As children, we are constantly asked what we want to be when we grow up. We are taught to find our purpose in life. And when we have found it, we have reached our full potential in life. Or so they say.

Some people spend their entire lives searching for this potential, unsure as to what it means or how to know when they make it. Are we constantly searching for an ah-ha moment that will never come?

IVY Magazine sat down with Kristina Marie, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing in Health Psychology, to learn more about just that.

What is your background and what made you initially interested in psychology?

Being an athlete through my formative years not only taught me discipline and coordinated skills, but social adeptness and how to work with anyone for the good of the team. I was still pretty young when my dad’s slew of health problems began, so a lot of time was spent in hospitals with him as I grew up. His illnesses never got in the way of school or athletics for me, but they enhanced my understanding of healthy living and medicine and its limitations.
My analytic side as well as my aversion to needles and blood pointed me in the direction of being an academic doctor instead of a medical one. Psychology was a natural fit because I’ve always found people fascinating, and learning about them and their struggles — and then getting to help them through their tough times — is a challenge I’m happy to meet every day. Thankfully, it’s also a field I can do a lot with, such as research and teaching, so I can evolve throughout my career in ways that interest me.
Now, I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing in Health Psychology, which means I treat the emotional consequences of health, wellness and illness. I work with a variety of people looking to improve themselves in some aspect of health – losing weight, managing diabetes, exercising, even performing better in their hobbies (ie, running or golf); anything that may require a bit more attention and focus to help them reach a goal. I do this by incorporating mental health and wellness techniques, such as relaxation, meditation, effective stress management, habit formation and rewards, and productive goal setting, even increased environmental and social consciousness to help people realize what stands in the way of reaching their best life, and how to overcome it.

What do you love about your work?

I love that moment when a client is telling a story and they start to cry, or have some other big emotional reaction to what they are saying. It’s a true privilege to be witness to their realization that this (whatever it is) is meaningful to them. It means that we’ve hit something important that they realize for the first time affects their lives in a seminal way. That’s when change can start to happen, and we both know it, and it’s scary and sad and exciting all at once.

What does it mean for someone to reach their full potential?

I think, in my field, full potential might be defined as self-actualization. Abraham Maslow evolved the term to mean “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially.” But that, to me, sounds like circular thinking a bit – to reach full potential, one must realize the desire to reach full potential?
So, I’m not sure I believe in reaching “full” potential, but instead of reaching partial or sectional potential. Reaching potential, to me, means achieving something – a big goal, a milestone – and feeling accomplished. But what I’ve experienced from people is, once they achieve a goal, they often set a new one. It’s rare for someone to set the goal of running a marathon by their 40th birthday, and then never set another fitness or workout goal after their race!
Perhaps full potential really means the realization that a person CAN do what they set their mind to. Everything else – support from others, training, time, etc – is just logistics.

How should someone know when they have reached their full potential?

It’s a feeling – a flow state, if you’ll allow a little Csikszentmihalyi here. That realization of capability first, and then the ease of follow-through. It is both a physical and mental awareness that achievement is within your reach.

What advice do you have for individuals who are struggling in realizing what their purpose or potential may be?

The tricky thing about achievement and potential is that you have to fail – and likely fail quite a bit, or in a big way – first. This is the flip side of success, and most people would like to avoid it. But I say embrace it. No one ever learned anything from doing it all right the first time. And the real interesting bits of life are what you find out about yourself, and others, when you fail. So, lean into your mistakes. Embrace the oops moments, big and small. Go into things knowing you’re going to screw up, sometimes big time, and find the lessons or the humor or the joy in that. Just don’t be afraid of having to start over, apologize, take a few steps backward, or pick yourself up. In truth, failure is the only way we truly realize how strong and powerful our potential can be.