Who wants to be a better person? Judging by the volume of self-help books, lifestyle gurus, and “10 ways to…” blogs, just about everyone. As a therapist, I see people who need help in the relief of psychic pain, but I see just as many who want to improve their careers, their relationships, and find meaning in their lives.
150 years ago, The philosopher Nietzsche saw dysfunction in his own times, as he declared, with great fear for the future of mankind, the death of God. Due to this loss of a secure value system, Nietzsche predicted an emerging collective nihilism, priming the world for shallow and destructive values and ideologies. In what many consider his masterwork, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the eponymous protagonist comes down to the world after many years in thoughtful spiritual seclusion at the top of a mountain to bring the message of a better way to be in the face of this danger, that of the Ubermensch.
Nietzsche’s fear for the future of mankind resulted in the idea that true and real values must be recreated. The embodied blueprint of these values to Nietzsche was an idealized and advanced version of the human, known as the “Ubermensch”, or overman. This “noble” individual would encompass the traits necessary for human flourishing in the absence of guidance of the now dead God. Using a thought experiment, which Nietzsche named “eternal recurrence”, he mused that this conceptual super-human had what it took to live a life so meaningful, that he would be willing to re-live his life exactly as it was for eternity.
Can we imagine a life so meaningful and rich that we would choose to repeat it? In therapy, we indeed search for flourishing and for meaning. We come to therapy to aid in that quest by embarking on a search to find, as Carl Rogers (1995) characterized “congruence” between our real feelings and desires and how we act. We embark on a search for what the DW Winnicott referred to as “true self” (1960), which during the course of therapy we find has been partially or largely repressed by parents, peers and authorities who, rather than encourage who we really are, attempt to mold us into what they expected and/or needed us to be.
The “Superman” expressed by the Ubermensch seems to express the highest form of a true self. That self who has completely determined his own values in the advent of no God to guide him. This man is “noble”, in the sense that he has transcended some of the more objectionable aspects of human nature – generally those which keep us trapped, victimized and beholden to others and our own negative self-talk.
The idea of the a “noble” person is a theme of much of Nietzsche’s work. But within each of his books, descriptions of this Superman tend to be expressed differently, so to delineate these characteristics in a “10 ways to be an Ubermensch” list is a challenging prospect. One for a professor of philosophy to endeavor.
While researching Nietzsche, I found an interesting paper by just such a professor: Randall Firestone of El Camino College in Torrance, CA. In his paper, Nietzsche’s Best Life: The Ten Greatest Attributes of the Ubermensch, & a Comparison to Aristotle’s Virtuous Person, Firestone has parsed through the work of Nietzsche and Nietzsche scholars to, in fact, determine those 10 complementary and sometimes overlapping characteristics of the Ubermensch.
So, using this useful resource, and with direct quotes from Nietzsche himself, let’s explore what each of these traits mean according to Nietzsche, and the ways in which we can use an understanding and implementation of these attributes to guide therapeutic improvement of both our mental health and our lives.
1. Self Determination
“A man is called a free spirit if he thinks otherwise than would be expected based on his origin, environment, class and position, or based on prevailing contemporary views”
-Nietzsche, Human, All too Human.
Nietzsche believed that it was an important component of self determination to question the virtues and values of one’s society and weigh this against what your authentic self determined are your values. As expressed by Firestone, “Nietzsche’s self-determining person is autonomous, freethinking and fiercely independent”.
Thinking for yourself is key to a satisfying life. If you can formulate your own opinions, you will be able to make important decisions that are right for you. During the course of our lives, we are taught what is right and wrong by our parents, our peers and our teachers. But often aspects of these values simply don’t align with our true gut feelings. There might come a time in therapy, when we unpack old messages, confront the internalized values of our parents and authorities, and determine what moral system is truly ours.
“New ears for new music. New eyes for the most distant things. A new con-
science for truths which have hitherto remained dumb.”
Firestone quotes Brian Leiter, one of the most notable scholars of Nietzsche, “he ultimately admired creative individuals the most: in art, literature, music, and philosophy …” (p.383) A creative person is possessed of the ability to create meaning in his life and his own character. Creativity in this regard is the construction of a “noble and free-spirited” being, as well as the construction of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Indeed, Nietzsche believed that the cure for nihilism is a profound sense of meaning.
Therefore, to improve our selves and our lives, we must overcome the trappings of our age such as the temptations of living in the superficial and comparative world of social media or the desire to possess the latest and greatest thing as recommended by others, and instead create a truly meaningful existence based on our own authentic values. And, like the great creatives, such as Goethe and Beethoven, (whom Nietzsche himself admired and whose ranks he strove to join and succeeded), we too may be possessed of creative attributes that could be discovered and/or further explored in therapy as we use them to express what we can find so hard to articulate and to develop to nourish our souls.
“What is life – Life – that is constantly shedding something that wants to die”
-Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Becoming means always improving, changing, reevaluating – but it also means that parts of you must die. We have all come to a point where we realize that some particular trait, quirk or habit is no longer working. There needs to be a dynamism in our thinking and a willingness to update our ideas, beliefs and actions. Otherwise we stagnate in our habits and just exist rather than live.
In therapy, we may refer to these as defenses, or “old patterns”. Until we know what these are, we are “stuck” in an old way of understanding the world and relating to others. In the work of therapy, these maladaptive patterns are revealed, worked through, put to rest, and new ways of being and relating are developed. Of course, the work can be distressing and uncomfortable. Becoming means pushing yourself past comfort, into what psychologist Vygotsky referred to as “the zone of optimal development” (footnote), where you are challenged enough to improve. Taking on too much of a challenge is overwhelming, but too little is stagnating. With this optimal challenge, you cannot help but “become” something better.
“What does not kill him makes him stronger”
Overcoming of course means overcoming adversity, but not just that. It also means overcoming your own limitations. Nietzsche was painfully ill for most of his short life, but that didn’t stop him. He worked around his illness. He used his downtime to think and when he could, write, as he’s said, “I say more in a sentence than others say in a book”. Concise, powerful and packed, his writing had to be that way, and his unique aphoristic style was partially in response to his limitations.
One main objective of therapy is to overcome maladaptive defenses, often originating from adverse events in childhood. In therapy, we develop the ability to overcome the old ways of relating based on what happened to us. By exposing and reconciling these defenses, we open up the whole of our potential. The famous “will to power” associated with Nietzsche is not a way of forcing one’s will on others, rather it’s the will to fulfill your own destiny that powers you through barriers.
“I say unto you: One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
–Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Related to the “will to power” is the driving force of discontent. The chaos and turmoil within ourselves are expressions from our true selves toward our true desires. Rather than suppressing these uncomfortable feelings, we need to feel them wholly and allow them to guide us toward their resolution. Turmoil is life-affirming, according to Nietzsche, and should be used to drive creative solutions to problems, and to spur us on to use our talents to become the “dancing stars” we can be.
Much of what we achieve in therapy is an ability to tolerate negative emotions. By learning to do so, we can handle more of the necessary stress and adversity that it takes to make headway at work, in creative endeavors and in difficult relationships. We can also learn that our anger, long repressed, is valid and can guide us away from succumbing to the will of others.
“Freedom from conviction of any kind, the capacity for an unconstrained
view, pertains to strength”
We need some basic codes of conduct, but in terms of outlining rigid moral regulations, Nietzsche viewed these as being unrealistic. The world is enormously complicated, and oftentimes, rules can be too rigid in actual practice. There are a tremendous amount of “shoulds”, which can constrain us to a boxed in way of viewing the world and cause us distress if what happens doesn’t align with what we expect.
As with self-determination, we can examine these “shoulds” and determine how much is imposed on us by the status quo, and how much is an expression of our actual true needs. Our real needs are increasingly worked out as we get to the root of the true self in our sessions. Aligned with being self-determining and creative, a flexibility with our relationships can improve how we interact with others. It is probably fair to say that most of the trouble in relationships has to do with the “shoulds” we impose on our friends and partners.
“One has to learn to see, one has to learn to think, one has to learn to speak and write; the end in all three is a noble culture … Learning to see, as I understand it, is almost what is called in unphilosophical language ‘strong will-power …’”
-On the Genealogy of Morals
Again, The “will to power” is not about overpowering others (and I am pretty sure this is one of the many areas where Nietzsche is misunderstood) It actually has to do with power over oneself, or self mastery – becoming the best you could be.
To increase our knowledge, our abilities to express ourselves, to improve our talents, and to become more disciplined is to master aspects of ourselves that may be undeveloped. With the advent of autonomy, and of discovering and nourishing one’s true self comes the responsibility of acting in the world with this new found agency. In therapy, we can address lack of motivation, procrastination and impulsivity, and work on improving these troublesome tendencies.
8. Self Confidence
“The noble soul has reverence for itself.”
-Beyond Good and Evil
For Nietzsche, it is noble that the ubermensch appreciates his own attributes. If you have this confidence, you can also accept the fact that you are human and your emotions and instincts are part of you and that you need not be ashamed of them. Anti-shame is really what self-confidence is about for Nietzsche.
If the expression of the true self is not encouraged from a young age, one can be made to feel shame at spontaneous expression. A child’s natural self is stymied in favor of what adults want from him, and this dynamic can perpetuate through shame…as shame is a powerful behavioral control. But eventually, if one can come to see shame as just that…a natural and powerful mechanism to keep oneself from behaving in a way that threatens early relationships, and in a child’s mind, threatens survival. If this shame can be examined for just what it is and dismantled, it is much less likely to undermine our self confidence, and elicit our anger towards others when our projections onto them trigger this shame
“To stay cheerful when involved in a gloomy and exceedingly responsible business is no inconsiderable art: yet what could be more necessary than cheerfulness?”
–Twilight of the Idols
As articulated by Firestone, “the Ubermensch says ‘yes’ to what comes their way, not deterred by society’s rules and prohibitions which would keep one from fully living and appreciating life. Like a child, one should explore life with wonder and awe…”. Viktor Frankl, who was influenced by Nietzsche, mirrored the “yes” to life. Frankl (1995) asserted that one has a choice as to their attitude and that one could have an attitude of cheer and hope, even in the most adverse of circumstances. To realize that one has this freedom is psychologically liberating. The implication of this realization is one that is transcendent in the sense that earthly pain has a spiritual purpose that can be transformative.
Pain as transformation is an ancient spiritual archetype and figures into therapy as well. Sometimes, a client will say to me “I’m not feeling better, I’m feeling worse!” The pain emerges as old defenses are rendered impotent and old wounds are laid bare to be confronted in a truthful way. In this way, that pain is a marker of emerging transformation and can and should be seen as hopeful. And hope is uplifting. I encourage clients to add faith at this point that an improvement of psyche is in the works, and to be positive, even cheerful about this pain and what it means. Taking that positive attitude can only enrich the transformative experience, amidst the pain and transcend it.
“But courage and adventure and pleasure in the uncertain, in the un-
dared—courage seems to me man’s whole prehistory … courage, finally refined, spiritualized, spiritual, this human courage with eagles’ wings and serpent’s wisdom—that, it seems to me, is today called—‘Zarathustra!’”
–Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Courage is the underlying attribute that allows the Ubermensch to develop all of these characteristics. Firestone: “I think it is easy to misread Nietzsche and to misunderstand his focus. He is primarily concerned with spiritual or internal courage, not with the mundane courage of physical battle”. This courage is what allows one to flout rules and conventions that honestly do not work for you and perpetuate the false self. But to go against societal norms means one faces the threat of losing the security of belonging, even if that belonging requires maintaining a persona and not being true to one’s nature. That sacrifice can feel much easier.
It takes a great deal of courage to confront not only psychic pain, but its origins. To see one’s childhood for what it really was, and to begin to challenge those ingrained values that were imposed by authorities and peers, to realize that one has been living for others and not oneself can be frightening and destabilizing. However, in order to find one’s true self, there may be no other way.
While Nietzsche encourages us to “create our values”, his vision really gives a life-affirming interpretation to values that we already believe to be good. We already know that being courageous and creative are positive values. What we do is use these in our own unique ways to improve our self-determination to overcome adversity. The Ubermensch is not meant to be a real person that we should compare ourselves to (and fall short of) The Ubermensch it is more of a process toward something better. It is a beacon of greatness, let’s say.
As we work through our problems and improve our lives in therapy, we can use the attributes of the Ubermensch to inform that work. All 10 attributes have a common thread – that of authenticity and the will to be the best we can be, even if the cost seems high. And the best we can be must necessarily be who we really are. In the long run, that is worth the cost.
Firestone, R. (2017). Nietzsche’s Best Life: The Ten Greatest Attributes of the Ubermensch, & a Comparison to Aristotle’s Virtuous Person. Open Journal of Philosophy, 7, 377-407. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2017.73020
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Rogers, C. R. 1. (1995). On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Nietzsche, F. W., & Kaufmann, W. A. (1982). The portable Nietzsche. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books..
Vygotsky, L. S. (1934/1962). The development of scientific concepts in childhood. In eds Hanfmann, E. & G. Vaker, Thought and Language. Studies in Communication (pp 82 – 118). Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
Winnicott, D.W. (1960) Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self. In: Winnicott, D.W., Ed., The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, Karnac Books, London, 140-152.