Rebecca Rose (Diploma in Holistic Life Coaching)
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a model that I first became aware of during my A level Sociology course around 16 years ago. At that time, I accepted most of what I was taught without question out of respect for the knowledge, expertise and experience of others and acknowledgement of my own lack thereof. Since then, my understanding of psychology, healing and holistic well-being has evolved significantly through study and personal experience. As a result, I have come to realise that while many individual theories and findings include elements of truth, they are part of a far bigger and more complex whole of which we are still learning and discovering as a species. My approach to learning is much more critical and as a result my experience of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is very different today compared to my first exposure to this concept.
There are a number of valuable assets to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, which can be applied on a personal level and within the context of coaching. It demonstrates that personality and motivation may be influenced by a multitude of different priorities, which are not fixed but rather change according to time and context. In this way, it gives us a broader sense of a ‘whole’ person, rather than identifying them with individual behaviours. It also helps us appreciate how not fulfilling our more basic needs could have a significant impact on our performance, success and personal development – thus highlighting the importance of fulfilling our needs in order to achieve our best, rather than neglecting ourselves in pursuit of our goals. This example also fits perfectly into Maslow’s Hierarchy as it shows how our needs for social belonging and approval are hindered by our physiological need for sustenance. This is an example I can personally relate to and experience quite regularly!
In my experience however, human personality and motivation are far more complex than Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can encompass alone. There are many examples of behaviours that are not explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or are in direct conflict with it – such as suicide, eating disorders or self-harm. One possible argument could be that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs represents a ‘healthy’ and ‘balanced’ response to our inner and outer world and that these conflicting behaviours are not a healthy, natural response – however Maslow’s Hierarchy does not address this. There are also many behaviours that would likely not be considered ‘unnatural’ or ‘unhealthy’ that contradict the order of Maslow’s Hierarchy; for example a mother, sibling, spouse or CEO neglecting their own physiological needs in favour of those of their loved ones or company. There are also thousands of men and women who put their own safety at risk on a daily basis for a cause they feel is greater than themselves – such as the military. Many people believe that it is necessary to abstain from some of the basic physiological needs Maslow identifies such as sex or food in order to progress towards self-actualisation. Many people also enjoy a number of dangerous hobbies such as skydiving or rock climbing for fun, which directly risks their physical health and safety.
Maslow used the term ‘peak experience’ to describe:
‘…a profound moment in a person’s life, an instance when they feel in harmony with all things, clear, spontaneous, independent and alert and often with relatively little awareness of time and space.’
Yet this type of experience that could be attributed more closely to self-actualisation is often reported by people when embarking in dangerous activities or during a near-death experience –when their most basic needs for safety and survival are in direct jeopardy.
From my experience therefore I feel that the various levels of the hierarchy are too restrictive. It may be more beneficial to group the various levels together into two or three sub-groups e.g. those that ensure survival by satisfying basic physical and psychological needs and those that promote the person’s evolution, development and self-actualisation. I would also raise the variables of cultural, societal, upbringing and age differences, which could cause some levels of the hierarchy to be attributed significantly more importance than others – for example, we may compromise our basic physiological needs or safety in ways that help us achieve more love, belonging, recognition or respect among our family or peers. A more flexible approach to Maslow’s Hierarchy could help us to understand why people would be willing to sacrifice their needs in one of the more basic areas for a payoff elsewhere, which could explain many of the examples of behaviour given above that do not otherwise appear to fit within the given model.
In conclusion, while Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs does have value in helping us understand human behaviour and experience, I believe this should be viewed within the context of a wider knowledge and experience while always remaining open minded. I believe that nothing is more important than approaching ourselves and each individual client or sessions as a student of life. By bringing our unique areas of expertise to the table so that they might benefit those we serve while also remaining humble and open minded, we are then able to work in a flexible way to adapt to our clients’ needs and serve their best interests. From my experience as a holistic therapist, I would add that in the vast majority of cases, I find the need for love is the fundamental motivating force behind much of behaviour – whether it is self-love, love for or from others or love from a more spiritual source. This could be because in the UK our basic physical needs and the need for safety have already been met and therefore this experience is a reflection of my client’s progression on the hierarchy. From a personal perspective however, I wonder if this drive for love is a deeper ‘soul’ calling which transcends the various levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy and which we are yet to understand.
- Reber, Arthur S. Penguin Dictionary of Psychology: Second edition (1995)