What does Thriving mean to an ex-Muslim?

What do we mean by “Thriving”?

Thriving is the state of feeling fully alive and connected to a meaning in life that is bigger than yourself. A state of self-actualization that is more attainable once you have your basic needs in life met, freeing you up to pursue these higher-level ideas.

“When you’re thriving you can look beyond your own selfish needs and do something for others without expecting something in return” – Rafya

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains this in the context of basic human needs. According to Maslow, needs such as food, clothing, shelter, warmth, a sense of belonging, etc. need to be met first for humans to get to the stage of self-actualization.

In his studies, Maslow found that self-actualizers share similarities. They all tend to fit the following profile regardless of their social, educational, or financial standing.

Maslow’s Characteristics of Self-actualizers:

Efficient perceptions of reality: The self-actualizing person has an active relationship with reality. They can accept the highs and the lows, the good and the bad and can tell the difference between them.

Comfortable acceptance of self and others: They can accept their own and others’ human faults and shortcomings with tolerance and humor.

Reliant on own experiences and judgment: The self-actualizing person is independent and does not rely on culture and environment to form opinions.

Spontaneous and natural: They are true to themselves rather than conforming to how others want them to be.

Task centering: Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside of themselves) to pursue.

Autonomy: They are not reliant on external factors or other people. They tend to be independent and resourceful.

A continued freshness of appreciation: Self-actualizers can continually renew their appreciation of life’s essential goodness. As adults, they continue to possess a childlike wonder and can experience things like the beauty of a sunset or an idea with curiosity and newfound appreciation, as they did the first time.

Profound interpersonal relationships: Deep loving bonds mark the personal relationships of self actualizers.

Comfort with solitude: Even though they have satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people enjoy solitude and are comfortable being by themselves.

A non-hostile sense of humor: They can laugh at themselves and do not need to use humor as a weapon.

Peak experiences: All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (brief moments of self-actualization). Feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning occur during those moments. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth. These are also known as Flow or optimal experiences.

Socially compassionate: They are considerate towards the needs of others.

Few friends: They have few close friends rather than many superficial relationships.

In short, self-actualizers genuinely inhabit themselves: they feel safe, accepted, confident, and loved and therefore feel they are living a fulfilling life, a life that is self-directed and meaningful to them, with little need for external validation.

What does Thriving mean to an ex-Muslim?

For ex-Muslims, the step towards leaving the religion can feel like a step off a cliff into an abyss of emptiness. But in reality, it is the first phase on the path towards self-actualization, towards living inside a higher level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

When you’re thriving you can look beyond your own selfish needs and do something for others without expecting something in return
One might even say that for many young ex-Muslims, apostatizing is the side effect of the journey towards self-actualization, and as such, represents a stage in their healthy psychological development.

The challenge then becomes the process of recovering after leaving the religion. As most of us know, self-actualizing and leaving Islam can undermine the more basic levels in the Hierarchy of Needs, such as Love and Belonging, and Safety. The process of leaving Islam can feel like taking a step backward, and so can generate a high degree of anxiety and insecurity. And worst of all can feel like a plunge into a darker, more sinister place.

It helps, therefore, to tease out why that is. When approaching the construct of apostasy through the lens offered by Maslow’s pyramid, it becomes easier to do so.

In the lower levels of the Hierarchy of Needs, there is a higher incidence of prolonged stress, since safety and day to day survival are at risk. Remaining in this state for extended periods of time can be detrimental, leading to a dysregulation of the body’s physiological equilibrium, and even to changes on a neuronal level leading to long term effects on memory, concentration, learning, to name a few. Therefore, the experience of apostasy is always accompanied by the experience of inner turmoil, manifesting as an existential crisis on multiple levels.

Awareness is necessary, then, to come to terms with the process of apostasy as it can feel exhausting. Apostatizing from Islam involves flirting with this territory repeatedly, of pushing back up towards the top of the pyramid. Every time a family connection changes or completely falls apart, for example, is a return to that more primitive state of anxiety. One that has no resolution except for the kind the self can bring about through self-actualization. (The only other option for avoiding this conflict is to return to the pre-apostasy state of being, which is impossible.)

Recovering each time involves self-awareness and accepting that this is an iterative process which will take months or years, and will require a commitment to personal growth.

Those that believe it’s easy to leave Islam are blissfully unaware of the personal costs involved. But there are also those who cannot leave Islam because they fear the cost will be too high to pay. Clarification of this territory is therefore necessary across the religious spectrum, for anyone who struggles with reconciling their morality with their beliefs, or their identity with their tribal designation. For at the end of the day, we must resolve these experiences of cognitive and existential dissonance, no matter what the cost, if we are to live lives commensurate with our highest ideals.

THRIVE Focus: Rafya

One such person is Rafya, an EXMNA member, our series editor, and creator of the Thrive Series. She is a licensed massage therapist and personal trainer and runs her own practice. In the following segment, she speaks to her experience of getting from just surviving to thriving.

What is the difference between living in Thriving mode versus in Surviving mode?

Rafya: The main difference for me is when you’re thriving you can look beyond your own selfish needs and do something for others without expecting something in return. Being able to be generous with your time or attention or resources, because it’s the right thing to do, is a sign of thriving.

When you’re surviving, you’re just struggling to stay afloat. Worried about what tomorrow will bring, that nagging fear of ‘what if?’ means you have no energy or room to allow thoughts of others or the world to intrude into your mind.

A Thriving person, in contrast, can focus on their outer world, their community, their impact on those around them. Once you start thriving, it is possible to let go of the selfish need for survival because every act is not rooted in the question of how it impacts your self. It is the difference between feeling like you never have enough money versus feeling like you have extra to help someone out without missing what that money could do for you. There is an essential difference, and it’s only possible when people have enough resources, of mind and spirit, to reach towards higher levels of being. To look beyond the basic needs of their own shelter, food, safety, and to self-actualize, therefore becoming able to consider the parallel needs of others as well.

This mental state also counters the ‘never enough’ consumer culture that we are surrounded by, and allows a more authentic experience, where not having what others may have, or the next new toy, is not perceived as a deprivation but instead is replaced by a sense of having and being enough.

When did you make that distinction for yourself? What led to that realization? How did it affect you when you saw that difference?

Rafya: For me, it was soon after I graduated and got my first job. I was in a ton of debt and was struggling. When I got my first paycheck after a week of working, I realized that I could pay my entire month’s rent and still have money left over. At that moment it hit me that surviving was about to get replaced with thriving.

I remember looking at that paycheck and remembering my father’s words when I left his house for good: “You will never be anything, you’ll be on the streets prostituting yourself.” I had said to him, “You wish! Watch me thrive,” before walking away with his laugh ringing in my ears. Angry at him for thinking I couldn’t amount to much, I promised myself that I was going to prove him wrong. There was no way I would give him the satisfaction of being able to say “I told you so.” I was instead going to harness my hatred towards his response into something positive in my life.

That confidence and determination to overcome fueled me when things got tough and I felt like giving up, for example, when I wasn’t able to afford rent and had to live out of my car until my next paycheck. Looking back, I realize it can sometimes take a setback or a horrific event to propel you forward. For me, it drove me to take my power back and put myself in the driver’s seat of life.

I think it is essential not to let what happened to you, end up defining you.

To do this, you have to take the first step: you have to know where you stand, take an honest look at yourself, and figure out where you want to go in life.

That is the essence of self-actualization, realizing that this journey is yours to direct.

Here’s to taking the first step in the journey to living your most authentic life. We’ll be right here alongside, offering stories, advice and knowledgeable articles like this to help you on your journey.

Thank you for sharing Rafya! I’m sure many of us can relate.

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