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Growth & Self-Esteem

Self-Actualization and Christianity

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American humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow made his impact on the medical community when he published his theory on the Hierarchy of Human Needs in 1943. 

Maslow displayed his theory of self-actualization as a pyramid. It demonstrates the individual's most basic needs on the bottom. The pyramid then continues upward with each basic human need until you reach the very top. 

A photo of American humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow

However, as time passed, the pyramid faced criticism and changes brought on by the Christian community. It was soon apparent that one major need was not directly addressed for one's personal growth; religion.  

Many in the community feel this pyramid is not complete without man's need for spirituality and salvation.

Distinctly leaving religion out of the equation was most likely due to the fact that Maslow was an atheist. However, if the subject of religion were to fit anywhere in his model, he saw it belonging in the section that promoted family, friends, and community.  

The term “community” was wide and diverse in its range of meaning by Maslow. It could even include being in a gang. However, Maslow accepted religion as a form of community, which is an important need of the human race since religion leads to love, compassion, and acceptance.

Maslow's hierarchy and foundation of needs

Maslow emphasized the first four levels of the pyramid. Generally, the first two levels are undisputed. Whether an attribute is present or absent in an individual's life shapes them dramatically. 

The first includes physical needs like food, water, and sexual fulfillment.  The second contains needs focused on security, such as stability and safety in an individual's environment.

It’s the higher levels that cause some discrepancy amongst the Christian community. Maslow's third level in his Hierarchy of Human Needs focuses on relationships with family and friends.  Maslow realized the importance of love and a sense of belonging to the human experience. This is where he places community, and therefore religion as well.  

While he did not consider himself a part of any particular religion, he acknowledged the importance of community, whether in a religious community or otherwise. These communities enforce love and a sense of belonging in one's life.  They also provide an increased sense of self-worth, a very important need and stepping stone on the road of self-actualization.

The fourth level ties into the third. These communities enforce a sense of self-esteem and an opportunity to gain respect from others, also known as esteem needs. The communities also provide the opportunity for an increased sense of self-worth. According to Maslow, without self-worth, one cannot reach the top of self-actualization.

Six hands all grasping wrists to form a circle.

It’s easy to see how esteem needs and gaining respect from others ties directly into the communities you have around you and a sense of well-being.  Whether these friends, family members, and communities support you or not shapes the individual and their self-worth.

Maslow's last level is the pyramidion which he deemed to be the concept of self-actualization. Once you work your way up the pyramid to the highest level, this is your ultimate reward. You now have the knowledge and ability to grow and become fulfilled as an individual. According to Maslow’s theory, you are now self-actualized.

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The importance of Maslow's hierarchy

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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates the daily importance of our choices and interactions with others. To reach self-actualization, we must consider everything we are putting into our bodies, every interaction we choose to have with others, and what to strive for in an environment.

According to Maslow, once you have achieved the highest personal growth and self-fulfillment level, you will see the world differently. Your whole perception of yourself and others, even the world, changes drastically.  

A woman looks into a mirror

Some examples of self-actualization include:

  • An artist who enjoys the act of creating even if he doesn't get paid for his work. It's the act of making something out of nothing that gives him a sense of fulfillment.
  • A step father who adopts his wife's children and raises them as his own. He is fulfilled by knowing that he is helping to guide future young men and women.
  • Someone who donates their time and energy during the holidays at a local soup kitchen to assist others who need it.

Maslow identified some individuals he believes obtained self-actualization, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Christian hierarchy of needs

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Remember how Maslow claimed that if you reach the top of the pyramid, you are self-actualized and have reached self-fulfillment? Well, that’s not really the case. 

There is much debate among the Christian community regarding this pyramid and the tiers within. Not only do some dispute the order of the tiers, but are they really necessary at all?

Many argue the hierarchy of human needs is incomplete as there is an absence of religion and spirituality at the base level. Some dispute the other needs listed, as Christ will provide for us and all of our needs.

Some argue that, even before food, the need for God and salvation is first and foremost in one's life.  

Matthew 4:4 tells us, “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  

Others believe self-actualization should not be at the top of their hierarchy, as Maslow dictates. Instead, it should be spiritual maturity and Christlikeness. 

Yet, even then, the community is split.

Others do not believe one must surpass previously listed needs to obtain the goal of being like Christ and following in His footsteps. 

This is displayed in Matthew 6:33-34, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [the basic necessities of life] will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” 

An open Bible sits outdoors

Christians take many different stances on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Is the pyramid in the correct order? What is missing from it? Is the need for this pyramid even valid?

The takeaway from Maslow's work

Maslow's needs are more “earthly” than spiritual and lead to positive mental health. We must remember these needs come based on observations from the mortal men he studied. 

It’s possible that these men did not have Christ in their lives, as we know Maslow himself did not. He based these observations on a very small sample of those with limited life experiences. If Maslow were a Christian, his pyramid would likely look quite different.

Maslow's pyramid does not need to dictate your life or self-growth. As a Christian, you know the path you want to follow. You read God’s word in the Bible and live your life accordingly.

A woman prays with rosary beads

There is no singular pyramid for everyone. Human beings live their lives with different goals and results in mind. 

Many believe that the first step of a hierarchy of needs is to have Christ and salvation. The rest will just fall into place after that.  

Take what you need from Maslow's pyramid, or not. As it pertains to purely earthly needs, this pyramid applies to many. However, what you know you need spiritually and where it belongs in your own hierarchy is in your heart. No one can dictate that.

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