Transcendence & the Power of Self-Reflection for Growth

Good ideas are not born out of a vacuum. For most of human history, there has been a build up of knowledge and resources that have eventually led to major breakthroughs in innovation and knowledge. As Sir Isaac Newton famously wrote in 1675, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”


These “giants” for the field of positive psychology, were the humanistic psychologists. Thinkers like Alfred Adler, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and of course, Abraham Maslow, challenged the norms of experimental and Freudian psychology of the day. They argued that behaviourism had its limitations, and humans can and do aspire to more than simple conditioning. We are more than complex machines responding to stimuli.


The Journal of Humanistic Psychology was launched in 1961, and with it, a slew of publications focused on themes of authenticity, self-awareness, compassion, self-growth, social action, and wholeness. Essentially, the humanistic framework sought to find out how we can reach our full potential as individuals by seeking freedom, responsibility, and meaning. We continue this work today, under the name of Positive Psychology. 


In fact, Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – his most famous work – has deeply influenced our model of well-being at MCM. We operate with the understanding that there are basic levels of safety, connectedness, and self-esteem that are needed to feel secure before we can pursue growth, knowledge, and fulfilment. Scott Barry Kaufman, in his book Transcend writes that:


Maslow viewed the role of the teacher, therapist, and parent as horticulturists, whose task is to “enable people to become healthy and effective in their own style.” To Maslow, this meant that “we try to make a rose into a good rose, rather than seek to change roses into lilies…” 


This view highlights the fundamental need for authenticity. It is only through authenticity that we can self-actualize and fulfil our potential. But individual authenticity is difficult to isolate. Just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not a step ladder (or even a pyramid!) – life is not a series of levels we must pass but rather a process we go through. “The human condition isn’t a competition; it’s an experience” (Kaufman, 2020). Authenticity, therefore, must be a process which can be consistently built upon through the practice of self-reflection.  

I would argue that self-reflection is an absolutely necessary condition for growth, especially because our inner self can be so easily drowned out by learning, outside expectations, distorted online identities, and fear of others’ disapproval. We are living in a highly individualistic time where selfish pursuits of power are exalted. This can make the striving for status, achievement, and personal happiness seem momentous. Effective and frequent self-reflection can pull back this smoke screen, revealing our true nature and desire for higher states of exploration, love, and purpose which lead to self-actualization. 


Self-actualization and transcendence are closely related concepts but they are not exactly the same. Self-actualization, as Maslow envisioned it, is the fulfilling of individual potential, creativity, and talent. Transcendence on the other hand is that individuals’ connection to something greater beyond the self. This can be a range of things: community, nature, the universe, divine power, or something else. It doesn’t matter what the greater thing is, only that it expands the limitations of one individual and garners feelings of being a small part of a greater whole. This in turn generates a stronger identity, personal well-being, and selflessness. This is what the humanistic psychologists referred to, and Kaufman describes, as launching oneself “fully into the stream of life” (Kaufman, 2020). 


It takes courage to self-reflect honestly and consistently. We don’t always enjoy swimming in the depths of who we are. It is much easier to allow ourselves to be carried by the surface waves of experience. But it is our duty to lead by example and encourage our young people towards a healthy and authentic understanding of their needs in the process of creating a self that works best for them. As Carl Rogers has written, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” 


Self-reflection is the best tool I know that can aid in this process.


Diane Jenifer Trif  | Head of Well-being, Researcher in Residence 


Kaufman, S.B. (2020). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. New York, NY: Tarcher Perigee.

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