Redefining Needs: Maslow, the Reality of Narcissism, and the Impossibility of Self-Actualization

“The majority of people never get there,” he said as he directed our attention to the peak of a self-drawn pyramid on the blackboard. “Most people think they do, but they don’t.”

The “he” in this instance was high school business teacher Mr. Paris. The “our” was a group of approximately thirty grade ten highly-pubescent teenagers, most of whom failed to grasp the importance of such a simple message. More than a decade later, I look back on that introduction to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as one of the most profound lessons of my high school life.

To understand that logic, we must first look back.

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Mr. Paris didn’t make a good first impression: we were all terrified of him. He was direct, unapologetic, crass, and infamously advised us to tell telemarketers that the person for whom they rang had died — they wouldn’t call back, he promised. Then again, perhaps he made the perfect first impression.

As the semester transpired, our fear evolved into respect. He didn’t treat us as teenagers, as students. He told us how it was; allowed us to make our own decisions, no matter how disillusioned; not only pointed out but laughed at our errors — we had to eat our mistakes. For two hours a day, three times a week, we were adults. In the process of learning to be one, we, eventually, appreciated that.

It’s curious what one recalls from their childhood. I’m well known for forgetting many experiences, but still to this day remember certain anecdotes that stand out for one reason or another. I could never spell “vegetable” as a child until Mr. Skilling in grade 5 told me to think of “veggie table” as two independent words. I’ve never had that problem since. Mr. Skilling also forever implanted the difference between “can” and “may” in my mind. Upon raising my hand and asking “can I go to the bathroom?” he responded, straight-faced, “I’m sure you can. You want to ask ‘may I go to the bathroom?’” I looked at him dumbfounded, before repeating the question, surely not comprehending the difference. Twenty years later, I tell both of those stories in my ESL and TESOL classes with high frequency.  

Mr. Paris and his lesson on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is another lesson I still recall with vivid imagery.

Prior to that class, I had never heard of Maslow’s theory. Fast forward to present day, and I have a much deeper understanding, if not still longing to fully comprehend its deeper meanings and underlying questions.

maslow-pyramidAbraham Maslow developed his motivational theory in psychology, comprising of five levels, in the shape of a pyramid. From bottom to top: Physiological needs, Safety needs, Belongingness and Love needs, Esteem needs, and Self-actualization. Within these five, he subdivided the hierarchy into three more categories: the first two into “Basic needs,” the second pair into “Psychological needs,” and the top of the pyramid into “Self-fulfillment needs.”

The purpose of all these classifications is an attempt to understand what motivates people. When we think about motivations, in most cases the source can be quite clear. For Maslow, however, he wasn’t interested in the chasing-a-carrot-type of motivation. That is, he believed we all possess a set of motivational systems unrelated to rewards (see: B.F. Skinner’s positive and negative enforcement theories) or unconscious desires (see: Freud’s much more complex and nuanced Id, Ego, and Superego theories).

Digging deeper then, that means that, if we agree with him, the hierarchy of needs represents conscious, calculated choices based on our intrinsic motivational systems. If Maslow would allow, we can divide his pyramid one more time: right in the middle. In this division, we can separate the simplistic from the egotistical and selfish.

Regardless of nationality, I’m confident most people would concur that essential and security needs come first, followed by a sense of emotional belonging, either platonic or romantic. As we start 2017, what seems more overtly conspicuous are the top two layers, which revolve around the mental. Rather, how we today get stuck in the ego, and neglect self-fulfillment.

When I posed Maslow’s theory to my class at a few months ago, they were all mostly familiar with it, which was exciting. Sometimes these psychological and philosophical concepts fall through the cracks in traditional education, however important they may seem later in life. My excitement quickly waned once I started eliciting examples for each respective category.

Needs? “WiFi!” “Smart phones!” “We Chat!”

Naturally, the class struggled filling out the top half of the pyramid. With this, I realized that life certainly does revolve in circles: my students now have similar conceptualizations of this notion as we did at the same age, or even younger.

Cell phone addictions have been well documented. Millennials can’t be away from their phone for more than a few seconds, they say. Our attention span is so low, we can’t even read a 1,000 word article without being distracted, they say. We have a deathly fear of normal human impulses like being alone, sad, and disliked, which fuel our social media addiction, Louis C.K. said.

And you know what? I have no argument against any of those.

Has social media made level five of self-actualization unattainable? Do we share posts, pictures, and intimate (albeit mainly happy) moments of our lives to genuinely share those with our friends? Or, and more realistically, to avoid being isolated and receive accolades and positive reinforcement from our perceived peers?

In escaping sadness, can we ever truly be happy?

Attaching social media and internet-based activities implies that this is one enormous first world problem. Perhaps that’s true. We in the first world are privileged to have such problems. However, I’d argue that, independent of social and economic standing, we as people consciously and continually seek the approval of others. Whether it be a Facebook photo of a night out, a less-privileged child throwing toys in a fake tantrum, a 1950’s teenager rolling up to the drive-in wearing the newest and sleekest kicks, or an internet blogger who can’t keep his thoughts to himself, the motivation emerges from similar addictive, dopamine-seeking origins.

Write for the sake of writing, but why publish it? Take pictures for your own memories, but why upload them? Jot down your own thoughts, positive, negative, and otherwise, but why pose them to the world? Be proud of your achievements, but why parade them in front of others?

There is neither good nor bad, only decisions.

There may not be an answer to this. But, with this, we return to what Maslow presented us with.

I’ve never been one for making New Year’s resolutions; this is not about a change in calendar but rather about being true to myself. Is reaching Maslow’s top level even attainable? Was it ever? Is it even advisable to try? All of this I ponder as I question why I do what I do.

The philosophical prophet Joey Tribbiani, of Friends fame, once said that there is no such thing as an unselfish good deed. He went on to support his thesis by demonstrating to Phoebe Buffay that each act she carried out — from letting a bee sting her (the bee would die immediately after) to donating to a charity that she hated (she ultimately felt good afterwards) — all had selfish components.

Do we live in a world where Joey Tribbiani is right?

How do we even know if a decision is based in self-actualization? Is it possible to know? How do we make that decision? Perhaps the conclusion here is one that we don’t want to admit: that selfishness is acceptable, and that true self-actualization is but a mere fantasy.

After everything, perhaps this is exactly the point. Certainly our current societal construct would categorize pure selfishness as arrogant and narcissistic, but perhaps pure selflessness is equally invasive and prohibitive. I’m not sure how Maslow or Mr. Paris would answer, but striving for the fifth level may not be all it’s made up to be. Knowing it’s there, though, is of ultimate importance. Here’s hoping we can see, however vaguely, the penthouse for our egos.

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