Be Yourself: The Key to Self-actualisation

Donald NorfolkMost youngsters at sixteen are anxious to go with the crowd and live up to the expectations of their parents and peers. Maturity comes when we develop the courage to do whatever fills our sails and floats our boat. Some years ago the staff at Edison Community College, at Fort Myers, Florida, grew concerned at the high levels of anxiety and despondency shown by many freshers as they faced the strain of leaving home and adjusting to a strange and challenging new environment. To make their transition easier a self-help course was designed to boost their happiness and well-being, based on over three hundred psychological research studies. Certain factors which were known to predispose to happiness were eliminated from the programme since they were outside the youngsters’ immediate control, like having wealthy parents or coming from a high status background. That left fourteen factors which were accepted as being closely related to emotional well-being and long term contentment. The chief of these was the ability to ‘Be Yourself’

Stress will always arise if we try to project a false public image. This condition, known to psychologists as the ‘impostor phenomenon’, is common today in an age when so many people are discontent with what they have and long to be something different. Some wish for the body of the models they see in the glossy magazines, or the charisma and fame of TV presenters. Living a phoney life is always problematic. Far more honest and restful to be ourselves, than strive to be a carbon copy of someone else. That was the goal of Rabbi Zusia, the Hassidic mystic, who said: ‘When I die, God will not ask why I was not Moses. He will ask me why I was not Zusia.’  Fortunately, most people find it easier to live within their own skins as they grow older. Public opinion polls show that people tend to grow increasingly contented as the years roll by, largely because they narrow the gap between their aspirations and their actual abilities and achievements. We’re less likely to bray for the moon or to yearn for the green grass on the other side of the fence. We learn to be content with what we have, being satisfied to make a bouquet with the flowers within our grasp. We reach a stage when we’re ready to put an end to pretence and declare with pride: ‘I am what I am.’

Norma Jean Bryant, of Western Connecticut adopted this stance at a very early age, a describing her as a person who ‘leads nearly every aspect of her life in a non-conformist way. When it’s cold Norma Jean dressed in a fireman’s coat. She played in a kazoo band and gave ‘canned food parties’ in which all three courses came straight from tins. As she explained, when interviewed for a book about eccentrics: ‘Each one is born a unique individual. You don’t need to follow the crowd. The sky is the limit, so don’t let anyone clip your wings.’ People always want to put you in pigeon holes, which can be exceedingly uncomfortable unless you happen to be a pigeon.

The peak of personal development is to be able to say at the end of your life, ‘I did it my way’. The successful individuals who can achieve this goal tend to lead lives of optimum health and happiness and have been described by psychologists as ‘self-actualising people’ or ‘individuated people’. They’re mature because they’re so sure of their own identity that they don’t need to hide their faults or pretend to be something they’re not. You’re not in this world to conform to my expectations, and I’m not here to live up to yours. Some while ago a book was published to raise funds for a British charity in which celebrity politicians, film stars, singers, comedians and authors were asked to cite their favourite life style motto. The axiom which headed the list by a considerable margin was the famous Shakespearean quotation: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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