Editor’s Note: Transform Through Therapy specializes in online group therapy, with a special focus on grief and caregiving. This series will be talking about COVID-19 and the impact it is having on mental health.
It’s a strange world we live in, where even a trip to the grocery store and going back to school look strange.
It can be discombobulating to try and navigate even simple tasks, and that can be very frustrating. To help provide some clarity and understanding to these hurdles and irritants that seem to crop up everywhere, we’re going to frame it in a psychological theory called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’ll talk about what the theory is, how today’s issues are fitting into that theory, and then tell you our theory on how you can flip it all on its head and help improve some areas of your life.
First, what is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
Picture a pyramid shape, made up of five levels. The lower levels are more basic and build on each other as you move up the pyramid. Maslow’s theory states that you must fulfill the needs of one level in order to move up the pyramid to higher-level needs.
Physiological needs: These needs are for basic human survival — food and water, clothing and shelter, overall health, rest.
Safety: These include physical, emotional and financial. Fulfilling these needs means that you have a reasonable expectation of safety from violence and theft, emotional stability, and financial security.
Love and belonging: This refers to being part of a community, including friends and family, marriage, church congregations, and work cohorts. These structures are put into place to give us a sense of belonging.
Esteem: This is the first of what Maslow refers to as higher needs. It refers to having self-respect and confidence in our ability to provide the lower needs and continue to grow.
Self-actualization: The top of the pyramid is a place where you fulfill your full potential as a person. This includes education, skill development, caring for others and broadening your goals, such as learning a new language, traveling or winning an award.
What does this mean in today’s society and current situation?
Over the past five years or so there have been incredible moves in the self-actualization level of this pyramid. People traveling, developing side hustles and adding hashtags on Instagram to say “living my best life” or “yolo.” But as the pandemic swept in, and social distancing was put in place, the economy slowed down, people have been furloughed, laid off, or are worried about the security of their job, people had to suddenly downshift into lower need levels.
Physiological needs: There are many who are worried about putting food on the table, making the rent, and other basic needs to survive.
Safety: If you’re employed, but worrying about layoffs, then your need for financial security isn’t being met. Emotional safety also has been put in jeopardy for many, if they are dealing with heightened PTSD, abusive relationships and other challenges. And even physical safety, when looking at protests across the United States.
Love and belonging: The structures that we put in place to help us feel love and belonging — circles of friends, families, church congregations, work cohorts — have been closed off to us in many ways. Social distancing has pushed office employees to work from home, canceled church gatherings, even book clubs and ladies lunches have to be reconsidered. And marriages also may be feeling a strain with newfound “togetherness” that can bring up issues that were easily ignored before sheltering in place. Without these structures, many are feeling anxiety, worry, loneliness and isolation with no clear way to alleviate it.
Esteem: When our ability to provide these lesser survival needs is challenged, it can be a real blow to our self-esteem. If you’re laid off, or constantly having to prove your value to keep your job, that can wear on our confidence.
Self-actualization: Maslow argued that only when the other four needs are fulfilled can we move into self-actualization. There’s no room for self improvement if you’re spending time in the other areas.
And it’s here that we move away from Maslow’s theory and make our argument:
When you continue on your journey of self-actualization by always looking for ways to improve and grow, you’re actually increasing your ability to fulfill the other four areas of need.
While the needs of self-actualization are generally thought of as luxuries, what if instead, these needs were thought of as a pathway to fulfilling the other four levels? Giving ourselves the space to continue learning and growing can have a powerful impact on other aspects of our lives. Here’s how:
Pivot in your career
It’s rare to find anyone who spends an entire career in one field, let alone one company. If you’re someone who is curious and always learning new things, that can open opportunities for you professionally that you hadn’t thought about before. If career changes become necessary, learning something different won’t be as foreign and scary to you as it might be otherwise.
When we give ourselves the time and space to look inward, we can better recognize where we can improve and change. These changes can help us be better communicators, friends, employees, partners and people. If we aren’t giving ourselves any attention at all, we’ll never know where there are shortcomings until it’s too late.
By doing things that are important to you and helping you grow, we are creating joy in your life. That joy can help us have more energy, motivation, confidence and purpose. That helps drive us in other aspects of our lives, to be able to seize opportunities that fulfill other basic needs.
We’ve all heard the phrase “these uncertain times,” and that has forced many to shift their focus. But by allowing yourself some freedom to continue to learn, grow and improve personally, you’re opening yourself up to opportunities, perspectives and happiness you may not have been privy to before.