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Basic Needs And Self Actualization

To grow and live fully, we need our basic needs met, ideally from the beginning.

Maslow (1962) pointed to an essential human nature or inner core that is biologically based and intrinsic, unless frustrated or discouraged. 

“The more we learn about man’s natural tendencies, the easier it will be to tell him how to be good, how to be happy, how to be fruitful, how to respect himself, how to love, how to fulfill his highest potentialities. This amounts to an automatic solution of many of the personality problems of the future. The thing to do seems to be to find out what you are really like inside, deep down, as a member of the human species and as a particular individual.” (p. 4)

But such self-actualization appears to be rare in our societies today. He and psychoanalysts of the time thought that the illness of self-despise, residing in the unconscious (largely constructed in the perinatal and preverbal time of life), undermined potentiality for self-actualization. He identified two particular neuroticisms:

  • Desire to dominate others or to submit to them
  • Desire to inflict pain (sadism)—indications of deep trauma.

Both of these desires suggest self-protective dispositions from undercare or unresolved trauma.

Converging evidence indicates that these neuroticisms have to do with a traumatizing early childhood, a degraded evolved nest, which undermines wellbeing and a healthy trajectory for the long term. In my work I point out how the degraded nest leads to dispositions that work against wellbeing in self and others (Narvaez, 2014, 2018).

Maslow attributed the neuroticisms to the culture in which the people reside:

“Sick people are made by a sick culture; healthy people are made possible by a healthy culture. But it is just as true that sick individuals make their culture more sick and that healthy individuals make their culture more healthy.” (Maslow, 1962, p. 5)

Unfortunately, our culture can be cruel towards many citizens and noncitizens. I believe this is because of the unmitigated trauma children experience and carry forward in their own lives through developmental trauma (van der Kolk, 2014) and potentially, through epigenetic inheritance, to the following generations. Nearly everyone today has ancestors who were extensively mistreated one way or another, and not only personal life trauma but intergenerational trauma may need to be addressed through therapeutic means.

As I point out elsewhere (Narvaez, 2018), Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is actually not sequential;  needs must be met simultaneously for proper child development. That is, a baby is oriented to self-actualizing, but needs the caregivers to provide the security, love, esteem and so forth, for proper neurobiological development and fulfillment. Ideally and taken for granted in traditional societies, individuals are raised in the evolved nest, in a supportive, positive community that is oriented to meeting everyone’s basic needs.

What are our basic needs?

Read the introduction and first chapter of this award-winning book by Darcia Narvaez, PhD, here.

First, it’s important to understand that basic needs represent a built-in compass for optimizing one’s development and wellbeing. Providing for the needs is not “spoiling the child” or making a weakling—the opposite is true. Just like when your body indicates thirst and you drink water, the need is fulfilled, and you are stronger for it.

Different theorists have described one or more basic needs.


  • Physical safety (e.g., food, shelter, sleep; Maslow, 1970)
  • Positive touch, especially extensive in early life (Field, 2002; Montagu, 1986)
  • Bodily integrity (e.g., no corporal punishment or sexual abuse; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor 2016; Nussbaum, 2013)


  • Sense of psychological safety (Maslow, 1970), no emotional abuse or bullying
  • Sense of trust, that the world is benevolent (Erikson, 1950)
  • Unconditional love from at least three persons in childhood (van Izjzendoorn, Sagi & Lambermon, 1992)
  • Sense of belonging in a welcoming community (Maslow, 1970; Narvaez, 2013; Nussbaum, 2013)
  • Sense of autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 1985)
  • Sense of control (Fiske, 2003)
  • Sense of competence (Deci & Ryan, 1985)


  • Self-directed, social free play (Burghardt, 2005)
  • Immersion in and connection to the natural world (Louv, 2016)
  • Self-actualization (Maslow, 1970)

As my colleagues and I contend, babies need all of these needs met simultaneously, as occurs in our ancestral context (Narvaez, 2013, 2018a; Tarsha & Narvaez, in press).

With age, other psychological needs emerge:

  • Conscious understanding of life and meaning-making (Fiske, 2004)
  • Sense of purpose (Staub, 2003)
  • Identity (Erikson, 1950)

No doubt there are other basic needs that have not been directly named or studied. All contribute to wellbeing and the ability to fully blossom as an individual and build strong cooperative communities.

Trying to become self-actualized without healthy early beginnings takes work. It is like approaching wisdom development after having an abusive or neglectful childhood. A lot of the body and mind are oriented to self-protective mechanisms rather than the openness that wisdom (and self-actualization) require.

Pointedly, Maslow split off self-actualization from other basic needs and thought that only older people could self-actualize because young people are still working on their basic needs (e.g., identity, vocation). This might describe the industrialized society where many things are compartmentalized and the young are segregated from the old. But in our ancestral context, a nested life, all needs could be met simultaneously (Narvaez, 2013). As the person matured, the sources to meet developmental needs were right there in the community. All needs were met as a community.

With his emphasis on elders, you might think that Maslow was describing himself as a self-actualizer. It seems to be the case. In this film, historian Jessica Grogan, author of Encountering America, discussed highlights of Maslow’s life. She pointed out that in his last years he found his own self-actualizing tendencies stimulated by his encounters with his grandchild, who demonstrated several key characteristics: spontaneity, freshness of appreciation, acceptance, autonomy, and democratic orientation. So if children are demonstrating the characteristics of self-actualizers, then the notion that there is a hierarchy of needs is undermined.


Burghardt, G.M. (2005). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Field, T. (2002). Infants’ need for touch. Human Development, 45(2), 100-103.

Fiske, S. (2003). Social beings. New York: Wiley.

Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(4), 453.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder. New York: Workman.

Maslow, A.H. (1962/1998). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York, Wiley.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Montagu, A. (1986). Touching: The human significance of the skin. New York: Harper & Row.

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99%–Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, peace and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (Ed.) (2018a). Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential.   New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Nussbaum, M.C. (2009). Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Staub, E. (2003). The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults, and groups help and harm others. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tarsha, M.S., & Narvaez, D. (in press). The developmental neurobiology of moral mindsets: Basic needs and childhood experience. In M. Berg & E. Chang (Eds.), Motivation & morality: A biopsychosocial approach. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin.

van Izjzendoorn, M., Sagi, A., & Lambermon, M. (1992). The multiple caretaker paradox: Data from Holland and Israel. In R.C. Pianta (Ed.), Beyond the parents: The role of other adults in children’s lives, New Directions for Child Development, 57, 5-24. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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