Keep Moving Forward, Maslow-Style
Many of us have a special memory of a time in our lives that we remember with fondness. Sometimes we even wish we could go back and relive those moments of our lives again. I was reminded quite poignantly a few years ago that no matter how good a memory may be, it’s only a memory, and other than in our dreams, we can’t go back and relive it.
When I was about 13, after I was abandoned by my mother, my dad and I lived for a year with my Great Aunt Rose. Because of my dad’s work schedule, most of the time it was just Aunt Rose and me. Aunt Rose had a small farmhouse with about 5 acres in a rural area outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. While I lived with her, she raised chickens and ducks, had a few horses, and cared for a huge garden. I remember many an evening when we would sit outside on the back porch looking at the stars while snapping green beans from the garden. We had a lot of great conversations during that year. And although she owned a television, it was very rarely ever on—although she liked watching the Waltons occasionally. Aunt Rose had been very close to my grandmother, her sister, who passed away when I was about 10, and she basically took over being my grandmother after that. Coming from a broken home, the memory of my time with Aunt Rose is very special to me, and sometimes I wish I could go back and relive those memories.
By the time I was 18, Aunt Rose was too old to care for the farm any longer, so she sold it to her grandson, Donny. Donny remodeled the home and built a machine shop on the property that he operated for many years.
Right after my father died (when I was 21), I stayed briefly with my cousin Donny in the remodeled home and sadly that was the last time I ever saw Donny or my great Aunt’s farmhouse again.
About two years ago my wife and I took my mother’s ashes to my father’s gravesite in Sinnett, Oklahoma and while there, we visited the site of my childhood memories of Aunt Rose—her old farm house. To my surprise, shock actually, the house and the machine shop, everything that was on the property, was completely, mysteriously gone—the only thing there was bare acreage. Not even a mailbox remained. It was as if a massive tornado dropped down and carried everything away. Perhaps it did. We haven’t been able to find a trace of any of the family or what happened to the old family farm. This was a sobering reminder that our memories of past events are all that we have of those events and we can never go back.
Of course, there are some memories where the inability to ‘go back’ is a good thing, especially our bad memories. But here’s the thing: when negative memories are made during our formative years, those first impressions made early in life lay the foundation for our belief system later in life. And when the impressions of difficult childhood events are not challenged or redirected early on, they can wreak havoc on us throughout our lifetime. As the saying goes, “We always revert to our earliest hurt.”
Although these negative memories can involve any aspect of our lives, for this article I’m specifically thinking about how I struggled terribly with dyslexia in school and the negative self-belief system that I formed at a very young age—i.e. I’m stupid, broken, don’t fit in, etc. A negative self-belief system like this can stifle growth and even make later successes in life feel like they’re undeserved. Negative beliefs zap us of our happiness. But there’s good news! We can change our belief system, even one that’s been with us for most of our life.
I remember something I heard a long time ago that’s very apropos to this situation, and that is that the wake of the boat is not what drives the boat. The wake is just what’s left behind. When we operate from the events of our past (our negative self-belief system), then we’re allowing our wake to drive us. And limit us! The sad truth is that the wake of a negative self-belief system developed in childhood will not lead us anywhere good. We will always remain in the bad place we lived as a child until we challenge those negative beliefs about ourselves and change them.
So if like me you’ve struggled over the years with a negative self-belief system, what can you do now to reprogram your negative thoughts and begin moving forward instead of just looking back? Abraham Maslow‘s wisdom can help. He was a psychologist who had a singular approach: while most psychologists spend their careers studying what goes wrong in people’s lives, Maslow wanted to understand how people got things right. He created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which points to a system of development that culminates in self-actualization, or reaching our full potential. He observed that throughout the day, we face countless (seemingly) small decisions, that boil down to either stepping back into the safety of the known (our old belief systems) or stepping forward into the unknown, which is where all growth takes place.