Climbing Maslow‘s Pyramid and the Courage to Change

Why do people resist change, even when that could mean progress?

Posted Jan 18, 2017

Everyone is familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Why is it represented as a pyramid? One interpretation is that relatively few people have the resources and the opportunities to achieve the higher levels of needs. The principle is that everyone must climb up the pyramid, satisfying the needs of one layer at a time before proceeding on to the next higher one. Of course, many of us don’t follow a strict linear path, and jump around different layers, haphazardly discovering what we need to learn about ourselves.

There is another aspect to the pyramid that is less obvious because the hierarchy works in the opposite direction. Doesn’t pursuing self-actualization require much greater clarity and focus of effort as well as greater investment of intense energy? Where is that additional effort going?

Think about what are physiological needs. These are basic requirements for being alive: food, shelter, health — well-defined, very tangible things. Methods for obtaining them are straightforward and well-known.

In the category of “love/belonging,” a person’s energy should be invested largely in externalities, in other people, for example, or even pets. Most domestic pets seem quite happy with a minimum of maintenance and dogs, especially, will reward their owners with unconditional love. Just look at all the YouTube videos of cute cats and dogs. Absolutely amazing. Greater self-awareness is part of the journey, though, in addition to the focus on “others.” We need to reflect on how we can be more “lovable.” Otherwise, we may spend our energy trying to impress others with our love (and attention) directed toward them, but find ourselves not receiving the love we want.

What is “self-actualization”? The term is a noun that describes a state of being. The reality, though, is that the state is more of a process, a dedicated journey whose focus is on expression of “who we really are.” What do we care about? What do we value, in ourselves and in others? Where are the lines that define our moral compass? Like loving, and “being lovable,” this is a dynamic condition, characterized by non-linear growth, that involves self-reflection as well as feedback from others. So, climbing up the pyramid will take more continuous effort and courage. As motivation, some people will look to a sense of dissatisfaction with who we have been in the past. Others prefer a more positive orientation: We want to be “better” than we were in the past.

In any case, we are driven to change ourselves, our beliefs and behaviors. Along the journey, we will find resistance within ourselves, too, in pre-existing beliefs and values that once were more important to us. Perhaps the perception of who we are or want to be in a new context, recognizing that the context of our lives is constantly changing? As anyone who has ever tried to give up a bad habit, such as smoking, or overeating, knows, dealing with our internal resistance can be a daunting task. Multi-billion dollar businesses have been created to help.

So the pyramid represents another kind of hierarchy, that of resistance to change and the energy necessary to effect change. At the lowest levels of the pyramid, behavior changes are or can be mostly physical. The sense of urgency can be very strong, so the motivation is clear and resistance can be more easily overcome. How many people really want to make the effort to examine the depth of the beliefs that comprise their sense of self-esteem? Many of these beliefs are “transparent,” i.e., they work in the background of our mental processing, without our conscious awareness of their influence. Just digging them out and looking at them can require new skills and unfamiliar discipline.

So, why are some people driven to self-actualization? What motivates them? Are they mostly idealistic dreamers, creative artists, philosophers? What about self-made millionaires and billionaires? Are they also operating on this level? Are all these people role models for the rest of us? Are they the “natural leaders” society needs?

What is the role of culture and education in all this? Aren’t “needs” also defined by social custom and culture? Numerous experiments, including kibbutzim in Israel or the hippies in San Francisco in the 1960’s, have explored the consequences of social structures that could provide the lower levels of needs as described by Maslow. The intent was to allow and facilitate people to focus on the higher-level needs. What do those experiments show about our stage of social evolution?

Maybe one interpretation of the outcomes is exactly that we haven’t focused enough attention on the resistance to change, on the energy that must be directed inward, toward the very soul of our being? How can we help young people embrace the challenges, find meaning and satisfaction, even fun, by choosing this path?