If we suffered childhood trauma, we are more likely than others who were fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively stable (all else being equal) to experience social, interpersonal and behavioural problems in our adult lives.
This, of course, means we are also at high risk of being significantly dissatisfied with our lives. However, it is worth remembering that nobody ever achieves a complete sense of satisfaction with their lives; I explain why below:
We are, it seems, programed by the evolutionary process never to be satisfied, whatever we achieve, but, instead, always to strive for more.
This is because the compulsion to always strive to obtain new goals would have conferred an evolutionary advantage on our ancestors, making them more likely to survive and reproduce. In short, they would have been more evolutionarily successful than their less motivated, less driven and less dynamic contemporaries; it follows from this that their genes would have become more wide-spread in the gene pool.
We are all familiar with this feeling of never being satisfied; we tell ourselves, I’ll be satisfied when I pass my exams, but soon we take our exam success for granted and tell ourselves, I’ll be satisfied when I get that job. We get the job, we’re satisfied for a while, but, again, soon take it for granted. And so it goes on:
I’ll be satisfied when I get the promotion…I’ll be satisfied when I’m CEO, I’ll be satisfied when I’m a multi-millionaire…I’ll be satisfied once I’m a billionaire…I’ll be satisfied when I’m in the top 10 richest people in the world…We only have to look at all the highly successful and wealthy people who strive to be even wealthier and to gain yet more social recognition and admiration to see how this ‘never satisfied’ mindset takes hold.
We never reach the point when we say, that’s it, that’s enough.
It can be the same with relationships; scenarios such as the example given below not infrequently develop:
I’ll be satisfied once he goes out with me…I’ll be satisfied once he marries me…I’ll be satisfied once we’ve had a child…I’ll be satisfied once we’ve had another child…I’ll be satisfied once the kids are old enough to go to school so I can go back to work…I’ll be satisfied once the divorce is settled…I’ll be satisfied when the new guy I’ve met agrees to go out with me…and so the futile exercise of looking for complete fulfilment begins its never-ending cycle afresh…
The psychologist, Maslow, coming from a slightly different angle, also helps us to understand why this ceaseless striving, this seeking the end of the rainbow, remains stubbornly, resolutely evasive and essentially unobtainable; the theory he developed to aid our comprehension is called: The Hierarchy of Needs; I outline the theory below:
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
Above: diagram showing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
As can be seen from the above diagram, Maslow describes our five layers of needs as follows:
1) Physiological needs
2) Safety needs
3) Need for love and a sense of belonging
4) The need for self- esteem
5) The need for self-actualization.
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
1) Physiological needs: the person who is starving and dehydrated wants nothing more than water and food.
2) Once this need is satisfied, s/he desires safety and security – somewhere to live without being threatened or harrassed.
3) Once safety is achieved, s/he wants to obtain a sense of belonging, of being accepted and loved, and also seeks sexual relationships.
4) After the above goals are satisfied, the next need, according to Maslow, is to develop a sense of self – esteem.
5) The final need, Maslow informs us, is to achieve the highly elusive state of self-actualization. By self-actualization, he meant creatively reaching one’s potential and finding meaning and purpose in life. Maslow also states that this need is only satisfied by individuals extremely rarely.
Maslow also suggested that one could only progress up the levels of the pyramid by achieving each level in turn (ie. a level can only be achieved if the one immediately preceding it has also been achieved). However, this stipulation has since been contested.
The Effects Of Childhood Trauma On Our Ability To Ascend Maslow’s Pyramid Of Needs:
Childhood trauma can drastically impinge upon our ability to reach these goals. For example:
– a highly neglectful parent may not feed his/her child properly, meaning that that child’s physiological needs are not met
– a child who lives with a parent who abuses him/her, or lives in a household in which domestic violence exists will live in an atmosphere of fear and, therefore, will not have his/her needs for safety and security met
– the child who is rejected by his/her patents will not have his/her need to belong satisfied nor is s/he likely to develop a solid sense of self-esteem
The Buddhist solution to getting off this treadmill which ultimately leads nowhere is simply to stop wanting things and to accept things as they are. Indeed, a fundamental Buddhist teaching is that most of our suffering as humans is tied to this perpetual, insatiable ‘wanting’ as it prevents us from being satisfied with what we have.
However, in a materialistic and capitalist society, in which people’s perception of their worth as a person is closely tied to their career success and financial worth, being satisfied with what we have is perhaps easier said than done.
Not only do our genes compel us to strive for more, but our culture does as well. Indeed, the two are mutually reinforcing.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).