Military Psychology

Self-Actualization in the Military

2014 Patrol Pathfinder Course

Abraham Maslow said self-actualization is  “…to become everything that one is capable of becoming,” which sounds very similar to the old U.S army recruitment slogan, “Be All (That) You Can Be.” My interviews with Canadian Veterans of Afghanistan support the idea that the military can facilitate self-actualization; the problem is that this can often contribute to issues among individuals leaving the military who are unable to maintain this high level of self-actualization due to the relative lack of self-actualizing institutional supports in civilian life.

As stated in my previous reflection on self-actualization, the concept has been overly individualized and we need to recognize that it must be achieved by engaging with the world rather than from over-introspection or reading self-help books. Do an image search of “self-actualization” and you will see a common theme of solitary individuals, usually on mountain peaks. Distinct from the image of liberated mountain meditators, the military is a prime example of an institution that can facilitate self-actualization, particularly among those who were able to put their training into practice.

The regimented communal structure of the military contributed to an elite mentality that tested personal limits, pushing individuals to expand their skills as they took on high levels of responsibility. A former service-member told me: “There were rules to the army, there was a reason for people to do better and to be better.” Another characterized this elite mentality in the following statement:

“If you’re around army guys, every civvy is a dirty, long haired, bone-idle, slack, dope smoking civvy, every one of them… he can grow his hair, he can be fuckin’ bone idle, smoke dope… perfect example of freedom, that`s for sure… he’s idle, fuck is he idle, and he’ll never be as badass as me, but shit is he free.”

Many Veterans I spoke with said that their service was a high point in their lives. As one stated,“…when I feel like that was the pentacle of my life, for good and bad, and now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?” Another characterized his deployment as a peak experience due to the high levels of responsibility combined with intense action and group cohesion:

“It’s the idea that for six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit, you’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something; you’re doing something that people are talking about, you’re doing something that’s cool, you’re doing something with your friends, it’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life, and when you come back and your don’t have that anymore, it’s hard. It’s hard to think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again’ I’m never going to be able to go back to that.”

Coming home, he stated:

“I was just another loser… I went from being the guy who the governor of Kandahar calls when he needs to talk to people who are important on our side… to being another schmuck who likes to throw his socks next to the hamper, puts his feet up on the table, and kind of wants to sleep and just do nothing while he’s on leave.”

The military not only motivated individuals to do better and to be better, it also provided a mission and a sense of purpose often lacking in civilian life. As a Canadian Veteran stated:

“Once you’re out of that environment you realize, okay what do I do now? How can I possibly top that? Where do you go from here? You’re at the top of your game, you were doing something meaningful, relevant, you had a focus, you had direction, you had support, you had comradery… it’s like god, what do I do now, everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here, there’s no purpose, nobody stands for anything, life seems very shallow after that.”

This lead to the common sentiment that,“it’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.” This apathy needs to be addressed and Veterans need to feel like they still matter and that their highly developed set of skills are transferable to civilian occupations. As an individual I interviewed stated, “…if you don’t give them something to live for after the army, like school or a new career… that’s a huge issue.”

To conclude, self-actualization requires more than solitary introspection. The military facilitates self-actualization through regimentation, group-cohesion, and an elite mentality based in a high degree of responsibility. The transition to civilian life may be fraught for those whose sense of self-actualization is taken away due to the a cultural and institutional gap between the military and civilian life. Career counseling, retraining, and education are among the supports that must be ensured to former service-members to help prevent this issue.

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  1. Every once in a while I remind myself that I continue to deal with culture shock. Having been raised by parents who lived in their late teens to early twenties in Nazi-occupied Holland, I was constantly reminded that many of us have a very easy life.

    My time in the military provided my with incredible insight into myself, my limits, and my potential. More than just being (paraphrased) “striped of their individuality”, as one commenter has written, my military experience taught me how to be a genuine individual. It taught me the value of honest conversation, critical thinking, and finding the higher purpose to everyday tasks. It taught me that not all orders are to be followed. It also reminded me that many of us have a very easy life.

    Working in the “civilian” world has, and to this day, still presented me with challenges where most of the people around me felt life was hard. I could not identify with such “foolishness”…such “arrogance.” Anger was my friend. Being less angry, but angry none the less, was my only way of being happy. I knew that many of us have a very easy life.

    When work conversations turn to reality TV, professional sports, or the “hard” life events of some uselessly famous person, I get on to the Internet and read about how many people have been affected by conflict, politics, and other disaster….and I remind myself that most of us have a very easy life.

    I now write about critical thinking and re-evaluation of our most deeply held beliefs. Some will bravely read my work and comment, some will call me names or tell me that I am just being pessimistic, but deep down, the very things that made me successful in the military are the tools that make me dependable (some call me a “very high performer”) at my civilian profession. Those that believe their life is so hard still get promoted, still profess some sort of expertise based on knowledge they just repeat from others, and some “get it”, but I profoundly understand that I have a very easy life.

  2. From what I have read, there are a growing number of groups founded for and by veterans w/ the goal of utilizing military skills in the civilian world, and the transition to civilian life. Those I’ve come across have focused on disaster relief. Drop a group of veterans in a disaster zone and they will be manage it. Experienced in dealing with enormous problems and enormous pressures, veterans are not likely to be as intimidated by the size of the disaster as civilians in shock would be. Seems like a great idea to me, especially since a transition to the more mundane activities of civilian life is built into these programs.

  3. Excellent post and an issue of magnanimous proportions. Been there and done that during the Vietnam War, even was spit upon at the airport on my way home. Your research in my humbled and yet weary self from searching for answers, is imperative in regards to transitioning from military to civillian life.

  4. My Father was a WWII veteran. He was a radio engineer for the Canadian Air forces at CFB Coal Harbour on Vancouver Island. He worked on the planes that were on the ready in case of an attack from Japan. In his later years when he came to live with us, he didn’t want to take help from Veteran’s Affairs. Why? Because he didn’t see active duty and felt he wasn’t deserving of them. He ended up with hearing aids (a direct affect of his job), a wheel chair and daily help for me so he could stay at home. But he was always literally ashamed that he did not go overseas. It affected his self-esteem for his entire life. Kind of opposite of what you are talking about, but still a casualty. Thanks for this very well done piece.

  5. Reblogged this on Catskill bob's Blogosphere and commented:
    This was and is enlightening to me, in that , though I already knew that the military inculcates certain attitudes and much more, it also has the down side of those ‘coming home’ ,which I might say is the big problem. I DO want to understand, having , of course, like most many in my family who have military service…so far, i know of none that have had extreme ‘coming home’ issues and troubles ‘transitioning’ as they say,, I do worry as i have a nephew who will soon be going to Afghanistan….its still a war zone, and who knows what may happen… Peace,

  6. I’m not, never was, a military man. However, my daughter will soon marry a Captain in the US Air Force, so I am very interested in your counsel on this. Thanks for sharing it publicly as you do here. And the principles of which you write are, I think, in operation here–south of the border–in the same way as they are up there in Oh! Canada, glorious and free!

  7. The point is about the change (transition) that occurs to self-actualize. In the moment, many things can block awareness like pain, frustration, and anger. We need time to process sudden change. We need to keep an open mind to prevent blocking awareness with what is occurring inside and outside ourselves. This is not linear.

  8. Another great post. An element of this same dissonance with the society one must now negotiate without that support and found in anyone who leaves or loses (whether voluntarily or by way of bereavement even children leaving home) a cohesive group who work consciously and supportively together for common altruistic aims. From my experience of such a separation, you are completely correct in saying that engagement with this new world we must learn to inhabit is a good way forward. People of action like soldiers have to find positive new aims in life. A big ask sometimes, especially if previous work has been hard, unrelenting and dangerous. the world of civilian life they come back to must sometimes appear flabby and lame by comparison.

  9. Steve, I think you’re on to something critical related to problems former service members face when returning to civilian life, but I think you have missed the fact that military life is inimical to self actualization. There is no autonomy of thought, there is no individual experience, there is no positive regard for (all) others, and so on down the line of SA characteristics (see the list provided in the Wikipedia article on SA).

    What I got out of your interview quotations was that these folks felt abandoned by being expelled from the hive…that they no longer felt a sense of belonging to a like-minded group with whom they had shared intense, perhaps life threatening, experiences–hardly a characteristic of SA!

    Over the centuries (millenia?) the military has improved basic training techniques to strip the individuality out of young people, to create intense group loyalties and unquestioning response to orders. The military supplies the needs for shelter, sustenance, security, and society, but all these are stripped away when the person is discharged. Ex-military personnel are not suffering from an absence of SA, but an absence of all the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

    If your career takes you in the direction of helping ex-military people return to productive civilian life, perhaps you can develop strategies to restore their sense of individuality, and their confidence that they can, themselves, satisfy their basic physical and psychological needs.

  10. I like how you write. I like your perspective. I cannot speak to the Canadian aspect of Armed forces.
    I do like how you frame the last paragraph. I agree with it in many ways and I am sure it fits with many who have served. I know you have written about it, but I would include PTSD as well. Although, that does not take away from the post or the last paragraph and it’s very well-stated points.
    There is a silent war raging in my country, the United States. Both for the men and women who have been sent to fight and then return and also their families. The soldiers cannot even begin to think about Maslow’s self-actualization when the first two, basic needs and safety, are not being met for them when they return. This is a tragedy. One I have personally watched my brother suffer. Others as well. One that most in this country refuse to speak of.
    It is hard for me to read your posts, but I do because they are so well written. I appreciate your concern on the issues you write about.
    Thank you for bringing all the light that you do.

  11. It sounds like a lot of those interviewed put a lot of pressure on themselves to aggrandize above civilians, a need to feel important/distinguished from the rest. One thing I find concerning is that judgmental attitude toward others, which leads to judgment of self. Some questions to consider: What makes a person worthwhile? How does one’s purpose effect their value? Would it be possible to work on developing a more accepting attitude before their existential predicament?

  12. Excellent post. I’m an Army veteran and served in Iraq in 2004. I’ve spent the last 5 years doing psychotherapy with younger veterans dealing with the exact things that you are talking about. Much of it comes out in group work and it’s amazing to see their realization when they can connect with one another on this level. Good luck to you and your continued work. I’ll be following your posts!

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