By: Yashoda Valliere
“Try new things; expand your horizons!”
As university students, we are often bombarded with suggestions and opportunities to mould ourselves into new and improved versions of ourselves. This is especially true at the start of a new year, with waves of students determined to shake themselves out of their ruts and routines (or at least into better ones). In the midst of the frenzy, I was drawn to stop and ask the question: why do we feel such a strong urge to change in the first place? What do we truly gain from it – and is it always worth the accompanying risks of unfamiliar territory?
Funnily enough, I found my answer in coursework. Those of you who have taken Psychology 2B03 (Personality) are familiar with the humanistic theories of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. If you have never heard of either of these men, it’s likely that you’ve heard their terminology borrowed by pop culture – especially the phrase “self-actualization.”
Maslow proposed that all of our actions are based in two types of motives. “Deficiency motives” drive us to meet our basic needs, such as food, water, safety, and social belonging, to survive and feel whole. “Being motives,” on the other hand, are growth-oriented rather than deficiency-oriented. Maslow described the tendency toward self-actualization, a Being motive, as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Self-actualized individuals are not fearful or defensive and, as such, are able to view themselves and the world around them without denial and to comfortably accept the way they are. They are playful, creative, and continually appreciate small details in everyday life; they trust their own instincts; they do not view situations as black-and-white dichotomies and they are not social chameleons, conforming to cultural norms.
A similar description applies to Carl Rogers’ theory of the “fully-functioning person.” This goal was so important to Rogers that he scrapped the Deficiency motives altogether and proposed that every action, from birth to death, is subconsciously motivated only by the “actualizing tendency” to grow into our true selves. That is, to unlearn the false personalities conditioned into us by society.
So what does all of this have to do with new year’s resolutions? Perhaps one of Maslow’s most inspiring ideas is the concept of “growth choices” as a path to self-actualization. As he put it, “life is an ongoing process of choosing between safety (out of fear and need for defence) and risk for the sake of progress and growth.” The exact same decision, when framed as a choice between growth and stagnation or as a choice between fear and comfort, can have a surprisingly different outcome. To complement his eight-fold path to self-actualization Maslow also listed several barriers, including lack or fear of self-knowledge and conformity to social and cultural norms. To turn your everyday choices into growth choices is to recognize the mental defences you have fearfully erected and to break them down.
This is why I challenge myself to make choices that are truly outside my comfort zone, and not just for the occasion of a new year, but to bring myself one step closer to what Maslow and Rogers would describe as realising my full potential. We can all try something that we are afraid to do, beyond the tired stereotypes of going to the gym (in January, at least) or improving our GPAs. You could sign up for a crash course in public speaking, or read a book on a political philosophy you disagree with or even just get that one item on the menu you’ve always avoided. I recently applied for a job I knew was probably beyond me; the interview process still expanded my knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses and was a useful growth opportunity.
It’s important to remember that the value of growth choices is in the process, not the product. Maslow and Rogers described the path to self-actualization not as a simple “on/off” switch, but as a series of small successes in areas such as honesty, self-awareness, and trust in one’s own judgment, all of which are realistically accompanied by setbacks and sometimes no externally visible success (case in point: I didn’t get the job). Don’t beat yourself up if your leap of faith turns out to be a flop, because the most important outcome from a psychological point of view is the fact that you consciously chose to develop yourself and overcome your traditional patterns of thinking. With that in mind, you can congratulate yourself on getting one step closer to self-actualization.