Saturday, May 26, 2012

Hierarchy of worries

In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, there are five levels of motivation arrange in a pyramid shape that govern how we make our decisions. At the bottom are the most fundamental, the physiological needs like breathing, food, water and sleep. At the top are the least concerning issues, self-actualization concepts like morality, creativity, spontaneity, etc. According to the theory behind this pyramid, we make our decisions from the ground up - considering the needs of our physical selves before the metaphysical concepts we most value.

For me, there is a special kind of pyramid - one that isn't about what I need physically versus mentally. Moving up a level has nothing to do with whether I've fulfilled the necessity of the level below. In fact, more often than not, I don't finish the level below without pacing upwards to my breaking point.

And fuzzying up the metaphor even more, the pyramid doesn't measure necessity. It measures levels of stress. And it's probably not even a pyramid. It's more like a persistently growing set of rows with spikes and rough edges.

Lately I've had a lot of things on my mind. The end of the year is coming. This summer I will be busy on the weekdays. The next time I'm in school it will be overseas. I don't even know what my living situation is going to be when I get back to Chicago from studying abroad.

But I've noticed something about my stress levels recently. They tend to even out - if only for a few moments - when something even more terrible happens.

People don't usually notice that I'm nervous or anxious about anything. That's mainly because I contain my fright in one place - my stomach.

When I get nervous about anything - not getting my work done on time or looking stupid or  something else - the anxiety manifests itself with nausea. I can't do anything nerve-wracking without being nauseous.

The other day I was at work and my supervisor asked me how I felt as finals were approaching. I told her that I had two papers left and a big journalism assignment.

"You never seem stressed out about anything," she told me.

"When I'm freaked out, I generally don't like to take people down with me," I said.

Maybe that's my problem. The only time I ever share my stress with anyone is over the phone with my dad or occasionally with one of my best friends. But aside from that, no one knows that sometimes I'm just about dying inside.

So without the outlet of sharing my moments of internal struggle and sorrow with everyone around me, I must find my catharsis in other ways. I've tried taking longer showers. Or writing poetry. Or watching movies. Or taking naps. I've knitted. I've sketched. I've painted rocks (yes, really). It's no use.

There's really only one solution:

Make it worse.

A few months ago I was going crazy over financial issues. I spent hours on the phone with my dad talking through how I would pay for next year's tuition and worrying about everything - my present and my future.

It made me feel even worse to burden my dad by crying over the phone with him. I felt like nothing could be resolved for months. At the time I was drowning in my fear of loans to pay after college. But I'd simultaneously managed to get over something that before I'd assumed was bigger than anything else.

For a long time prior to those frantic phone calls with my dad, I'd been feeling awful about my first failed relationship. Nothing felt more terrible than being rejected by someone I thought I'd cared about.

It was when the financial worry started settling on my soul that I realized there were always worse troubles to be had. And the worse troubles were necessary to put the less stressful concerns into perspective.

Today I spent the first half of the day worried about figuring out my homework assignments. I have just a week left and at the last moment I feel like none of these responsibilities will ever be surmounted.

But today I also heard other news - it was both positive and negative - but it put me in the position of having to make a decision that will inevitably hurt in one way or another.

My hierarchy of worries went from relationships (not important) to financial concerns (important) and schoolwork (not important) to life decisions (important). And it's strange to think that it takes being kicked in the head with something twice as terrible to realize that what you've been worried about for months is of little consequence.

Sometimes I hate myself for getting so wrapped up in little things. I rarely get to enjoy the plentiful pleasures of life because even when there's nothing to worry about, I still find something. And it's only made better when there's something even worse to contend with.

But Maslow had the right idea when he constructed his hierarchy of needs. Because the concept is applicable to other concepts too. Anything that concerns the human mind is made up of a series of steps and consequences: the things that concern us one minute and the things that take over the next.

We're never at peace. We never find a moment to just lie back and have no worries for the rest of our days.

There's no problem-free philosophy. There's just a hierarchy of worries. At least for me. Right now. And every day. I want to get rid of it.

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