Transcending Death Terror Through Self-Actualization: A Follow-Up to Our Latest Podcast Episode

On the recent episode of Seize The Moment Podcast, Alen and I explored what it means to become self-actualized and why it’s important for our general well-being. In essence, self-actualization is personal growth, or emotional development. Throughout our lives, we go through various stages on a journey toward maturity, and the scientific construct of self-actualization is a description of its pinnacle. Or, one can call it a road-map to it.

On the show, Alen asked me why self-actualization mattered to me and when it became important. I told him that I was once terrified of dying and the growth process helped me alleviate that fear by providing me with a deep sense of purpose. Unfortunately, because of our time constraint, I didn’t want to go into too much detail about death terror and Terror-Management Theory; but, I’ve decided to write a separate blog about it as I think it’s important for our audience, and this blog’s readers, to know about the positive and negative methods we use to mitigate existential dread, or death-anxiety.

Dr. Pyszczynski, one of the key architects of Terror-Management Theory, noted: “The basic idea of TMT is that our self-esteem and our understanding of the world around us are part of a system that protects us from the frightening thought that we are going to someday die.” So, that means that we use our egos to bolster our sense of immortality, despite how irrational it is to do so. Thus, in experiments, when people are made aware of their mortality, they attempt to bolster their self-esteem and, additionally, punish the people in the “other” groups, who don’t share their worldview (specifically, their values). Pyszczynski stated, “…people who are different and challenge our beliefs also threaten our security and our protection from the fear of death. When we are more aware of death, we need that sense of protection more, so we are more likely to lash out at people who are different or who threaten us in various ways.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when one begins to deeply reflect on death and dying, if he’s honest with himself, he accepts the inevitably of life’s end, asking what he can do to make it meaningful while accepting reality. (And this isn’t to say that atheists are the gatekeepers of wisdom, for plenty of atheists fall into the trap of materialism and greed, subsequently lashing out at those who challenge the righteousness of their actions and worldly success.)

For me, a meaningful life was one that was in accordance with my values (on this end, values aren’t perceived as being universal or the “true values” of existence), one of which was personal growth. Instead of deluding myself into accepting the possibility of immortality, I accepted its symbolic substitute, which meant that I wanted to use my time to achieve something important, something that would remain a universal fact for all of eternity, even after the universe underwent a heat-death. Thus, I resolved to become the best version of myself, which combined selfish and selfless endeavors. I wanted to become more kind and compassionate, and definitely more empathic, but I also wanted to work on reducing my anxiety of rejection, failure, and poor performance, in addition to becoming a great writer (not going to lie).

Contemplating death also granted me wisdom, from which I gleaned that all of us were in it together and that self-esteem (conditional self-regard based on achievements) wasn’t so significant, for we were fundamentally, in the important ways, the same, and that was never going to change. I knew that no matter what I achieved, I was going to die anyway.

I learned to manage my terror of death by working on myself, and by becoming a better person, I began to enjoy life more, since more people wanted to be around me. My narcissistic coping mechanism was replaced by a more balanced one, which isn’t to say that I’m never selfish, but that I consider my affect on other people, too; therefore, I’m much happier these days.

What helped you managed your fear of death? I’d love to hear about your coping mechanisms below, whether positive or negative. Please, also check out the latest episode of our podcast, which covered the topic of self-actualization in-depth.

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