My brain has been shot the last several months, so I’ve resorted to using my old journal as prompts. I’m slightly embarrassed by the poorly-formed ideas of my younger self, yet also so proud of her tenacity, insight, and compassionate nature. I’m grateful for the clues left behind by my lost and wandering mid-twenty-something self.
Back in August 2013, I was obsessed with the topic was self-actualization–that intrinsic motivation to realize my full potential. My barely-legible scribbles explored ideas like creative expression, spiritual enlightenment, knowledge acquisition, personal transformation, and shaking the world. Five years ago today, after returning from a 10-day retreat for yoga-loving entrepreneurs, I was intent on leaving my mark on this world.
In the time since, I have dropped the ball. I fell into high-paying job where perform soul-sucking work for 60 hours a week. Rinse and repeat, day after day. I continued taking creative classes, keeping a journal, practicing yoga, and reading. Yet, my priorities always felt stymied and unnatural. My neurologist has finally convinced me that the issue is the biochemical resultant of a fungal infection, and not dispassionate laziness.
Self-actualization is a lofty goal. We all hope to change the world. We dream of convincing people to go vegan, converting others to our belief system, advocating the end of plastic, killing the diamond industry, shunning capitalism, or whatever goal most aligns with our personal values. According to Maslow, self-actualization is the final step, not the first.
I tend to be ambitions, going all-in when I set my eyes on an objective.
Meditation every morning: done!
Workouts six days a week: check!
A 100% organic kitchen: got it!
The Top of the Pyramid
Self-actualization doesn’t feel extreme nor unattainable. Rather, it seems like the type of goal one might spend their entire life working towards. I think it’s something work striving for, yet must be viewed as a big project comprised on thousands of smaller milestones.
Without the base levels stacking up to create a staircase, there is no possibility of reaching the peak. There is no elevator up to self-actualization. Those of us whose eyes are set on the sky have no choice but to start climbing.
Building the Base
Since we’re established that self-actualization requires layer upon layer of solid foundation, let’s discuss what that entails. We must first satisfy our deficiencies: physiological, safety, love, and esteem. Much of the world does not have consistent access to food and water; many are under constant threat of violence and disease, and; others suffer for loneliness and despair. Though exceptions surely exist, I’m certain that most suffering the aforementioned ailments are not prioritizing the tasks necessary to realize their full personal potential.
After these deficiencies are satisfied, the next several steps involve growth needs. When we are no longer worried about putting food on the table and protecting our family from wild animals, we can shift our focus to cognitive and aesthetic needs. We ask questions, read books, and ponder the meaning of life; we observe beauty in nature and art, recognizing interesting forms and patterns. We seek meaning, and we find it.
Polishing your Pyramid
When you are born into the privilege of met deficiencies–food on the table, a toilet in the home, a safe neighborhood, and loving parents–it can be easy to take these things for granted. The same holds true with growth needs: books and crayons and conversations help us lay down our stones.
I’ve spent nearly 30 years building up my pyramid, stone by stone, in hopes of attaining self-actualization. Yet, lately at least, I’ve been neglecting to hose down my staircase. I’m not polishing my pyramid–those base layers that have brought me to where I am today are beginning to tarnish and rust.
Am I eating the most nutritious meals possible? Am I doing everything to bolster my immune system and safeguard my body? Am I showing my loved ones that I care, and graciously accepting their loving support? Is my self-esteem the highest it’s ever been? Am I curious? Am I continually seeking beauty in the world? Am I becoming everything I am capable of becoming?
If I’m honest with myself, I’m putting an effort to all of the above areas, but far from 100%.
The Missing Step
I’m torn, though. My doctors, parents, and boyfriend keep chastising me for pushing myself too hard. The physical body in which I reside is under attack and struggling to defend itself, yet my sights are still set on the mountain peak: the optimized, world-changing potential within myself that is pulsing rays of light beneath its tarnished surface.
Each step has been carefully laid, yet self-actualization feels wholly unattainable at the moment. And I think that there is an important layer missing from Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.
Before setting out on a hike, I make sure to fill my hydration pack, lace up my boots, and lather on sunscreen. While scaling a mountainside, I sip water, stop for snacks, and give my body opportunities to rest. I commit to continually satisfying the basic needs that will help me reach the summit.
In addition to satisfying our basic needs and indulging in more complex wants, perhaps we additionally require an all-encompassing commitment to polishing our pyramids. Maybe it is time that we acknowledge the importance of self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-care on our journey upwards. Just as spontaneous hikes sans water are always cut short, our journey towards self-actualization requires similar maintenance activities to ensure success.
The journey of life is a series of stepping stones, whether across level group up the steep mountainside. And just as with hiking, sometimes there will be backsliding and forks in the road. The missing step is to keep going in spite of the roadblocks: take time to rest, hydrate, and recalibrate. Accept the journey of your life, just as it is.
I’ve never been gifted at the art of self-care. I bend over backwards to help those I care about, often at the expense of my own well-being. This has become especially evident over the last several months. My boyfriend, my parents, and my boss have all had to tell me, “Stop trying to help me, and help yourself.” At age 29, the struggle to be everything to everyone is finally catching up to me.
Self-care looks different for everyone, but might involve a hot bath with lavender and Epsom salts. It might be a hour spent curled up with a book of poetry in your favorite cushy chair. Self-care could take the form of a hot chai latte, prepared just the way you like it, sipped while walking through your favorite park. It may involve looking at yourself in the mirror–fat rolls, bald spots, acne, and all–to tell yourself how beautiful, wonderful, and gifted you truly are.
At its essence, self-care is carving a moment out of your busy day to put yourself first. I am recognizing, more and more, how hard I push myself without sprinkling in these tiny moments of self-love. I am now seeing how integral the lubricant of self-love (heh!) is to keeping the gears in our bodies, minds, and souls functioning optimally.
Along with feeling that we are part of a group, we must feel that we, ourselves, are enough. We need to commit to daily maintenance activities–observing shifts in our diet and exercise routine, noticing nuanced changes in our relationships, recognizing the insidious creep of ignorance or indifference, and letting out vision drift away from the mountaintop. We need to recognize small instances of self-neglect, so we can take on the duties necessary help us avoid and reverse these tiny specks of rust.
We must remember to spend a few minutes each and every day polishing our pyramid so that we can be proud of what we have created when we, one day, reach our personal summit: when we become everything we are capable of becoming.