Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tough Stuff Tuesdays: Self Actualizing

Jan and I have talked about social anxiety and its implications in adulthood. Today I am going to talk about a similarly complex and potentially problematic concept that has posed a life long struggle for me. Abraham Maslow coined the term "self actualization", which in laymen's terms means being who you are. According to Maslow, human beings can only achieve contentment and a sense of fulfillment in life when they have a concrete concept of who they are. However, knowing who you are is often times the easy part. It's being who you are despite what other people think and being comfortable doing so that becomes the problem, at least for me.

On the surface self actualization seems like a no brainer. Obviously we will be more happy and content and less stressed and frustrated if we live life for who we really are rather than for who we are supposed to be or how others perceive us. However, no one is fully self actualized. We all have public selves and private selves. Even children learn at a very young age to conform to social norms. When my oldest son was three he became so defiant that boarding school sounded enticing. I sat nervously at my first ever parent teacher conference with his preschool teacher. Meekly, I asked, "Um, how's uh, his behavior?" The teacher smiled and assured me that she had no behavior problems WHATSOEVER. Aiden ALWAYS followed directions. I asked her if she could move in with us. She laughed, but I was only half joking. In kindergarten he resists going to school every day, but according to his teacher he is fine in the classroom, or at least has learned to appear so.

Is conforming to social norms really a bad thing? Should we all burn our bras and dye our hair? Of course not. We must all learn to function within a system. The problem emerges when we become so entrenched in and concerned with what those around us think we should do/feel/be that we deny our true feelings and ideas. At the risk of sounding dramatic, we bury ourselves and that's when psychological breakdown such as frustration, anxiety, and depression are given room to grow. 

An infant sees himself or herself as an extension of the parents. As children grow and develop they learn to see themselves as separate individuals, though if we have done our jobs as parents they will internalize important values. How do we grow into self actualized adults? What happens when we are not confident in who we are, or when the person we become conflicts with our image of who we should be? An internal struggle results.

To some extent, we all go through this, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood. Some of us, though, are people pleasers and we struggle between wanting approval and wanting to be who we are, or self actualized. *Raises hand shyly*. I have trouble making decisions. I have come to realize that this is not so much because I don't know what I think or what I want to do, but rather that I want to gather as much information as I can to make an informed decision. Again, not a bad thing. However, there is such a thing as information overload. Part of my information gathering includes other people's opinions. While considering others' opinions is again not a negative thing, seeking and needing others' approval can be. Simply put, I am a thirty something year old woman and I still worry what people will think. My husband always challenges me, "Why does it matter what people think?" That is a fair question, and I admit when he poses it to me I don't have a concrete answer. Why does it matter what people think? I am an adult after all, and unless I am breaking a law I am free to do as I wish, though sometimes I forget that. The other question is, "Who is 'people'?" Who am I worried about offending? Who am I worried is judging me? Who's approval am I seeking? My family's, my friends', society's? All of the above? I suppose I never really stopped wanting the approval of my parents. Indeed, we long for our own parents to think that we are doing a good job as parents. Then of course  we are surrounded by social pressures. We travel in groups, belong to churches, and live in certain areas where people do things a certain way. My problem is I worry what people think of me. The question, "What will everyone think" sometimes drowns out the voice telling me "This is what you should do". The self actualized voice. It is difficult to stick with what I believe, feel and think. After all, not everyone is going to agree with me. That's life, I just have to learn to be okay with it. 

This internal struggle is really coming to the surface at this point in my life. Part of it is my age and life experiences. I have had plenty of time to discover who I am, and to be quite honest trying to fit in in my thirties is tiring and a little embarrassing. The other more important reason that this internal struggle has come to light is the  responsibility of being a parent. It is one thing to make the wrong decision for your own life. It is another ballpark to be responsible for major decisions determining the life, well-being, and future of another human being. That is why now more than ever I have to do my research, gather my information, trust my intuition, sit down and consult with my husband, and then do what we feel is best for our children. After all, I want to set an example for my children so that they can learn to be confident in their own skin. Yes, it is a huge sometimes overwhelming responsibility and it is ours alone. Maybe we will do it all wrong. But, then I remember that God gave me these children, with all of their individuality and idiosyncrasies. I truly believe that we get the children who we are meant to have. Yes, we all make mistakes but they are our mistakes to make and at the end of the day we have to trust in ourselves and trust God. Since it was Dr. Seuss week in kindergarten last week, I will end with a quote from the green eggs and ham man himself:

Now if you can't trust someone who likes green eggs and ham who can you trust? How about yourself?

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