Check Your Foundation

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Clients teach their therapists at least as much as therapists teach their clients. Only recently have my clients taught me practical ways to apply a theory developed in 1943 that is a mainstay of most introductory psychology courses.

Therapists, to overgeneralize, are pragmatists. We study multitudes of theories with an eye towards applying them to real people and situations. Few theories are as well known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As most first-year psychology students learn, Maslow proposed that all human beings share a set of common needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with basic survival needs such as health and food at the base and more lofty goals such as achievement or self-actualization at the peak. Maslow’s pyramid of needs makes for a nice picture in a textbook, but what can his theory do in everyday life?

Failing to Reach Goals? Check Your Foundation

I’m a big fan of setting goals in therapy. I try not to end a session without striking an agreement about what the client would like to achieve before our next meeting. When clients come in the next week looking sheepish, they often want to understand why they failed. Together we could explore nearly endless lists of possible root causes. Maybe the problem is lack of motivation, or conflicts with other priorities or motivations. Sometimes there’s a skill deficit: the client knows the outcome they want, but not all the steps they need to take to get there. Yet sometimes after checking all the obvious, proximate causes we come up empty. What now? In desperation and confusion, clients sometimes impugn their own character with statements like “I’m stupid,” or “I’m just lazy,” without any prompting from the therapist.

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More than once, I’ve had a client make little progress in therapy until they addressed more basic survival needs. Physical health is a major culprit. Clients who used to come into my office half-asleep, confused, and irritable have turned around in a snap once they saw their doctors, started sleeping regularly and took their (non-psychotropic) prescriptions regularly. With their health issues addressed, these same clients present as alert, oriented, and motivated to work. It wasn’t that they weren’t giving therapy their best, but that they didn’t have their best to give.

In group therapy, defensive and oppositional clients can test the patience of both the group and the facilitator. Sometimes I’ve been brought in to speak with such clients individually to look for the underlying issue. It would be easy for anyone to get sucked into the story of who did what to whom in a group, and who was right or wrong, but I’ve had better luck looking to the fundamental need for safety. When the group experience feels unsafe at a gut level, some clients will lash out in order to “win” and “be right” at any cost. By modelling acceptance in individual therapy, I’ve helped “problem” group members feel secure and take that feeling into the group. When safety is the predominant emotion and nothing feels at risk, the motivation to fight fades.

When Given a Choice, Strengthen the Base

From Maslow’s hierarchy we can learn that lofty goals depend on the fulfillment of basic needs, and this insight can pay off in our daily lives. We are confronted with choices daily: should I go out tonight with friends or stay in and rest? Should I save money for retirement or buy a plasma TV? Should I take the high-paying stressful career or the laid-back lower-paying job? In all cases, either choice might make sense, but with Maslow’s help, you can examine each side of the dilemma and see what needs it meets and where they figure on the pyramid.

Going out with friends meets your needs for friendship and belonging while sleeping fortifies your physical well-being. If you’re generally well rested and in good health, maybe a night on the town is exactly the right thing to do. However if you’re already dragging, staying home reinforces that all-important base. Saving for retirement might seem like a no-brainer when compared with a flashy television, but once again, consider the security of your foundation. If you’re already feeling good about your savings plan, maybe the TV gives you a feeling of achievement. You’ve got a material symbol that you have achieved some level of abundance. On the other hand, movie night won’t be very enjoyable if you’re wracked with doubt about where you’ll be able to live when you’re 65.

Career choice can involve all levels of the hierarchy. Some jobs are simply unhealthy either from stress or physical wear and tear on the body. Of course, work needs to meet your needs for financial security. Some jobs and some workplaces develop a camaraderie that meets workers’ need for belonging and friendship. For many, work is a source of achievement and even self-actualization. You could do worse than to evaluate your job prospects in terms of each of these needs, and remember than sacrificing the base for the upper tiers is probably a losing strategy.

Your Turn

Do you recognize some basic needs in your life that need to be met before you resume your pursuit of higher-level goals? Maybe you have a choice that could be evaluated using Maslow’s needs hierarchy. Either way, feel free to share your insights with us in the comments below.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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