Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

hand emerging from water holding a sparkler for blog Maslows Hierarchy of NeedsThis week I have been reflecting a lot on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Many would consider this old theory to be out of date.  It’s not cutting edge enough in the current world of psychology.  And yet, I think it still has much to offer in terms of understanding your own state and that of others.

Maslow developed this model to explain motivation.  He, in common with other humanist psychologists, believed that we all have an innate motivation to learn and to grow.  However, that drive may be limited by our current circumstances – by our needs.  The model is often, as here, depicted as a five level pyramid.  The lower levels represent our deficit needs.  These needs must be met (partially at least) before we can move on toward the upper level growth needs.

pyramid depicting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological Needs

These are the basic requirements for survival as a human being, e.g. food, water, air to breathe, shelter, warmth, sex and sleep.

The welfare state was initially set up to ensure that nobody experienced such need in the UK.  And yet, today, we are seeing increasing levels of homelessness, and reliance on food banks continues to rise.  People with a deficit in their physiological needs will be motivated almost entirely towards their next meal or somewhere to get warm.  Longer term, work and financial independence may help but, whilst in crisis, people may be unable to make the necessary leap in motivation to find work.

Safety Needs

We all need to feel safe and protected from fear.  To feel safe we need, for example, secure housing, law and order, to be free of the risk of violence etc.  People who have a deficit in this area may not be motivated beyond the desire for safety.

One in four women (and many men) in the UK experience physical, emotional and/or psychological violence in the home.  This lack of safety reduces their motivation to grow and so may, in some cases, contribute to a feeling of being trapped in an untenable situation.

Love and Belongingness Needs

Once our physiological and safety needs are met, the next level of human need is the need for relationships.  We progress from the individual to the social and begin to value the giving and receiving of love, friendship, trust and affiliation.

Loneliness and a lack of social skills can keep a person stuck at this level of need.

Esteem Needs

Maslow separated Esteem Needs into two categories:

  1. Self-esteem – through dignity, achievement, mastery of skills, independence etc.
  2. Esteem from others – through status, prestige, respect etc.

A lack of self-esteem may come from an earlier failure in one of the lower levels of this hierarchy.  E.g. the experience of violence, feeling unsafe, failing to provide for yourself and others etc.

Self-actualisation Needs

Finally, when all is reasonably well in all the other areas, people will be motivated by an inner drive to become “everything one is capable of becoming”.  This is what Carl Roger’s described as the organismic self.  This is the yellow dot in Yellow Dot Women.

So how does this Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs help us today?

You may have a friend/colleague/employee who seems helpless and incapable of resolving her own problems, or who lacks self-esteem, or resists an opportunity for promotion or training.  Be aware that you may not know her full personal history.  There may be good reasons for this.  Offer support and encouragement but don’t push too hard – pushing might just reinforce a feeling of fearfulness.  Counselling or coaching may help her but she has to be ready for it.

You, yourself, may be feeling stuck, or bored, with a sense that there must be something more to life.  You may even be giving yourself a hard time (shouldn’t you just be grateful for all the good things you have).  Try to understand that, if you are operating in the upper levels of the hierarchy, this is an innate drive to be more, to be better than you are right now.  Coaching can help you to work out what’s going on and what you need to do next to feel like a fully functioning woman.

This is not a straight up and down model.  Some of us will be fortunate and never experience the hardships caused by hunger, homelessness and loneliness.  Others will progress upwards, only to drop back down when jobs are lost, homes are repossessed or relationships break down.

In some of these instances people may be operating on a complex mix of these levels.  Last week I met a woman who was, until recently, married with children, working full time and also studying for a degree through the OU.  She was operating at a fairly high level in this hierarchy until her husband fell seriously ill.

At this point they lost his salary, she had to give up work to become his carer, the benefits system was slow to kick in so the rent wasn’t paid, they were at risk of homelessness and they had to resort to using the foodbank.  She is still working towards her degree.

Suddenly, for this family, basic physiological and safety needs were no longer being met.  Relationships were changing.  Status was lost and self-esteem took a serious dip.  I have no doubt that this woman’s resilience and determination will triumph in time.  Others might not be so lucky.

Take a look at the model and try to determine where you are at the moment.  What might be holding you back from achieving your full potential.  Then ask yourself, “what am I going to do about it?”

And remember, no matter how far you sink beneath the waves, that little spark of potential will always be lit, like a beacon, helping you to find your way back.


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