Tuesday, September 02, 2008

When do you know?

So when do you know you've become who you wanted to be? Do we ever?

Maybe a part of it, is also asking the questions ...

As a youngster, what did you dream of? Who were you in those dreams? What ignited your inner passions? What did you think being an adult, being grown up meant?

I've known for 31 years what and who I wanted to be when I was a 'grown up'. My chosen field of study in college, that dreamed of career, and what I would do after college, fed most of my youth filled ideals of who I wanted to be when I was finally there. And, I hold the belief that even after all that life throws our way, even though we, can and do, change over time, that inner core, those deep felt dreams ... they don't change ... they are always with us.

When in college, I started out with the right major, it was a perfect fit for me. But, I changed it when I kept receiving messages from significant others' in my life that I wouldn't be able to get a job. When I didn't immediately fall into line, eventually their messages evolved into, " Being a woman, and staying in school for 6 to 8 years is wasteful, lazy, irresponsible, and not doing your part". So, although I didn't change my major field of study, I changed the focus to an area that was supposed to help land that 'entry level management' job. The subject area was interesting, but didn't fascinate, didn't involve me, didn't resonate, and, it didn't land me that entry level job either. And, I eventually told myself, I was tired of school, a Bachelor's is enough. I was done. (Now I ask, "Why did I listen to them, why didn't I follow my instincts?" Hindsights a grand thing, isn't it?) Then with wifehood and stay-at-home-motherhood, it all seemed to just slip away. As one of my favorites songs says, "Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin', into the future."

* * * * * * *

When do you know you are grown up?

When you get married? When you build or buy your first house? When you get your first full-time job? When you start saving money "for the future"? When you work 90% more than you play? When you can pay all your bills, and pay them on time? When you start accumulating stuff and more stuff? When you have children? When you accomplish all of the above? When you live someone else's dream instead of your own?

Funny thing is, I've done all of that, and through out the entire process of living it, I never felt "grown up".

I feel it now.

* * * * * * *

Way, way back in the dark ages of my college days, I attended an adult growth and development class, we studied Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. My goal from that time forward was to reach the level of self-actualization. I had this view of myself as a someday self-actualized person, one who had reached the ultimate level of development. I would possess an inner serenity, an open-spirit, and peace within myself, with who I was, and life itself. Years and years of work have led me to believe it will be years and years of more work before I will ever reach such an ideal, if ever.

Then as I started really being more and more mindful of all of this, as I started thinking about all of the elders I have known in my lifetime, I began to think, there's something missing here. Have I over romanticized my view of self-actualization. It's been a really really long time since I revisited the study of personality in the context of growth and development.

A quick perusal of a google search listing brought me to some simplified Wikipedia articles on the subject. (I'm lazy, and not in the mood for a complete refresher course at the moment). As I read, I began to remember. Funny how memory works. The visuals and scents came first. The psych class was in one of the old original campus building, sadly it is no longer standing, the classroom was small, gloomy and dark, the air always slightly chill, chalky and dank. The fluorescent lighting was on its last legs, most of the bulbs burned out, what few were left dimmed and flickered more than shed illumination. The desks were permanently bolted to the floor, arranged on three tiers. It was probably once considered one of the larger classrooms in the old days when the land grant university I attended was first built. There were few of us in the room, the 15 to 20 of us in attendance seemed sparse. Our professor (yes it was actually an undergrad class taught by a full professor), was most often seated at the desk along the west wall of the room. He was in his early 50's, bearded, and gentle-faced. His voice was mellifluous, and warm. I perceived him as a truly happy man. He was easy to listen to, easy to question, easy to learn from. It was the final class I took that was completely focused within my original field of study (before I switched to the subject area that would make me more "employable" with only a Bachelors degree.) I was entranced, excited, willing and open to learning then. As he spoke of adult development, and moved through the hierarchy, I remember thinking, "He's there, he has achieved it. He loves this, he loves his life, he's doing exactly what he wishes to be doing. I want to be there. I really really want it."

Anyway, back to Maslow, and his description of self-actualization.

"As a person moves up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, eventually they will reach the summit—self actualization. Maslow's hierarchy of needs begins with the most basic necessities deemed "the physiological needs" in which the individual will seek out items like food and water, and must be able to perform basic functions such as breathing and sleeping. Once these needs have been met, a person can move on to fulfilling the "the safety needs", where they will attempt to obtain a sense of security, physical comforts and shelter, employment, and property. The next level is "the belongingness and love needs", where people will strive for social acceptance, affiliations, a sense of belongingness and being welcome, sexual intimacy, and perhaps a family. Next are "the esteem needs", where the individual will desire a sense of competence, recognition of achievement by peers, and respect from others. Some argue that once these needs are met, an individual is primed for self actualization. Others argue that there are two more phases an individual must progress through before self actualization can take place. These include "the cognitive needs", where a person will desire knowledge and an understanding of the world around them, and "the aesthetic needs" which include a need for "symmetry, order, and beauty" Once all these needs have been satisfied, the final stage of Maslow's hierarchy—self actualization—can take place.

As I reviewed the material...I thought, "Hey, I'm almost ready, been there, done that. Oh, oh, wait, maybe not. Somewhere along the way, I began to lose my balance, and fell off the ladder." I am getting divorced, so even though I've stumbled my way through most of the needs, even though I climbed most of the rungs of the ladder of the hierarchy in this life I've led, I've also taken several steps (or leaps) backward. Especially when it comes to my safety and esteem needs. Surviving a bad relationship, surviving controlling people, and most of all divorce, has a tendency to do that to a person. Friends keep reminding me that I don't have to worry as much as I do about my 'safety needs", but, man oh man, it's really hard not to right now. Aside from the fact that the current state of my country has most of us wondering whether we will retain our property, or our jobs.

Onward with my thought processes though. Due to the tinges of melancholy that often affect me (somewhat of an understatement...yes?), there are times when my sense of belongingness needs, and my esteem needs feel unmet, BUT, when I am feeling rational and able to view my life without the bruised fragility of melancholy, I do realize I've met most of those needs as well, or, have at one time. I have love in my life, I love and am loved, (even though I may be completely confused when it comes to primary love, *I liked the way sixdegrees labeled it that in a comment on my last entry*) I am blessed, truly blessed with love in my life. I have a small number of very good friends. I am damn good at what I do, and have been in every job I've held since my career was kick started 1o years ago. I may not always be the most organized, but when I am on task, and my brain is firing, I can almost see the sparks flying, and then, most especially then, I love what I do.

So, if I am ready to accept I've met most of the lower order needs, then I have to ask, "What about my cognitive needs, and aesthetic needs?" Those fluctuate, the aesthetic seems so easy, I am always thirsting for beauty, and I find it everywhere. The cognitive...eh...a bit more difficult...there I think depression, age, physical condition, and stress play a large factor, my mind wants to go there, but I tire, I don't retain information like I used to, which I find extremely frustrating. I've always wished I were more of a left-brained individual, wished for a brain that was rich with the talent for memorization, a memory that pulls forth information instead of the way mine pulls out colors and emotions. Alas, that just ain't in me.

Back to my ultimate goal, self-actualization, Maslow's definition strikes the proper chords within me.

"People that have reached self-actualization are characterized by certain behaviors. Common traits amongst people that have reached self-actualization are as follows:
  • They embrace reality and facts rather than denying truth. (I deny and deny at times, but eventually face up to it)
  • They are spontaneous. (I've been accused of this my entire life ... so ... eh ... maybe not something I reached, but now I revel in it, so there is a difference)
  • They are interested in solving problems which may include personal problems or the emotional conflicts of others. (Oh, I am definitely there!)
  • They are accepting of themselves and others and lack prejudice. (Accepting me, this changes on a daily basis, depending on the amount of sleep I get, and most especially on the level of physical activity I have been engaged in,*yep that includes sex too*, but I am growing there more and more ... eh ... at least I think I am ... this may relate back up to embracing truth ... and I really really do think I am ... at least most of the time, about most things ... ah the insanity of it all!)
"... Qualities expressed ... independence, autonomy, a tendency to form few but deep friendships, a "philosophical" sense of humor, a tendency to resist outside pressures and a general transcendence of the environment rather than a simple "coping" with it."

I admit, I am soooo not there yet, but, when I turn my face skyward, I can see it, taste it, smell it, and feel it. I'm getting closer ... closer to ... to ... ya'know, I'm still really not all that fond of the connotation of the words "grown up", so ... eh ... maybe ... I'm just gonna stick with feeling more accepting of myself, my life, more serene, content, and happy.

~Maslow's theory is of course not the only theory of human development, but the romantic in me has a decided preference for his definition of self-actualization.~


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and me too.

Sixdegrees said...

Though these different aspects of human development are often portrayed as a pyramid, an alternative representation is as a series of concentric circles, with the final level of development on the inside. This alternative representation has always made more intuitive sense to me.

I have another minor quibble with the notion of layers of needs that are met as we make progress in our life. I think we, as humans, have the ability to experience all of these at any one time. Yes, if our needs for food and water are met, we have time and energy to devote to meeting the other needs. But the other needs don't go away, but remain a powerful motivating force. Linear representations of complex networks are, at best, simplistic and can often be misleading.

"When do you know?" Great question.

Mom to the Girls said...

When do you know? What an incredible question. Thank you for evoking such thoughts in me today! Much Sisterly Love Comin' at cha!

S'mee said...

Thought provoking once again Sunny, but I'm not sure I understand it all. I don't mind getting older, but I'm not sure I'm ready to grow up just yet. X

Fiona said...

I've never been comfortable with my life being 'organised' into a pyramid or circles. I don't think life is like that. I don't think human beings can be captured and squashed into boxes, circles, layers of a pyramid or any other attempt to tell us where we should be or what we should be doing.

Being in HR, I've grown up (career-wise) with Maslow's Hierachy of Needs and Herzberg's Hygiene Factors, amongst many other things. I've never found anything that gave me a big 'AHA'. Life is complex and complicated and devastating and mind-blowing and knowledge-building and well, just everything. It can't always be organised into a pretty package or a check-list.

I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up :)

Sunny Delight said...

Hmmm, I love all of these varied responses to this entry. I would love to have all of us in a room discussing it. (ya, I know I'm weird)

Being that it is the written word, I am not sure my perception of what you have to say is what was intended, nor am I entirely sure your perception of what I have to say is as I intended.

Thus I will expound upon it a bit further. A part of me thinks ... wouldn't it be great if life were like the simplified pyramid of Maslow's theory, or some other graph? Wouldn't it be great to reach that pinnacle and never have all the yucky parts of life bother us anymore? But it just ain't so.

I still look at self-actualization as an ideal, maybe because it is a motivator for me, something for me to reach for. This "autonomy of self", or self-actualization, has been one for me for more than half my lifetime. I think my maternal grandmother reached it. I've sensed it others I haven't known nearly as well.

I don't think of it as being perfect, I even believe one still suffers, feels pain, has fears, and weaknesses. But, within these people who I think of us as so very centered (knowledgeable of themselves), there is a special ability. An ability to be open to life as it is, more genuine, they have more courage, they find joy even amongst adversity. Equanimity is the word that keeps coming to mind as I write this.

I think I could go on and on with this...maybe rambling on to an eventual point...but be it romanticized or not, 'tis something I have a visceral need to strive for.