There is a general understanding that we have an innate need to belong. We seek a place where we feel an affinity, the support of others, or to feel respected and admired. When this is not the case, it can feel as though many other things in our lives are out of alignment, and we struggle to move forward in our understanding or improvement of ourselves.
This innate sense that we want to belong to one another is well captured in the commonly-known Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you haven’t heard of this scaffold, it’s a way of thinking that helps us see human development and needs more clearly. Often depicted in a pyramid, the original model includes five motivational needs;
physiological – the need for shelter, food and drink, air to breathe, warmth, sex, and sleep
safety – protection from the elements, security, law, stability, and freedom from fear
psychological – the need to belong, have affection and love, be connected to family, friends, work, romantic relationships, etc.
esteem – to achieve, gain status, excel, have independence, self-respect, and respect from others
self-actualisation – self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth, realising personal potential (McLeod, 2018)
This model has often been popularised in business and education. In the context of the business world, this model is commonly used to try to understand customers, as well as examine what makes happy and profitable employees (Libert, 2014). Outside of work, you may have also encountered Maslow’s needs model when studying at school or university, as a tool to understand other cultures, people groups, or social structures.
In any of these encounters, both here and there, have you ever considered where you sit within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
Many of my clients come to me when they’re in the psychological tier of the model, the place where they’re seeking belonging and connection. Partly, this is because it’s such a crucial need that many seek support to untangle. But it’s also due to the nature of good therapy and counselling. Before you can undertake a journey to knowing yourself better (and potentially changing things about yourself), you need first to feel secure and safe. It’s very hard to commit to the work of therapy when you’re still struggling with basic needs such as where to live or when you can eat next.
Why do we desire to belong?
If we explore Maslow’s original thinking, he saw the desire to belong, feel love and connection as a natural progression. If both the physiological and safety needs are well met, then we experience an emergence of psychological or ‘love’ needs (Maslow, 1943). We begin to feel keenly the absence of connection or love, more than we ever could before our initial needs were met. We start to hunger for belonging and seek it with greater intensity, forgetting perhaps that we were ever worried about our shelter or our hunger needs before (Maslow, 1943). This means that our desire to belong is what drives our human behaviour. This desire to belong motivates us to seek relationships, follow football teams, join dance classes, or engage in therapy.
You, like many people, may have never had to worry about your physiological or safety needs. This is a blessing well worth expressing gratitude for. However, even with this blessing, it is a common experience to struggle with belonging, love and connection at some point in our lives. Within our current society, there is an unhealthy sense that people are dispensable, heightening the need to belong to a community and be needed and loved (Le Penne, 2017). If you’re feeling disconnected and struggling to fulfil your need to belong, you’re not alone in this feeling. Only when we encounter true connection and belonging through mutual affection or understanding, do we begin to move into the next level of Maslow’s pyramid (La Penne, 2017).
Moving beyond belonging
Whatever your most pressing need is right now, know that it is important, necessary and worth your energy. This hierarchy of needs is not a stick to beat yourself with, or a means of comparison or judgement. Life’s journey has many twists and turns, which take us up and down the pyramid as we experience change, distress and joy.
For Maslow, the need to belong was only the third phase in a five-phase journey that may take an entire life. He developed no road-map for how long we are ‘supposed’ to take in each level of need. In fact, there is no expectation that we will encounter every motivational need in the hierarchy.
However, if you’re seeking fulfilment in one need and looking to move on to the next, I encourage you to lean into that need. I like to call it ‘a growing edge’. Listen to your desires, turn inward and pay attention to what your longing is all about. Having needs is not a bad thing, a hierarchy of needs is just a way of saying let’s get the basics sorted and then move on to the next part of the journey.
If you’re struggling with finding connection, or if anything else in this article resonates with you in light of your own situation, please get in touch.