What Maslow's Painful Past Teaches Us About Embracing Peak Experiences

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of psychology's most influential frameworks. At its core is the sequential fulfillment of basic human requirements - physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

It is amazing to discover that Maslow himself didn’t have many of his needs met as a child. His mother used to lock the fridge in the house and only opened it when she was hungry. She also smashed his beloved record collection with her shoes. His father kept telling him he was ugly, and it got to the point where little Maslow looked for an empty carriage on the train on his way to school so people wouldn't have to look at him. A particularly horrific event was when Maslow's mother discovered her son feeding two kittens he had cared for in the basement, and in a fit of rage slammed their heads against the wall in front of him. Not just his parents, but also his peers in the anti-Semitic neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and even his teachers bullied him and made his life miserable. This was the child who would develop one of psychology’s most compassionate visions.

Through unfathomable suffering, Maslow attained profound empathy for the human experience. Many of us spend our whole life trying to discover, fix, compensate, or explain to ourselves what we have been through and how to proceed differently from here. Extraordinary people like Maslow do it for all of us.

At the pinnacle of his pyramid lies “self-actualization” – embracing life’s moments of greatness despite our fears. Few attain this summit, choosing instead to dismiss miracles as fleeting. The big obstacle for achieving this is our fear of experiences that are “too big” or “too great”. Most people, Maslow explains, ignore their moments of "greatness" and frame them as something coincidental and fleeting. A small number of people know how to embrace their moments of greatness and celebrate the opportunity they got.

It's remarkable how, against the backdrop of his difficult childhood, Maslow inspired millions worldwide in their pursuit of needs and potential. Yet he never forgave his mother, even when she was on her deathbed, and would not acknowledge her as a victim of the circumstances of her life. His driving force in life, he said, was "rooted in my hatred and rejection of everything my mother stands for." So much compassion and goodness alongside so much anger and disdain in one man.

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