Did you know that we are hardwired to want to become our best? Yep, as long as you and I are alive, we will want to do some type of self-improvement, set goals, and make resolutions.
We will want to improve our health, our relationships, do better at work, and learn new things. We will want to improve ourselves because that is what it means to grow and move forward. It is the very point of being alive. This “actualizing tendency” is inherent in all of us, and it would be great if you learned to harness it.
There’s an old-school theory that can help: Maslow’s theory of human motivation.
In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, and it was the viral sensation of its day. Even today, it remains a popular framework in sociology research, management training, behavioral therapy, psychology studies, and other disciplines. The theory is usually depicted as a five-tier pyramid because that’s an easy way to demonstrate the hierarchical path Maslow thinks our needs take. Maslow believed that in order for us to be motivated to work on higher needs, our lower needs must be adequately satisfied.
Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation
I was doing some research to help me understand my own motivation when I came across Maslow’s theory. It wasn’t long before I came to really value it. Although it’s not a perfect explanation of all cases of human motivation, it can still help many of us understand our own motivation. It helped me understand mine. It helped me understand why certain things might be more challenging for me and what I should be motivated enough to do.
I am going to try and explain Maslow’s theory using the hierarchical model above as a guide and I’ll share along the way, takeaways (insights) I got from this helpful theory of human motivation.
Maslow thinks our physiological needs are our most basic. These include our need for:
When our bodies and cells don’t get what they need at this level, it’s hard to focus on anything else. We shouldn’t expect a homeless man to think abundantly. And can’t we understand why kids who go to school hungry have a harder time paying attention in class?
The takeaway: whatever is our most urgent need will always be our main focus. Needs not met, will call our attention away from higher goals we may be pursuing.
According to Maslow, once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, safety and security needs take precedence and become the reason they do most things (what motivates them). These are safety and security needs we all need to fill:
- Personal security
- Emotional security
- Financial security
- Health and well-being
The takeaway: If you struggle with safety/security needs day in and day out, so many of your good intentions will be that much harder to keep. I see plenty of people (black people if I going, to be honest) who face chronic financial insecurity, yet beat themselves up for not achieving X, Y, and Z. I notice that they’re often testy and lack confidence, and have an affinity for spirituality. But prayer can’t heal a broken wrist and can only offer temporary comfort if you struggle with any type of safety and security issues. Don’t get me wrong, there is value in staying hopeful, so prayer does help, but it’s worth understanding that you’re not failing because you can’t stick to your exercise program or other goals.
Social/Love and Belonging needs
The third level of Maslow’s theory is about our social needs. Here is what we crave and need…
- Intimacy & romantic attachments
- Social groups
According to Maslow, humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Feeling loved, connected, and accepted makes us feel secure and motivated. We get this need met when we have good relationships with co-workers, belong to religious groups, are on sports teams, gangs, and have some type of community. On a more intimate level, we need family, spouses/partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants.
The takeaway: without support and acceptance, most of us don’t feel grounded. So it’s easy to understand why it’s difficult for emotional eaters to stick to their better-eating program and why so many people stay in unfulfilling relationships. If you need something, an unhealthy version of it may seem preferable to nothing at all.
Esteem needs are concerned with getting recognition, status, and respect from others, and guess what, it’s natural for even spiritual people to have this need. There are two types of esteem needs that Maslow described:
- “Lower” level esteem
- “Higher” level esteem.
The “lower” type is the need for status, fame, and prestige. The “higher” type is our need for self-respect. We satisfy this type of esteem by setting standards for ourselves, having self-confidence, independence, and freedom.
My personal insight: here in America, we are preoccupied with meeting this need at the expense of other needs. And for most people, what they’re doing ain’t working.
“What a man can be, he must be.” This sums up our innate need for self-actualization. Once our basic needs met, we start looking toward self-actualization. These are some of the things we’re looking to achieve on this level:
- Our full potential
- Personal growth
- Peak experiences
- Become everything we’re capable of becoming
One of the criticisms of Maslow’s model is that people do zigzag through the pyramid, and don’t generally work on one single level at a time as the model suggests. I agree. At any given time, most of us are working on all these levels to some degree.
What I think will be helpful for you to do, is to, with the help of this model, shift your expectations of yourself depending on what you most need. Yes, pursue personal growth and self-improvement, but don’t expect that you can perform at a level 10 (perfection) if you have other unmet needs.
Key Takeaways from Maslow’s Hierarchy
Keep these takeaways in the front of your mind moving forward.
- It’s important we meet ourselves where we are, and
- Do what’s most important/most beneficial for us NOW
- A solid foundation is critical to staying on track
- Having help and support feeds our motivation
- When we feel good we’re more motivated
You cannot argue with any of these insights into motivation, can you?
The first thing I learned about myself from Maslow’s theory is that many of my failures weren’t failures at all. Because the basis of Maslow’s theory is that it’s hard (near impossible) to successfully work on higher needs when our lower needs aren’t met, I could let go of feeling like a failure about so many things I didn’t stick to.
I hope that this look at Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation helps you figure out where to place your focus and to understand what is reasonable to expect of yourself. Only be hard on yourself for not doing what you CAN do.
If your physiological needs are met and you’re slacking on your security needs, then yeah, push yourself to do better. Push yourself to come up with creative solutions. Be kind to yourself while you’re pushing yourself to work at your potential. Bit by bit, you’ll improve, climb higher, and eventually get to the levels where you know you belong.
Depending on how you’re approaching this “reaching your potential” process, you can either drive yourself crazy or be inspired by it. I hope you stay inspired.
Christine is a Life Strategist and Emotional Health Coach living in Los Angeles. She's big on meditation and believes in systems and routines, and in personalizing everything you do to help you get where you want to be.