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Thinking about human potential

In the 1960’s the Human Potential Movement arose from the exploration of self actualisation (i.e. fulfilling your potential) by humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Rollo May.  This movement and the research that supports it have evolved and morphed and moved in and out of fashion over the past 60 years, but it they have never gone away.

The approach of a humanistic therapist is to create a space in which the client is able to fully explore their personal capacities and the possible paths leading to self-actualisation. This might also be thought of as identity work, as self-actualisation requires the integration of all aspects of one’s unique sense of self . Who are we when we look at everything that makes us who we are. The biological, emotional, intellectual, relational, spiritual, sexual…

Humanistic psychology suggests that the characteristics of a self-actualised person are: maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. Also outcomes of identity work.

Fulfilling your potential isn’t a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. as you evolve and grow, your potential changes and expands. Your experiences alter you in subtle and significant ways, strengths come and go with practice, gifts are entangled with passion and sometimes not.

Further,  your potential is both state and trait bound. State potential can change day to day, even hour to hour.  Trait potential , however, is about your story, your gifts and talents, the opportunities you have had to nurture and practice them, as well as your trauma and psychological maturity. So you have both in the moment, state potential, and over time, trait potential at play at all times.

Your potential at any given moment is affected by the state you are in. For example, your potential to excel at public speaking while under the influence of a bad hangover, is low. In contrast, your potential when you are at your best is unknowable. There are days when you surprise even your self.

By comparison, trait potential is less about the state your are in at any given moment and more about the extent to which you are able to access and leverage your strengths over time during your life. There is a sense among us, as a collective, that some people have greater potential than others. This form of relational potential is useful in understanding a community or group (e.g. a team, a family), and can help identify opportunities and create environments for people to thrive.

Having said this, competitive relational potential isn’t always useful. Competitive culture can be used as a form of coercive control in some environments, an approach perpetuated by patriarchal society. We see it used inappropriately and unethically in the work place and in education settings. Creating a competitive culture in order to nurture relational potential can be harmful if not guided by empathy and ethics.

Trait potential is also influenced by opportunity. Those of us born into relative privilege, whether by nationality or socio-economic status, have more opportunity to explore and fulfill our trait potential than those who must spend their time and energy simply surviving. Inequality in our society is ultimately the repression of human potential.

Inequality in our society is ultimately the repression of human potential.

Exploring, finding, and fulfilling your potential is about slowing down and allowing your self to adjust and craft your life to give your self the best chance for health and well being, to be at your best, to be rested and ready to help if needed, to love, and to be in the world to share positive, joyful, energy.

Your potential isn’t at the end of an exhausting week, or the bottom of your sixth cup of coffee. Nor is it the last thing on your to do list. It is the interaction between the state you are in and the traits that you carry and nurture through self story, your identity narrative. Your inner voice, the things you say to your self. As well as the culture you are immersed in.

Your potential is not yours alone. No one is successful alone. Even if we haven’t been helped directly, those around us have provided support or  lessons, made us stronger or wiser, in some way we have learned from or through them. Seeing and understanding the true depth of our interdependence with others can be confronting. Especially the idea that those who have caused us harm, have also provided us an opportunity to learn. This can sound like utter bullshit for those who are hurting and sitting with trauma, or simply when we’re still angry.

My first experience of more fully understanding interdependence was accompanied by a feeling of suffocation. I felt claustrophobic. I was reading David Susuki et. al.’s (2008) The Sacred Balance, the authors explain how all of the molecules of oxygen and air on the planet have been breathed in and out by millions of organisms millions of times over…you what now? There was no such thing as fresh air? Fuck, does that mean I should breathe out or in? OMG Brian Cox has breathed in the same air as me?? The thought blew a neuron, severed a connection in my mind that would never be repaired. We are not alone in quite the ways we think we are.

As a student of Buddhism the concepts of dependent arising and interdependence are fundamental to learning  key principles and precepts of the practice. Buddhism teaches us that all things are connected, without you there is no me, without me there is no you. The version of you that knows me, that has been reading my blog, is different to a version of you that did not have that experience. So now you, as you are now, are interdependent with my existence and  how I am showing up here, in this space where you and I interact.

Similarly, if I had no readers, I would not be writing this reflection with a reader in mind, influenced by that knowledge, so now the blog is interdependent with your existence. Inception is difficult to discern.

Collectively, our potential is interdependent, the outcome of a collaboration. If I am well and thriving and we meet and I smile and I am kind and have energy to listen well and meet you where you are at, you will have a very different experience of me compared to if I was tired, and resentful. Our communities are made up of many exhausted, miserable people. People who have been left to feel useless, have come to feel helpless, and many who are now facing hoplessness. What is our collective potential as humans if we do nothing? If we leave people, millions, without hope?

Start with your self. Start with nurturing your strength and your softness, your wisdom and your compassion. In equal helpings these are the guide posts of your maturing self.

Empathy and ethics.

As the world becomes difficult, soften. As people become desperate, stay strong. Your potential is fulfilled or neglected in every choice you make.

Realising our shared potential begins simply, with more of us choosing hope and love.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be free from suffering.


SB’F x

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