Hugh Winig

By Hugh Winig, M.D.
Dr. Winig is a retired psychiatrist and longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer.

The field of human psychology is still in its infancy. It was but a mere century ago in 1923 that Sigmund Freud posited his theory of the human psyche in the simple terms of “id, ego, and superego”. Prior to that, little was understood about the invisible factors that shape human being’s behavior and emotions. In fact, most of what was understood about the human mind back then lay in the biologically oriented field of neurology.

Today, in contrast, huge sections of bookstores are filled with books on understanding human psychology, and newspapers as well regularly include writings that enhance our grasp of aspects of the human psyche.

There is one concept from the past, however, that endures and is worth emphasizing. It was articulated as early as 1943 by psychology Professor Abraham Maslow. This concept remains under appreciated despite its deep wisdom and relevance to both child rearing practices and to adult self-awareness and relationships. It is termed self-actualization, that is, the ongoing maturational process of becoming one’s authentic self.  

The reason that this concept is so deeply insightful and equally relevant today, is because each of us find contentment, happiness, and meaning in our lives by being the unique person we inherently want to be, not whom others expect us to be or attempt to train or condition us to be. As such, this is relevant to how parents raise children and how one interacts with family, friends, employers, and others.

One’s personal journey through life takes twists and turns that are not predictable. If one does not really know who they genuinely are inside, they can easily drift in whatever direction pressures tilt them, rather than taking charge of their personal journey to pursue the direction they prefer to go. Then, self-awareness, not social pressure, becomes more impactful on reaching one’s preferred destination.

A person can be wealthy, live in an elaborate home and neighborhood, own a fancy car and boat, and be miserable all at the same time, because they may not like the life they are leading or the job that they have. One could also have gone to a prestigious school, be admired by others because of their external assets, yet still be unfulfilled and emotionally unsettled because they are not self-actualized.

It wasn’t that long ago that spanking children for misbehaving was the norm, as opposed to our modern era where that might even be seen as a form of child abuse. It is not so much about being tolerant of bad behavior in a child as it is to understand that behavior and to help the child manage their needs or impulses more constructively. As the philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your children are not your children; they come through you, but not from you; you may give them your love, but not their thoughts.” Marital relationships as well may struggle without a better appreciation of this principle of self-actualization.

Also important in today’s divisive world is the ability to see the humanity in others, not whether they are part of your figurative “tribe” and think just like you do. There is no single right way to do things or behave in certain situations. But if you understand yourself, as well as better understand others, your likelihood of achieving contentment, maintaining close friends, and achieving family cohesiveness is far greater.

It is important to strive to achieve this desirable goal of becoming one’s authentic self and to support the evolution of that process in others as well.

Hugh Winig, M.D. is a retired psychiatrist, the author of a book of short stories and a book of humanistic aphorisms, and a longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer. He was a founding Trustee of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center and a past President of the East Bay Psychiatric Association.