When people are immersed in fear, they generally don’t feel secure enough to focus on higher-level aspirations such as improving their relationships or expressing their creativity. Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs is an elegant picture of the order in which human needs are met. Generally, it is easier to focus on love and happiness when you are not worried about food and shelter.
Understanding Maslow’s hierarchy helps us deal with people in our lives who are under stress. Where someone is on the pyramid is not solely a function of external factors, but also a function of the person’s psychological tendencies. Understanding where they are helps us to relate to them more effectively.
As with most theories, the hierarchy of needs is a useful way of seeing general patterns, but it is not a rigid structure.
Living at a lower level of needs
Many people around the world live on one of the bottom two rungs of the pyramid for their entire lives because their physiological or safety needs are always under threat. When you are hungry or living in an area of civil unrest or war, you don’t have time to worry about your child’s self-esteem or your own self-actualization.
Yet, poverty and unrest do not preclude higher levels of psychological attainment, such as pursuit of friendship, community, and living up to your potential. However, the greater the external threat the more challenging it becomes to pursue those higher aspirations.
Living at a higher level of needs
These articles are primarily read by and written for people who value personal growth and loving relationships. They are fortunate to be free from the relentless worry about basic needs and survival, and can thus focus on higher needs such as belonging, love, and life’s meaning.
Yet, in an instant, anyone can suddenly find him- or herself at the lowest level on the pyramid, if only psychologically. A person who becomes ill or loses a spouse or a job may be racked with fear as nightmarish as someone living in the middle of a wartime environment. The chemical and psychological responses may be just as severe as if there were a deadly threat.
Even when future safety is not at stake, someone who loses his or her job may react as though it were. For instance, someone whose very identity is based on being a productive career-oriented person may feel annihilated when he or she loses that job.
While the hierarchy of needs is greatly influenced by external circumstances, another critical factor is the psychological state you choose when the going gets rough.
Even some of the most fortunate people, who don’t need to worry about food and shelter, may live under great stress worrying about their financial deals or the stock market, finding themselves at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy psychologically. The same is true of some healthy people who live in constant fear of disease and thus have turned into hypochondriacs, or exercise fanatics, who destroy their bodies in their obsessive quest for “health.” It is low-level fear that drives them even though they have adequate health, food, and shelter.
On the opposite side, there are people whose basic needs are constantly threatened, and yet, they are able to live in a tranquil psychological state aspiring to love and self-actualization. Thus, they manage to reside at the top of the pyramid.
Anyone can find him- or herself at the bottom, and anyone can bring him- or herself to the top. Clearly, however, the worse the external circumstances, the more challenging it becomes to have the ability, strength, and support to focus on higher-level needs.
Dealing with someone on the lower level
When someone has dropped into a lower level of the pyramid, it is not the best time to discuss how to improve your relationship or your happiness. It is more effective and compassionate to meet that person on his or her current level and try to help.
Imagine your teenage child comes home from school under great stress because of a remark made by a peer. The parent should realize that the teenager has dropped into the bottom of the pyramid psychologically. While such an event may seem trivial to an adult, to a teenager it is not. Don’t expect warmth and family affiliation. Simply be there to help if help is needed.
Similarly, if your partner has lost his job, don’t expect him to work on the relationship. He just needs to know he is loved, unconditionally. This is where your own ability to remain calm and non-reactive can help him from spiraling downwards into panic.
Sometimes getting out of the circular thinking that creates panic may require a change of activities or a change of setting to evoke a different psychological state. For some people that might involve playing with the kids, going to an inspirational talk or church, or doing volunteer work. For others, it might involve playing a sport, watching a game with friends, or going on a trip.
Nobody’s life is ever totally secure. It is left up to us to seek and aspire to higher levels of meaning despite life’s uncertainty. One of the best examples is the Greek sage and philosopher Epictetus, who wrote his most inspiring work while imprisoned.
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD