Further Up Maslow’s Pyramid: Self-Esteem vs. Real Meaning


No, you’re not seeing double. I didn’t finish my thoughts on Maslow’s famous pyramid last week, so here it is again. I’m sure that’s terrible for SEO, but it must be done.

I left off talking about the three basic instincts. As I mentioned last time, it’s not wrong and in fact necessary to have these instincts, but the problem is that we get fixated on one of them. This causes an unhealthy preoccupation with that one, possibly to the detriment of the others. We are not whole as long as we remain driven by one of these instincts. This is why it’s important to know and understand what drives you. Sandra Maitri, in “The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram,” has a wonderful diagram showing the outline of an upside-down human being. Across the top of that outline are the three instincts, which have taken over. Another diagram shows the human right-side up, in which the instincts rest at the bottom of the outline. The Enneagram Institute has a paid test on the instincts to help you figure out your “stack”: the order of importance for each instinct to you.

It’s also important to understand how to get free of this imbalance. Once you know your instinct fixation, watch out for it. Observe it nonjudgmentally. Observing is enough to take its power away. I can prove this from experience. As a self-preservation Seven, I have always traveled with food and water everywhere I go – even to the grocery store – just to make sure that I don’t have to experience a moment of deprivation. (I do have low blood sugar, but still…) In fact, one of my friends calls me “The Walking Picnic.” Last year, I began to notice, to my surprise and delight, that I was leaving the house with no food packed in my purse, and even forgetting my water bottle! I had made no forced, Superego-driven decision to do this. It happened organically as I have steadily done the work of self-observation and awareness and become less afraid.

Now we come to the upper region of the pyramid, and here’s what I find really interesting. The top two bars of the pyramid, in my estimation, are really about the first and second halves of human life (to borrow Richard Rohr’s paradigm). The need for self-esteem is present throughout the earlier years, as we go through school being recognized for accomplishments that we think make us “special.” This is necessary to our psychological development. It gives us an idea of what we’re capable of and what society values.

However, I believe that the intention of God is that, eventually, humans begin to discover that the recognition isn’t enough. You’ve reached this rung, you’ve gotten these awards or achieved these goals and isn’t that great, but you sense something’s missing still. This should propel you to the tip of that pyramid toward self-actualization. Unfortunately, forces within and without conspire to keep you complacent, distracted, hopeless, driven to do more – whatever. Can you think of a being who benefits from humans not thinking about the meaning of life and their deeper purpose? Do you imagine that he’s pretty good at derailing people? The Superego doesn’t help, either, trying to convince us to stick to its carefully proscribed plan.

I’m reminded that the first washing machine was invented in a Shaker community, with the goal of freeing up more time to pray. Today, we have more labor-saving devices than you can shake a stick at, but how many of us calculate how many hours of labor we’re saving and devoting those hours to additional prayer? I’m not trying to be preachy; I’m trying to prove a point: getting to the second-half-of-life realization that there’s a deeper purpose to our existence can be tough. This is why some people retire and just feel lost; what they thought was their purpose—their job—is gone, and they don’t know how to replace it. Not a lot of people seem to get to the top rung of Maslow’s pyramid. If you’re reading this blog, you are probably on that journey.

The word “self-actualization” may give some Christians the heebie-jeebies, but I look at it as becoming your actual self: a person who experiences their purpose, meaning and inner potential. That’s a tall order. Sort of like climbing a pyramid – hard work, but what a view when you reach the top! Let’s encourage each other as we climb. As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.



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Quick Start Guide to Centering Prayer

This short guide gives you the essentials for learning to be still and quiet before God so you can hear his voice and feel his love in a deeper way.

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