Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The need for meaningful activities in one's life

It is very important in this world to have things that make us feel turned "on," that excite us and make us feel happy. These things give us the energy to face the more challenging parts of life.

The challenge can come when one's life is limited enough that they don't have access to enough such activities.

Maslow had a hierarchy of needs - a famous psychological theory. At the bottom, you started with shelter and basic needs - a roof over your head, food and water, basic survival needs. Next come safety and security needs - the need to be free from pain, and so on. Third is a need for love and belonging. Fourth is the need for esteem - respect for yourself and from others.

Last is self-actualization - "the person's need to do and be what they were born to do," a level of being in which you feel connected to the world and your purpose in the world. Included in that are something called "peak experiences."

For the last two years, I traveled around the country looking for a place to live that was safe for me from a chemical sensitivity standpoint. I was always on hyper alert, always thinking about where I'd live next week or next month, always worried about it. I moved many places in my search for a suitable place. You could say, then, that I was stuck in the second stage - looking for safety and security.

Now that I have found it - cross your fingers - I am finding that my mind is able to be open to a number of different possibilities that it wasn't before. My need for love and belonging is coming out. I am seeking out more social activities than I ever did before. I am more open to relationships with my family. I take pleasure in of spending time with my roommate. I am trying to find a way to respect myself. All of this is very good, but in some ways, it simply moves my angst to a different place and focus. (But hey! At least I have more highly evolved angst this time! I'm moving up!)

Why the angst? The angst comes in realizing the abilities that I do have in me and the desires I have within me, combined with the realization that, because of my chemical sensitivities and/or general contributing anxiety levels, very few of the activities that I could otherwise participate in are possible for me. I can't go into 99% of stores or office buildings, pretty much any public building, because of my chemical sensitivities. That limits my life quite a bit.

Still, I try to find ways to make marks on the world. I have my writing. I have the phone. I have two friends who I go hiking with and to dinner at Whole Foods every week or two. This Friday, I am going to Portland's downtown and handing out autism awareness cards for World Autism Awareness Day. This provides a way to (hopefully) interact with people and do something meaningful while still being outside, with fresh air. Whenever I am at Whole Foods, I smile at and usually start conversations with the clerks at the deli, meat counter and check out counter. I figure, they've been here all day, it's about time someone smiled at them. And I enjoy the interaction, too.

I love to be social (within limits, of course), and I would love to find a way to be part of the community. I would love to find a way to help others. I get a thrill out of knowing I have made a difference to someone else, but I have very few to almost none opportunities to do this. To find a way to help others would help put me in what you might call Maslow's Self-Actualization stage.

My life would feel more meaningful. One the one hand, when you have gone through as much as I have and you finally find yourself in as physically a stable situation as I have been lucky enough to be in the last few months, you feel lucky and grateful. On the other, once you're no longer focused on crisis after crisis, you have time to think about what you really want out of life. And you have time and energy to miss it when you don't have it. It's easy to be depressed sometimes, to be 26 with so much energy and ideas but able to do basically nothing but dream about it or make very, very small strides towards it.

The times when I feel more alive are when I am having a good and engaged conversation with someone, or when I feel a sense of connection with someone; when I am eating a food I like, or when I hear a song I like on the radio; when I am walking on a beautiful day, or when I hear any kind of news or information that intrigues me. I am very thankful for and am always seeking out moments like these. It's hard not to want more, on the one hand, but want is the source of almost all misery, so I try when I can to be happy with what I have. Things could always be worse.

Still, though, it makes you think. What are the moments when you feel most alive? Is there anything that you've always wanted to do that you're unable to do for some reason?

What state of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs do you think you're in? And how long do you feel it took you to get there?

I am sure it is entirely possible to go backwards and lose mastery of a stage depending on your life circumstances. Does anyone have any stories of that happening in their own lives?

Also, is it possible that some kids on the autistic spectrum, so overwhelmed by the sensory experience of life, struggling so much with the safety and security side of things (because life seems so uncertain to an autistic child), have trouble with social activities simply because all of their brain energy and processing abilities are being used up with second level Maslow concerns?

When all you can think about is being physically and/or emotionally comfortable, when you have severe information processing deficits that make getting through a day hard, "friends" might seem like an awfully abstract concept.

Just something to think about.


  1. I believe that I am at the self actualization step, but I have been here before and I have no doubt I will have to find my way back again in the future. For me it's always cycles. I think we have to learn things over and over again at new deeper levels.

    I think that sensitivities mean that we can experience things other people miss and I think that includes in the hierarchy of needs. Maybe it's harder for us to find the spot to feel safe enough to pursue the higher levels but once that spot is found maybe we can find the higher steps more intensely.

    The key is to find what works for you and what works for NTs is not going to work for us and what works for someone destined to be an accountant is not going to work for someone wired to be something entirely different.

    Much as you have done looking for the right place for yourself and now having found it can begin to see what is there for you. I think that someone overwhelmed in one situation/place will be astute and amazed in another situation/place. I guess what I'm saying is that it's always about opportunity to some extent. Yes, an autistic child needs a certain kind of opportunity to find their place but I'm not willing to say that they couldn't find it somewhere that I would never suspect.

  2. Your comment:

    I am sure it is entirely possible to go backwards and lose mastery of a stage depending on your life circumstances. Does anyone have any stories of that happening in their own lives?

    My comment:

    Absolutely possible to go backwards. I don't exactly count on it but it's always there as a distinct possibility.

    I'm on disability for MCS and in Sept. 2008 my apartment lawn was sprayed with Killex. I went from having safe food and shelter, safety and security to living in a tent with no safe clothing for three months. My apartment is still not as safe as it was, all my belongings are still not as safe as they were...... it can all be so fleeting.

    Peter Haynes