Are you the VICTIM of your own ambitions?
DR. GEORGE S. STEVENSON
Tired of the daily rat race?
Unable to compete with the go-getters?
You’re probably suffering from a “superman urge/' Here’s how to get rid of it — and achieve peace of mind
Dr. Stevenson is consultant to the U. S. National Association for Mental Health and a widely read author in his field.
A group of lawyers gathered to hear an address by an outstanding expert on a certain constitutional question. The expert opened his talk with this remark: “It gives me pleasure to discuss this subject. I happen to know more about it than anyone else in the country.”
One of the lawyers turned to a friend and whispered: “That fellow must ieel pretty insecure.”
And this lawyer was correct. The urge to convince yourself and others of your exceptional superiority — the superman urge — arises out of a basic insecurity.
This urge is generally born in childhood, when a great deal ot your life energy is devoted to winning love, acceptance. and recognition. If these needs are not satisfied normally, you develop special strategies to fulfill them. Then you continue to use these strategies even after the need for them no longer exists. The striving for exceptional superiority — the superman urge — is one of these
special strategies. When you say to the world: “Look at how smart, or rich, or important I am,” you are really saying: “I want you to give me recognition, to respect me.”
The compelling need to excel may also be created by competition. Competition is not harmful to everyone. There are people who revel in uncertainty and excitement and who get a thrill from coming out on top. These are the people who keep the world moving forward in business, science, education and art. But there are millions who don t have this kind of temperament. They can’t stand the uncertainty and bruises of competition, and they need the security of a steady, safe existence. But the pace is set by the competitive go-getters, and the others feel compelled to keep up with it.
Once they enter the competitive whirl, they find there s no getting out of it, and soon their behavior is no different from that of the person who gets his superman urge from an internal feeling of insecurity.
Such was the fate of one family, who had lived a quiet, comfortable life in the city. The husband was happy with his job as a radio announcer, and his wife had been contented with housekeeping and taking care of their three children. Then the husband accepted a job as a television producer. They continued on page 30
continued on page 30
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moved to a suburb populated mostly by entertainers and literary people. Soon they were striving hard to keep up with their new friends. The wife, particularly, began wanting to remodel their home, give lavish parties and send the children to expensive private schools. Then she decided her husband w'asn’t as charming, brilliant or important as some of the other men. Inside of a year they were divorced. Now she is married to her third husband and is still unhappy and discontented — still driven by the overpowering urge to have the best and the most.
The superman drive doesn't stop wdth the desire to excel in just one thing. It spreads out into a yearning for superiority in everything. This may work well in helping you develop your special abilities, but it can only bring frustration when you try to develop abilities you don’t have. Then you become angry with yourself and bitter against those w'ho do better than you. But these feelings don’t stop you. They only act as a goal to make you try even harder.
So life becomes an endless, tensionfilled round of striving — sometimes capped by success, just as often by disappointment and failure. Even success in one thing brings no real satisfaction, because it is only a partial victory. The joy of successful achievement is destroyed by your concern over your shortcomings.
If you are caught in the web spun by your own superman urge, and want to get out of it, you can.
First, it is necessary for you to recognize that at the bottom of your difficulty may be an inability to accept yourself the way you basically are: not a superhuman perfectionist, but an ordinary human being. with faults and weaknesses and shortcomings, as well as strengths, special abilities, and talents.
Second, you need to recognize that you don’t have to he perfect in everything; that no one expects this of you; that it is you and nobody else who is setting up impossible, superhuman goals.
Third, he aware of the fact that while superiority may bring you temporary popularity, it will not bring you the affection and acceptance you crave.
Look around you and see who it is that is most liked — not most envied, but most liked. You’ll find it is not the most important person, but rather the most outgoing — the person who shows interest in others rather than in himself. This type of person is not pushing and striving, challenging others and offending them, making them feel insignificant and inferior. He accepts other people with their faults and weaknesses, and they accept him in the same way.
You may not he able to make yourself over into this kind of person. But you can take steps to find greater satisfaction with yourself and to win greater peace of mind. This may mean cutting down on your ambitions, and giving up your pursuit of glory. But the peace and contentment this will bring you will certainly make the change worth-while.
First, it will he necessary for you to make a realistic evaluation of your capabilities; then to select those things which you do best and which mean most to you; then to concentrate on just those things, and to let the others go.
Start by making a list of all your different activities, including your work,
hobbies, organizational activities and other spare-time pursuits. Next, mark each activity No. 1. 2 or 3, according to whether you do it very well, only fairly well, or not well at all.
When you’ve checked your own list, you’ll probably find three or four things in which you excel, and in all likelihood, they’ll be the things you enjoy doing. These are your strong points. From now on, they should he your main points of concentration. Work on them and give them the best you’ve got. Put the emphasis on getting greater enjoyment and better practical returns out of the activity. not on using it to make an impression.
Next, look over the No. 2 items and scratch off those you don’t have to do and don’t care much for. Decide to do these on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and determine to give the other No. 2 items a little extra effort — but not as much as you put into your No. 1 items.
Next come the No. 3 items — the things you don’t do well at all. Select those items which you have to do because of a duty or obligation, and plan to continue doing them as well as you can. keeping in mind the fact that you don’t do them well, and that you don’t need to feel crushed or disappointed because you don't. Then go to those No. 3 items which you don’t have to do and scratch them off your list. If. for example, you've been serving as Boy Scout leader only to impress your friends and neighbors, and you neither like it nor do it well, let it go. This will make everybody happy — the children, the Scout organization and yourself. If your friends kid you about it. let them. They’ll stop it when they realize you've made an honest and serious decision.
Examine special problems
As you work out your priorities, write down your reasons and keep these with your list as a reminder of your plans. It would also be a good idea to discuss these with your wife or husband and with your older children. Explain your reasons and. if possible, get them involved in your new plan. Ask them to help you stick to it. Explain that it will give you greater contentment, relieve your tensions and make you an easier person to live with.
After you've gotten your new system on the way. you’ll want to take a closer look, to see if there are any special problems which need extra attention.
One place to look for the damaging influences of the superman urge is on your job. Here it may take the form of “having to know all the answers.” No matter what problem is being discussed, you feel compelled to come up with the answer. This puts a triple strain on you. First, it keeps you constantly on edge, trying to be an expert on everything. Second. it keeps you worried that your answer may be the wrong one. Third, it gets you into trouble with your fellow employees who resent your butting into their business.
If you suffer from a compulsive urge to know and to give all the answers, try the following plan. At the next office conference, notice fhat most people keep silent a good deal of the time and speak up only in their own specialty. They know they’re expected to know' only their own job and to be responsible only foi
that. When it comes to another subject, they expect the other fellow to be able to speak up for himself.
Then resolve that at the next conference you’re going to say absolutely nothing at all, unless you’re called on directly. This is going to be difficult. But make yourself be silent, no matter how great the temptation. Next meeting, speak up just two or three times, and limit yourself to that. The restraint will probably make you tense. But after a few meetings, you'll find the tension wearing off, and you'll find you can learn from listening to other people.
Another form which the superman urge takes on the job, is the “Atlas complex." which gives you the idea that you have the responsibility for the performance of your whole department or firm. I nis complex generally comes out in a supercritical attitude toward management, and the belief that you could run the outfit very much better than they. You may even find yourself wanting to quit because you're dissatisfied with 1 the way things are being run at the shop.
If you suffer from the Atlas complex, put on a pair of mental blinders that will keep your attention focused on your immediate job. Concentrate on that job. Get the satisfaction out of knowing that if things go well with your department or firm, you have had a hand in it: if things go wrong it won't be through your failure to do your job.
The underlying problem with people who have the Atlas complex is that they can’t accept their role. Such was the case of a young man who was the city editor on a U. S. newspaper until he was called up to serve in the Korean War. When he returned, he found the paper under new management, and he was out of a job. After trying in vain to find another job as city editor, he joined a public relations firm as a writer. As city editor he had be.n a boss with considerable power. Now he was just another member of a large staff.
Instead of adjusting to the situation, he bucked like a bronco. At every opportunity. he tried to impress the other writers with the fact that he had been a city editor, and he never hesitated to tell his boss how to run the department. His boss took this for about three months, then told him either to find another job or to pitch in and do his work without indulging in uninvited quarterbacking.
Fortunately, the young man was adult enough to realize he'd been stepping out of his role. He buckled down to work while keeping an eye open for a newspaper job. But he never did have to make the change. A year later the firm set up a new department to handle trade papers and house magazines, and the former city editor was picked to head this department.
Another place to look for special problems created by the superman urge is in your, performance as a parent. Many parents think they have to be perfect, and if a problem arises that they don't know how to handle, or if the child gets into some difficulty, the parents think they themselves are failures.
Remember that while you have special responsibilities as a parent, you can't be expected to be perfect. No matter how hard you try. things may not work out in every instance. You make mistakes because you're human. Besides, your child comes under the influence of many other people — friends, teachers and other adults—and you can't control everything that happens to him. Just make sure you’re doing your best, then let it go at that.
The same principle applies to your re-
lations with your wife or husband. You may be a good companion, an excellent provider or home-maker, a fairly satisfactory lover and just average in physical make-up. If you are superior in these qualities, so much the better. But if you are-not. remember no one is expecting you to be — it is only you who are expecting this of yourself.
The most a married couple can expect is that each will live up to the other's reasonable expectations. If your wafe complains that you aren’t doing your share of work around the house, it is reasonable for her to expect you to pitch in and help out. If your husband complains that you're becoming careless in your appearance, it is reasonable for him to expect you to correct this. If you have problems in your sexual relations, it is a reasonable expectation that you both discuss your problems and. if necessary, get some advice.
One couple went to a marriage counsellor just a few months after they were married. He had gotten the idea that unless he made frequent sexual advances
to his wife, she would not consider him manly. So he made advances with great frequency. His wife, on tne other hand, thought his insistence was based on genuine needs and tried to be responsive but could not keep up with his demands. During t.ie discussion with the counsellor they discovered they would both be happier with less frequent intimacy and were glad to learn that they did not have to set grandiose goals to keep each other's love.
Your superman urge may affect your family in other ways — either by the example you show to your children, or by the way you urge them to excel. You may say. and even feel, that you are not anxious about whether your children excel or not. But if, underneath, you really are anxious, your children will sense this no matter how strongly you deny it.
In a high-school survey students were asked to list the things they liked and disliked about their parents. A frequent complaint was: "My parents expect loo much of me." One girl added: “I admire my father very much. He works very hard to give us everything we need. But he is not happy. He works so hard he doesn't give himself a chance for any fun. He is never satisfied with himself, and I don’t think he's satisfied with us. either. If we don't bring home perfect report cards, he is very disappointed. He never scolds us openly, but he gets moody and sulks and passes sarcastic remarks.
“Last year 1 ran for president of my class and lost. Instead of letting the matter drop so I could get over my dis-
appointment, he made me sit down and analyze why I lost so I could be sure to win next time. I really don’t want to be president or be the best student in the class. 1 already get good marks, and I would rather just be one of the bunch and get fun out of school.
"I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I am angry with my father for pushing me and my brothers, only I don't ever tell him. It would make him feel bad, because he loves us.”
If you’re been trying to force your child into a certain mold, remember he has the right and the need to develop in his own way and do the things that will make him most happy. Certainly you will want to do what you can to keep him from getting into trouble or making serious mistakes. But do not consider it a mistake if he doesn't want to go into the profession you have chosen for him.
Give him guidance? Yes. Give him encouragement? Yes. But then let him make up his own mind. He has his own life to live, and it is up to him to decide how he wants to live, just as you had to make the decision about how to live your life.
It may gall you that your son wants to study philosophy or music, or become a storekeeper or mechanic, instead of becoming a physician, lawyer, or engineer. But if that is what he w'ants to do, he has a right to do it. It may not do very much for your prestige or reputation. But then ask yourself: which is more important to you, his happiness, or your prestige? It is not your child's function to enhance your standing. It is his function to build a useful and happy life, to serve society and his family, in the ways that he finds most consistent with his abilities and his interests.
If you tend to inflict your aspirations on your children, you very likely do this to your wife, or husband, too. If your wife doesn't happen to like golfing or bridge, that's her privilege. She may be more interested in reading or music. Stop picking on her for being a poor sport because she won't learn the things you'd like her to. Encourage and help her to do and enjoy the things she likes to do. If your husband prefers to stay home and work with his hi-fi set instead of getting involved in local politics, don't pick on him for not having leadership ambitions. Encourage and help him to get enjoyment out of the things he likes to do.
Stop looking for weak points. Start looking for strong points, and help the other members of your family develop them as you are working to develop your own. Give them encouragement. Show them approval. Let them feel you like them for themselves, even with their shortcomings and weaknesses. Help them eliminate these weaknesses with kindness and guidance, not with scolding and criticism.
Remember, and I stress this once more — that your wife, child or husband, is not an extension of yourself. You are part of each either in your love for each other and in the things that bind you together as a family. But keep it in mind that no matter how close you are, each one of you retains his own individuality, with the right and the need to grow and develop according to his own abilities, and in line with his own interests. This will be much easier to accept and understand as you work to overcome your own superman urge, and no longer find the need to express it through other members of your family, it:
This is an excerpt from Master Your Tensions and Start Living Again, to be published later this summer by PrenticeHall.