Tuesday, March 06, 2007

More on Maslow

I realized after my earlier post on the self-actualized avocado pit (which I'm still, admittedly, a little bit jealous of) that I had missed out on opportunity for some self-criticism. If not criticism, then at least self-examination. And if I'm not willing to put myself under the knife, to confess the unfortunate or uncomfortable, and in doing so maybe find myself a little better for it, then what the heck am I doing this for?

I explained that, according to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, I was probably stuck at the "Love / Belonging" level.

For those unfamiliar, Maslow's hierarchy of needs theorizes that we, as human beings, are striving towards a state of self-actualization. According to wikipedia, Abraham Maslow had this to say about self-actualized people:
  • They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
  • They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
  • They are creative.
  • They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
  • They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
  • They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
  • They have discernment and are able to view all things in an objective manner. Prejudices are absent.
Okay, it's been awhile since I took this in psych, so I can't vouch for Wikipedia's accuracy, but it all sounds about right to me. And it all sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

On our way towards self-actualization, we have to work our way through a series of obstacles, starting with Psychological (breathing, food, water, sex, etc.) and continuing through Safety (security of body, of employment, of resources, of morality, etc.), Love / Belonging (friendship, family, sexual intimacy), Esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, etc), and finally, yes, the glorious world of self-actualization itself.

Any roadblock along the way, regardless of how small, would prevent one from reaching that light at the end of the tunnel, and the happiness and contentment associated with it.

I've confessed that, if I have a roadblock in that hierarchy, it's probably at the "Love / Belonging" level. And I could probably tell you that it's because I have difficulty with sexual intimacy, but then I'm pretty sure you don't want to hear about that. So instead, I'll go with an even broader explanation: I have difficulty connecting with other human beings.

Growing up, I was shy, I was a loner, I didn't spend a lot of time with other people. I lived in my own space, I entertained myself, I kept myself occupied. I had friends, of course -- who doesn't? But they were few, and the time I spent with them a fraction of the time I spent on other pursuits.

I was, of course, lonely, as is the result of a lifestyle of this sort. Sometimes I'd find myself frustrated at the loneliness, sometimes I'd find myself desperate for a way out. And, eventually, with much effort, I found that way out, I found more and more people who were willing to listen to me, who were willing to spend time with me, who -- it seemed -- actually liked me.

However, this was fairly late in the game.

Not to say I was in my late-40s when I finally started making some sort of legitimate human contact, but it wasn't until I was in high school that I had a circle of friends that you could actually make a circle out of. Which, I sometimes fear, is late enough in the game to have a serious impact on your psyche.

The problem with having this sort of thing come into your life later in the game is that it places that very thing on rocky ground. I had friends, sure. I had people I liked to be around, and people who seemed to like to be around me. But I'd spent so many years *not* having them around, that all it took was one misstep and the whole thing would go sliding down the hill.

And, because life is life, there have been plenty of missteps. And plenty of times to see that fulfillment of love and belonging needs go sliding down that hill.

Fast-forward through twenty years of struggles and missteps. Where am I now?

Now I'm in a position where I have a circle of friends far larger than anything I could have imagined at 12 years old, and a circle of acquaintances that almost boggles my mind. And I have a difficult time feeling legitimately close to any of them.

I'm a cynical and sarcastic bastard at the best of times. I go through the motions of having a cold heart and indifferent nature to the world, but -- and I'm sure those of you who know me won't be at all surprised to hear this -- that isn't really me.

Sarcasm and cynicism is a defense mechanism. It keeps me separate. It keeps the world at a safe distance. It keeps the world at a level where I can interact with it, but where it can't knock me feet out from under me. And this, of course, is a problem.

Safety has never led to anything particularly significant. It's certainly never led to contentment, much less happiness. It leads to complacency. It also leads to fear. A fear of achievement. A fear of trying. A fear of reaching out and connecting with other human beings. And if you can't do that, you're never going to get past that stupid "Love / Belonging" phase in Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

And you're certainly never going to overcome issues with sexual intimacy.

Which, uh, we're also not talking about.

In my defense, at least I'm aware of the problem, and I continue to try to make improvements on it, and have -- at varying speeds -- since high school. This doesn't mean that a resolution is around the corner, but at least it means that a resolution is conceiveable. And that is, at least, something.

Of course, as I said in my earlier post, all of this assumes that Maslow's hierarchy of needs isn't total horseshit. And, to be honest, it quite honestly could be. 90% of psychology doesn't really have much to do with empirical study, like most science. It has instead to do with labels and containers, with ways of categorizing things in a way that makes sense, with our need to establish order out of chaos. The human mind, and through it the human experience, is nothing if not, perhaps, the finest example of chaos imagineable. For that reason, most of these theories remain only labels and not answers, containers and not solutions. Which is why I've always had a thing for existential psychiatry.

But then, that's a topic for another day entirely.

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