Transcend through Self-Actualization

I have to say that “Transcend” may have made me fall a little bit in love with the mind of Maslow, and Kaufmann is responsible. If I were asked the question "which person would you conjure up from the dead to have a conversation with?" I just might choose Abraham. I am a drawn to his grand ideas, poetic theories about human nature, and his belief in our vast potential.

“Man has a higher nature and this is part of his essence.  Or more simply, human beings can be wonderful out of their own human and biological nature.  We need not take refuge in super-natural gods to explain our saints and sages and heroes and statemen, as if to explain our disbelieve that mere unaided human beings could be that good or rise.” -Abraham Maslow

If I had to choose one quote to sum up Scott Barry Kaufman’s book “Transcend, The New Science of Self-Actualization’” it would be this one. This came from a draft of an unpublished book by Abraham Maslow, and it closes out Kaufman’s book.  Like most who graduate with an undergrad degree in Psychology, my education included Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” and the infamous pyramid graphic that is often used to represent it.  In my mind it was up there with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; a psychology basic, and was filed in my brain’s “to reference” file. There was no inspiration; no striking takeaway’s.

Granted, it has been 20 years since I began as a undergrad in Psychology, so what strikes me now, may be different from what did then, but I have to say that “Transcend” may have made me fall a little bit in love with the mind of Maslow, and Kaufmann is responsible.  If were asked that question “which person would you conjure up from the dead to have a conversation with?” I just might choose Abraham. I am a drawn to his grand ideas, poetic theories about human nature, and his belief in our vast potential.

For those of you that have not studied Psychology, I will start by saying that Maslow, in the early 1960’s was one of the creators of the Humanistic Psychology movement.  This framework holds that the healthy personality is one that constantly moves toward freedom, responsibility, self-awareness, meaning, commitment, personal growth, maturity, integration, and change, rather than one that focuses on status, achievement or even happiness. Now a days, both Humanistic and Positive Psychology hold this to be true, and they study what creates well-being, which is much more than happiness. Well-being is about living a full existence that includes meaning, engagement, and growth.

What I was not taught about Malsow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that I learned in Transcend, is that Maslow argued that all needs can be grouped into 2 classes, that must be integrated for wholeness:  deficiency and growth needs.  Deficiency needs, referred to as D-needs, are motived by a lack of satisfaction, whether it be food, safety, belonging, or the like.  These are basic needs we all have, and our drive to fulfill these needs is so strong it can cause us to distort reality to fulfill our expectations, or treat other’s as objects we use to meet our needs.

The other group of needs, growth needs, are not driven by fears, anxieties, or lack.  Here, one is more accepting of ones self and others, and asks what choices they can make that will lead them to greater integration and wholeness, rather than “How can I defend myself so I can feel better?”  Maslow believed that most of us spend our lives motivated by deficiency, but we all have the capabilities of self-actualization, moving to the top of the hierarchy where we can adapt and explore, and see things through a clearer lens.

Kaufman created the sailboat image to illustrate this concept. It is a great example of how metaphors can help the brain make sense of big ideas and hold them in one place. Here is an excerpt from the book, which explains the concept further:

“As we sail through the adventure of life, it’s rarely clear sailing.  The boat itself protects us from seas that are rarely as calm as we’d like.  Each plank of the boat offers security from the waves.  Without it, we’d surely spend all our energy trying to stay above water.  While even on plank is better than nothing, the bigger the boat, the more waves you can endure.  Likewise, in life, while safety is an essential foundation for feeling secure, adding on strong connection with other and feelings of respect and worthiness will further allow you to weather storms. Having a secure boat is not enough for real movement, however, you also need a sail.  Without a sail, you might be protected from water, but you wouldn’t go anywhere.  Each level of the sail allows you to capture more wind, helping you explore and adapt to your environment.  Note that you don’t “climb” a sailboat like you’d climb a mountain or a pyramid.  Instead you open your sail, just like you’d drop your defenses once you felt secure enough.  This is an ongoing dynamic: you can be open and spontaneous one minute but can feel threatened enough to prepare for the storm by closing yourself to the world the next minute.  The more you continually open yourself to the world, however, the further your boat will go.”

“Transcend” then goes on to fit Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into this metaphor.  The bottom part of the boat, which provides the vehicle for transcendence, are the needs of safety, connection and self-esteem. He also breaks down Maslow’s concept of self-actualization, into three specific needs which there is strong scientific support for: exploration, love and purpose. Under favorable conditions, when we meet these needs (the sail), we move towards greater well-being and offer the possibility of transcendence. 

Transcendence goes beyond individual growth and allows for unity and harmony, not only within the self, but within the world.  This is where we can see ourselves from a higher vantage point and sense our connectedness with the rest of humanity (and there is that dreamy language I love so much).

Part 1 of the book goes into depth regarding the bottom part of the boat and what some of Maslow’s thinking was surrounding these needs. Maslow says “Everything that is nasty, mean, or vicious” is an over compensatory attempt to satisfy the basic needs of security, affection and self-esteem.” His “people are ultimately good” take, is supported by modern studies that show that the common core of negative behaviors is fear.  Metaphorically, the fear is that you do not have a well-made “boat” and will be overcome by the waves.  Uncertainty makes people feel unsafe (particularly relevant as I am writing mid pandemic), and the inability to deal with uncertainty feels like your boat is in need of constant repair.

This section of the book goes on to talk about security, attachment, and trauma and how our drive to fulfill our basic safety needs is the foundation in which the next layers of the boat rest. 

Connection is the second layer, and research has firmly established that belonging and intimacy with others is essential to survival. There are so many little gems in this book, like this one in regard to lack of connection- loneliness:

 “Political scientist Hans Morgenthau argues that love and power are actually united in a common motive: the striving to escape loneliness.  According to Morgenthau, power and love offer very different strategies for achieving the same goal: “Love is reunion through spontaneous mutuality, power seeks to create union through unilateral imposition. Yet of what love can at least approximate, and in a fleeting moment actually achieve, power can only give the illusion.”

Let that one be food for thought.

The last section of Part 1 is about self-esteem, which makes up the top level of our boat.  Kaufman uses modern research to show the importance of healthy self-esteem and it’s aspects: self-worth and mastery.  He talks about social value and why feelings of self-worth are so strongly tied to the need for belonging. 

Included in this chapter is this gem from Brene Brown:

“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong.  You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission.  Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you are not enough.  You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal.  True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value in the world.  The truth about who we are lives in our hearts.  Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially your own.  No one belongs here more than you.”

Now we come to the falling in love part, Part 2.  This is where Kaufman fills us in on Maslow’s life, and work, which seems to come down to his search for proof of his idea that humans are “good” by nature.  In his writings from 1946 he says “There seems to be no reason why everyone shouldn’t be self-actualizing.  Every baby has possibilities for self-actualization, but most all of them get it knocked out of them…I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with mothing taken away.” 

It’s been 70 years since Maslow published his list of the characteristics of self-actualizing people, so Kaufman decided to find out how many of these ideas held up if tested.  He converted the list into a scale and after administering it, found that 10 of the characteristics held up to scrutiny. 

His test is available at

The characteristics are:  Truth seeking, Acceptance, Purpose, Authenticity, Continued Freshness of Appreciation, Peak Experiences, Humanitarianism, Good Moral Intuition, Creative Spirit and Equanimity. 

He found that those with higher scores in these areas where much more motivated by growth, exploration and love of humanity and were associated with multiple indicators of well-being.  Kaufman then grouped the characteristics into 4 categories which he covers in the remainder of the book:  exploration, love and purpose (which make up the sail of the sailboat), and  transcendence.            

There really is so much here, that I could go on and on about this book.  I have highlighted so many sections that go in depth into these 4 categories, using scientific research to highlight the effects these traits have upon our lives.  Kaufman really does work magic in this book, by taking Maslow’s ideas and explaining them well, making them relevant, and then using research to support their validity. 

I cannot skim over the love chapter. Maslow’s concept of D-love (deficiency love) and B-love (love for the being of another person), are found here. I am fascinated by this theory, because I think we lack the words to differentiate the many nuances of love. 

We have all experienced D love.  It fills one of our basic needs, which makes it, by nature, needy. “I love you because I need you.”  D love can be gratified, and it makes us feel better, more secure, safer. It plugs up the holes in the boat. B love is admiring instead of striving, and it grows, rather then disappears.  Kaufman compares it to Sharon Salzbergs notion of “real love” which is seen as the innate capacity we all have, that is freely given and comes from a deep reservoir with us.  This moves us from wanting to just “be loved” to being loving by orientation. 

B-loving people are high in universal concern and universal tolerance, and they share the traits of trustworthiness, dependability for close loved ones and benevolence and caring towards close friends and family. They have the traits that social psychologist Heidi Wayment calls “quiet ego,” who’s characteristics align with Maslow’s concept of “Transcenders.” Quiet ego strives to balance interests of the self and others and cultivates growth of the self and of others over time, based on self-awareness, interdependent identity, and compassionate experience.”

There is SO much more here, so you should get the book if you are finding this interesting!  I want to move on to the last section, before your coffee cup is empty.

The last section of the book is about Transcendence; what it is, and what the traits and experiences of those who are considered Transcenders are. Maslow became interested in peak experiences because he began to notice that many self-actualized people had mystical like experiences with moments of heightened joy, serenity, beauty or wonder. He called these experiences “transient state of absolute Being” and believed that these experiences offer the opportunity to see more of the whole truth, unimpeded by the many cognitive distortion evolved to protect us from psychic pain.  People that have these experiences are more apt to believe that life is worthwhile, even when it is drab or painful.

The science of well-being is just beginning to study these experiences, and it seems that Maslow was not wrong in his conclusions about them.  Healthy self-loss is being studying currently, and is showing that those with the quietest ego defenses often have the strongest sense of self.  It is peak experiences (psychedelic ones included), that can quiet the ego and change our perspective in a life altering way. As Kaufman says, studies support the notion “that we have a growth-oriented core, full of openness, love, and meaning, but which is held back by our ordinary perceptions, fears and anxieties.”

Maslow wrote that Transcendence is an “emergent phenomenon resulting from the harmonious integration of one’s whole self in the service of cultivating the good society.” This is about being a harmonious part of the whole human experience, and in Kaufman’s words it “involves harnessing all that you are in the service of realizing the best version of yourself so you can help raise the bar for the whole of humanity.” Isn’t that beautiful?  It also pretty much sums up the vision of my project- You:Guru, and if Scott Barry Kaufman ever reads this, I would like him to know what an inspiration his book has been to me, and how thankful I am that he re-introduced to the work of Maslow.

The last, and very inspirational part of the book, is about Maslow’s Theory Z, which was published in 1969.  Kaufman writes “Maslow argued that the merely healthy fulfill the expectation of MacGregor’s Theory Y: they are free of deficiency needs and are driven by the desire for actualization of their personal potential and development of their identity, individuality and uniqueness. These people live in the world, coming to fulfillment in it.” These are the self-actualizers. 

The Transcenders of Theory Y have “illuminations or insights which change their view of the world and of themselves” and they are metamotivaed by higher ideals and values that go beyond the satisfaction of basic needs and the fulfillment of one’s unique self.” Theory Z holds that the worldview of Trancsenders moves beyond ordinary dichotomies such as male vs female and good vs evil.  These are all just parts of an integrated whole, both within the self and in the world. 

Integration is a big part of Theory Z, and it offers an inspiring vision of what humanity could be. The end of the book is an uplifting chapter on the possibility B values have for our society, and how important these values are right now, when our antagonistic orientation is apparent and is being magnified politically.  The values that provide us with well-being are the same values that create healthy societies. 

Transcend has inspired me in so many ways, but one of the most relevant is it has renewed my awareness those among us who are behaving in harmful, close-minded, or selfish ways, are acting out of fear because the bottom of their boat has a hole in it. They are working out of deficiency. Maslow’s teachings, and Kaufman’s explanation of them, inspires me to have empathy for those who are struggling to patch the holes in their boat or who are holding on for dear life, fearing the water and going nowhere. The belief that we are all inherently “good” is the basis for real love and compassion.  I have hope that more and more of us are opening our sails and are focused on growth, and maybe even transcendence. 

Thanks for reading.

With Gratitude,


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Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Founder of Wisdom Cultivators

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