Maslow Is a Dick

So. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s pretty cool:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fact that we, as a culture, here in the US (and really, most of Western civilization as a whole), have solutions and plans to get the bottom three, even four, items handled, but bupkis for the top.

Breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion – These level one basics are addressed for a huge swath of Americans. Not everybody, mind, and there are a lot of people doing good work to change that. But in theory the way it works is: you, or someone who supports you, get(s) a job to earn money, which pays for food, water, shelter, etc. We have support networks in place to help with this (though not anywhere as comprehensive as I think they should be).

Security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property – We have level 2 covered, as well, albeit with the same capitalist solutions. Again, we have support infrastructure to help with this, although it’s deeply flawed.

Friendship, family, sexual intimacy – Once you have the bottom two set, things start to get harder. We hear a lot of folks on the internets complaining about their difficulties with these, and there are a host of advice columnists to tell you what to do. So, it’s tricky, but at least there are resources (even if some of said resources, like PUAs, are horrible).

Self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others – Here there’s therapy, if you can afford it. There’s also a heap of self-help books, etc.

Self-actualization – And here’s where it stops. Sure, lots of religions tell you they have the secret, and so do lots of books. In my experience, though, they really only help with level four, not five. The only roadmaps we have for being happy once the basics are covered are other peoples’, and this is a deeply personal thing. I seriously doubt that any two people’s methods of securing this are the same. The lower the level, the more help, roadmaps, ideas, support, etc. there are. But what do we have for self-actualization?


I am convinced this is why so many folks I know who have the rest locked down struggle with depression, anxiety, and other related issues. I’m pretty fucking sure it’s why I do. As you go up the levels, things become more and more internal, and we are a society of the external even as we like to try to navel-gaze (notice how much of the self-actualization things going around are things you buy or pay to do in a group). Even our navel-gazing is almost always external — we write about it on blogs, we make tv shows about it, we have huge expensive workshops and cults built around it, etc.

Going genuinely within, into your self,  is something we as a culture don’t quite know how to do yet. Some folks are figuring it out, and their methods can be a guide, but nobody can do this for you the way they can with the other levels.

Level five is about you and only you, not you-in-relationship-to-others-and-to-things. Level five is about who you are when nobody’s watching, and we as a culture really hate that. We hate being alone.

Louis CK has a great bit about this in an interview, where he talks about how we distract ourselves constantly to avoid the existential angst waiting for us when we actually get still for a few minutes. You wouldn’t expect it of a stand-up comic, but it’s actually pretty deep:

That ability to be alone with yourself, filling up the emptiness inside, that’s level five.

And we don’t have a good method or infrastructure to help with this because up until the last hundred years or so, most people were too busy working on the previous levels. The ones who weren’t, the really wealthy, they were the ones suffering from ennui or staring into the dark abyss of the soul.

Now, a huge swath of Western population has one through four pretty locked down, and five is kicking our ass. We have therapy and medication and religion and and and, but external help only gets you so far with five. They’re the equivalent of someone helping you with the others, but since one through four are external, another person or thing can’t really do a whole lot to help with the internality of five. I can hold your hand and be your friend, but I can’t reach into your brain and show you how to be self-actualized.

Hence rising mental illness numbers. When you’re spending a lot of time on the lower levels, you don’t have mental bandwidth to work on your depression, you’re too busy making sure you don’t starve, or that you keep your job, or whatever. Not that folks with the lower levels in flux don’t have mental illness, my theory is that they either push it aside to deal with externalities or they drop out of the societal and reproductive pool. We humans breed for the ability to focus externally, especially in Western society. (Maybe also in other societies, I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge there to say.)

This has kind of screwed us over in the long run.

There’s a weird inversion of level five, where instead of self-actualizing, you sort of other-actualize. These are folks who react to level five by being dictators or abusers or manipulative CEOs, or otherwise pushing their inability to fix their insides out onto other people. This is bad. This is why we are destroying the planet and ourselves.

We as a society need to figure this shit out.

I don’t have an answer. I do have a daily spiritual practice which includes sitting meditation. Every day I spend ten minutes alone in my own head. It’s terrifying sometimes, but I am determined to get used to it. I want to figure out how to not be afraid of my self. I want level five, dammit.

What do you think? Is my theory a crackpot one or do you think I’m onto something?

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One Response to Maslow Is a Dick

  1. barbararuth says:

    I think you’re on to something. The term “self-actualization” has been extroverted to the point of uselessness. I see the term all the time in reference to other-directed activity; it’s come to mean display of stereotypical success behavior. E.g., becoming a leader by writing a popular blog = “pursuing your potential.” Carving out time to be alone, working on projects that may or may not hit the big time = “lacking in the confidence to get out there blah blah blah.”