The best advice my dad gave me, which I still use every day
From my experience, one of life’s biggest challenges has been understanding the psychology of myself and everyone around me, to gain a better grasp the world and know how to deal with what it may throw at me accordingly. And that’s why it’s never lost on me how lucky I’ve been to have a father with such a keen understanding of psychology. Not only was it my dad’s field of study, but he also utilized it during his days as a probationary officer dealing with high risk criminals on a daily basis, and uses it to navigate his every day life.
It was always an incredible gift to have someone at the dinner table who could give me a greatly plausible explanation as to why the people around me were acting the way that they were. I use what I learned every day to understand how to communicate with people, how to better work with them, and when to avoid them.
And while every piece of advice on how to navigate my life has been invaluable to me, one stuck out in particular as something that everyone on this planet in any situation should use on the daily.
The first time I remember him giving me the advice was when I was in middle school and my class had to closely follow election result as a school assignment. Let’s just say that the town I grew up in heavily leaned one way politically, which happened to be the direction my father leaned as well. So the entire town went on and on cheering on their favorite candidate. And being that I was a sixth grader who desperately wanted to fit in, I supported them too without really knowing what their stances were. (I’m not saying that everyone who chooses the political side of their peers is doing it to fit in, but that was definitely why I did it. If you asked me at the time what the candidate’s intentions were, my sixth grade-self couldn’t have told you.)
So the night of the election, my friend and I tracked the results with bated breath, getting more and more worried and angry at the prospect of our candidate losing. Then we started quoting some of the adults at school and some of the newscasters, calling the rival candidate all sorts of names.
My dad, knowing that I was not well-informed on politics, immediately pulled me aside and asked me why I was saying what I was about the rival candidate. And I replied that I was doing it because it was the right thing to do. He then challenged me asking why I hated the rival candidate so deeply, and I quoted back some things my teachers had said. He then asked me what I thought they meant by that and I stammered. I had no clue what any of this meant.
I was so confused at him challenging me. “Dad, don’t you agree that you hate this candidate too?”
“Yes,” he said. “But I know why I disagree with them, and why I am not voting for them. If you don’t know why you dislike a candidate, you need to do your research.”
In that moment, I got so incredibly angry with him. Was he trying to discourage me from being passionate about the candidate he was voting for? That made no sense.
“Dad, I trust you and my friends and teachers. And everyone agrees that they like this candidate. Why are you trying to stop me from supporting them?”
“I am not trying to stop you from supporting them,” he said. “I want to make sure that you are supporting them because you believe in their goals and actions, and not because your friends and teachers and parents like them.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. Because I had a friend over at the house, he ended the conversation there.
Later on after the election had passed, he again pulled me aside to ask me if I was feeling like I wasn’t fitting in at school. Being that I was in middle school, the answer was “Of course.” He then explained to me that I cannot spend my whole life trying to please everyone around me, because that will never happen. And instead, I needed to find value in my life without complete validation from my peers. He even told me that if I was going to support the same things he and my mom supported, that I should do my research and figure out why I wanted to support them first. Because he and my mom already loved me unconditionally and I didn’t need to live my life exactly how they did for them to accept me.
I still didn’t know what in the world he was talking about.
It wasn’t until late into high school that I realized what he meant in that situation. And it was all because of the best advice he has ever given me, which he bestowed upon me when I became an adult:
Over time, that advice got deeply embedded into my mind. And I realized it could be applied to so many problems I went through during my youth. To go back to the election example, I realized when I was of age to vote that my vote needed to count towards what I truly believed based on my own findings and values, so that the city or state or country could have the real results of what I really wanted. Not results I was pressured into wanting. And that goes for everyone, even if the best candidate for you and the one everyone wants you to vote for are the same.
I was willing to potentially bend the values of what I wanted in a candidate, because my social needs weren’t being met. I wanted the validation of my peers and teachers more than I wanted to vote towards the right cause.
I took this realization with me to college, and - I’ll admit - when times got tough, I completely lost sight of it. Like many college kids, I drank and partied when I didn’t want to in order to fit in, I dated people who were unkind in order to not feel so alone and I took on too many jobs and internships in addition to my full course load, in order to feel busy.
My dad constantly called me asking me if I was eating well, if I was staying active, if I was getting enough sleep, if I felt comfortable at my apartment etc. And as the child of your parent, you sort of end up subconsciously feeling that they are asking you all this so that you can succeed at school or in your job. But as the years went by, I realized that my dad was asking me those questions to find out the state of my mental health. If I don’t eat, I might cause myself to feel weak or overeat. If I don’t get enough sleep, I might not be able to perform in my job, enjoy my plans, or accomplish what I planned to during the day. If I didn’t stay hydrated, I could wind up with a headache that took me out for the whole day.
I would complain to my dad about how my friends or exes or jobs were treating me, and as a result, how I was treating myself by sticking by those people and situations. And he would always ask me if I was dissatisfied with anything in my life. And the truth is, I always was.
I knew that I deserved for the people in my life to treat me better. I knew I should have focused more on school than my social life. I knew I should have been giving myself more hours to sleep, better food to eat and more time to relax and rejuvenate.
As I walk through life, I realize that so much of the disfunction I see is because people’s needs are not being met. From substance abuse, to cheating on ones partner, to a life of crime, there is always something emotional, physical or physiological that is not being met and causes those actions.
My father always referenced Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when giving me this advice. As many of you may know, it’s an infamous breakdown of our needs as people. Our most basic and timely needs at the bottom of a metaphorical pyramid, and our most complex and thoughtful needs are at the top. The bottom tiers are your physiological needs and safety needs. If you don’t have food, water or a place to feel secure, you may resort to stealing food and water or staying somewhere for shelter where you’re not allowed. The next tier is belonging and love needs. If you do not feel like you are loved by your family, friends or partner, you may result to finding other people who better appreciate you (which isn’t a bad thing necessarily,) burning bridges with the people around you, or changing yourself to meet their requirements. Esteem needs are those that are fulfilled by accomplishing your goals, whether they be personal or professional. Finally, the highest tier is self-actualization. Self-actualization is the sense that one has achieved their full potential and completed the mission of their life. While some argue that there’s not always a definite way to tell if you’ve completed the mission of your life, it’s a fascinating way to look at your needs and goals.
While it’s definitely possible to reach the higher tiers of this hierarchy without all of the bases covered on the lower tiers, (for instance you could totally have great self esteem and be missing some safety needs, or be self-actualized with major professional goals without having good relationships in your life,) for the average situation, it’s easier to reach those top tiers when your bottom tiers are covered.
Now that I had realized what dehydration, hunger and a lack of sleep had been doing to me, my dad made me realize that changing myself to fit in with those around me or spending time with people who made me feel bad was me trying to feel a sense of belonging in an unhealthy fashion. I was bending my values to fill my needs. And instead, I needed to surround myself with people who uplifted me, so that I could fulfill the need of belonging in a more organic way.
Now I’m not spreading his message because I think that I am at the top tier of this hierarchy - I still have a long way to go. But it does every day make me realize why the people around me are doing what they do. When I see a homeless person digging through a dumpster, or hear about some drama in a friend’s relationship or do something wrong in my personal or professional life, I have to take a step back and have some sympathy for what the people I’m observing are going through and why they’re doing what they’re doing, or look at myself and realize what I’m missing that’s causing me to act a certain way. It is very eye-opening and does make me feel like I have more power to work my way up those tiers than I thought.
And every time I take a step in the right direction for my life, or gain more sympathy for those struggling around me, I have my father’s thoughtfulness to thank for that.