveness’. It is the regular connection to this type of energy that fosters our tendency to increasingly grow to greater complexity and leads to optimal living.
Throughout the process of our work together, I consistently sense the energy in the room and continually work to foster a sense of coherence. Through the application of mindfulness—in every moment, in every session—I note where my client comes alive and the places and spaces in which he or she shuts down. While many clients often stutter to a start, the more they tap into what makes them come alive, the more they thrive, and this momentum tends to take over. Ultimately, what we are all seeking is to feel more present and alive and, much like plants, we have an innate aptitude to grow toward the light.
Prune back the roses
Anyone who tends to plants will tell you that in order for them to thrive they must be periodically pruned. Humans are no different. Wilted leaves and dead wood drain energy and, like plants, we must identify and remove what no longer serves us in order to restore vitality to the whole self.
Whether you’re trying to cultivate more clarity and aliveness in your own life or with a client, spending time with the following questions can help. Notice your reaction (or the energetic response of your client) and build from there.
- What do I believe I am supposed to be doing in this life?
Thinking back in my life, what were the periods when I felt the happiest?
What sorts of things was I doing during when I was happiest?
Sit mindfully with memories of these moments. Note the narrative (storyline) and feelings that come up when you recall those memories.
As a therapist, I’m always looking for what thoughts and ideas make my client’s face light up and help them go deeper into the exploration of that. I encourage you to take some time over the next few days or weeks and notice what makes you feel most alive, and consider creative ways to fit that into your life a bit more. See if it has any impact on your mood or attitude. And, if this theoretical orientation and approach resonates with you, try it with your clients. Rather than spending too much time focusing on what isn’t working – although there sometimes is a need to do so in order to identify blocks – focus on identifying what is or was working, where the authentic energy and excitement arises, and grow from there.
We are our fuel: Being mindful of what goes in the tank
Although it can be difficult and takes practice, we get to choose whether we fill our tank with anxious thoughts about the future and distressing ruminations over the past OR fill it with thoughts that encourage a sense of excitement and vitality. Rather than diving into a box of doughnuts when depressed or staying in an unfulfilling relationship far past its expiration date, the self-actualised person will choose to authentically engage in a process of self-discovery, mindfully move with momentum and actively work to adapt more useful perspectives and storylines.
Mindfulness meditation and related mindfulness practices can help us (and our clients) sit with and be present with the experience of thriving and basic aliveness (Geller & Greenberg, 2012). Through identifying and then engaging in the activities that make us feel most alive, and then sitting quietly and integrating the experience, we become more able to participate in our lives with awareness and curiosity. We’re more able to notice the fluid experience of aliveness, as well as the moments when we (and/or our clients) turn away from it or de-prioritise it, or when it gets blocked for known or mysterious reasons. Fuelled by curiosity rather than judgement, we can help ourselves and our clients get in touch with deeper goals and motivations, foster a self-actualising/self-transcending life and keep moving toward the light.
Dr. Samara Vachss Serotkin, Psy.D., is a mindfulness-based psychologist and coach, as well as a mother and wife, based in Seattle, USA. She blogs regularly at www.focusandthrive.com, is a contributor at the Huffington Post, and is the author of two upcoming books.
Geller, S. M., & Greenberg, L. S. (2012). Therapeutic presence: A mindful approach to effective therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi. org/10.1037/13485-000.
Goldstein, K. (1995). The organism: A holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. New York: Zone Books. (Original work published 1939).
Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302-317. doi: 10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.112.
Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1954).