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What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Does It Matter?

A brief intro into one theory about what we need to survive and thrive.

Pyramid of Needs by Maslow

What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

According to the theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in order to become the best version of ourselves we must first have our Physical, Safety, Social, and Esteem needs met.

What Do We Need?

In 1949 Abraham Maslow came up with a theory that looks like a pyramid with five needs divided into Physical, Safety, Social, Esteem, and Self-Actualization.

Maslow Hierachy of Needs
Maslow's Hierachy of Needs

Self-actualization is a fancy way of saying becoming the best version of ourselves. He proposed that in order to move higher up the pyramid we first need to meet the needs on the bottom. Too often we get stuck with an unmet need that keeps us from making it to Self-Actualization at the top.

Like all good science, the theory has continued to develop over time as more research improved our understanding of one another. We now understand people can work on multiple needs at once (instead of staying in one area at a time) or may order the importance of their unique needs based on their own values and experiences.

Basic Needs

Security Needs

The first and heaviest part of the pyramid is related to Physiological Needs. Physical needs can be as simple as air, food, and shelter. It can be very difficult to work on higher level needs if your belly is rumbling or if your fingers are turning blue with cold. Next to or alongside physical needs, comes Safety. Without a sense of security, it will feel like your physical needs are constantly being threatened. You won’t have much time to think about anything else. Safety could include things like physical safety, financial security, and a stable home (which includes the people in and around it). People who live in poverty can routinely fail to meet either or both Physiological and Safety needs. It’s one thing to be able to obtain food and shelter, but another to worry if someone is going to come and take it from you.

Psychological Needs

Love and Belonging in Fans

Our two psychological needs come next in the middle of the pyramid. The need for Love and Belonging is often more important than some people realize. The desire to belong can be so strong it can lead people into unhealthy relationships. Belonging could look like becoming part of a clique in high school, attending a convention or event filled with like-minded fans, or joining a gang on the streets. In the example of joining a gang, someone may be attempting to secure their physical and safety needs by belonging to a group that may help defend them and what they care about. The same, on a much less scary scale, could be said about joining a certain crowd in high school so that you do not become that group’s target for bullying.

Esteem may be defined as how we view ourselves and how others view us. We desire to know where we stand in the world and if others respect us. We want to know how we fit into the world. Self-esteem can be delicate and difficult. Often in my work as a counselor, I have found that the needs related to Esteem and Social are intimately tied. Individuals who view themselves with little or no respect are more likely to accept unhealthy to abusive treatment in an ineffective attempt to receive Love or Belonging. People who have met their Esteem and Social needs are able to begin to see themselves as individuals from a place of security and have the base needed so that they can begin to climb higher up on the pyramid.

Self-Actualization - Reaching the Top


The final need at the top of the pyramid is Self-Actualization which is another way of saying meeting your full potential. Because we are never done growing, self-actualization is more of an ongoing process than a defined finish line. One way to think of self-actualization is finding a fulfilling purpose and actively going after that purpose.

Many of us continue to live our lives the way we saw our family members or friends live theirs. Without a healthy role model and some insight, it becomes difficult to know what we are missing or what to do about it. Most of us likely have some unmet need that is making it hard to become the best version of ourselves.

The mountainous climb to get where you want to be is full of obstacles. It’s normal to feel stuck. We all get stuck. We all have stuff that we not only have to work through once, but over and over again. We have to actively learn and practice skills for meeting our needs if we want to grow. Engaging with information, like what is shared here, is a step toward acknowledging and meeting your needs. Any step forward is one closer to the top.

Counseling can be a great place to start if you're interested in learning more about how to grow and meet your unique needs in healthy ways. It's not impossible to grow on your own. It may be easier and more effective if you have an objective, educated person who can provide a useful perspective and knowledge for helping you become the person you want to be.



McLeod, S. A. (2018, May 21). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from

Burton, N. (2012, May 23). Our Hierarchy of Needs. Psychology Today.


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