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It Takes Work to be Your Best

If I asked you this question: do you want to be your best self, many of you would raise your hands in agreement. But when I pick up by saying to be your best requires you to do some work(a lot of it challenging and painful) you might want me to take a recount. An American psychologist named Maslow created a chart that categorizes human development in stages based on needs. He believed that humans desire to be the best version of themselves, but if their needs are not met in certain critical stages, then they will become stuck in these stages. Though they might advance to the next one, and experience success they’ll have relapses or episodes resulting from previous levels not being met. But the final stage that we’re all seeking is self actualization; the level that allows us to start thinking about leaving our mark on the world.


So, In an effort to be the best version of myself, I’m getting ready to carefully, and delicately peel off a band-aid from a wound that I’ve had for a couple of decades. I know you’re probably more amazed at how I got the band-aid to stick that long than the fact that I’m removing it. I can assure you that it has healed enough, whereas exposure to the elements won’t have adverse effects. But if wounds could talk it might admit to being somewhat uncomfortable and self-conscious, revealing its pale and wrinkly new skin to the rest of the body.


Dating, for me, has been the bane of my existence. Is that dramatic enough for you? In other less dramatic words, I am 41 and I have never been married and I am without kids. Let that set in a while. And to be honest, I never thought I was going to be this guy. I’ve never been on the social misfit list in high school or college. One of my high school friends relayed, “You're too good for these high school girls. You’ll meet someone in college.” Another classmate who didn’t know me well said, “ You look like the kind of guy that will marry a model.”


If you feel bad for judging me, don’t. There’s nothing new that you can say to me that would hurt me deeper than I’ve already been hurt. Here are just a few comments that I’ve heard and this is to my face:


“You’re selfish. Do you know what you’re doing to your parents? They deserve grand kids.”

“You’re too picky. Your parents raised some picky children.”

“You’re single? But you’re so handsome!”- my favorite. (As if only ugly people are single.)


Again, those and a few other more painful comments people have said to my face. I’m not so naive to think that people haven’t said far worse behind my back. I’m sure they’ve questioned my sexuality, and maybe even my sanity.


I’ve listened to colleagues and friends critique others for getting “up in years” and still a single status. They’ve argued that there must be something wrong with them because of their situation, all the while forgetting that I was in their presence with the same set of circumstances as the ones being discussed.


My dating life has been the epitome of a modern day Job story, with friends and close family members psychoanalyzing me and trying to “fix” me. But it was very obvious in the glazed over look in their eyes and the subtle critical tone of their voice that they couldn’t identify, even though they were doing their best to at least sympathize. And I can appreciate that. But the problem was not that they weren’t concerned enough, it’s that they didn’t see life from my perspective. To do that would require the ability to step out of their shoes for a spell and jump into mine. And I would argue that we don’t do this very well.


Lesson:

We “help” people from our own lens which is rarely helpful. We try to empathize, but can that really happen if we’re only using a one lens telescope? From the person who has been in this situation multiple times, the only answer to that question is NO. We need to use a multi lens telescope so that we can truly “see” people and what they are going through. This would go so much further than the way we typically respond to people in our lives when they experience difficult times.


Case Study:

Let’s practice using a different lens to look at my life. In order to do this, you have to look at my socialization.


My socialization process was very much sheltered. In defense of my parents, they were doing what they thought was best for the era in which I grew up. I grew up in an urban environment in a suburb of Los Angeles. Most of the neighborhood schools were sub-par. I don’t need to teach a lesson about the inequity of education in urban cities. So they put my sister and I into private religious schools. There were about 12-20 students in my grade level up through middle school.


High school was like going from the pond in my backyard to an Olympic size pool. My graduating class was less than 200 students.


We were church going. We attended a very small church with about 80 people in attendance on a good day. For most of my teenage life, the attendance was in the ballpark of 25-30. There were only a handful of young people/ kids that attended the church. When I graduated high school there were only 3 young men, including myself that attended the church with the average age of the congregation around 40.


I went to a men’s college. I know right! But it was Morehouse, I couldn’t refuse being apart of such a rich legacy of Black men. Spelman sits just next door and is a women’s college. But sorry to disappoint you again. I wouldn’t graduate with the Spelman- Morehouse love story. That would have required a skill set and charisma that I just didn’t have at that time.


Better Off Dead is one of my favorite comedies of the 80’s. In the movie,Lane Myer's(John Cusack) whole world revolves around him skiing the K12 and dating Beth. He gets blindsided when Beth dumps him for an upgrade who has successfully skied the K12. He is still fixated on Beth weeks after being dumped. Making a strong effort to connect to his young son, his dad sits him down for a conversation. His goal is to get his son to move on and get back out there, so that his socialization can continue. At the end of the heart to heart he informs Lane that he has taken the liberty of arranging a date for him (his colleague's daughter).


My point is, there are certain social behaviors that need to be modeled. My dad was a great model for how to be a great husband and father. But who was in my life to encourage me to accept my awkwardness and cope with rejection in my formative years? An uncle or cousin perhaps? a close female childhood friend ? Any of these individuals could have helped me gain confidence and learn how to settle in my own skin. I needed that push like Lane Myer, but it never came.


My Lifestyle:

In your analysis of this case study, you might be thinking “it’s not that hard!” And I’ve heard people trivialize attraction and romance to sound something like this, “I’m man and you woman. And in this scenario the male proceeds to pick up the female and throw her over his shoulder and carry her off to the jungle to start a family. That might work for some, but as fun as that sounds, it’s a little too primitive for my taste. I frequently describe myself as an old soul living in ever changing world, very much like Captain America.


Although I've never been a monk, in so many ways, I was groomed to be; spending too much time in my head; overthinking. My upbringing had a profound impact on my life: family values deeply rooted in biblical principles and it has shaped my life for the good and for the bad. Sometimes I feel like I would have done better having been born in an earlier time when life was simpler and maybe more wholesome.


My socialization set me up for confidence and overthinking issues that would impact my dating life and relationships with the opposite sex. No matter how much I would want to just do life the way everyone else does, in this area I would not be able to. I would become stuck in one of Maslow’s stages.


Application:

No matter how successful, healthy or strong you are, we all have our good days and our bad days. I don’t know what the bad days look like for you, but I’m sure you wouldn’t want the world to beat you up further on those days. Instead, you could benefit from a good listener, a hug, eye contact that communicates compassion and solidarity and a platform to vent. That’s not to say you don’t need someone to challenge your mindset, perspective or behavior sometimes. But too often when comforting others, we jump to the latter with a great deal of judgement in our tone and gaze.


Now can you see how a comment like “ Your parents raised some picky children,” would land with someone like me?


Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I obviously have struggled with getting my needs met at the third level of the diagram and it has affected my confidence and self-esteem. So that means I need to do some work in these stages before I can completely be my best. And thankfully I can say that I have done lots of work here.


Bottom Line:

Life is not formulaic and one can not simply share an anecdote with a person and expect it to fix his or her struggle even though they might mean well. Maybe on your worst days you struggle with self-esteem, or body image issues resulting from prior trauma. Or you don’t feel like you fit in; you feel misunderstood, you constantly struggle on the job, or it seems like everyone else is having fun and going on trips while you’re working hard and paying the bills. Each of us has his or her own pits and peaks and we need a community of people who will use that multi lens telescope to relate to us as we go through our process of recovery. Only then will we feel like we are not in it alone.


My mission as the Contentment Coach is to help people reach self-actualization, as spelled out by Maslow. There’s work ahead though and we can’t get there without doing the work.


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