Leaving the rat race & self actualisation

Maslow’s hierachy of needs (taken from “A Theory of Human Motivation”, 1943)

Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, with vaccines coming and the bright prospect of a return to normal life on the horizon, we as a society are having to consider how things will have changed when it’s all over. Will everything be the same as it was before? The future is notoriously difficult to predict, but it seems prudent to prepare for some of the changes that have been forced on us this past year to stay with us in the aftermath. Chief among these changes is work, and society’s attitudes to working from home. Other than essential workers, nearly everyone in the UK has spent nearly a year working from their bedrooms or studies, making the kind of adjustments that very few would have chosen to make before.

Research into the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health is growing every day, but when we look for any positive effects, the literature is understandably a lot scarcer, not least because we are still in the grip of a health crisis with millions suffering. Focusing on attitudes to work, society has accepted staying at home as a necessity this year, and I don’t doubt that many have been surprised by the benefits of this shift.

In March 2020 I made the decision to leave a career of office work and start my own private therapy practice. With the benefit of hindsight, I may not have chosen the best time to make the switch. Those already in the therapeutic profession were facing the existential challenge of taking their work online. The profession as a whole had to work out the parameters of what can be offered via a computer screen, as opposed to the traditional, highly prized in-person encounter.

Despite the challenge, I felt ready to go with private practice, and the risk nonetheless paid off. Being new and recently qualified, I suppose I had less to lose.

I give my own example to illustrate the challenges and the opportunities that so many, not just therapists, have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. While I chose to leave the office behind last year, many were forced to, and have had to do the same jobs from the comfort of their own home, or not at all. This seemingly epochal shift in our ways of working has led many to question their career choices, and the possibilities that are out there.

This reevaluation of the ways forward has made me think about self actualisation, a therapeutic concept that I use frequently in my work with clients. Carl Rogers incorporated this concept into his pioneering person centred practice, seeking to help clients find their own version of personal fulfilment. Along the journey into self employment I have thought a lot about self actualisation, and whether my choices can offer an example of it.

The idea of self actualisation sat at the top of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, a pyramid like structure illustrating the fundamental building blocks for human happiness (Maslow, 1943). According to the theory, in order to achieve the pinnacle of self actualisation you must first start by meeting more basic needs such as food, shelter, safety and social acceptance. Once all these needs have been met, then you can theoretically start to consider achieving your full potential, i.e. self actualise. This potential is undefined but may be creative or spiritual. Carl Rogers adopted this into his person centred theory, stating that everyone has a special potential that they are capable of achieving in life, as long as the conditions are right.

Many of the clients that I’ve seen in the last year have found themselves questioning their life choices and what they can do to be happier. With so much time on our hands in lockdown, it is perhaps natural that we should question these things, and I certainly did. I chose to leave the rat race last year because it felt like the right time, and the conditions were strangely conducive to my new career. I was lucky. Many people do not have the luxury of being able to take such a risk.

Nonetheless I think it is a question worth exploring for everyone. I encourage my clients to be open minded as I think that is the key first step to healthy change. I ask them to imagine every possibility, as opposed to what is realistic. When a client is stuck in an old place of unhappiness, I try and look behind the curtain to see whether there are other avenues and what is closing them off. Is it reality, or is it just fear? The answers may not be nice and simple in every case, but I firmly believe in the value of asking the question.

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