Every human life contains a potential. If that potential was not fulfilled then that life was wasted.
You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.
So if you want it, got to bleed for it baby.
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” Van Halen
“Nothing in life is free.”
“You can’t have it both ways.”
I grew up hearing these words of wisdom from my parents on an almost daily basis. When I recently commented to a friend that Maslow estimated that somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population “actualize” their potential his response to me was along the lines of “Well, if self-actualization is so great, why don’t more people do it?” That’s a fair question, and one that I have been thinking about lately. The purpose of this blog is to examine the inherent challenges and costs associated with the self-actualization process and to remind ourselves that nothing in life, not even connecting to our purpose and potential, is free.
First, let’s define self-actualization. To be precise, Maslow used the term “self-actualizing” to denote that the process is ongoing and never complete. Maslow said things such as “… what a man can be, he must be” and “stepping forward into growth” to describe the self-actualizing process. For our purposes, self-actualization refers to living a life at our highest potential that is connected to our unique purpose. For most, the benefits of living our lives in this manner are self-evident, which begs the question: why don’t more of us actively engage in this process?
I think one reason that the percentage of people who self-actualize is low is because it requires us to take risks and total responsibility for our lives. As my mentor and friend Dr. Dominic J. Monetta says, “You are totally responsible for yourself. Period.” Many of us would rather play it safe, or live out someone else’s expectations of what is “good” or “expected,” than to strike out on our own. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s seminal work “Escape from Freedom” discusses the dynamic tension between Freedom and Blame, and concluded that many of us would rather play it safe and retain the right to point fingers and blame someone else for our shortcomings, rather than take total responsibility for our lives and our happiness.
In addition to our attempts to avoid personal responsibility, I believe there are three other important reasons many of us avoid fully engaging in the process of self-actualizing. Although all of these reasons may apply to any one of us, they are often specific to the 3 Leadership Styles and Shadows: Achiever, Affirmer and Asserter. For Achievers, the Fear of Failure Shadow can inhibit self-actualization by focusing on perfection instead of the process. Perfection exists as a neat, step-by-step model with a perfect ribbon at the end. However, individual self-actualization is just that – individual. No one else has ever quite taken your path, and no one else will again, so there is no roadmap to follow. The ambiguity that is often involved in the trial-and-error process of finding your potential, passion and purpose can be especially uncomfortable for Achievers.
For Affirmers, the Fear of Rejection Shadow can and often does hinder the self-actualization process because of the inherent tendency to seek approval from others. Sadly, many Affirmers make decisions and take actions based on what they assume others need. Moreover, they often live their lives in accord with the expectations of others as opposed to their own wants and needs. Too often they garner the approval of others, but fail to live up to their own potential.
And for Asserters, living a life at the highest potential requires asking for help and for forgiveness, which is difficult with the Fear of Betrayal Shadow. Too often, Asserters realize that the walls of confidence and decisiveness that they’ve built up to prevent feeling vulnerable have turned into their prisons, holding them back from deep and authentic connection with others. To loosely quote C.S. Lewis, you can wrap up your heart and prevent it from being broken, but in that process it will become unbreakable. In other words, in order to have your heart filled you must be willing to risk having it broken. Many Asserters simply are not willing to take that risk.
Perhaps the most important reason for not actualizing our potential is the severed and broken relationships that you will experience when you decide to follow your own path. So many of our friends and family members like us right where we are. Breaking away from this “orbit” and expectation will likely inconvenience many of them. Making a decision to change your vocation, to return to school, or to focus on your own happiness is often met with disapproval, resentment and even hostility. Sadly, these relationships may end through no fault of your own. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.
To be clear, there is a price associated with actualizing your highest potential. It’s not easy and at times it can be lonely and painful. However, not fulfilling your potential or connecting with your purpose is painful and lonely too. Regret and resentment are slow burns that often begin to really “hurt” only when you realize that it’s too late.
What price are you willing to pay to connect with your purpose and actualize your potential?
If it all ended today, what would you regret?
What will you commit to right now to jumpstart your journey for achieving your potential and bypassing regret?