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. We will want to improve our health, our relationships, do better at work, and learn new things.
But what if you’re stuck and unable to fulfill these goals?
The dark side of personal development is that it can make you feel like you “should” be flourishing all the time. Personal development has become a big industry that’s espousing some very harmful ideas about abundance and having it all.
If you don’t have it all then you’re not measuring up. You’re not believing in yourself or in the principle strongly enough.
If you ask some of these manifestation disciples to explain why you haven’t manifested your desires, they’ll tell you that it’s your fault:
- you must not have set clear intentions…
- you must be focusing on your lack instead of what you truly desire!
I don’t believe that! Maslow’s theory shares an explanation that I find much more plausible.
Abraham Maslow was a psychiatrist who thought that a person’s psychological health (their motivation) is predicated on them fulfilling their innate needs in priority, in a particular order.
We use a diagram like this as a tool for explaining the order Maslow thinks of our needs take, or, what takes priority over what.
Maslow thought that before we will want to work on higher needs, our lower needs must be adequately satisfied first.
You don’t know how happy I was when I came across this theory. Suddenly, I understood why certain things might be more challenging for me. I could stop beating myself up for my failures and instead focus my efforts on giving myself what I needed… what was missing in my life.
Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation
As I work my way up the pyramid, I will try and explain each level and my takeaways for each level. I will try and explain why someone who doesn’t have their needs met in each area, might feel unmotivated.
I hope that Maslow’s theory can bring you some of the self-understanding it brought me.
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, many of your good intentions will be very hard to keep.
I see plenty of people (black people if I going, to be honest) who live with chronic financial insecurity, yet they 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 it 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, and I believe in prayer, but I also believe it has its limitations. It’s worth understanding that you’re not failing because you can’t stick to your exercise program or other goals, so lighten up on yourself.
Social/Love and Belonging needs
The third level of Maslow’s theory is our social needs. Here is what we crave and need at this level…
- 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 it’s easy to understand 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 takeaway: here in America, we are preoccupied with meeting this need at the expense of other needs.
When most people focus on the area of their life before other needs are met, it can depress their level of self-esteem even more. Think about those who haven’t healed yet from trauma, someone who constantly compares themselves to others? These people are likely to have an unhealthy relationship with social media–it’s doing a number on their self-esteem.
In order to have healthy self-esteem, we have to be doing things that make us feel esteemed. We have to first know our values, know what matters to us, and be doing more of those things and less of what others find trendy, fabulous, or interesting.
“What a man can be, he must be.” This sums up our innate need for self-actualization. Once our basic needs are 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
My takeaway: it’s okay if you’re not crushing it! It’s okay if you’re not being all you can be yet. The fact that you’re not crushing it yet might be that you have other more pressing things to take care of first.
Yes, pursue personal growth and self-improvement and try to be all you can be… but consider what you’re working with and where you still have to grow. Don’t expect that you can perform at a level 10 (perfection) if you have other unmet needs.
One of the criticisms of Maslow’s model is that it doesn’t account for the fact that some 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.
Key Takeaways from Maslow’s Hierarchy
- It’s important we meet ourselves where we are, and
- Do what’s most important/most beneficial for us NOW
- Having 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 keys to motivation, can you?
From Maslow’s theory, I took away that many of my failures weren’t failures at all. With this insight, I could shift my expectations of myself. I could have more realistic expectations of myself while still being driven.
I hope Maslow’s theory can help 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.
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.