Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
Dear MR Team,
What is my highest potential?
Dear Seeking Validation,
I hope you don’t mind that I gave you this nom de plume. I assumed that given the status of our relationship — I don’t know you and you don’t know me — asking such a personal question could allude to a singular truth about what you’re really pursuing, which is a pick-me-up in the form of external validation.
Don’t take that the wrong way! We all pursue validation to a degree. If not from strangers, then from our people. Our parents, our friends, our partners, our bosses — our people. I was listening to a podcast once, and there was mention of the first question the life coach Tony Robbins* asks his disciples when he’s trying to crack them open. “Whose love did you crave more: your mom’s or your dad’s?” What this means, in my view, is who had the greater power to redeem you. To validate you.
Alain de Botton calls this pursuit of validation status anxiety. Not officially, but I’ll get to that. Status anxiety is, essentially, a fear of being considered unsuccessful. The concept that he expounds upon in a feature-length book blames the illusion of a meritocracy (that people are rewarded based on merit) within the context of a political structure that favors wealth above all else and maybe I am so ingratiated in said political structure that going so far as to exclaim what I am about to just further underscores my victimhood, but I’ll go so far as to say that this fear of being considered unsuccessful translates well beyond the guardrails of material wealth. I have only gotten through like, eight pages of the book, but am committed to finishing it because we have the same birthday and he’s a philosopher and I am more woo-woo than I like to admit, even to myself, and thus perhaps think, to my own chagrin, that our twin birthdays suggest that I, too, should become a philosopher. But I digress! Status anxiety as newly defined for the purpose of this column: the fear that you’re not good enough.
I don’t know if everyone is crippled by this fear, but I would venture to suggest that we’ve all experienced it at some point. It could have been a benign encounter with a sports team lineup for which you were not chosen, a Barbie incident dating back some twenty years. It could be more deep-seated — applying itself as a survival mechanism you had to build to endure the lackluster nature of love and attention that you craved from somewhere. It might be revealing itself as an intimacy issue now. Or a crippling fear of rejection. It may have inclined you to write in anonymously and ask someone who does not know you what is your highest potential.
And to that point, look, I can totally give it to you. I know I don’t know you, but I can tell I like you. You’re pithy. To the point. Like a sentence in a Hemingway novel that’s concise but packed with enough fodder to divulge thousands of words in response. And I know for sure that I loooooove finding the great in people. So I can whip something up about what your having reached out means about you. I can make educated assumptions about what you’re like and what you like by simple virtue of your awareness of, and engagement with Man Repeller.
I can imagine that if I got to know you, I’d probably love you. But that might then run the risk of facilitating a new sort of narrative arc for you to go by — another stalk of straw from the haystack of third-party validation. Joan Didion wrote all those years ago that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, we repeat this over and over, forgetting the follow-up sentiment — that we also kill ourselves because of these stories. That if we get too wrapped in the supposition that they’re true and real, they start to define us so concretely that when we don’t pick up our heads and question the inner-monologues running on repeat, we become cogs in the wheels of respective lives we don’t want to live and guess what? Don’t actually have to live! Does this make sense?
Example: When I tried to answer that Tony Robbins question about whose love I craved more, the answer was my mom’s. Then I asked who I had to be for her, and my answer to that question was…a victim. Because she gave me the most love and the most attention, the kind of tender maternal care I yearned for when I was sad, or sick, or vulnerable. In some ways, it has served me, but for the most part it has not, and it took being married for seven years to a person who believes me when I say, “Nothing is wrong,” who recommends Advil when I have a headache or therapy when I’m sad — solutions, effectively, when I ask for love cloaked as the addressing of a problem — to realize that I’m doing that: asking for love.
The story of my victimhood as a means to achieve love is dated — it doesn’t work, and if I didn’t pick up my head, I might have missed that. What’s more, I might have missed all the ways this contributed to my pursuit of external validation. The ways I don’t know how to love! Which totally circles back to that point I made earlier about not being good enough but before I start therapying me, let me hold the phone. (I’m seeing Scott tomorrow.) I know it’s very trendy to talk about “rewriting your story” on social media right now. Discarding the ones that “no longer serve you.” It’s starting to sound trite because the term is thrown around with the regularity of Kate Middleton’s period (Conjecture, but I am assuming she is very regular!) but bear with me when I say that, uh, you can rewrite your story!!!
So what am I going to tell you? That your highest potential is in your bathroom mirror. That for as long as you don’t endeavor to answer the question of what is your highest potential on your own, you’ll never actually know. So, go find a bathroom that has a mirror in it. Stand across from it and look yourself in the eye. I mean, really look. Catch the size of your fluctuating pupil. Take a minute to acknowledge the freckles on your nose or a dimple near your cheek. Smile. Frown. Close your eyes. Open them. Close. Open. Now, look yourself in the eye again and ask the question. I know this kind of advice sucks, but I think that’s only because the most helpful advice is the hardest advice, it’s the advice that tells you the truth: even in 2019, we can’t outsource our psychological well-being. No one can tell you who or how or what you are. I mean, they can, and you can go with it, but then you might miss out on the great human triumph of wearing The Existential Twin Set — that thing where your shell (inner-self) and cardigan (outer-self) match. Which, is basically, a very longwinded way of answering your question by asking it right back. So, what is your highest potential?
*I did not know this until after we published this story, but Tony Robbins is under investigation given recently released allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse that date back to the 90s. Late last week, Simon & Schuster pulled the plug on a book he is co-authoring.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya, Photo by Alfred Gescheidt via Getty Images.