…lessons from Maslow
Finns are known for “stoic silence” and a cultural aversion to outward displays of emotion, which I blame for my teeth grinding dental issues. Unfortunately for my family, I’m also part Irish, so when anxiety or stress reach terminal velocity I erupt like a volcano. While stress can be a protective “fight or flight” response with a momentary burst of adrenaline, it is most often self-generated angst that eats away your soul like acid burning ulceritic holes in your stomach. Stress has kept me aware and alive while mountain climbing, but I’ve also learned that my obsessive compulsive tendencies occassionally cause “much ado about nothing”. My wish for our children is that they learn early to be aware of stress in themselves, and discover ways of effectively managing it. Anxiety and stress are possible in nearly every situation and interaction, from worrying about school or athletic performance, to personal or family health issues, and disagreements with others. Where uncertainty, over-stimulation, tension, or failure to meet expectations exist, anxiety will follow. Abraham Maslow documented a Hierarchy of Needs that graphically describes human motivators, the first four levels of which are “deficiency” factors that produce anxiety when those needs are missing from life. An important element of the hierarchy is the requirement for preceding levels to be fulfilled before higher motivators can be achieved and maintained. For example, the need for secure employment and possessions is suppressed when one is forced to search for food or water simply to survive. Likewise, the full appreciation of love and belonging from family and friendships can only be sustained when your physiological and safety needs are met. Only when your deficiency needs are met can you begin to fulfill your potential and realize your “ideal self”. In the years since studying Maslow in graduate school, I’ve noticed that life moves constantly between the levels, achieving the idealism in self-actualization only for brief periods and never staying there for long. While most of life is spent living in deficient anxiety, there are some actions you can take to limit stress and maximize your opportunities for self-actualized growth:
- Put the “First Things First”: Each of you should read Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits” book, the third habit of which is organizing your time around those things of greatest importance. The challenge comes in discovering what the “first things” truly are or should be in the face of human desire for possessions or status. Is time with friends more important than homework? Are hours spent gaming more important than exercise? If you want to achieve your goals in life, have a plan and live the first things deliberately. Maslow might argue that, if you want to live a certain lifestyle, you must first work to establish a foundation that supports it. Ignoring the first things can increase your anxiety when they fulfill deficiency needs. As shown in this video, the “first things” are large, important blocks of time. Give them top priority and you’ll have time to squeeze in some less important activities.
- Manage Your Expectations: Everyone you interact with communicates expectations of you in some way; to be, act, believe, think, behave, achieve, or perform according to some standard or ideal. How you respond to these external pressures, in either an optimistic or pessimistic way, impacts your level of stress. Failure to achieve your own expectations of yourself can result in even greater anxiety or depression, but you still control your response. Manage your expectations by first realizing that not everyone will agree with you, people tend to think of themselves first, there’s only 24 hours in a day, money doesn’t grow on trees, games (life) have winners and losers, you’re not always going to win, good and evil coexist in unequal parts, and self-actualization is achieved only when deficiency needs are met first. Work on increasing your emotional intelligence (EQ) by fostering the ability to recognize and regulate your emotions as you have them, and by improving social interactions with better communication and empathy.
- Set Your Anchor: Given that external expectations come from each persons own frame of reference, experience, and perception of truth, emotional intelligence requires self-regulation to one firm standard; your own. When sailing to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, the best nights sleep happens at a mooring deeply embedded in the ocean floor. Nobody on board sleeps well when forced to set an anchor, for fear of wind or swells breaking the anchor loose. Likewise, when set with too much line or “scope”, a boat swings in a wider circle around the anchor and the risk of running into other boats or obstructions increases. Protect yourself and your future from the many forces of life by anchoring on the core values of your family and faith, with a scope that keeps you from swinging into situations of increased anxiety.
- Get Healthy, Stay Happy: The Centers for Disease Control recommend that children exercise for 60 minutes per day, and adults for 30 minutes, to “reduce the risks of many chronic diseases”. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes the benefits of exercise in reducing anxiety and stress, and cites studies showing how 5 minutes of activity triggers endorphins that function as natural painkillers. Get off the couch, turn off the television, and get outside! Go for a walk or run, ride your bike, jump rope, play ball, climb a mountain, skateboard, swim laps, mow the lawn, toss a Frisbee…enjoy playing with your siblings instead of poking at each other!
St. Paul advised the Philippians to “be anxious for nothing”, undoubtedly to address our human tendency toward anxiety that, if not managed, can cripple our productivity and happiness. Learn to manage your stress and anxiety kids, and be anxious for nothing. Love, Dad