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Abuse and Self-Actualization - A Maslow Review


Victims and Survivors of Abuse

This lens came about after thinking about how Maslow's hierarchy might apply to the certain individuals. To abuse survivors or others who for one reason or another struggle with the upper half of the pyramid.

What Maslow's theory illustrates is the basic process of human growth, but it defines so much more. It defines what separates the survivors from the victims, the successful from the unsuccessful, the dreamers from the doers, and the miserable from the truly happy.

His theory, at least to me, represents the potential that each of us holds inside of ourselves, and the path to achieving it. As my mind began to grasp and understand this theory, I realized that the pyramid as it commonly exists can be modified only slightly to show the process of human growth and potential as it applies specifically to victims of abuse and/or neglect.

A path to emotional maturity.

Many of us go through life living in the comfort zone, we aren't necessarily comfortable there, but we are used to it. Those in situations where abuse and neglect are present must live in this zone, too concerned with basic needs to be able to focus on higher needs for long.

We often hear Maslow being used to teach management and productivity theories. It pops up in a lot of places, but my question was how does it apply to adults and children living in abusive situations?

Abuse is a move to gain power and control for the abuser, so concern for the actual needs of the victim is rarely present. Even if basic needs are met, there is a constant fear that robs the victim of the needed safety.

If you have ever wondered why a victim will not leave their abuser, a possible answer lies in Maslow.

A woman may fear she can't survive without the male to provide for her, a belief often reinforced by the abuser. By providing needs and denying them as they see fit, they manage to convince the victim that they are the only source capable of meeting those needs.

Part of the struggle of being an adult survivor of childhood abuse comes from similar thought patterns ingrained in the child's mind. When times are good the child develops a false sense of security that is smashed all to quickly when the cycle swings down again.

In either case safety becomes a luxury. How difficult then is it to escape an abusive relationship and recover from the damage done when all self esteem has been stripped away. Before one can escape the cycle of abuse they must find a way to develop enough self esteem to have the courage to take that step forward. They must rebuild self esteem.

I have modified Maslow's pyramid with this in mind...

Within the two lower levels of Maslow's pyramid you will find the survival and safety needs. You will find them in my modified pyramid as well, but in a slightly different form.

In cases of severe abuse or neglect, many victims find it very difficult to move above the bottom tiers for any length of time. In some cases even basic survival needs are totally denied.

I've spent a great deal of time studying the so called "feral children" while these cases occur very infrequently, they are a stark example of what happens when someone is forced to live in the comfort zone.

I did not call it the comfort zone because it is comfortable but because these two levels illustrate the basic things all human beings need to survive, to be comfortable in the barest sense. We all need air, food, water, and shelter.

In cases of severe abuse and neglect survivors sometimes barely seem aware that the other levels exist. I have heard stories of children found locked in confined spaces that were sent to live with loving and caring families only to develop habits such as hording food, these children have learned to survive but barely.

From time to time they may dream of a better life, but with little to no hope of getting there they often do not have the energy to take steps to obtain that life.

You will notice I say there is very little personal responsibility at this level, but I do not mean that in a derogatory way at all. Life at this level is very confusing, if you were to tell someone that they could escape by taking responsibility for themselves, it is not that they do not want to, it is more that they don't even know such a thing is possible.

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They have lived a very controlled life, and that control has come from an outside source. Anything outside of that life is foreign, and even a little frightening to even consider.

Not all cases of abuse involve a denial of basic survival needs, but human beings also require a reasonable sense of safety. Living with abuse short circuits this basic need.

A child who lives in fear of their parents violent temper, a young woman who must live with constant verbal abuse, a man who is never certain when his wife will or will not explode.

Yet if they can make it to the top of this level, begin to believe that a safe world really does exist somewhere out there. If they can believe for a moment that there really is the possibility of a better life, if they can find the strength to seek help, this is the place where healing begins.

They all exist in a very uncertain world. The surface of this world is not solid, but an ever changing landscape of unseen pitfalls. One must always watch their step, be on their guard. Even in the quiet and relatively normal times, they are aware that the next explosion could happen at any time.

It's no wonder that so many abuse survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Even sleep isn't an escape when you always have to be aware of your surroundings.

Because their personal boundaries are so often violated, many do not learn to respect those boundaries. Either their own, or the boundaries of others. They have a very difficult time understanding where they end and another person begins.

Yet when you confront them with the abuse in their life, they often deny it, and even become angry. They defend their abuser, and the abuse in many ways. They will say that it was their fault, or that the abuser didn't mean to do what they did.

They have so little control of their own lives, but this is one area they can control. If the abuse is their fault, if the abuser just made a mistake, if they can make excuses then they can go on to face another day, and feel just a tiny bit in control of an out of control life.

If they continue to grow, to learn new healthy patterns and shed the old unhealthy ways, eventually they will begin to develop some esteem not just for themselves, but for others. This is different from what they once called love, as it finds its basis in mutual respect.

They begin to have faith in life, in other people and most of all in themselves. They begin to trust their own instincts and abilities. They begin to accept that they are capable of meeting their own needs.

Instead of asking in a direct and honest way, they had to find other ways to express their needs and still they often went unmet. For such a long time they felt the only way to get their needs met was to give themselves away, or to manipulate others into meeting them.

As they begin to learn healthy relationship skills, they begin to find themselves in healthy relationships. They begin to choose their friends more carefully, to assert themselves. They are now a true survivor!

Enter into the growth zone, they may or may not escape their abusers at this point but they are ready to seek. The very first step in their healing is discovering a sense of love and belonging.

Very often it comes in the form of a friend or advocate reaching out to them, for some it is hearing the phrase "I believe you." For others it is finally accepting that they don't deserve to suffer.

As advocates, one of the first things we offer a survivor is loving support. It seems like such a small thing, but it is a very important step in the healing process. We offer support free of judgment or condemnation.

We do not approach it from a hard and fast you must leave the idiot standpoint, but a simple offer of love and belonging. A survivor has many reasons for why the abuse has occurred, for why it continues, why it isn't so bad.

Some people come to us with religious reasons why they cannot leave, others come with a belief that they must care for their abuser because they somehow owe them. Our job is to seek to understand, even when we do not agree, to offer that acceptance.

Some people progress faster than others, but hopefully in their own time they come to realize that they are worthy of love and respect. Perhaps they attend sessions with a therapist, or maybe they join a support group.

Hopefully they come to a realization that they really do deserve better than what they are getting in life.

It is one thing to survive, but an entirely different thing to thrive. To accept that the things that happened in your past were all a part of the journey to become the person you are today.

To hunger for continued growth opportunities, to seek them out and relish the chance to grow even further. To begin to develop a whole new set of skills, the skills that balance a person out.

Respect - Unconditional regard for self and others even when we do not necessarily like or agree with them.

Empathy - The ability to be genuinely concerned with other people, even when they are different.

Lack of Blame (personal responsibility) - It takes a lot of growth to openly admit mistakes, to take the blame that is due without the need to defend your actions. This allows you to focus not on the problem, but on the solution.

Humility - It is one thing to model self-esteem, another to be arrogant or haughty. Pride in a job well done is perfectly healthy, but to believe that it elevates you above others in some way is crossing over into arrogance.

Emotional Mastery - To master ones emotions isn't the easiest task, to choose to act rather than to react. Difficult situations will always arise, but those situations should not rule our emotions.

Responsibility - Responsibility isn't a scary thing, not when you choose to accept it. When you accept responsibility for not only yourself and your actions, but for those who have been placed in your care a certain freedom comes, the freedom of finally being the captain of your own vessel!

Accountability - We should all be accountable to someone, when we make promises and keep them, when we accept responsibility for things that must be done, when we do not place qualifications on our willingness to work with others, we can continue to grow.

Self-Confidence - Some people don't seem to be able to differentiate between self-confidence and arrogance. While arrogance is seeing the self as better than or above others, self-confidence is a confident assurance that we are all equals. If you are able to offer yourself to others without fear of them becoming "better" than yourself, you are on the right track.

Courage - What a powerful thing courage is. It is not a life without fear, but the ability to continue on despite fear.

Focus on the Whole - Many people get stuck in the need to seek out what is best for themselves, but a true thriver is able to focus on what is best for the majority. To place personal feelings and agendas aside and decide what is truly best for everyone involved.

Self-Actualization is a thing of beauty. It allows you to look at the world through new eyes. It is not an end to a journey, but a whole new journey of continued growth and change. It is looking at the world outside of yourself seeking new knowledge without fear.

More Maslow

An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.

A loss of interest in judging other people.

A loss of interest in judging self.

A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.

A loss of interest in conflict.

A loss of the ability to worry. (This Is a very serious symptom.)

Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.

Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature.

Frequent attacks of smiling.

An increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen.

An increased susceptibility to the love extended my others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it.


If you have some or all of the above symptoms, please be advised that your condition of inner peace may be so far advanced as to not be curable. If you are exposed to anyone exhibiting any of these symptoms, remain exposed only at your own risk.

What does it mean to become a thriver?

Being a thriver is finding a new appreciation for life, for balance and beauty and aesthetics.

It is standing at the edge of the pit you have already escaped and reaching out to help others do the same.

It is the ability to give of yourself without fear or hesitation.

It is not just living, but enjoying a life!


Who is Abraham Maslow?

Abraham Maslow is recognized as the father of humanistic psychology. Instead of studying unhealthy people, he studied healthy individuals, and tried to define positive mental health.

Maslow's Basic Principles:

1. The normal personality is characterized by unity, integration, consistency, and coherence. Organization is the natural state, and disorganization is pathological.

2. The organism can be analyzed by differentiating its parts, but no part can be studied in isolation. The whole functions according to laws that cannot be found in the parts.

3. The organism has one sovereign drive, that of self-actualization. People strive continuously to realize their inherent potential by whatever avenues are open to them.

4. The influence of the external environment on normal development is minimal. The organism's potential, if allowed to unfold by an appropriate environment, will produce a healthy, integrated personality.

5. The comprehensive study of one person is more useful than the extensive investigation, in many people, of an isolated psychological function.

6. The salvation of the human being is not to be found in either behaviorism or in psychoanalysis, (which deals with only the darker, meaner half of the individual). We must deal with the questions of value, individuality, consciousness, purpose, ethics and the higher reaches of human nature.

7. Man is basically good not evil.

8. Psychopathology generally results from the denial, frustration or twisting of our essential nature.

9. Therapy of any sort, is a means of restoring a person to the path of self-actualization and development along the lines dictated by their inner nature.

10. When the four basic needs have been satisfied, the growth need or self-actualization need arises: A new discontent and restlessness will develop unless the individual is doing what he individually is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write--in short, what people can be they must be.

Maslow presents a simplified explanation of human motivation. The problem is, humans are far more complex that any chart, or pyramid, or graph can show.

Maslow offered a theory, and so do I. There is no way to confirm that this information is 100% accurate, in fact there is no way it can be 100% accurate.

One of the most beautiful things about the human existence is that some people are able to step out of the mold entirely. We are all different, and no theory will ever be able to capture every human being.

What Maslow offered many years ago, and what I offer now is just food for thought. A way to help us understand why other people do the things they do.

Go in peace!

Not everyone will agree with my assessment of Maslow and Abuse, but I wholly encourage input. If you see holes, point them out, if you disagree tell me why. I always encourage healthy debate.

Of course if you do agree, I'd like to know that as well!

Share your thoughts...

brobinsondk on May 03, 2012:


many thanks for sharing your deep insights with us.

I would also like to share some thoughts with you on how I have made connections between the Triune brain model, Maslow's Hierarchy and a modified version of Karpmann's Drama Triangle.

I use this in all many of therapeutic situations

Please email me if you wish to enter a dialogue about this fascinating area.

Once again many many thanks for sharing your great insights.


RobertSubiaga on April 28, 2011:

Just read over your article (if you can believe it I actually do read fast ;)). The point that is strongest is one I'd add commentary to: that of how abusers create a sense of uncertainty and insecurity in order to manipulate. And I'd call attention back to what I was saying about our needs, that whether we realize them or not, "if I ain't dead yet, they're met."

In other words, that overall problem of being conditioned to believe we're stuck at a certain level is simply what's been enhanced and taken advantage of by an abuser. A more extreme edge of the same spectrum.

And, paradoxically, the answer is NOT to seek more security. That is what we want to do; it is what we as children naturally do. And on might say those who are cyclically victimized are, by virtue of deprived childhoods, stuck then reliving the desire to replace that lost childhood with a new one, rather than mourn it as generally lost.

It is, oddly enough, in many ways like dogs and cats are domesticated. Most behavioral biologists will tell you they, in contrast to, say, wolves, are caught in a state of arrested adolescence. It's what makes for the perfect master-slave relationship.

But it's still a childhood. A childhood hoping for what cannot be. Adulthood, in contrast, comes first and foremost with an existial embracing with the truth of our finitude. With death. With the inevitability of losing.

Christ or Socrates, a samurai or a 9/11 firefighter. It is when we LOSE "hope" and accept that there is NO such thing as "security" that we become capable of self-actualization. And the rub? It was available, always, whenever we simply lt ourselves see it.

In fact, that there was no correlation between difficult conditions of life and being ready for self-actualization. Under the right conditions, for the right people, deprivation can even be an advantage. Shoved out of the nest, so to speak, the stark existential realities might come even easier than to someone who had a privileged, "healthy" upbringing.

The only problem, when such experiences are not an advantage, being having our chain yanked. Being abused, yet, but also manipulated in the worst way... by being taught to have illusions of "hope." And the hardest thing to accept of all: our barrier to self-actualization IS our own fault.

Not because the abuse was our own fault. But because we let ourselves, as a result, believe in a barrier that simply never existed--no matter how much we were abused, or how much we were loved and taken care of in life. The abuse wasn't our own fault, but our illusions are our own doing.

If we are alive, every moment is ripe for self-actualization. Right now. No matter what we are doing. In everything we are doing. ("Wax on, wax off.") No waiting, and no excuses. :)

miaponzo on April 18, 2011:

I love reading anything about Maslow!

clouda9 lm on July 26, 2010:

Amazing read! Each step, each piece of information was so well thought out...made me wanting to find out more.

QueSea on September 02, 2009:

I enjoyed reading your lens and seeing how you applied Maslow's ideas. Nice job. 5*s in my book.

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