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What are humanistic theories of personality?

What are humanistic theories of personality?

At the beginning of this chapter, you met Annette. A few years ago, Annette and her husband spent a year riding mules across the country as a unique way to see America and get to know themselves better. From where do such desires for personal growth come? Humanistic theories pay special attention to the fuller use of human potentials, and they help bring balance to our overall views of personality.

Humanism focuses on human experience, problems, potentials, and ideals. As we saw in Chapter 1, the core of humanism is a posi- tive image of humans as creative beings capable of free will—an ability to choose that is not determined by genetics, learning, or unconscious forces. In short, humanists seek ways to encourage our potentials to blossom.

Humanism is sometimes called a “third force” in that it is opposed to both psychoanalytic and behaviorist theories of per- sonality. Humanism is a reaction to the pessimism of psychoana- lytic theory. It rejects the Freudian view of personality as a battle- ground for instincts and unconscious forces. Instead, humanists view human nature—the traits, qualities, potentials, and behavior patterns most characteristic of the human species—as inherently good. Humanists also oppose the machine-like overtones of the behaviorist view of human nature, which we will encounter shortly. We are not, they say, merely a bundle of moldable responses.

To a humanist, the person you are today is largely the product of all the choices you have made. Humanists also emphasize imme- diate subjective experience (private perceptions of reality) rather than prior learning. They believe that there are as many “real worlds” as there are people. To understand behavior, we must learn how a person subjectively views the world—what is “real” for her or him.

Who are the major humanistic theorists? Many psychologists have added to the humanistic tradition. Of these, the best known are Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) and Carl Rogers (1902–1987). Because Maslow’s idea of self-actualization was introduced in Chapter 1, let’s begin with a more detailed look at this facet of his thinking.

Maslow and Self-Actualization Abraham Maslow became interested in people who were living unusually effective lives (Hoffman, 2008). How were they dif- ferent? To find an answer, Maslow began by studying the lives of great men and women from history, such as Albert Einstein, William James, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lin- coln, John Muir, and Walt Whitman. From there, he moved on to directly study living artists, writers, poets, and other creative individuals.

Along the way, Maslow’s thinking changed radically. At first, he studied only people of obvious creativity or high achievement. However, it eventually became clear that a housewife, clerk, stu- dent, or someone like our friend Annette could live a rich, creative, and satisfying life (Davidson, & Bromfield, Beck, 2007). Maslow referred to the process of fully developing personal potentials as self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). The heart of self-actualization is a continuous search for personal fulfillment (Ewen, 2009; Reiss & Havercamp, 2005).

Characteristics of Self-Actualizers A self-actualizer is a person who is living creatively and fully using his or her potentials. In his studies, Maslow found that self-actualizers share many similarities. Whether famous or unknown, well-schooled or uneducated, rich or poor, self-actualizers tend to fit the follow- ing profile:

1. Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest.

2. Comfortable acceptance of self, others, and nature. Self- actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.

3. Spontaneity. Maslow’s subjects extended their creativity into everyday activities. Actualizers tend to be unusually alive, engaged, and spontaneous.

4. Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem outside of themselves to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa represent this quality.

5. Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.

6. Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic good- ness. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision,” like that of an artist or child.

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7. Fellowship with humanity. Maslow’s subjects felt a deep identification with others and the human situation in general.

8. Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep, loving bonds (Hanley & Abell, 2002).

9. Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing persons value solitude and are comfortable being alone (Sumerlin & Bundrick, 1996).

10. Nonhostile sense of humor. This refers to the wonderful capacity to laugh at oneself. It also describes the kind of humor a man like Abraham Lincoln had. Lincoln probably never made a joke that hurt anybody. His wry comments were a gentle prodding of human shortcomings.

11. Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the fre- quent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feel- ings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beautiful and good, and so forth.

In summary, self-actualizers feel safe, nonanxious, accepted, loved, loving, and alive.

Maslow’s choice of people for study seems pretty subjective. Do they really provide a fair representation of self-actualization? Although Maslow tried to investigate self-actualization empirically, his choice of people for study was subjective. Undoubtedly, there are many ways to make full use of personal potential. Maslow’s primary con- tribution was to draw our attention to the possibility of lifelong personal growth (Peterson & Park, 2010).

What steps can be taken to promote self-actualization? Maslow made few specific recommendations about how to proceed. There is no magic formula for leading a more creative life. Self-actualization is primarily a process, not a goal or an end point. As such, it requires hard work, patience, and commitment. Nevertheless, some helpful suggestions can be gleaned from his writings (Maslow, 1954, 1967, 1971). Here are some ways to begin:

1. Be willing to change. Begin by asking yourself, “Am I living in a way that is deeply satisfying to me and that truly expresses me?” If not, be prepared to make changes in your life. Indeed, ask yourself this question often and accept the need for continual change.

2. Take responsibility. You can become an architect of self by acting as if you are personally responsible for every aspect of your life. Shouldering responsibility in this way helps end the habit of blaming others for your own shortcomings.

3. Examine your motives. Self-discovery involves an element of risk. If your behavior is restricted by a desire for safety or secu- rity, it may be time to test some limits. Try to make each life decision a choice for growth, not a response to fear or anxiety.

4. Experience honestly and directly. Wishful thinking is another barrier to personal growth. Self-actualizers trust themselves enough to accept all kinds of information without distorting it to fit their fears and desires. Try to see yourself as others do. Be willing to admit, “I was wrong,” or, “I failed because I was irresponsible.”

5. Make use of positive experiences. Maslow considered peak experiences temporary moments of self-actualization. There- fore, you might actively repeat activities that have caused feel- ings of awe, amazement, exaltation, renewal, reverence, humility, fulfillment, or joy.

6. Be prepared to be different. Maslow felt that everyone has a potential for “greatness,” but most fear becoming what they might. As part of personal growth, be prepared to trust your own impulses and feelings; don’t automati- cally judge yourself by the standards of others. Accept your uniqueness.

7. Get involved. With few exceptions, self-actualizers tend to have a mission or “calling” in life. For these people, “work” is not done just to fill deficiency needs, but to satisfy higher yearnings for truth, beauty, community, and meaning. Get personally involved and committed. Turn your attention to problems outside yourself.

8. Assess your progress. There is no final point at which one becomes self-actualized. It’s important to gauge your progress frequently and to renew your efforts. If you feel bored at school, at a job, or in a relationship, consider it a challenge. Have you been taking responsibility for your own personal growth? Almost any activity can be used as a chance for self- enhancement if it is approached creatively.

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