Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its Implications for Abuse Victims

In my last post I wrote about learned helplessness, explaining how abuse victims are conditioned over time to believe that escape is impossible. When this happens, they stop trying to get away. Instead, they passively accept the abuse as their lot in life. In this post I am tackling a related concept, human motivations and resulting behaviour, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Abraham Maslow was an American Psychologist and founder of Humanistic Psychology. He was critical of other personality theories (Psychoanalytic and Behavioural) that focused only on what had gone wrong with humanity. He believed that to understand what made us human, we had to look at both sides of the coin. We had to consider the good and the bad, the adjusted and the maladjusted. Only then could we help human beings to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

The hierarchy of needs has been used in many fields to explain what motivates people. It is of particular interest in education, for teachers to understand how best to motivate their students.  It is also used by businesses to understand what drives their customers’ behaviour and how best to motivate them to buy their product or service.

So what are the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for abuse victims?

A brief explanation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow explained that human beings have multiple needs. However a person will only act on those needs that are most important to them at that specific point in time. The pyramid shows the most fundamental needs of human beings at the bottom, with the less pressing needs on top.

If someone is hungry, they will focus on their physiological needs and focus all their efforts on getting food. It is only when they have food and water that they will then turn their attention to the level above – safety. Once they are safe, they will then look for love, friendship and belonging. As each level of need is satisfied, the person moves up a level in their path to self-actualisation.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – The implications for abuse victims

Most people are born in families where their fundamental needs (food, water, shelter, safety) are met. They take these things for granted and never have to waste any energy trying to obtain them. Once they go out into the world their focus will be to satisfy the next level – Love and Belonging. That is why most teenagers, for example, put such a high value on “fitting in.”

However, what happens when someone is experiencing physical, verbal, emotional or psychological abuse at home?  Clearly these victims have not satisfied their safety needs, so that will be their primary concern.

I believe that this explains why so many victims end up isolated and without a support network. It starts when the abuser makes it difficult for their victims to go out. He or she discourages the victim from reaching out to anyone, in the process potentially alienating family and friends. At that point the victim is so focused on their need for safety that they will do whatever they can to appease the abuser. Going out, meeting friends – none of that matters at this stage. They do not realise that connecting with people could ultimately be the way the escape their situation.

This highlights the fact that when someone you love is in an abusive situation, it is not enough to just say that you will help them if they reach out to you. They might never do so, however desperate their situation may be. You must make the effort to reach out to them yourself. If at first you are rebuffed do not give up. Reach out regularly to remind them that you are there for them. Don’t wait for them to call you, call them yourself.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – My motivations as I grew up

When I was a little girl I lived in a chaotic, violent family. My father clearly had some form of personality disorder, as well as being a misogynist. I suspect he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but I am not a psychiatrist and it’s not my job to give his insanity a label. The only thing that matters is that I was the family scapegoat. I grew up in a constant state of terror, scared of what every day would bring.

Maslow’s theory is that if someone does not get their safety needs met in childhood, their need becomes an unhealthy obsession. These children grow up and become adults who are constantly seeking safety. Most commonly they resort to hoarding money, or houses, or possessions. However, no matter how much wealth they accumulate, it is never enough and they never feel safe.

That is what happened to me. When I became a teenager and my friends started buying makeup and clothes and flirting with boys, I was not interested. They were all obsessed with being part of the “popular” crowd and craved acceptance from their peers. I simply could not care less.

The only thing that mattered to me was studying and saving money. I was convinced that in order to be safe I had to get as many qualifications as possible and enough money to never, ever be dependent on anyone ever again. I collected O levels, A levels and even University Degrees like other people collect stamps, but I still did not feel safe. My bank balance was healthy, but I still felt scared. It would take me many years and a lot of soul searching (and therapy) to finally understand that I was looking for safety in all the wrong places.

All is not lost

I am now forty-six and my family and friends provide me with all the safety I so desperately craved. This has freed me from my constant search for reassurance, and I am now able to focus on the truly important things in life.

So the moral of the story is this. When we are emerging from abuse, or when someone we love is emerging from abuse, we cannot expect them to behave “rationally.” They will be driven by fears and motivations that are difficult, if not impossible, to understand. They probably do not even understand them themselves. We need to be patient and show compassion as they slowly stumble out of the fog that abuse has created around them. The same applies to us personally, we have to practice self-compassion, because it is not possible to heal overnight. The echoes of what we went through will be heard for a long time.

However that does not mean that we are stuck forever. It starts with baby steps, but slowly we will manage to claw our way up the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – to Love and Belonging, Esteem and finally Self-Actualisation.

Hang in there xxxx

For Further Reading:

Check out the following posts if you are interested in understanding the impact of narcissistic abuse on victims –

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