Musing on Maslow

By Beth Ritchie of https://propergrownup.com/ 

Now that we’re well into lockdown 2.0, most of us have reached a stage of acceptance, and with it comes the inevitable contemplation and reflection that often accompanies a period of confinement. Both lockdowns have provided me with the time and brain space to really look into where I need to make changes in order to achieve my life goals. This has neatly coincided with a full on existential crisis (as only living through a global pandemic will apparently do to a woman).

But any self-work, whether brought on by existential angst or not, really isn’t a bad thing in my mind. We often get so caught up in the busyness of life that months or even years can pass before we check in with ourselves to see whether we’re ok.

Ever since I first saw Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in my A-Level sociology class 25 years ago, I have used it as a sort of barometer to evaluate how I’m doing. And self-actualisation, which sits at the very top of the pyramid, became my objective in life. I even consider it my duty as a human being (never one for the dramatics, me).

So who on earth is Maslow and what is self-actualisation, actually?

Abraham Maslow was a mid-20th century psychologist most famous for creating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a ranking of human needs often used to explain an individual’s motivation for partaking in certain behaviours.

Maslow argued that human beings seek to satisfy each need before progressing to the next one. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological basics such as shelter, food and air, the next block is personal safety (including things like employment and health), followed by love and belonging, then esteem (respect from others and for ourselves). The pyramid finally culminates in the nirvana (as I saw it) of self-actualisation, which means achieving one’s full potential in every area of life (doesn’t that sound so deliciously fulfilling and worthwhile? Imagine having that little ditty written on your gravestone).

The Hierarchy of Needs is arguably one of the most overused psychological theories in history, especially considering that Maslow himself criticised it for lacking any scientific basis. But that hasn’t stopped its popularity as a theory, so much so that it has crept out of academia and into the mainstream where it has generated countless memes (usually by adding an extra layer to the bottom of the pyramid, I’ve seen everything from wine to WiFi, both of which have provided a lifeline to many in 2020 for various reasons).

When I first came across Maslow I was 17 and living alone for the very first time. My feelings were alternating wildly between elation at having so much freedom and the enduring terror of having to effectively keep myself alive. And while I know that Maslow didn’t intend for people to use his Hierarchy as a sort of checklist for successful adulting like I have, it’s certainly provided me with a useful roadmap to keep me on track. I frequently check in with it to see how I’m scoring on each level, and feel like I’m winning at life if I’m moving towards the top (although I’ve never actually reached the peak of the pyramid personally, it remains my life’s work).

I do like to have a plan. As an inquisitive person and general magpie of everything that might be considered a “life hack”, combined with being a writer constantly looking for things to report back to the world, I am liable to go off on all sorts of tangents in pursuit of anything that promises to make my life better, more fulfilled or improve it in some way. This makes me prone to go off on the wrong track if I’m not careful (I’m sure my family would vote me “most likely to get drawn into a cult”).

Over the years, in my quest to become the best possible version of myself, I’ve tried everything from veganism and chemical free living, to MLM selling, and from studying a Quaker lifestyle through to Ayurveda, to name a few of the more obscure ones (I’m kind of like a poor man’s Gwyneth Paltrow, I will try anything, although I draw the line at steaming my vagina).

But the Hierarchy has always been there to keep me on track, to gauge whether or not these things are truly fulfilling any of my actual needs. And in recent weeks, good ole’ Maslow has helped guide my soul searching and prevented me from going off the edge.

We all have someone or something that keeps us sane during these crazy times, and maybe mine is a bit weird by all accounts. But during a global pandemic (and apparently, if you’re me, during life in general), we have to use whatever works. Don’t we?

  • Musing on Maslow

    Beth Ritchie