The Authentic Actuary

Why letting go of unhealthy attachments may be the key to transformation of the profession

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Pamela Hellig, Senior Actuarial Manager
Insight Life Solutions

Why letting go of unhealthy attachments may be the key to transformation of the profession

Dr Gabor Maté was an infant in Nazi-occupied Hungary when his mother, in an extreme act of love, gave him to a stranger to protect him from the dangers of the Budapest ghetto. The separation between mother and child lasted three weeks, leaving Maté with a visceral sense of abandonment that would affect him for life. Perhaps driven by the events of his early childhood, he has become one of the world’s foremost thinkers in the realms of trauma, addiction, stress, and childhood development.

Some of Maté’s most profound work has to do with the analysis of authenticity versus attachment – two basic survival needs, which are often in conflict with each other, and the understanding of which, I believe, is key to redefining the actuarial profession to be more inclusive, diverse, and psychologically safe.

The Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) says of its goal of transformation:

Transformation of the Actuarial Society and the actuarial profession is about fairness and inclusion. It is about every member of the Society feeling welcomed, appreciated and inspired to succeed and contribute. It is also about fulfilling our professional promise by ensuring that the work that actuaries do is relevant to the diverse South African public whose interest we serve.

Attachment is our drive to connect with a caring other, to belong, to love and to be loved. It is obvious why this is a basic human need: as babies, we are completely dependent on our caregivers. We need attachment to survive physiologically, and we totally depend on our parents to meet our needs. Even as adults, attachment remains important because we need to form societies and social groups, without which we would not be able to survive.

Authenticity, on the other hand, is our ability to acknowledge our emotions and interests and act in a way that aligns with our sense of meaning and purpose. It’s the capacity to express who we are in our activities and relationships. If it is not obvious how authenticity becomes a basic survival need, think of a human being in the evolutionary period who was not in touch with their bodies and gut feelings…how long would they survive in the wild? We are all here today because our ancestors listened to their instincts and made decisions that ensured their survival and, hence, our existence.

So, which of these two fundamental human needs wins?

Imagine what happens to a child whose attachment need is incompatible with the need for authenticity. In other words, “If I’m authentic, my parents will reject me. If I express what I feel and insist on my own truth, my parents can’t handle it”. Despite their best conscious efforts, parents convey those messages all the time; that their children are not acceptable the way they are.

What does a child do with that? The child reasons that if they give up attachment for the sake of authenticity, they lose the relationships on which their life depends. Therefore, there is no question. What become suppressed are the child’s authenticity and emotions. And this forms a pattern in our brains that persists into adulthood.

We pay the cost of this with mental and physical illnesses by ignoring our instincts and getting ourselves into trouble.

This pattern plays out in the actuarial profession as well. For any aspiring actuary who does not fit the traditional mould of what our lecturers, our managers, our peers and colleagues, and society tell us what an actuary should be, we suppress our authentic selves for the sake of acceptance into this community. Just like babies who crave attachment to their parents, we, as actuaries and as people, want to be ourselves but are afraid to be because we think that if we are ourselves, we may lose important attachment relationships and potentially make career-limiting moves.

It’s a justified fear: people in positions of power have their own trauma and insecurities and can take it out on those whose authenticity they perceive as a threat.

However, sacrificing ourselves and who we are to “fit in” is not the answer because it’s not sustainable, doesn’t make individuals successful, and renders the profession’s transformation impossible.

So, what is the answer for those who do not look, think, speak, or feel like a “traditional” actuary?

The solution lies in creating supportive work environments that nurture, appreciate and celebrate each person’s authentic self rather than punishing them for what they are not, that enable and encourage individuals to find the aspect(s) of being an actuary that they enjoy and are naturally good at (and I truly believe that everyone who makes it into the profession has at least one of these!), and where the leaders are so completely themselves that everyone else feels safe to be themselves, too.

This is how to change the face of the profession – one person at a time – and to build resilient individuals, productive teams, and a profession whose work is relevant to the diverse South African public whose interest we serve.


This article was featured in the October 2023 edition of the South African Actuary Magazine. View article here

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