This article is the second in a series of articles discussing the difficulties faced by service members transitioning out of the military. The first, titled “Abandoning the tribe: The psychology behind why veterans struggle to transition to civilian life,” covered some of the psychological theories at play as a military member becomes indoctrinated into their unit and can eventually become so bonded with their fellow soldiers that they would literally die for them, and so integrated into their role that their entire self-worth becomes contingent on their job performance. This “identity fusion” and “contingent self-worth” can serve the soldier well while they remain within the military environment and continue to perform well in their role; however, this can be the basis for significant psychological struggle upon discharge from the military.
This article will elaborate on the first, using another few well-established theories to analyze the psychological processes that occur upon discharge from the military and lead to the struggles faced by many veterans.
Many will be aware of Maslow’s triangle, or, more technically termed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are a range of other psychological theories that consider what constitutes a fulfilled life, but I feel that Maslow’s fits best in describing the life changes that occur when an individual discharges from the military, and in doing so offers a basis for understanding what is required to transition successfully into civilian life.
As the name suggests, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is exactly that, a hierarchical list of human needs that, if all are met, can ultimately result in what Maslow termed self-actualization (Maslow, 1943). Maslow’s hierarchy is often represented diagrammatically as a pyramid, with the base block being the basic physiological needs of man, such as air, water, food, shelter, clothing, sleep etc. Once those basic needs are met, the considerations that form the next block of the pyramid are the safety needs, including personal safety and security, health, employment, and other basic resources.
These first two building blocks that form the base of the pyramid are considered the basic needs of a human and are the primary motivators for human behavior. Once they are fulfilled, which is the case for the majority of contemporary First-World society, the next series of needs are belongingness and love needs, which are met through relationships with intimate partners and friends. Once these are established, the individual will be motivated by esteem needs, being the desire for prestige and feelings of accomplishment. Coupled together, the belongingness, love, and esteem needs are referred to as the psychological needs of an individual, and if met can lead to a fulfilled life in those who don’t crave what Maslow referred to as “self-actualization.”
When you stop to think about it, most people reading will, at minimum, be at this level of Maslow’s hierarchy, with all their basic physiological needs covered. They will likely have a job, as well as a decent social circle and some intimate relationships to satisfy their psychological and esteem needs to some degree or another. Maslow hypothesized that even if all these needs are satisfied that a new restlessness will develop in most individuals unless they are doing what they are fitted for (Maslow, 1943). Maslow referred to this as the need for self-actualization, which is characterized by becoming the best version of oneself and reaching one’s full potential. Maslow suggested that self-actualizers are typically creative, autonomous, objective individuals who are concerned about humanity and accepting of themselves and others (Maslow, 1943).
Maslow’s theory of self-actualization falls into the category of what are known as “eudemonic” philosophies, which can be traced back to Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) notion of eudemonia, or being true to one’s inner demon (Peterson, 2005). Common among these philosophies is the premise that people should develop what’s best within themselves and then use those skills and talents for a greater good, in particular the welfare of other people or mankind as a whole (Peterson, 2005). Military, law enforcement, fire services, paramedics, and other first-response services are all organizations that promote individual excellence and exist to a large degree for the greater good of society, as captured by mottos such as “Be all you can be” and “To Protect and To Serve.” Taken to yet another level of self-actualization and service are the special operations elements of military and police units, once again with this emphasis on serving the greater good captured in mottos such as that of the U.S. Air Force’s Pararescuemen, “That Others May Live,” or the U.S. Army SF motto, “De Oppresso Liber,” roughly translated as “to liberate the oppressed.” It therefore figures that many individuals who enter into the military are those who crave self-actualization as defined by Maslow.
Once indoctrinated into a military unit and established in a specific trade it can be seen that the military structure can potentially provide the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The individual may live on base and have their basic needs met by the military, eating out of the mess hall and living in the lines. If they live off base, the wage and relative security of a military job would also ensure these basic needs are met. Belongingness and esteem needs can be met by the professional satisfaction and respect earned from being a high-functioning military team member. Military members will often develop intimate relationships with others at their unit or base, potentially completing the psychological needs of the individual without looking outside of the military construct at all.
Even in the instance where a military member establishes an intimate relationship outside of their work circles, it is still likely that a significant number of their friends will be other military members with whom they work closely. Throughout a well-structured military career, a member will undergo ongoing professional development courses learning new skills, challenging themselves, and experiencing the accomplishment of progressing up the ranks as they do so. The opportunity to self-actualize by being all they can be is made available to most military members, and the opportunity to deploy and use their skills on operations and potentially in combat also allows for self-actualization through the contribution to a greater good and the service of others.
On the topic of combat, and adding a further psychological concept to Maslow’s hierarchy, I’d like to introduce the concept of “flow,” defined by American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities where time passes quickly, attention is focused, and the sense of self is lost (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow occurs when there is an optimal balance between skill and challenge (Moneta, 1996) and the aftermath of the flow experience is invigorating (Park, 2009).
With hindsight I now see that I experienced flow in many of my functions within my army role, including high-fidelity military and medical training scenarios and intense unarmed combat and other physical training sessions, but none more so than in the real-time combat or combat casualty scenarios. During these moments of peak intensity where my life or the lives of others was on the line, I experienced some of the most calming and invigorating moments of my life. Time slowed, my vision sharpened, the peripheral noises of combat were silenced, and my world became incredibly peaceful.
My actions seemed slow and very deliberate during these experiences, and when they were over I was left feeling immensely invigorated no matter the outcome. I had never been elevated to such an intense level of stimulus prior to these combat and casualty experiences, and I have not experienced anything even remotely close since my discharge from the army. Personally, this degree of flow was exclusively linked to my military role, and mostly to the deployed setting, and I therefore consider it an extension to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization.
Thus it can be seen that a career with the military can fulfill all of an individual’s basic and psychological needs, as well as allowing them to self-actualize and potentially allow experiences that lead to flow. In total this theoretically equates to a fulfilled life as long as the member remains within the military environment that enables access to the people and activities that lead to fulfillment. Let’s look at a scenario, such as the one I faced, where a military member then discharges from the military and begins the process of attempting to establish themselves in a civilian role.
All of a sudden the top two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are chopped off, as well potentially a large portion of the third level with the loss or significantly reduced exposure to former military work colleagues making up the individual’s social circle. Even if the individual maintains social contact with those they used to serve with in the military, it is to be assumed that their relationship will differ from when they served together, likely not being as strong post-discharge. The individual is likely to still have their basic needs met, as well as their intimate relationships and some friends, but the uppermost levels of the hierarchy are missing, notwithstanding.
What had been a self-actualized individual with access to experiences allowing flow within the military environment is often reduced to a civilian with reduced social circle, little prestige or esteem in their new job, no ability to self-actualize, and no access to situations that allow flow to be experienced.
With hindsight I can see clearly now that this is exactly what happened to me when I discharged from my role as a doctor with army special operations. I had been self-actualized within that role and was regularly experiencing flow in my work, both in the training and deployed environment. I felt valued among my peers, felt as though my skills were being well utilized operationally and in the training of others, and felt a true sense of purpose and contribution to a greater good.
On discharge I not only moved out of my military role, I also moved two states away from my last posted locality, physically dislocating me from my social support network in my last unit. I lost access to the work forum within which I was able to self-actualize and allowed me to experience flow. My basic needs were comfortably met, and my intimate relationships were intact, but everything else was cut away with one swift slice.
Let’s now look at a military member who is forced to leave the service through injury and who suffers a relationship breakdown around the same time, losing access to both their partner and limiting access to their kids. In that all-too-common scenario the member may have most if not all of their psychological needs taken away from them and may even start to struggle with their basic needs due to potential inability to find work. It can be appreciated that such a scenario could lead to mental-health issues and potentially even thoughts of self-harm or suicide, once again seen all too often in the veteran population.
On reflection I can see that my journey toward successful transition from the army only really began some two to three years after I discharged. Up until that point I was working in a professionally unstimulating role, that while paying well and providing the means to easily meet my basic needs, was offering no ability to build a new circle of friends or self-actualize. Around the three-year mark post-discharge, I took on a far more stimulating role working in the emergency department of a small regional hospital.
The job allowed me to become part of a small, close-knit team of doctors, working for an old friend of mine, which allowed me to rebuild my work social circle and help complete the third level of my Maslow’s pyramid with my new “tribe.” As I established myself in my new role I slowly began to feel that I was earning the respect of my work colleagues and patients alike, allowing me to build esteem. Furthermore, the work was highly stimulating, and I felt once again that I was actually making a difference with what I was doing, allowing me to begin the process of self-actualization in my new domain. I even once or twice entered a state of flow in that role for the first time since my military days during desperate resuscitations of critically ill patients.
Talking with fellow veterans who have managed to negotiate the discharge process better than others, a common theme appears to be throwing themselves at a new occupation or challenge, and not coming up for air until they are well established in the new venture. Although the psychologists out there could easily poke holes in my use of Maslow’s hierarchy to completely describe the process of successful transition from the military, I feel it is a useful framework to begin to understand the psychology of transition and therefore the requirements to re-establish one’s self in a meaningful civilian life. The process takes time but can be achieved if the right building blocks are put in place in the right order.
The key is to find a new or additional tribe to join to replace or supplement the old military tribe, and to find a new job or hobby that allows you to start rebuilding esteem, accomplishment, self-actualization, and maybe even flow. Worth keeping in mind is that these factors don’t all have to come from the one source; there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to all of an individual’s needs like what can potentially be found in the military. For instance, an individual might be able to fulfill their basic needs through an unstimulating job, and then draw esteem through a sporting or academic outlet, achieve self-actualization through community service, and find flow through skydiving! It’s all about being aware of the theoretical psychological requirements for a fulfilled life and then looking at individual preferences for how to strive toward them.
My hope is that this article might find its way to a struggling veteran or two and provide a theoretical explanation of what they are going through and perhaps a framework for how to find their way to a better place. It is not an easy journey, but it certainly is possible. Like any military transit, it starts with having a compass and the right map, and then just continually putting one foot in front of the other until you reach your destination.
Dr. Dan Pronck’s new book “Average 70kg D**khead: Motivational Lessons from an Ex-Army Special Forces Doctor” is available now!
Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990. Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins.
Maslow, A., 1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, Volume 50, pp. 370-396.
Moneta, G. C. M., 1996. The effect of perceived challenges and skills on the quality of subjective experience. Journal of Personality, Volume 64, pp. 275-310.
Park, N. P. C. R. W., 2009. Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction in twenty-seven nations. The journal of positive psychology, 4(4), pp. 273-279.
Peterson, C. P. N. S. M., 2005. Orientations to happiness and life satasfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, Volume 6, pp. 25-41.