Born in 1908, Abraham Maslow was deeply affected by America’s efforts in the fight against fascism and thus also World War II. He had realized, that he didn’t understand the parties involved on the other side of the fight. He then decided that he wanted to work on “a psychology for the peace table.” He wanted to prove that “human beings are capable of something grander than war and prejudice and hatred.”
The result was what he called “a positive theory of human motivation.” It serves as a way to understand how healthy and well-functioning people deal with different needs and react to needs being mostly fulfilled. The simplified image of it we know as the hierarchy of needs doesn’t do it full justice as human beings easily balance different needs independently from how much they are fulfilled. Many of us live in situations in which there is little urgency in fulfilling physiological needs, and most of the time at least partial fulfillment of other needs.
There is, for example, a lot of ongoing discussion regarding psychological safety in organizations. It is a discussion that implies that safety may be at stake, and at the same time, it also says, that it is situational. Nevertheless, whenever anxiety is present it will dominate how much people are willing to share if their need for safety isn’t satisfied or contained.
At the same time, the more we are used to having our needs fulfilled, the less we’ll pay attention to situations in which they are less fulfilled. People push anxiety aside when it appears unless it can’t be avoided. Or said differently, they don’t pay attention to the desire for safety when it appears. If they don’t make themselves aware of it, they might not even realize it is there and brush it aside as well as the options they have to care for it. It is as if they’d assume that as it is generally available to them, it can’t be missing or its lack can be discarded.
It’s humbling to notice a lack or allow that awareness.
Something that also characterizes the need for safety is, that in contrast to the physiological needs that are mainly self-serving, is a need that will also involve others. In a way, the more one climbs up the ladder or hierarchy of needs, the more it involves others and the less self-centered it needs to be. Belonging requires others with whom this sense is shared. And esteem for example connects with the idea or reputation that exists through others.
Allowing oneself to see how others contribute to our needs is humbling, that is, if we make ourselves aware that they can contribute and don’t have to.
But humbling is not a threat to anyone’s safety. It’s also the realization that one can be grateful for what is there when it is there. It serves our motivation to become aware of what is there and accept that more can be available if one welcomes it.
Being grateful has nothing to do with downgrading oneself. It is an opportunity to accept one’s human needs, appreciate how much they are being fulfilled, notice how others are contributing, and how one can contribute at different levels of the hierarchy.