On Maslow’s Hammer: Or maybe you are more* than you think you are

*this is not your average pep talk. believe me. please read on.

a couple of months ago I came downstairs after settling my son for his morning nap, to find that there was a whole heap of blonde hair sitting on our dining room table.

My daughter was suspiciously out of sight. and quiet.

I stop. I stare. I say to my friend, recently arrived

“Why is there and enormous pile of hair on the table??!!!!”

“Maybe it’s doll’s hair?” she replies.

I suspect that it is in fact, not doll hair.

I proceed to leg it upstairs into my daughter’s bedroom, where I find my darling daughter has chopped off all some so, so, much of her beautiful hair.

so so much – hair which she had been growing so that she ‘could look like Elsa”. Not any more, it seems.

After staring, dumbfounded at her for a long time, I say through clenched teeth “Sweetheart, we were booked to go to the hairdresser TODAY“, upon which she replied “But we don’t have to go now!”

Yep. Also when asked if she’d looked in the mirror to see how much damage she had done, her reply was “Yep! and I love it!

I was so angry.

and so so sad.

so so sad.

I was so angry that I couldn’t laugh at it. I was so embarrassed for her.

but in that – in the hours/days that followed,

I had to ask myself

is this her stuff, or is it my stuff?

Was my reaction completely about a parent so so sad about her daughter cutting her own hair –

or was it four year old me, the little girl who so desperately didn’t want to look like a boy, who wanted to be pretty and accepted, projecting that same fear onto my now close-cropped daughter? (rewind to four year old Kirsten whose mother told the hairdresser to give her a crew cut and didn’t ask me how I felt about it- PTSD, people)

Kirsten and Crew cut 1987. feat most excellent tshirt ever

We carry many things from our childhood. Our taste in food. Our expectation of how to spend holidays. Our understanding of ‘normalcy’ in relationships. Our acceptance of the status quo. But perhaps more than anything, we carry the stories of how people treat us, the stories of what’s possible for us, the language that is repeated so often that it lives just under our skin.

“You’re so smart!”

“You’re the sporty one!”

“You’re so beautiful!”

“You’re so funny!”

“You’re so creative!”

“You’re so good at problem solving!”

How many of us had these statements repeated to us throughout our formative years? In so many ways, these affirmations are amazing. They give us courage and reinforce our fledging skills. They help build our identity and knowledge about what makes me “me”.

…but how many times do those same “good” statements put a boundary around who you are?

How many times do those “You’re always, you’re so…you…statements feel like they’re saying you can be these things – but only these things. Statements that are reinforced so strongly can also invisibly be statements of “you’re this, but you’re not THAT”

The sporty boy can’t be creative

The clever girl can’t be pretty

The highlighting of one aspect – can put limitations on possibility..and this is the damage that can occur through well meaning comments – let alone language that is intended to hurt, demean, belittle and exclude.

Here’s the thing. I was told my whole life that I was smart.

I hear it now: “Oh woe is me, Kirsten, you were lovingly encouraged as a child in your academic pursuit”.

Clearly this is not a major tragedy. My parents were great. They saw skill in me. and encouraged it. But the problem is, that’s basically the story I created in my mind of who I was. Because I was ‘the smart one’, other stories, narratives, possibilities, weren’t explored or reinforced. Because I was ‘the smart one’, I was intimidated in heaps of other areas. I wasn’t the cool one, or the pretty one, to name a few. And that labelling had actual consequences for me in my choices – throughout childhood, youth and adulthood.

because I wasn’t pretty i couldn’t be a girl that pierced her ears

because I wasn’t cool I wasn’t cool enough to listen to interesting/alternative music.

“because I’m not…” made me stop trying a lot of new things…because I believed that it ‘wasn’t for me’.

These are obviously lame and small examples. But the point is that the FRAMING of something has a SOCIAL REALITY. And these realities can be explicit and large, but also implicit and insidious.

This framing gives our soul hints of what we’re allowed or ‘supposed’ to do in life – that others will judge us if we move outside of those boundaries of self. we say things like “I could never”, “That’s not for me”.

This framing can also give ourselves a template or recipe of how we respond and behave in circumstances.

Abraham Maslow (yes of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs fame) once said “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” He is referring to what is called Maslow’s Hammer or The Law of Instrument, which is a Cognitive Bias that gives an over-reliance on a certain tool

If we think that we’re hammers, to solve problems, we hit things. Even if there isn’t a nail in sight.

Maybe, to stretch the analogy, it also works when we react to our loved one’s problems: our own framing (or our own trauma) puts a lens or bias on other people’s situations.

If we never thought we were pretty, we rush to help our loved ones to avoid that feeling of ugliness.

If we never thought we were cool enough, we do anything to make our loved ones to feel part of the crowd.

Obviously this analogy can be applied only so far. But it is perhaps a helpful question to ask ourselves, especially when we have a very strong reaction to someone else’s situation/trauma/pain/choices:

Is my reaction about them or am I reliving my own experience?

Am I being a hammer, seeing everything as a nail?

Is this their stuff, or is it my stuff?

In doing so, we might be able to have pause and perspective – for them and us – in the moment, and respond with an appropriate and helpful reaction, rather than one that is triggered by trauma or fear.

You’re more than you think you are. x

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