Psychology in Writing: Physiological and Safety Needs

Abraham Maslow believed that all people have a hierarchy of needs.  In order to advance further up the pyramid of needs, the needs at the previous step need to be met.  The

Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

hierarchy of needs also serves as a form of human motivation, once a need is met, an individual is inclined to strive towards the next need.  The five needs are Physiological, Safety, Love/belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization.  As with many psychological theories, an individual doesn’t necessarily complete a step and never revisit it, this is a cyclical theory, where a person may need to stop attending to needs at a higher step to resolve conflict at a lower step.

Therapists often want to begin with the top three steps, Love/belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization.  It is within those needs that therapists often feel that the real psychological work is being done, but if therapists is not attuned to the more basic steps they may become frustrated with clients’ lack of progress.  If an adolescent client presents as being frustrated with a parent, and discussing parental conflict, that is where many therapists may immediately attend, and then find that the conflict is not just striving for love, but one stemming from physiological needs and safety needs, e.g., the child is being abused, or there are unsafe individuals being allowed in the home.  These more basic needs have to be resolved first to free up the physical and psychological energy to work on the higher level needs.

If a client does not possess food, water, clothing, and shelter (physiological needs) it will be hard to focus emotional issues.  The client also has to have these needs met before they are able to resolve safety needs such as physical security (safe from abuse, war), financial security (employment, making enough money to provide for physiological needs), and health security (physical wellbeing).  We can see from this list why the needs are hierarchical, to give a physical example, a person would need to worry about having food to eat before s/he is able to resolve concerns about a toothache; the basic survival need for food, supersedes physical discomfort.  It is only through assuring that these needs are covered that a client is able to begin focusing on and attending to more psychological concerns.

As writers, like therapists, it’s easy to not attend to a characters basic needs.  This issue becomes even more difficult for us when we ourselves have some level of privilege (meaning food, shelter, and safety).  We can become like fish in water, making the assumption that these things are available to everyone, and even if they’re not available to our characters we can have them participating in deep introspective thoughts or extolling the virtues of a mighty cause.  But, if the character is hungry or threatened by war, the more natural human reaction would be to locate food and to find shelter or protection (and in this protection find her/his way into a greater cause).

If we want our characters to be real, we need to acknowledge that they have real needs that have to be met before they can rise up and overcome their challenges that we lay before her/him.  Focusing on a character trying to resolve her/his hunger, while more “important things” are going around her/him can build sympathy in the reader for the character.  The reader will be able to connect with the character’s suffering because of the universality of the needs that we all experience.  It also gives an additional triumph to the character, not only has s/he overcome hunger and the danger of the world, s/he has overcome whatever primary challenge we have set before them.  In this way, our characters really succeed in the face of adversity and the reader can see it is not just for overcoming a challenge, but for surviving all of the challenges that life presented to her/him (and by proxy all of us).

Writing Prompt:  Chose one of your characters and write what they would look like if s/he were not food secure, lacked shelter, or found her/his self in a war zone or natural disaster.  What would the character do to try and survive?  How would s/he make it? Would s/he make it?

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