We’re born with our mouths open, crying and a little nervous. Before that moment, our lives are spent in a cozy, warm spot beside the heartbeat of someone who adores us, with a direct line to nourishment. Suddenly, we’re squished and shoved into a cold, blinding room and our food supply is cut. We spend the next few years learning how to communicate, so we can get our basic needs met. Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed we have five categories of needs. He placed them in order from the ones we’d die without to those many people live without. His theory was if a fundamental need is unmet, higher needs are ignored. That’s why many schools offer breakfast today—it’s easier to hear the teacher when your tummy isn’t growling.
Our early years revolve around the lower two levels of human need: Level 1 – food, water, warmth, rest and Level 2 – security and safety. If something goes BOOM! we cry in fear and someone comforts us. We are protected. Not only are we protected, we’re cherished. Someone holds us close to feed us, wipes our faces gently when the milk doesn’t stay down. We belong, we’re loved. That’s level 3. The love might be a little immature—often our parents are just past childhood themselves—but we know they’re ours and this makes everything alright. When they take us out, there’s always someone squealing, “Oooooh! Look at those squeezy cheeks! Look at those widdle fingers!” Strangers make faces at us and play peekaboo in line at the store. Esteem is level 4, and we have plenty. Everything we do is aMAZing. Honey look! The baby learned to crawl. First steps are met with more enthusiasm than opening night on Broadway. There are no critics in the audience.
Then we learn to say, “No!” And we say it a lot – No! No! No! No! We are learning how to take charge, focus on what we want. We’re racing towards self-actualization, the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy. We’re in control (we think) and reaching our potential to the best of our ability. Just when the potential electrician is pulling the cords from the TV, Mom yanks us back to level two with a smack on the hand.
Self-actualization is bigger than that, but life is simple at the age of 2. In our remaining years, we continue finding ways to meet our basic needs as we pursue answers to our higher needs. When we leave home, we have to figure out levels one and two again. With each new job, we re-create levels three and four. We might spend years searching for love and belonging, or we might give up and try to rappel past love to esteem, repeating self-affirmations and setting goals. It’s ironic, but when we’re searching hard for love, we often chase it away. When we’re using our talents and helping others, we attract people. We climb Maslow mini-mountains in each stage of our lives – childhood, adult working years, and retirement – but the experiences of our first 18 years have a surprising impact on the next 50.
Why is my career affected by whether I found esteem in first grade? How are my friendships affected by the way my parents said “No” to me? Why would childhood hunger endanger my marriage? Do these questions seem odd? Remember, our brains create automatic responses, to help us think more quickly. During childhood, this happens continuously because everything about life is brand new. We create auto-responses that keep us out of trouble and develop techniques that get us what we want. Once they’re created, our inner programmer moves on to other tasks. No need to rewrite a code that works.
The problem is we’re immature when the code is written. We’re building architecture before we’ve learned to draw blueprints. The good news is while we don’t have a Delete button, we can reroute the path as adults. That is part of self-actualization.
Self-actualization…what image does that word draw in your mind? Do you see riches? Creativity? Peace? Selfishness? Let’s look at what it really means. According to Maslow, a self-actualized person has:
- Correct and useful perceptions of reality
- Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature
- Reliance on personal experiences and judgment
- Tendency to be spontaneous and authentic
- A centering task or purpose outside of self
- Autonomy and resourcefulness
- Appreciation for people, things and experiences
- Profound interpersonal relationships
- Comfort in solitude
- Non-hostile sense of humor, able to laugh at oneself
- Frequent peak experiences marked by feelings of harmony, ecstasy and deep meaning
- Social compassion
- A few very close friends rather than many superficial relationships
I bet you can already see a few characteristics which apply to you. Are there others you’d like to strengthen? Keep coming back, and we’ll explore them together. Meanwhile, check out my 31-day study, Wisdom – Better than Wishing. Get the book and journal here and feel the difference before the month is over!