With intention, I spread out
Asking for resilience today.
With guidance, I coax gently to release,
To come unglued into freedom.
With bound arms, I unbind.
With engaged focus, I detach.
With a twist, I untangle.
Into irony, into the unknowable,
Into the mystery
Of breathing lungs,
Of breathing cities,
Of children's laughter,
Of an elder's last sigh.
Tasks. How many do you do in a day? Countless, right? How do you feel about doing them? Perhaps tired and discouraged, feeling that your tasks don't really have a greater purpose? Or maybe you feel energized and encouraged by some of the things you do in a day? The English dictionary definition of a task is "a definite piece of work assigned to, falling to, or expected of a person; a duty."
Chances are you don't have these words below on your to-do list. I know I don't.
These are five life tasks I derived from Alfred Adler's work, with a little twist: love, work, community, self, and spirituality. These life tasks are connected to another of Adler's major ideas, that humans are goal-seeking and purpose-driven by nature. We naturally engage in tasks that lead us toward desired goals. Goals in the Adlerian sense, aren't necessarily easily defined, static things like "I'll finish college in 2 years," or "I'll save money now and buy a house in 5 years." These kinds of goals, which I'll call outward goals, certainly do drive behavior in our life tasks. However, some goals are more inward, psychological and covert in nature. Some examples of inward goals could be maintaining emotional safety in relationships, maintaining comfort in a career, distancing from problematic relationships, or avoiding emotional pain. The specific way that we work toward all goals is what makes us individuals. One person might maintain emotional safety in relationships by coordinating regular family get-togethers. Another person may distance themselves from relationships by moving out of state or keeping themselves so busy they have no time to visit. Another yet may use drugs or alcohol, gambling, or other addictions to numb emotional pain. Some may come to therapy to work through it, or talk to friends, make art, exercise, etc. As you can see there are infinite ways we can carry out these life tasks as individuals.
What is fascinating about our brains is that sometimes we don't even have conscious awareness of these inward, psychological goals themselves, but our pre-wired survival instincts move us to act on them without forethought. The person who moves out of state to avoid problematic relationships, for instance, may not be aware of the ultimate, underlying cause of their move. Therapy, especially with a mindfulness component, helps nurture awareness of connections between thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and past experiences. I encourage clients understand what their psychological goals are, and then describe the life tasks to see how much energy they are expending on each.
The first three tasks that Adler developed were love, work, and friendship. I've used the word community here instead of friendship, because I've found that deep friendships fall more neatly into the love task, while there is a distinctly different task associated with being part of a community. The last two tasks, spirituality and self, were developed by later Adlerian scholars. These five tasks drive our everyday activities, but sometimes they get out of balance. When we don't take regular action toward each of the life tasks, we are likely to feel that something crucial is missing.
So let's break them down further to see what they mean.
Love. This life task refers to our capacity to create and maintain deep and intimate relationships. An intense need to feel understood by others drives the desire to maintain these high maintenance, rewarding, yet difficult, types of relationships. Love, in my estimation, refers to intimate partners, close family, and close friends. Examples of outward goals within this task are getting married, having children, having date nights, attending family reunions, and making lunch dates with friends. Some examples of more inward, psychological goals would be maintaining a specific role within a family like provider, joke-teller, or rescuer, that creates a sense of purpose and value within a social system. Another example may be cleaning the house tirelessly because that's how you express love to your family.
Work. This is the task that allows us to create and produce things or services tangibly in the world around us. It drives us to use our talents, skills, and crafts to survive and thrive in the world. We can think of work in terms of any activity that is productive in nature, whether paid or not. Take a weekend gardener for instance. Though it may be a hobby, much work goes into maintaining a garden, and it gives the worker a sense of accomplishment. That's the essence of this life task...accomplishment. You can see how these tasks overlap when we take the above house-cleaner as an example. Cleaning is work and love in this case, driven by the psychological goal of caring for the family.
Community. This is the task that connects us to the larger world outside our homes and to the fabric of the society in which we live. Voting in local or national elections is a task in this category. Volunteering or donating money to a charity is another example. The tasks tend to feed psychological goals of being a good citizen, fulfilling leadership roles, and fulfilling social roles without the emotional closeness of love tasks. These tasks also serve a basic and primal human instinct to maintain contact with others and avoid isolation.
Spirituality. This task is all about meaning-making, not at all necessarily in conjunction with religion. There are many people who don't subscribe to any religion, but all of us search for meaning in our lives. This task is often associated with existential dilemmas about the certainty of death and the finite amount of time we have on earth. This task is associated with how we make meaning of tragedy, and cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. Outward tasks in this category may be attending church regularly, maintaining rituals in the home like lighting candles, or having moments of silence to honor others. Inward goals here almost always have to do with living an ethical and moral life.
Self. This task is all about creating and caring for your personal being. Outward tasks here include personal hygiene, food choices, exercise, maintaining adequate shelter, and protecting oneself from danger. Inward goals of this task are about creating an identity, and defining ourselves to the outside world. Much of the self-talk that happens in our inner psychological world is an expression of this task. For example, a person who routinely weighs themselves is working toward of goal of a certain body type, and may have alot of internal dialogue about whether they are succeeding toward this goal. Think of all the ways you finish these statements in your mind, "I should be ...", "I shouldn't have...", "I never will...", and "I always am..." It will give you a clear idea of how you carry out the task of self.
How do you carry out these tasks in your everyday life? In your overall goals? In how you make meaning of your experiences? Til next time...go and be and flourish.
Kambria Kennedy-Dominguez, Counselor and yoga teacher specializing in mental health, substance abuse and wellness.