Defying Maslow’s Theory

Soar beyond Limitations

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Joni

Against all odds and the theory of Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist and his Needs Pyramid, we can soar beyond limitations. Some people soar and achieve more than expected, whereas others, gifted with wealth, physical comfort and a good education, fail to even flutter. Why is this, what does it tell us about human nature? Is there a theory to explain this phenomenon? Are we really as limited as Maslow implies?

The reality that we can soar beyond limitations, and achieve in adversity, certainly defies Maslow’s theory of the pyramid of needs. His initial five step model of the 1950s postulated that humans need to have their basic needs satisfied before they can progress to higher levels of self-actualization to reach their full potential.

Our Most Basic Needs

Our lowest most basic needs are food, water, air, shelter, sleep, and clothing. Next on the agenda, but still requiring fulfilment according to Maslow, are safety, resources, health and property, things which are luxuries already for many third world nation populations.

Then higher up comes friendship, intimacy, family and connection. These qualities of life, interestingly, can, in my opinion, trump the lower. A poor man can be as happy, or happier than a king if he has love, family and connection. Property, a priority for Western populations, is not the same priority for many. Indigenous cultures, nomadic cultures are not so fixated on property. So already the Maslow’s pyramid theory has holes.

Aspiring to the Top Level

Then above those needs are the needs of self-esteem, status, recognition and freedom. Supposedly, according to Maslow, we need to also have these as well before we can aspire to the top level of self-actualization or fulfilment of our full potential and soar beyond our limitations.

Yet, I am sure, you, like me, can see issues here and also know of people who transcended many, or even all of these needs to achieve amazing things. There’s a long list that comes to my mind. Nelson Mandela who endured 27 years of imprisonment but soared later to lead his country. Mother Theresa, another who, despite limited resources, gave back so much to others. Then there’s Marie Curie who fought against barriers to women and denied laboratory resources to discover radioactivity. There are many more women who changed the world. They certainly didn’t have all their needs met.

Women Achievers Unaware of this Theory

Our list of amazing women pioneers, and plucky females can be found in our now over 170 posts on We love to write tributes to feisty women both of history and today. These women were unaware of, or preceded Maslow’s theory. They also dismissed or refused to wallow in their own victimhood. Women who did not allow their limitations, or disability to dictate who they were. Now, that’s the way to go and soar beyond your limitations.

These women just got on with their talents and ability to contribute in whatever way they could. Certainly, they were motivated and undeterred by cold, hunger, shelter and recognition issues. Their success speaks for itself and is a stronger voice for womanhood than banging on about, ‘”Oh, they won’t let me…. Oh, they are being mean. Poor me.”

No, self-pity did not feature in their life, despite the difficulties they faced. Instead, difficulties fired them up and with a newly sharpened determination they took up the challenge to change the world.

Oppressors don’t have to win and weaken women. History is full of examples of women who triumphed despite severer limitations than today’s society imposes. There are our women pioneers, the Suffragettes, amazing Bessie Coleman, and so many more. The list is endless. Find them in our posts.

Maslow Rethinks

Maybe Maslow listened to a few dissenters, because by the 1970s he had amended his theory and added two levels to his pyramid and also categorised needs as either deficiency needs, or growth needs. Also, he amended his one-way-only theory to allow individuals to go up and down through the levels of needs. Now these amendments indicate that he realised his theory was not explaining reality. It’s just a theory after all, a man-made explanation to explain observations.

Science abounds in theories, and explanations of nature. In time, many are disproved or just become fluid. Atomic theory is one of these. What I learnt about the atom at university in the 1970s has been added to over the decades as new subatomic particles have been discovered. Scientists have enquiring minds and need to be flexible and humble too, in case they were wrong. It is said that by the time a student graduates, what he/she first learnt is redundant.

Theories are not always True so Soar Beyond Limitations

Psychology, particularly the study of human behaviour is more fraught with disproved theories than any science. Nothing is more complex than human nature and the workings of the mind that determine behaviour. Theories come and go about how humans operate. One theory will never fit all.

An event that can destroy one person for life, plunge them into depression or PTSD, can motivate another to do amazing things both personally and for others. Some people once outraged by an injustice, will set about changing matters. Others skulk and hide away, withering away in a sea of self-pity.

Achievement under Adversity

While writing my novel set in World War One, I came across a collection of the most beautiful poems written by soldiers as they lived in the most terrible conditions, fearing death and watching their comrades die. The scraps of fabric and paper bearing scribbled poems were found on their fallen bodies. Beautiful verses penned in haste and covered in blood and mud.

Some of the best art and literature has been written in terrible conditions. Van Gogh’s beautiful paintings did not emerge from a content and well-fed artist. Nor did women writers shy from writing, or activism for good, because they could not be published, or heard easily in a man’s world. George Eliot, (Mary Anne Evans), hid her female identity behind a man’s pen name. Suffragettes died for our modern liberties.

Civilization rides on their Achievements

I must add that many, many men who achieved fame and glory could not have succeeded if they hadn’t a strong, supporting woman in the background. I think of Stephen Hawking, Alfred Hitchcock, two men whose amazing wives, Jane Hawking and Lady Hitchcock we have profiled on

Indeed, there are ways and means to get around not being in the right fostering environment with all the resources needed to complete a task. Just as well as so many wonderful humans just kept going despite their living conditions. Civilization is built on the backbone of their achievements. Contrary to Maslow, persecution can inspire courage and conviction.

There is no Excuse, Be your best

The Christmas message is such a story, a story of one man who is the reason for the season and an example for us all.

As I sat yesterday with family and friends, I contemplated my plate piled with beautiful food and the atmosphere of loving support. I felt blessed and thanked God for my present comforts. Certainly, I know I have no excuse not to achieve or give back to others. Maslow is right there. Needs fulfilled, what’s the excuse? Go forth and shine! Be your best.

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    Joni Scott writes from personal experience of her roller coaster ride through life. Joni co-hosts a women’s blog. Joni also writes short stories and has three published novels. Visit Joni on her website.
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