What does it mean that I must live my potential? 

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What does it mean that I must live my potential? 

Psychology 0

We are often told to live our potential, but what does this mean and what are some of the elements involved in understanding and living one’s potential and why is it important.

I am going to try and answer the question by first looking at a perspective on guilt!

Rollo May explains that “guilt is a perception of the difference between what a thing is and what it ought to be…a positive constructive emotion”.

He chooses to use the example of a ‘crippled beggar’. He says, “guilt in seeing this person is not about whether one gives money or not. The feeling of guilt inheres in the realization that here is a situation – a human being degraded into begging – which is far from any norm or ideal of human living…… this guilt….man should rejoice in it for it means that a ‘spark disturbs our clod’.

Let me make one thing clear. I am not declaring the merits of, romanticising, being sentimental or frivolous about guilt. It is a given that we are accountable for our actions legally and morally. What is sometimes called neurotic guilt erodes away at our sense of self, our sense of worth, and our right to exist and flourish and threatens the boundaries between ourselves and others. Guilt in this form as a defensive strategy is an obstacle that keeps us from recognising and dealing with important underlying issues.

I may be exercising license but I believe that May is describing the sense of responsibility we each have to see what is there to be seen, feel what is there to be felt, respond to that which requires a response, both for those things that inspire and those which offer despair. Seeing a man broken, lost and hungry should leave us feeling ‘guilt’ that is, experiencing a sense of responsibility that what we are seeing is true, present, wrong and by any standard should not be.

We have that same obligation to recognise and respond to, to not deny  or refuse that thing that is our life force, that which is us…that thing that we know is there beyond any shadow of a doubt.  I am not describing something that is spiritual, mystical, divine or any other transcendent word. I am saying that practically there are those things that are us whose purpose is to be made manifest in the world…the task of life is to be who we are and live.

Call it our potential….call it our biology, genes, ability, capacity, possibility, skill, gift, penchant, capability, talent, faculty, competence, power, passion, fervour, exhilaration, interest, enthusiasm, zeal, delight, fascination, commitment, devotion, faith, hope, love, dexterity, expertise, proficiency, skilfulness, handiness, competence, flair, adeptness, knack, energy, drive, appetite, desire, facility, imagination, resourcefulness, ingenuity, creativity, vision, inspiration, inventiveness, originality, initiative,  dreams, ideas, brilliance…..please add your own words…..you get the idea.

Let me point out that potential does not suggest only that which is monumental. Potential is ordinary. Imagine not responding or choosing to ignore or not value or deem important all of these things which each of us is.

One may equate it to a rose refusing to be a rose, to grow, to bloom, and to become a rose hip, to be thorny. Let’s remember that a rose is an element of an eco-system, part of a living growing thriving inter-connected, inter-dependent community of living. A home for aphids, aphids a feast for lady birds, the inspiring beauty of a rose in bloom, the precious fragrance of a rose, nectar for butterflies in exchange for pollination, rose water for Turkish Delight, rose oil for perfume and the healthy tasty tea of the rosehip packed with vitamin C.

Would the world survive and continue without it? Of course it would but why be deprived of such a wonderful thing that simply rewards because of what it uniquely is…no more? It’s not trying to be a rose…it just is a rose and everything it provides is simply because it is just being a rose.

Now can a rose choose to not emerge? It cannot choose anything other than that which is programmed into its genetic code.

Humans on the other hand can choose; a gift and a burden. We can choose to live or choose to die remembering that choosing to die doesn’t always have to be dramatic it can simply be the result of a choice to not live; such not-living can be possessed of great longevity.

Let’s unpack this notion of choice for humans.

Take the rose. If the environment is supportive and beneficial then the rose will have a chance to grow and flourish. If it is not supportive, that is, the rose does not get what it particularly needs to grow and flourish it may emerge but in a way that leaves it less than healthy as a plant. If the rose starts with or develops a disease the job of growing and flourishing will be harder and perhaps may come to an end or not happen at all.

How is this different for a person? In principle it’s pretty much the same with more complicated and nuanced processes.

Susan Johnson says that “health is being able to fully engage in current moment-to-moment experience and use this experience to make active choices in how to define the self and relate to others. Key experiences are explored, integrated, and used to expand the range of an individual’s responses, rather than being denied or distorted. The value of being authentic—trusting one’s experience and being true to oneself—is implicit in this model and intricately linked to intimate connection to others”.

Where does this health come from? It probably can be said in many ways by many people who use psychology as a tool of understanding; here’s one way. It comes from being intact, not compromised and secure, thus safe, thus free from overwhelming conflict and emotional distortion, thus trusting of experience, of self and others and thus having committed energy for being open to excitement, engagement, learning and feedback. It means that as we grew and developed we were given enough of what we need in ways that allows us to accept in safety the beautiful hard task of being who we naturally are in the world.

This understanding of health means that if it is not sufficiently present for any reason the task of living our potential becomes much harder or in some instances hardly possible at all.

The therapeutic psychologist’s job when required is two-fold. To deal with the reasons why health is not sufficiently present and secondly to identify, value, promote and support the potential, the life force of a person….both of these need to be done to have a healthy meaningful life.

In my experience health, joy, purpose, meaning and coherence is the by-product of these two elements…psychological health and manifesting potential. With all of this the demands of life, the easy, the hard, the joyous and the tragic still exist but perhaps with an intact and sufficient degree of these two elements we have a greater degree of freedom and power to consider and respond to the reality and options that life presents…maybe.

Just in case we think that ignoring one’s potential is a personal matter take a look at the words of Jung.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too) have not lived…that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so”. (4)

  1. Booktopia – The Art of Counselling, Human Horizons by Rollo May


  1. Rabbi Ben Ezra – Robert Browning (1812-1883)


  1. Attachment Theory and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Individuals and Couples, Susan M. Johnson


  1. C. G. Jung, (Introduction to Wickes’s ‘Analyse der Kinderseele’, The Development of personality, CW 17 par 8, in Hollis. J., (1994) Under Saturn’s’ shadow, The Wounding & Healing of Men, Inner City Books. p54-55) http://www.jameshollis.net/books/saturn.htm