Modernizing Maslow’s Hierarchy through the Lens of Self-Care

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology. Along with Carl Rogers (1902-1987), Maslow stressed the importance of looking at the whole person rather than reducing individuals to a list of symptoms or diagnoses. Both also placed a central focus on the concept of self-actualization, or the belief that humans possess an innate drive to pursue and achieve the best versions of themselves. The idea that we are naturally driven toward self-improvement and personal growth continues to influence the strength-based movement in mental health and the popularity of Positive Psychology.

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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's theory of human motivation is summarized in the Hierarchy of Needs, introduced in 1943. It refocuses our understanding of human nature to the idea that, left unobstructed, humans will naturally gravitate toward goodness, rather than toward evil. This directly countered the long-held belief that humans were naturally more evil or, at least more balanced between the two. On the first point, Sigmund Freud, who borrowed much of his theory from the philosophical pessimist movement, once argued that the goal of therapy is to "turn misery into mundane unhappiness." According to the founder of talk-therapy, the best any of us could hope for is mundane unhappiness. To the second point, Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud, believed that as human beings we are equally likely to move toward both ends of the spectrum.

Humanistists counter this by arguing goodness is our natural path and that evil occurs because our movement forward is blocked. According to Maslow, when left unobstructed, humans naturally move toward flourishing. His Hierarchy of Needs is often represented as a pyramid, with our basic physiological and safety needs at the bottom and our self-actualization needs at the top. The model suggests that upward movement is natural but becomes blocked by our human needs for food and water at the low end and personal growth and self-actualization at the high end.

Individuals must satisfy the lower-level needs before they can ascend to higher-level ones. However, it's important to note that real-life experiences are not always as linear as the hierarchy implies; people often navigate multiple needs simultaneously. From the most foundational to the most aspirational, the five levels of the hierarchy include:

Physiological Needs: At the base of the hierarchy are physiological needs, which represent the most fundamental and essential needs for survival. These include basic biological requirements like air, food, water, shelter, and sleep. When these needs are unmet, it is difficult for anyone to focus on higher order needs - its hard to think about relationships when you lack shelter or haven't eaten all day. In this sense, physiological needs take precedence over all others and must be met before the individual can move up the hierarchy.

Safety Needs: Once physiological needs are adequately satisfied, individuals can begin focusing on safety needs. Safety refers to both physical safety (protection from harm and danger) and psychological safety (stability and security in one's environment). This level includes the needs for healthcare, financial security, and a safe living environment. Keep in mind that things can happen that can stop us from moving forward and even push us backward. Being at the second level doesn't mean you will never return to the first.

Belongingness and Love Needs: When physiological and safety needs are met, people can more comfortably seek social connection and belongingness with others. This level encompasses the need for interpersonal relationships, friendships, family, and a sense of community or 'fitting in.' Creating this social support allows you to focus on yourself more and move to the next level of the hierarchy.

Esteem Needs: Esteem is a sense of satisfaction for yourself as a person and your role in the world. In this sense, esteem needs are divided into two categories: self-esteem (self-respect, confidence, and self-worth) and the esteem of others (recognition, status, and reputation). Fulfilling these needs is critical for building a positive self-image and a sense of accomplishment or forward movement.

Self-Actualization Needs: At the top of Maslow's hierarchy is the pursuit of self-actualization - the realization of (or at least the movement toward) one's full potential. This level involves personal growth, creativity, problem-solving, and seeking out of meaning. Individuals who have satisfied lower-level needs are more able and therefore more likely to seek self-actualization because they have a foundation of basic needs, safety, abelonging, and self and other esteem. By aligning activities with values and interests, self-actualization becomes the north star, of sorts, for us to aim toward. Maslow called this level more aspirational than achievable, as none of us reach our pinnacle in life, but we can work toward it.

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A More Modern Hierarchy Built for Self-Care

With the onslaught of information and other challenges we face today due to social media and the rapid expansion of modern technologies like artificial intelligence, self-care is becoming more important than ever. A previous post of mine discussed the increased sense of loneliness many are experiencing post COVID.  Reimagining Maslow's hierarchy through the lens of self-care may help us build resilience and enhance our well-being in today's modern world. By recognizing the importance of self-care at each level of the hierarchy, you can better navigate the complexities of your lives and foster resilience.

Again, remember that life does not occur linearly. We often move up and down the hierarchy as our life situation changes. The idea is to develop a deliberate practice of self care so you are less negatively impacted by life's ups and downs. From the most foundational to the most aspirational, the reimagined five levels of the hierarchy, along with their self-care activities, include:

Physiological Needs: Prioritizing self-care at this level is about making sure your basic needs are met in order to maintain physical health and well-being. This can mean taking time away from your screens and engaging with yourself on a physiological level. Here are some specific examples of how to engage in self-care to meet these needs:

  • Make sure you get enough sleep each night. Set time limits on screen time and digital consumption - for example, you can separate sleep space and screen space or develop a 'self-policy' about where, when and for how long you can engage in social media.
  • Similarly, you could create digital free zones (or digital free time periods) throughout the day to ensure a healthy balance of digital and real-world activities. You could even do a 'digital detox' where you avoid screen time for an entire day or a weekend.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking enough water and maintain a healthy diet based on your needs. Avoid sugary drinks and be careful of caffeine, especially in at night or if you have trouble sleeping.
  • Get regular exercise to promote overall health and to reduce stress. This will help you sleep better too.
  • Practice relaxation, such as deep breathing or meditation to manage stress levels. Again, better sleep means more physical and emotional energy to for the next day.

Safety Needs: Self-care at this level focuses on creating a sense of safety and security in your daily life, including online security and personal safety when engaging in the digital world. Here are some specific examples of how to engage in self-care to meet your safety needs:

  • Establish boundaries to protect your physical and emotional well-being. This includes being cautious online, not sharing personal information, and being aware of online security threats and how to protect yourself in the digital environment.
  • Create supportive relationships with trusted friends and family members. When online, look for a supportive online community that uplifts you. If you find others are toxic or interfere with your well-being, find a new group. Don't get sucked into the drama of today's divisive politics.
  • Develop skills to manage stress and anxiety effectively. Practice mindfulness to create a connection with your world outside .
  • Create a safe and comfortable living environment and a safe way to live your best life. Pay attention to your real-world environment.
  • Be aware of the signs of digital burnout and take steps to avoid it.

Love and Belongingness Needs: Prioritizing self-care at this level involves creating and growing meaningful relationships and fostering real-world and digital connections with others. Here are some specific examples of how to engage in self-care to meet these needs:

  • Spend quality time with loved ones and express appreciation for their support. Sometimes connecting can be difficult in our busy world so you could even schedule face-to-face time if needed to deepen connections beyond online communication.
  • Seek out social activities or groups that align with your interests and values, both on- and offline. Schedule digital-free get-togethers.
  • Practice active listening and empathy to deepen connections with others. Be curious about what's going on in the lives of those you care about. A few close friendships can help you feel more much more connected to your world that many superficial relationships.
  • Limit comparisons with others, especially online where things may not be (and usually are not) as they appear. Also, limit FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) by amplifying social media feeds and social groups that foster your well-being.
  • Engage in acts of kindness or volunteer work to foster a sense of connection with your community. Others feel disconnected too, reach out if you can. Getting out of your own head and focusing your attention on others is a great way to counter depression, loneliness, and even chronic negative self-talk.

Esteem Needs: Self-care at this level means building self-esteem and feeling accepted by important people in your life. This can be especially difficult in our modern digital world, so don't forget to look at real-world relationships as well as digital relationships. Here are some specific examples of how to engage in self-care to meet these needs:

  • Set goals for your personal growth and celebrate achievements - even better if you can share them with important people in your life.
  • Practice self-compassion and challenge (counter) or defuse (do not give attention to) negative self-talk. Remember that self-worth is not determined by social media comparisons - because social media is often not an accurate representation of the real world.
  • Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself and consider reducing time spent with people who make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Engage in activities that allow you to be yourself, without the need to adjust who you are in order to 'fit in.' Find ways to be your natural or most comfortable self and engage with others who share your interests and values.
  • Seek out feedback from trusted friends and family members to gain insight into areas for personal development. Work to be your best self without losing your sense of self. Be curious about yourself.

Self-Actualization Needs: Prioritizing self-care at this level involves engaging in activities that include self-discovery and personal growth. Much of this level is about finding meaning and direction in your life. When new technology creates constant change, staying focused on your values is even more important. Here are some specific examples of how to engage in self-care to meet your self-actualization needs:

  • Explore your interests through creative outlets and seek out new experiences. Use technology to learn new things about your world and engage with others who share your interests and values.
  • Challenge yourself and expand your comfort zones but don't forget your safety needs.
  • Set aside time for self-reflection and introspection to gain insights on your values and what brings meaning to your life. Practice digital mindfulness - seek awareness on how technology impacts your thoughts, your emotions, and your behavior and make adjustments to ensure you have power over social media, not the other way around.
  • Embrace setbacks as opportunities to learn and build resilience. Maintain a growth mindset by looking at negative experiences as learning opportunities and practice recalibration after each learning experience. Ask yourself: "What can I learn from this experience to help me continue focusing on becoming my best self?"

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About Christopher L. Heffner, PsyD, PhD

Dr. Heffner is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Antioch University where he teaches Cognitive Behavior and Solution-Focused Therapy, Clinical Supervision, and Community Psychology. His research focuses on strength-based interventions, resilience, and well-being.