When I first encountered Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which can be viewed as a pyramid with physiological, basic needs, or conditions to be met, like food, water, warmth and rest at the bottom, progressing upward to reach creative activities and what he termed self-actualisation (reaching your own potential) at the very top, I was reminded of a song by the 20th century playwright, Bertolt Brecht.
Written in 1928 with composer Kurt Weill, What Keeps Mankind Alive? features in the agitprop musical The Threepenny Opera. It includes the line, ‘Food is the first thing, morals follow on’, which succinctly encapsulates Maslow’s theory of basic needs – those already mentioned above plus security and safety – needing to be met before those of a more psychological nature, such as the cultivation of friendships, intimate relationships, pride and the attainment of goals beyond the fulfilment of hunger and the addressing of thirst.
An old saying was also brought to mind, that an army ‘marches on its stomach’, a saying attributed to either Napoleon or Frederick the Great. It ably demonstrates that, until hunger is addressed, such senses as duty and obligation cannot be guaranteed. Maslow believed the lower needs of his proposed hierarchy had to be satisfied as primary concerns in order to progress to the higher ones that promote growth, because those basic requirements – deficiencies – had to be addressed in order to survive as a living being.
If we try to address any higher need as the priority, neglecting, for example, our dietary requirements, then we might expect to feel weak, distracted and less than fully capable.
Carl Rogers largely agreed with Maslow’s theory, building upon it by adding that, in addition to the fulfilment of the basic needs Maslow referenced, an individual also requires an empathic environment or community in which there is openness, self-disclosure, and acceptance – which he described as unconditional positive regard. Without these, even when seeking to address every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a healthy psyche and affirmative relationships would not develop optimally.
Believing that nobody can grasp exactly how another individual sees the world and themselves, and therefore the best authority on your own self is yourself, Rogers brought to humanistic psychology a rejection of the determinism evidenced in earlier psychoanalytic theories, in favour of the notion that we act as we do because of our perceptions, which can of course change. He believed people to be fundamentally good and creative, only turning out otherwise due to experience, particularly in their most formative and determining childhood years.
Rogers’ vision was an optimistic one, with five characteristics of a fully functioning person, centred upon rejecting defensive positions; living fully in the moment; trusting one’s own judgement; being creative and adaptive; reliable and constructive. He set out a number of Core Conditions, including: congruence, involving therapists being authentic when interacting with clients; unconditional positive regard, which can be summarised as genuine care for the client; and, accurate empathic understanding, requiring the therapist to accurately and compassionately understand the feelings and experiences the client may convey to them. The other three conditions in what is known as person-centred therapy are: psychological contact, which refers to what we might call a meeting of minds between the therapist and the client, a connection between them that promotes understanding; the client’s perception of the therapist as a genuine person wanting to assist them; and, client incongruence – simply put, the client has one or more issues to bring into the therapeutic space, involving some degree of psychological distress.
It could be argued that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, while revolutionary thinking in its time and still hugely important today, is a somewhat more rigid approach, structurally speaking being akin to a pyramid or ladder, than the holistic and fluid thinking that informs Rogers’ approach. It is important, however, to recognise that the foundation of Rogers’ work is Maslow’s pioneering thinking around self-actualisation. The hierarchy of needs is unchanged by Rogers, who was in agreement with it. What he brings to the table is the concept of the fully functioning individual and the traits characterising a person who has attained that status, plus the enhanced definition of self-actualisation as being a tendency towards growth, maintenance and enhancement.
Rogers theorised that the motive to self-actualise is the primary motivation of all people, resulting from a hardwired drive towards regarding oneself positively and needing to be loved and accepted. Conditional positive regard is earned, through meeting specific conditions within family units, peer groups, and wider society. However, when we try to please others by being what they want us to be rather than what we ourselves want and need to be, we become distanced from the possibility of self-actualisation and the ideal conditions for becoming fully functioning within our own selves.
This divide, between who we really are and who we present as in order to fit in, creates conflict and distortions that can ultimately lead to great psychological distress and personality breakdown.
One example of how this plays out can be found in the experience of a homosexual person attempting to live their life within a heterosexist, heteroconformative society that punishes perceived sexual deviation with expulsion from families and friendship circles, condemnation by religious and governmental authorities, with the threat of physical violence and even imprisonment. Surrounded by multiple toxic repercussions for daring to be one’s own self, the individual often instead chooses – if it can be called a choice under such circumstances – to adopt what we call a closeted position, hiding their sexual identity and constructing an inauthentic life for themselves. The individual is under constant mental stress whichever path they take.
It has often been noted, even within societies which have attained some measure of equality in terms of legislation granting rights and protections, the implementation of which does not automatically confer practical everyday acceptance by the majority, that the incidence of mental health problems within the LGBTQ+ community tends to be much higher than is seen within the majority population of a country. People who are LGBTQ+, being no different in their humanity than any other human being, are not innately predisposed towards mental instability and trauma-inducing decision-making; rather, it is a combination of personal experience of prejudice and social attitudes in general that apply pressures the rest of the population do not have to deal with. The same is true when it comes to Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and their experiences with racism.
With regard to both LGBTQ+ and BAME communities, though, there is often a presumption of mental health problems to further complicate and distort matters: just because there is greater prevalence does not mean we can make assumptions about any individual. There are those who, even in the most disadvantageous settings, nevertheless find ways to flourish and self-actualise. Again, with reference to the LGBTQ+ community, one particular person who was often referred to as a ‘character’ – itself a telling descriptive suggestive of standing out – springs to mind as an example of an individual who attained his full potential and became self-actualised despite having lived within a hostile society. The late Quentin Crisp became famous for being infamous, for being himself. One might refer to him as having been defiantly, openly homosexual at a time when homosexuality was completely illegal.
Rogers proposed that individuals have both actual and ideal selves, the actual being the current state or how the person sees themselves, and the ideal being what and whomever the individual wants to be. One can argue Quentin Crisp was a self-actualised person, given that the gap between those two selves, for him, was very small, meaning there was congruence. He lived his life confidently, seeing himself clearly within any given situation as being the uncompromising, flamboyant person he wanted to be.
When a person is not living as their authentic self, and is instead living according to the expectations of others, they are far removed from the possibility of attaining self-actualisation.
Crisp often declared that he had no drive towards needing acceptance by others, acceptance of his own self by himself apparently having been largely sufficient. He lived a principled life as an outsider without feeling any desire to come in from the cold imposed upon him for much of his life. Both Maslow and Rogers, however, believed a need for acceptance to be more pressing for many than the journey towards self-actualisation. Maslow talked of the need for self-esteem; Rogers, conditions of worth. Where they diverged was in consideration of just how important need is to an individual. For Rogers, signing up to those conditions of worth was essentially a bad thing, impacting upon self-esteem and obstructing the pathway towards self-actualisation; Maslow, on the other hand, thought self-actualisation more important than the attainment of self-esteem, while nevertheless acknowledging the importance of the latter.
The work of both Rogers and Maslow comes under what we term the humanistic approach within the field of psychology. Both men shared the humanistic focus on studying the entire person, acknowledging that everyone is fundamentally unique. This approach came about due to frustrations with what were perceived as limitations in behaviourist and psychodynamic theory.
Behaviourism involved a deterministic outlook within which stimulus–response mechanisms were reinforced and studied; the psychodynamic approach, also deterministic, was directed by the idea of instinctive, irrational and largely unconscious actions directing thoughts and behaviours. Both came to be seen as dehumanising (indeed, behaviourism involved the study of animals) by those who advocated a humanistic approach that had and has, at its core, a belief in free will, or personal agency. Subjective, conscious experience by the individual is more important than the idea of objective reality.
Rogers, in particular among humanistic practitioners, is seen as important because he shifted psychology towards a focus on the self. Maslow, with his hierarchical pyramid of explicitly human motivations, was evidently rejecting comparative psychology that involved the study of animals. To humanist practitioners, the examination of animal behaviour could not provide anything useful that could be applied to human beings in all their complexity and uniqueness as a species and as individuals. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beyond the lowest level of the physiological requirement to address hunger and thirst, cannot be applied to any species other than humanity.
Both Rogers and Maslow presented to the psychotherapeutic world a more optimistic, person-centred approach than that which had come before, and which recognised the inherent complexity of human beings as marvellous and inspirational, imaginative creatures of usually good intent. They did this while offering structural routes by which the client could discover answers for themselves through the assistance of a sympathetic, compassionate and professional listening ear with considered, always appropriate interventions. This focus on the individual took therapists away from generalised approaches on unconscious behaviours and instead dealt with the specifics of clients’ life experiences, thoughts and feelings; how those three things influenced and impacted upon each other.
The methodology promoted by Rogers and Maslow has, down the decades, proven to be of significant and lasting benefit to many clients in relation to a wide range of human experiences, helping people to find strategies for living and succeeding in life on their own terms according to their own values. That being said, the emphasis on clients thinking for themselves can only help those who have the capacity to do that. Not everyone does, and this needs to be acknowledged when working within a process that itself recognises the human condition involves a multiplicity of states – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. A focus on individual capacity to think, reason and learn can only go so far. It is entirely dependent upon the client having sufficient ability in that regard.
For example, the internal monologue common to many of us can be both enormously helpful if we are capable of processing our thoughts to our advantage; to those who cannot do that, having an internal monologue can be devastatingly destructive such as when a client is living with body dysmorphia and has a voice that says, “you are fat and ugly” or one which tells them to self-harm. Many people do not have an internal monologue at all, while there are those who feel they have more than one, being capable of having arguments take place within their own heads.
Furthermore, there are a number of identified psychiatric conditions where people have either a number of more or less complete and independent personalities within themselves, or have suffered complex trauma that has resulted in a single personality becoming fragmented, leading to disassociation and other problematic states. With at least some of these people, the term ‘individual’ is itself ill-fitting and problematic. Rarely does one size fit all, especially when the theory – the relatively singular theory – proposes that everyone is of a different size, but – and here is the weakness – shares capacity for individual, complex thinking and feeling.
Another aspect of the humanistic approach which is potentially awkward to address, is that of its potential to be biased because it is very much rooted in Western culture. It can also be cogently argued that it is, as a therapeutic pathway, most useful to those who are educated to a certain level and conduct their lives within the middle to top levels of that which we refer to as being class structure. Some countries in the West recognise class as a concept more than others, but each of the nations categorised in that grouping have their underdogs, their managerial middles and their privileged elites. For those at the bottom, who may have gained no benefit from education and struggle with poverty as an issue that affects mind, body, and social interactions, as well as their capacity to achieve, practitioners of the approaches favoured by Rogers and Maslow may well find the work of persuading clients to look within for answers to be extremely challenging.
In short, working class people have never been encouraged by those in power to think for themselves. The conditioning we as human beings are exposed to from birth to death is highly variable and sadly, all too often, the circumstances of a person’s birth will influence their capacity to think and limit their social and economic opportunities. Until such time, if it ever comes, when we as a society have achieved true equality and can honestly say we live within a meritocracy, humanistic approaches to therapy cannot be said to contain within them equal chances of success with all clients, no matter how open and willing they are to try to improve their situations.
How society is structured, its strengths and weaknesses, is for those living within that society to address. The most positive aspect of the humanistic approach to therapy is that it recognises the importance of individuals having responsibility towards their own selves; and, each person, no matter where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced, what they’re going through, can take some measure of control to make their own choices and change direction to gain healing, motivation and empowerment.