Many people are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” with self-actualization depicted at the top of a pyramid. Chances are, you learned about it in your introduction to psychology course in college or saw it diagrammed on Facebook (perhaps humorously with “WiFi” or “toilet paper” added to the base of the pyramid).
There are a lot of misconceptions about “Maslow’s Pyramid”. For one, Maslow never actually created a pyramid to represent his hierarchy of needs! Maslow was actually a developmental psychologist at heart and viewed human development as often involving a two-steps forward, one-step-back dynamic, in which we are continually returning to our basic needs to draw strength, learn from our hardships, and work toward greater integration of our whole being.
Rather than a lockstep Pyramid, Maslow actually emphasized a different feature of the hierarchy. I believe this framework of human motivation is highly relevant to the uncertain times we are currently living in.
Deficiency vs. Growth
Maslow argued that all the needs can be grouped into two main classes of needs, which must be integrated for wholeness: deficiency and growth. Deficiency needs, which Maslow referred to as “D-needs,” are motivated by a lack of satisfaction, whether it’s the lack of food, safety, affection, belonging, or self-esteem. The “D-realm” of existence colors all of our perceptions and distorts reality, making demands on a person’s whole being: “Feed me! Love me! Respect me!”
The greater the deficiency of these needs, the more we distort reality to fit our expectations and treat others in accordance with their usefulness in helping us satisfy our most deficient needs. In the D-realm, we are also more likely to use a variety of defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from the pain of having such deficiency in our lives. Our defenses are quite “wise” in the sense that they can help us to avoid unbearable pain that can feel like too much to bear at the moment.
Nevertheless, Maslow argued that the growth needs—such as self-actualization and transcendence—have a very different sort of wisdom associated with them. Distinguishing between “defensive-wisdom” and “growth-wisdom,” Maslow argued that the Being-Realm of existence (or B-realm, for short) is like replacing a clouded lens with a clear one. Instead of being driven by fears, anxieties, suspicions, and the constant need to make demands on reality, one is more accepting and loving of oneself and others. Seeing reality more clearly, growth-wisdom is more about “What choices will lead me to greater integration and wholeness?” rather than “How can I defend myself so that I can feel safe and secure?”
From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that our safety and security concerns, as well as our desires for short-lived hedonic pleasures, would make greater demands on our attention than our desire to grow as a whole person. As the journalist and author Robert Wright put it in his book Why Buddhism Is True, “The human brain was designed—by natural selection—to mislead us, even enslave us.” All that our genes “care” about is getting propagated into the next generation, no matter the cost to the development of the whole person. If this involves narrowing our worldview and causing us to have outsize reactions to the world that aren’t actually in line with reality, so be it.
However, such a narrowing of worldview runs the risk of inhibiting a fuller understanding of the world and ourselves. Despite the many challenges to growth, Maslow believed we are all capable of self-actualization, even if most of us do not self-actualize because we spend most of our lives motivated by deficiency. Maslow’s emphasis on the dialectical nature of safety and growth is strikingly consistent with current research and theorizing in the fields of personality psychology, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence. There is a general consensus that optimal functioning of the whole system (whether humans, primates, or machines) requires both stability of goal pursuit in the face of distraction and disruption as well as the capacity for flexibility to adapt and explore the environment.
Becoming a Fully Functioning Human
At a very young age, we feel hungry, or tired, or fearful, but are often given messages by well-meaning (and, sadly, often not-so-well-meaning) parents and other caretakers that “if you feel that way, I won’t love you.”
This can happen in a number of subtle and unsubtle ways anytime an expression of a need is disregarded as not as important as the needs of the caretaker. And so we start acting how we think we should feel, not how we actually feel. As a result, so many of us grow up being constantly swayed by the opinions and thoughts of others, driven by our own insecurities and fears of facing our actual self, that we introject the beliefs, needs, and values of others into the essence of our being. Not only do we lose touch with our real felt needs, but we also alienate ourselves from our best selves.
To the psychotherapist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, the loneliest state of all is not the loneliness of social relationships, but an almost complete separation from one’s own experience. Based on his observations with a large number of patients with healthy development of their whole self, he developed the notion of the “fully functioning person.” Like many of the other founding humanistic psychologists, Rogers was inspired by the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who noted that “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair.” According to Rogers, the fully functioning person:
- Is open to all of the elements of their experience,
- Develops a trust in their own experiences as an instrument of sensitive living,
- Is accepting of the locus of evaluation as residing within themselves, and
- Is learning to live their life as a participant in a fluid, ongoing process, in which they are continually discovering new aspects of themselves in the flow of their experience.
Rogers believed that we each have an innate self-actualizing tendency that can be explained by the existence of an organismic valuing process (OVP). According to Rogers, the OVP is a vital part of humanity and evolved in order to help the organism move in the direction of growth, constantly responding to feedback from the environment, and correcting choices that consistently move against the current of growth. Rogers believed that when people are inwardly free to choose their deepest values, they tend to value experiences and goals that further survival, growth, and development, as well as the survival and development of others.
Modern research supports the existence and importance of an OVP in humans. Positive organizational psychologists Reena Govindji and P. Alex Linley created a scale to measure OVP and found that it was positively correlated with greater happiness, knowledge and use of one’s greatest strengths, and a sense of vitality in daily life. Here are some statements that can give you a rough estimate of how in touch you are with your deepest feelings, needs, and values:
ORGANISMIC VALUING SCALE
- I know the things that are right for me.
- I get what I need from life.
- The decisions I make are the right ones for me.
- I feel that I am in touch with myself.
- I feel integrated with myself.
- I do the things that are right for me.
- The decisions I make are based on what is right for me.
- I am able to listen to myself.
In another line of research on OVP, Kennon Sheldon conducted a series of clever experiments demonstrating that when given autonomy, people do tend to favor the growth choice over time. Sheldon gave people free choice over time to choose from a wide menu of goals and found that the goals naturally grouped into two main clusters: security vs. growth:
- Have well-respected opinions.
- Have many nice things.
- Be admired by many others.
- Be well-known to many.
- Be financially successful.
- Be well-liked and popular.
- Find a good, high-paying job.
- Help those who need it.
- Show affection to loved ones.
- Feel much loved by intimates.
- Make others’ lives better.
- Be accepted for who I am.
- Help improve the world.
- Contribute something lasting.
Sheldon found that under conditions of complete freedom to choose, people tend to move toward growth, changing their minds over time in directions most likely to be growth-enhancing. Of course, the goal isn’t to become 100 percent growth-oriented and 0 percent security-driven; we need both security goals and growth goals. The point here is that under optimal conditions for choosing, the relative balance over time tends to tip toward growth.
In fact, Sheldon found that those with the highest initial adoption of security goals shifted the most toward growth goals over time. As Sheldon notes, those holding “unrewarding values are most in need of [growth-relevant] motivational change and are thus most likely to evidence such change.” Therefore, the research suggests that when free of anxiety, fear, and guilt, most people do tend to not only move in the direction of the realization of their unique potential but also tend to move in the direction of goodness.
This should give us hope and point to what is possible under optimal conditions. But it should also give us a healthy dose of realism, considering that in the real world, most people are not entirely free to choose their most valued direction. The cultural climate matters a lot. For instance, many individuals with marginalized identities—whether based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, or even special education status (“learning disabled,” “gifted,” “twice-exceptional”)—often do not receive the environmental support and encouragement they need to feel comfortable fully expressing themselves. For such individuals, they may have greater difficulty feeling authentic in environments where they truly do not feel as though they fit in, or in which their minority status is so salient to them and everyone around them.
The culture of an institution can also have an effect on everyone within it. Sheldon found that new law students shifted toward security goals and away from growth goals during their first year of law school, presumably because “traditional legal education induces profound insecurity, which serves to alienate students from their feelings, values, and ideals.”
There are many other harsh and unpredictable environmental conditions that can lead people to be more safety focused at the expense of growth. All over the world– at this very moment-– people are finding themselves in just such a position with the growing Coronavirus pandemic that is forcing us all into a prolonged state of extreme insecurity and anxiety.
Not only can environmental conditions impede the realization of our self-actualizing tendency, but even within ourselves, we have so many different (often unconscious) aspects of our mind constantly clamoring for our attention. Which is why awareness is so important, including awareness of our inner conflicts and extreme traits.
Ultimately, though, we must choose growth, over and over again. As Maslow wrote, “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
From TRANSCEND by Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. LLC Copyright (c) 2020 by Scott Barry Kaufman
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