Self-transcendence: it’s a term you’ve probably heard before.
However, if you’re like me, you never had a good grasp on exactly what it meant. You might have a hazy idea of “transcending” being akin to “rising above” and think of the concept as rising above oneself, but you don’t really know what it is beyond that.
If this describes you as well as it described me, you’ve come to the right place! In this piece, we will define self-transcendence, look at its components and characteristics, think of some examples, and explore how it can be achieved.
Interested? Read on!
This article contains:
What is the Meaning of Self-Transcendence?
Although people may view self-transcendence in ways that vary based on their own values, the general idea behind it is the same. Self-transcendence is, at its core, about transcending (or rising above) the self and relating to that which is greater than the self. In simpler terms, it is the realization that you are one small part of a greater whole, and acting accordingly.
That which is greater than the self can be a range of things: human beings in general, nature, the universe, divine power, etc. It doesn’t matter what the greater thing is, only that there is something greater than the self.
Self-Transcendence in Psychology
Self-transcendence could be considered the neglected younger sibling of self-actualization; the concept of self-actualization has been around for quite a while and was well-known for its place on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (at first, anyway—more on that later).
However, it has not been completely ignored. Researchers who are interested in human development, spirituality, and positive behavior traits are quite familiar with the concept and have incorporated it into their work. In particular, those associated with Maslow’s work on human needs will be well-acquainted with it.
Abraham Maslow on Self-Transcendence and Needs
For many years, self-actualization dominated Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs. For a quick refresher, here is the hierarchy as it was:
Self-actualization is at the top, with esteem below it, then love/belonging, then safety, and physiological needs at the bottom. This indicates that physiological needs are vital for survival and that they must be sated before one can move up towards actualization and fulfillment. In his early work, Maslow considered self-actualization the pinnacle of human development and the highest human need: the realization of one’s full potential.
Self-actualization is indeed a lofty (and worthy) goal of development and should not be cast aside in favor of the shiny new need, but self-transcendence is truly the “next level” of development; it is other-focused instead of self-focused and concerns higher goals than those which are self-serving.
Maslow describes the importance of transcendence thusly:
“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” (Maslow, 1971, p. 269).
According to Maslow, self-transcendence brings the individual what he termed “peak experiences” in which they transcend their own personal concerns and see from a higher perspective. These experiences often bring strong positive emotions like joy, peace, and a well-developed sense of awareness (Messerly, 2017). Someone who is highly self-transcendent may also experience “plateau experiences” in which they consistently maintain or enter a state of serenity and higher perspective (Messerly, 2017).
Maslow’s addition of self-transcendence to the pyramid is not always noted in the literature when his theory is cited, but it has managed to make its way through the research community nonetheless. It has been considered quite frequently in many research threads but is perhaps most prominent in the nursing research community.
We explore this further in The Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass©
Self-Transcendence in Nursing
Self-transcendence is a particularly important topic in nursing. Nursing is one of the few occupations that demands two simultaneous perspectives: a close, detail-oriented perspective on the here and now, and a broader, more holistic and optimistic perspective. It is also a unique context for self-transcendence, in that it is something that is possible, desirable, and achievable in a team context for both the patient and the nurse. It can act as both encouragement and inspiration for the patient to achieve wellness, and as motivation and purpose for the nurse is acting as a caregiver.
Indeed, research has shown it to do just that; nurses who have achieved high levels of self-transcendence are more engaged, dedicated, and absorbed in their work than those with low self-transcendence (Palmer, Quinn Griffin, Reed, & Fitzpatrick, 2010). Further, interactions between nurses and patients can facilitate self-transcendence in patients, improving their health and their global well-being (Haugan, 2013).
This focus on self-transcendence in nursing came about when nurse and researcher Pamela Reed outlined her theory on the subject.
Pamela Reed’s Self Transcendence Theory
Reed (1991) defines self-transcendence as “expansion of self-conceptual boundaries multidimensionally: inwardly (e.g., through introspective experiences), outwardly (e.g., by reaching out to others), and temporally (whereby past and future are integrated into the present).” She later added another type of expansion: transpersonal expansion, in which the individual connects “with dimensions beyond the typically discernible world” (Reed, 2003).
According to Reed’s theory, people can be considered open systems (as opposed to closed systems, which do not take in new information and are not open to change) whose only obstacle between themselves and self-transcendence is the boundary they impose upon themselves. Humans need some conceptual boundaries, of course, but the expansion of these boundaries outward to include more of the environment, more human beings, etc., puts people in a state of greater connectedness with their environment and encourages a sense of “wholeness” they may not otherwise have (Reed, 1991).
This state of expanded consciousness is what Reed calls a developmental imperative; like Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow, Reed’s theory posits that self-transcendence is a natural and desired developmental stage, which people must reach in order to be fulfilled and to have a sense of purpose (Reed, 2003).
Three important concepts form the core of Reed’s theory, including self-transcendence; the other two concepts are:
- Vulnerability: the awareness of one’s own mortality that develops with age, health issues, and crises.
- Well-being: the sense of being healthy, whole, and generally fulfilled and satisfied with one’s state.
These three concepts are vital pieces of the three major hypotheses of Reed’s theory:
- Older adults (especially those nearing the end of their life) will generally have higher self-transcendence than younger people (note: this has been supported by research, e.g., Ellermann & Reed, 2001).
- Conceptual boundaries can fluctuate, and will likely affect well-being when they do.
- The relationship between vulnerability, self-transcendence, and well-being is modified and facilitated by a person’s own traits and characteristics and the environment in which they are situated (Reed, 1991).
This theory has mostly been accepted by the nursing community, and research has shown that self-transcendence plays an integral role in healing and in dignified acceptance of the end of life.
One of the major ways in which self-transcendence can impact end-of-life experience is through spirituality.
Self-Transcendence and Spirituality
It is easy to see how self-transcendence and spirituality are connected—one of the inherent qualities of self-transcendence is the expansion of one’s consciousness beyond the self, to something higher.
That “something higher” is often divine or spiritual in nature. Many achieve self-transcendence through their faith in God, while others may achieve it through recognition of some system of spirituality or idea of the soul. This faith or spirituality can help individuals find the meaning that will fulfill them and propel them to transcendence. Research has even shown that in elderly patients, the caregiver’s own spirituality had a positive impact on the patient’s well-being (Kim, Reed, Hayward, Kang, & Koenig, 2011).
According to Viktor Frankl, transcendence is rooted in our spirituality, and spirituality is the part of humanity that separates us from all other species. One cannot become a fully actualized and “whole” person with reaching self-transcendence, and that requires the individual to come to a satisfactory conclusion about their place in the higher order of things (Wong, 2016).
Although today’s researchers generally don’t adhere to the idea that spirituality is a must to reach self-transcendence, it is certainly a significant aspect of transcendence for many, and it can vary across a broad spectrum of beliefs.
6 Examples of Self-Transcendence
The quintessential example of self-transcendence is undoubtedly Viktor Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps of World War II.
Despite his great personal suffering (and frequently having few or none of the hierarchy needs met)—or perhaps because of it—Frankl found a higher purpose in his life. He was able to put his own needs and interests aside and see the big picture and how he fits into it.
Many prisoners in the camps succumbed to despair and dehumanization, losing their fight for life, liberty, and a sense of self; however, some in the camps actually seemed to retain or even further develop their sense of self and find or reaffirm their life’s purpose. These rare individuals are another case study in self-transcendence.
Of course, one does not need to undergo prolonged suffering to reach self-transcendence; according to Maslow, it can be reached by anyone.
It’s hard to pinpoint other examples of self-transcendence, but its four characteristics will ensure that you know it when you see it:
- A shift in focus from the self to others – this shift from selfishness and egoism to consideration of the needs of others is a marker of self-transcendence and is the most salient and important feature.
- A shift in values – those who have achieved self-transcendence no longer find themselves driven by extrinsic motivation, or external rewards and demands, but by intrinsic motivation (the reward for an activity is the activity itself).
- An increase in moral concern – self-transcendence brings with it a more intensive focus on doing what is right.
- Emotions of elevation – these experiences of higher-order emotions can be triggered by all three of the characteristics described above; the emotions include awe, ecstasy, amazement, feeling uplifted, feeling elevated, etc. (Wong, 2017).
If you know anyone who is constantly working to meet the needs of less fortunate others, who is driven not by money or rewards but by an internal drive and is always concerned with doing the right thing, you likely have an example of self-transcendence right in front of you!
For more information on self-transcendence, check out Dr. Paul Wong’s presentation at the Conference on Life and Death Education here.
How to Achieve Self-Transcendence
If you want to achieve self-transcendence for yourself, there are ways to go about it. It’s not an easy path, as it represents the highest heights of human development, beyond even Maslow’s rarely achieved self-actualization.
However, there are a few things you can do to propel your development and reach toward self-transcendence:
- Discover what puts you into “theta” (the quiet and peaceful state just between asleep and awake) and harness it to enter the inspirational and expanded state more often.
- Practice meditation, whether through the stereotypical sitting on a cushion with crossed legs or through mindful activities (mindful listening, mindful walking, mindful eating, etc.).
- Make time to get creative, and allow it to lead to inspiration, new experiences, and self-transcendence.
- Keep a journal, even if you’re not a strong writer—especially if you’re not a strong writer. Put your thoughts and feelings onto paper to separate yourself from them.
- Get out of the house and go where you are closest to nature; allow yourself to “commune” with nature, finding inspiration, healing, and perhaps a sense of transcendence through nature.
- Engage in “shadow work”—make time to reflect and dive into your deepest, darkest parts. It’s vital to acknowledge and address that which is worst in us as well as that which is best in us.
- Practice excellence—in whatever you do, wherever you go, whoever you’re within your day-to-day life. It doesn’t really matter what it is (as long as it’s not harmful to anyone), all that matters is that you’re doing what you do well (Eckl, 2017).
Further, author Stephanie Flood proposes five creative ways to achieve self-transcendence inspired by Buddhism:
- Explore basic meditation techniques—even if you’re an experienced meditator!
- Empower yourself with knowledge and wisdom to build your awareness.
- Don’t be afraid of the journey—spiritually or physically—to find insight.
- Find your own spiritual techniques that bring you closer to your higher purpose and your ideal self.
- Raise your vibrations (i.e., live in a positive and transcendence-conducive environment)
Although these tips can help, the most important factor in achieving self-transcendence is simply an awareness and openness to the idea. When we open ourselves up to the good in life, we cannot help but be changed by the experience. Keep your mind and your heart open to self-transcendence, and you will have taken the first and most vital step to achieving it.
Self-transcendence is another one of those tricky constructs to measure, but there are ways to do it. It can be measured indirectly (through increasing spirituality, intrinsic motivation, and connectedness with something greater) or directly through a scale. Two such scales are presented below.
The Self-Transcendence Scale (STS) was developed by Pamela Reed in 1986. It consists of 15 items adapted from the Developmental Resources of Later Adulthood (DRLA) scale. This scale is one-dimensional, considering only a comprehensive sense of self-transcendence, and measures this construct by questioning the respondent on several characteristics of a mature life.
The items are rated for how well they describe the respondent on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much), with a score of 1 indicating the lowest possible level of self-transcendence and 4 indicating the greatest possible level of self-transcendence. Sample items include:
- Being involved with other people or my community when possible.
- Adjusting well to changes in my physical abilities.
- Able to move beyond things that once seemed so important.
- Letting others help me when I may need it.
This scale has proven to be adequately valid and reliable and is a good choice for researchers interested in measuring self-transcendence (Haugan, Rannestad, Garåsen, Hammervold, & Espnes, 2011; Reed, 1986).
Cloninger’s Self-Transcendence Scale
This scale is nestled within Cloninger’s more broad assessment, the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI; 1993). It is a part of the Character portion of the TCI, which measures “self-concepts and individual differences in goals and values, which influence voluntary choices, intentions, and the meaning and salience of what is experienced in life” (Cloninger, 2015).
Specifically, the self-transcendence scale measures “the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole” (Cloninger, 2015). Those with high self-transcendence are thought to be more spiritual, unpretentious, humble, and fulfilled than those who are low in self-transcendence.
This scale can only be accessed through Cloninger’s website, and usage of the tool requires training for researchers and certification for clinicians.
9 Quotes on Self-Transcendence
The quotes below come from a wide range of sources, from authors and laymen to philosophers and gurus, but they all manage to capture the essence of self-transcendence:
“What would happen if you gave yourself permission to do something you’ve never done before? There’s only one way to find out.”
“I do not have any set goal; my goal is self-transcendence. I always try to transcend myself. I do not compete with the rest of the world. I compete only with myself, and I try to become a better human being. This is my ultimate goal.”
“Only to the extent that someone is living out this self transcendence of human existence, is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self-s actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward.”
“Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence.”
“The bond that attaches us to the life outside ourselves is the same bond that holds us to our own life.”
“I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible to man.”
“It is essential to our health and happiness that we dedicate ourselves to some kind of mission or purpose that transcends the mundane hustle and bustle of daily living.”
Kilroy J. Oldster:
“Our present conscious self and our shadow must learn how to coexist. The first step to attaining personal transcendence commences when the conscious mind and the unconscious mind square off and battle for preeminence. A person who achieves self-realization understands the interworking of both their conscious mind and the unconscious mind and integrates their unique dichotomy into their sense of a self.”
“Self-transcendence gives us joy in boundless measure. When we transcend ourselves, we do not compete with others. We do not compete with the rest of the world, but at every moment we compete with ourselves. We compete only with our previous achievements. And each time we surpass our previous achievements, we get joy.”
A Take Home Message
Hopefully, you walk away from this piece with a better understanding of self-transcendence, its subcomponents, and how to work towards your own self-transcendence.
If you have just one takeaway from this piece, let it be that self-transcendence is not a lofty and unreachable goal; it is within the grasp of each of us if we put in the time and effort required to get to know ourselves, fulfill our potential, and turn our focus outside of ourselves and towards others.
What are your thoughts on self-transcendence? Is it touchy-feely new age baloney, or an important stage of development with a rich history? How do you think self-transcendence can be reached? Let us know in the comments section below.
Thanks for reading, and happy transcending!
- Cloninger, R. (2015). What is the temperament and character inventory? The Center for Well-Being. Retrieved from http://psychobiology.wustl.edu/what-is-the-tci/
- Eckl, C. L. (2017). 7 ways to enhance self-transcendence. Step into the Light of your own True Being. Retrieved from http://www.cheryleckl.com/articles/unleashing-joy-self-transcendence/7-ways-to-enhance-self-transcendence/
- Ellermann, C. R., & Reed, P. G. (2001). Self-transcendence and depression in middle-age adults. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 23, 698-713. doi:10.1177/01939450122045492
- Flood, S. (n.d.). 5 creative ways to achieving your own transcendence. Soulspot. Retrieved from http://soulspottv.com/blog/5-creative-ways-to-achieving-your-own-transcendence/
- Haugan, G. (2013). Nurse-patient interaction is a resource for hope, meaning in life and self-transcendence in nursing home patients. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 28, 74-88. doi:10.1111/scs.12028
- Haugan, G., Rannestad, T., Garåsen, H., Hammervold, R., & Espnes, G. A. (2011). The Self-Transcendence Scale: An investigation of the factor structure among nursing home patients. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 30, 147-159. doi:10.1177/0898010111429849
- Kim, S., Reed, P. G., Hayward, R. D., Kang, Y., & Koenig, H. G. (2011). Spirituality and psychological well-being: Testing a theory of family interdependence among family caregivers and their elders. Research in Nursing & Health, 34, 103-115. doi:10.1002/nur.20425
- Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY, US: Arkana/Penguin Books.
- Messerly, J. G. (2017). Summary of Maslow on self-transcendence. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Retrieved from https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/more/Messerly20170204
- Palmer, B., Quinn Griffin, M. T., Reed, P., & Fitzpatrick, J. J. (2010). Self-transcendence and work engagement in acute care staff registered nurses. Critical Care Nursing Quarterly, 33, 138-147. doi:10.1097/CNQ.0b013e3181d912d8.
- Reed, P. G. (1986). The developmental conceptual framework: Nursing reformulations and applications for family theory. In A. Whall (Ed.), Family therapy theory for nursing: Four approaches (pp. 69-92). New York, NY, US: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Reed, P. (1991). Toward a nursing theory of self transcendence: Deductive reformulation using developmental theories. Advances in Nursing Science, 13, 64-77. doi:10.1097/00012272-199106000-00008
- Reed, P. (2003). A nursing theory of self-transcendence. (pp. 145-166). In M.J.Smith & P. Liehr (Eds.), Middle range theory for advanced practice nursing. New York, NY, US: Springer.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Meaning-seeking, self-transcendence, and well-being. In A. Batthyany (Ed.), Logotherapy and existential analysis: Proceedings of the Viktor Frankl Institute (Vol. 1; pp. 311-322). Cham, CH: Springer.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2017). From Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy to the four defining characteristics of self-transcendence. DrPaulWong.com. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/four-defining-characteristics-self-transcendence/