The Dangers of Self-Actualization

Did Nietzsche Lose His Way?

Nietzsche during his final illness from getarchive

Before anybody started talking about self-actualization[i], there was Nietzsche who taught us how to become who we are. Then he went mad and never made sense again. That being the case, can we trust him, or any of the people who speak about self-actualization, to be our guides?

To become who you are, said Nietzsche, you must consider getting rid of everything that doesn’t belong to you. This includes the context and the culture into which you’re thrown. You didn’t ask to be born to those people and that class, speaking the language they did. If you fulfill a role – woman, parent, teacher, businessman, or craftsman – that role comes with expectations you might not accept. All these footings secretly influence you unless you spot them and decide which to keep. Therefore, Nietzsche said the first step in self-knowledge is not to study the Self at all, but to read history, the history of the human race and how it brought you to the point you find yourself now.

In Nietzsche’s case[ii], he was born the son of a Lutheran minister and was very devout as a child; but Christianity had seen better days. Religion across Europe had deteriorated due to scientific discoveries in the Enlightenment, corrupt clerics, and religious wars lasting centuries. By the time he came of age, he noticed that people were saying they believed in God, but weren’t acting like it. He famously called this the death of God. He asserted that people had killed God and went around pretending He was still alive. He was determined to be honest about the loss of his own faith and set about creating something to replace it.

The German-Speaking world in which he was born was divided into dozens of principalities. During his life, a militaristic Prussia unified them into a single state and an ugly nationalism emerged. When the Chancellor, Bismarck, provoked an unnecessary war with France, the Germans were ready to die on his say so. Nietzsche was appalled by how millions can lose themselves to the manipulations of a single authority.

Gifted intellectually, Nietzsche got a cushy job as a professor of Philology in the well-run city of Basel. But academic life was stultifying, as he could only write and teach on a narrow subject, using a rigorous and crippling methodology. He was supposed to be teaching the culture of ancient Greece, but he was more interested in solving the problems of his day.

These were his givens. We all have them. Once we identify what they are and the nature of their influence, we must decide whether or not to keep them. In his case, Nietzsche rejected Christianity. He said it was a slave morality, focused on making people compliant to the status quo. He thought it was life denying, more interested in shutting down impulses than cultivating them for good fruit they can bring. He rejected German nationalism, favoring his Polish ethnicity, and called himself a European. He blew up his academic career by publishing a book that broke all the rules, The Birth of Tragedy.

The next part of the journey of becoming who you are is to examine who your body says you are. In Nietzsche’s case, his body didn’t work very well. He was subject to migraine headaches that could disable him for days at a time. He was going blind. There was little he could do to change these conditions; but he could find ways to adapt. He wandered all over southern Europe looking for a climate that was kind to his head and eyes. He experimented with drugs that offered relief. He developed an aphoristic writing style that did not demand he spend so much time with a manuscript.

Despite his ill health, Nietzsche committed himself to saying yes to life, rather than getting caught up in what was wrong with it. He hated regret, envy, and excuses. No matter how bad a given day was, he would be fine if that day repeated itself eternally, because that was better than being dead[iii]. He was the originator of the saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

The point is to not be determined by others, by the circumstances of your birth, the developments of history, or even the characteristics of your body. Define your Self. In that, Nietzsche is the forerunner, the patron saint, if you will, of all those who defy societal expectations.

It’s impossible to free yourself from the expectations of others without questioning morality. Morality is how we’re controlled. It marched Bismarck’s troops into cannon fire. It had people claim to believe in God, when they had killed Him. By making us pity the weak, have compassion for the cowardly, and envy the strong, morality kills vitality. Nietzsche thought humankind needed to evolve past morality, beyond good and evil, and follow whatever affirms life. Nietzsche showed us our will to power. Not power over others, but a power over ourselves. Tap into your will to power and you won’t be merely human anymore, you’ll be superhuman, what Nietzsche called the Overman[iv]. By striving to become the Overman, you become who you are.

By insisting on going his own way, Nietzsche alienated others. Students stopped coming to his classes. The university generously paid him a small disability pension, barely enough to afford a room in a boarding house. His books were almost totally ignored, and he was forced to self-publish and mail copies off to anyone who might read them. He attempted to cultivate disciples among a small group of friends, but most of his friendships fell apart. He broke his heart over a woman just as independent as he.

By age forty-four, he had written five books in the past year. He felt euphoric, despite almost total poverty and isolation. He had a mission. His headaches miraculously disappeared. Everything was finally clicking.

Until it wasn’t. Seeing a cart horse fall and beat by its driver, Nietzsche embraced the horse, told it he understood, cried, “Mother, I’m a fool”, and collapsed. The police were called, and the great man was taken to an insane asylum. There he pounded on a piano, showed confusion, and agitation. He claimed to be the successor to God, a clown, and Dionysus. He spent his last eleven years mostly catatonic. When his writings were finally discovered, they were edited by his German nationalist sister who distorted them to justify what would later be Nazi ideology.

There is some controversy over what caused Nietzsche’s insanity. The initial diagnosis was that he suffered from the effects of syphilis, but the course of his disease did not match that condition. Some thought he had a tumor on the optic nerve that had been causing the blindness and headaches, but photos show no bulging where you would expect to find it. Still others assert his was a divine madness, a kind of reward for attaining an advanced spiritual level that the rest of us will never understand. The closest friend he had thought he was faking it.

I have two theories about what happened to Nietzsche and I’m not sure which I like better. If I had him in my office right after he went insane and needed to come up with a diagnosis, I would say he has bipolar disorder with psychotic features. There were plenty of delusions of grandeur. Many of his writings of the last year can be read as the ravings of a madman. His autobiography contains headings such as, Why I Am So Wise, Why I Am So Clever, and Why I Write Such Elegant Books. His illness calls his philosophy into question.

You might believe that, if it was bipolar disorder, then it had an organic cause and had nothing to do with his philosophy. If so, then you’re being overly reductive about the disease. Mental illnesses are best understood by using a Biopsychosocial model.[v] Nietzsche’s condition would be the result of the interaction of three factors.

The biological contribution may have come with the genetics Nietzsche inherited from his father, who also went insane. Additionally, he self-medicated for his headaches with chloral hydrate, the sedative called a Mickie. Incorrect doses of this drug can produce hallucinations and confusion. There is also documentation that he was not eating well, prior to his breakdown. Some days, not eating at all. The drugs and malnutrition both could have had an effect on his mental status.

Socially, Nietzsche was bereft. He had lost most of his friends, wouldn’t talk to his family, didn’t have a country, was constantly moving from place to place, and was a pariah in his profession. His books were ignored. When folks are left alone, they have no one to bounce their ideas off of. If they begin to fall into the despair of depression or overcompensate with grandiosity and mania, nobody is around to help.

Psychologically, Nietzsche saw himself as a prophet of the Overman. This identity consumed everything.  There are lots of times when it’s important to maintain a single focus on an important value, an Organizing Idea, as he put it. An Organizing Idea coordinates all your thoughts and feelings to serve one overriding drive which rules as king of the psyche. It gives you the ability to live your life with single-minded devotion, Anyone who’s ever devoted themselves to a cause, worked towards a goal, accepted a mission, adopted a vocation, or kept a marriage alive has had an Organizing Idea. But Nietzsche’s Organizing Idea went too far. It was like an important bodily organ that grew into a tumor.

Nietzsche’s single Organizing Idea was the thing responsible for his social isolation and drove him to abuse drugs so that he could keep on working. Organizing Ideas go bad when they are single, when there are no counterbalancing Organizing Ideas, such as family or friendship, that provide a check of its excesses. It becomes a kind of tyrant, surrounded by parts of the psyche that only tells it what it wants to hear. Nietzsche’s didn’t hear what it needed to hear, to slow down, take care of himself, and care about the feelings of others.

Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, was very influenced by Nietzsche and went on a similar journey of becoming who you are, which he called Individuation. He went a bit mad, as well. It’s documented in his autobiography. However, he was able to regain his sanity because he had other responsibilities: his wife, children, and his patients. They were like a lifeline that pulled him out of the abyss before he had gone too far. Nietzsche had cut that lifeline.

My second theory does not involve a diagnosis I pull out of the DSM. I think, when Nietzsche felt compassion for that horse, a disavowed feeling had found a chink in his armor. His philosophy was designed to protect him from his illnesses. He didn’t trust softer feelings like compassion. I think he had discovered he was wrong and perhaps, saying he was a fool was an admission of it. He then looked at everything he had done, all the books and all the sacrifices, and recognized they were the vain strivings of someone who had lost his way. It was all too much for him, so he essentially died and was willing to let his sister distort his philosophy in whatever ways she wanted.

His statement, “Mother, I’m a fool,” personally resonates with me. I remember when I was a teenager, I talked to my mother about a desire I had to run off and join a commune. Kids were doing that, those days, in the early Seventies. Her reply mystified me. She said I would be betraying the family if I did it. I didn’t know a commune was a betrayal of the family and resented that she was making it about that. Her reply made me want to do it all the more, if only to assert my independence. But now I’m glad I didn’t cut the cord quite that much.

So, if you are the type that defies societal expectations. My sympathies are with you. I’m in your tribe. But Nietzsche’s story teaches us the cost of completely defining yourself by yourself. There are others who have a claim on who you are. You must find a way to work with them because it’s impossible to go it alone.

So, where does this leave us, those of us who yearn to become who we are? Is Nietzsche’s philosophy nothing more than the grandiose ravings of an undiagnosed mania? Is it a mistake?

I would say yes, if we strike the words, nothing more than. His philosophy does get you on the path towards becoming who you are. Nietzsche was like a hiker in his beloved Alps who followed a faint trail and climbed higher than any before, but he should have packed some rope, a bivvy, and extra provisions, or turned back when the weather got bad. He shouldn’t have gone alone.[vi]

This reality is reflected in Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Self-Actualization. In it, he conceives becoming who you are as something that’s gained only after essential needs are met. It’s premature to be striving for self-actualization when needs for self-esteem and belonging are wanting. Likewise, self-esteem and belonging are unimportant when you’re not safe, or your body is not taken care of. While I don’t think things are really as mechanistic as all that, it’s plain to see that Nietzsche skipped the need to belong to others in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Be that as it may, Nietzsche’s madness was not entirely Nietzsche’s madness. It was the madness of his society. His was an embattled culture which felt it had its back up against the wall. There was little room in Christianity for dissent. Any German that did not show enough nationalistic pride did not belong in Germany. Academia had become stagnant and divorced from the concerns of everyday life. His friends could only take so much, and his great love interest could only do things her way. He rejected his society for its lack of tolerance and inflexibility; but, in doing so, became intolerant and inflexible, himself.

Let that be a lesson to us. Be careful about severing ties when you set out to become who you are. You’ll have many things you don’t want to keep. Please note what comes with them before you let them go. And, if you have a loved one who’s becoming who they are, let them be that person without rejecting them, entirely. They need you, and you need them, even if they can’t identify with you.


[i] Or individuation, to speak in Jungian terms

[ii] My sources for the life of Nietzsche are the biography by Sue Prideaux, I am Dynamite! and the autobiography, Ecce Homo.

[iii] This is known as the eternal recurrence, a key Nietzsche concept.

[iv] Nietzsche used the German work Ubermensch, which is sometimes translated as Superman.

[v] Also called the Rochester Model, after the city I live in.

[vi] I first got on a Nietzsche kick when I came across Hiking with Nietzsche by John Karr, and owe my hiking metaphor to him.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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