Updated: Jul 7, 2020
In Maslow’s approach to understanding human needs, usually known as the Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow wrote that: Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives. (Maslow, 1943, p 370)
Maslow used the word “hierarchy” but he did not develop the visual model which has become so iconic. It was Charles McDermid who developed the visual model in 1960 in the journal Business Horizons. By organizing the model visually, Safety became a separate need which is addressed after basic human needs. However, this rigidity took away from the interrelatedness Maslow originally intended for an understanding of human needs.
In the Matrix of Needs approach, Safety is not a separate need, it is a continuous need throughout the lifespan. For example, a child who is nurtured by its’ parents, lives in a stable environment and interacts with caregivers throughout the day will most likely perceive themselves to be safe. A young mother recounted taking her son to the ocean, and while he was a little fearful of the ocean, she said her son “smiles with his whole body when he sees another human. He doesn’t carry fear, judgment, or heavy stories of the evil people can do. Everyone he sees is delightful.” Another parent recounted being on a bike trail with his 5 year old son, who got ahead of him, but was still in visual range. He fell, and a stranger stopped to help him. Afterwards, he asked his father if he could get this man’s phone number, because he was so nice and he wanted to be friends with him.
These are just 2 examples of the power of perceived safety. Porges’ model of the Social Engagement System is a good way of understanding how perceptions of safety alter our behaviour. In these 2 examples, the incoming stimuli were processed without regard to threat levels. The default perception is that people are safe. My two grandsons have a similar perspective, and do not process incoming stimuli as a question of “fight or flight or freeze” but by default, their behavioural response is flock, being with other people. Coming from my own background of trauma, seeing and hearing the ways in which these children interact with the people in their world is heartening.
Because the underlying matrix of safety is strong, attachments are stronger, communication is more efficient, and all the other elements in the Matrix of Needs are more likely to be fulfilled in ways that enhance quality of life.
Children who have opposite experiences, however, will most likely have a perception that they are not safe. As a result, the unsafe child will have a different approach to eating, a different approach to toileting, a different approach to sleeping than the safe child. The subsistence and developmental needs of children who feel unsafe will be altered by their perceived lack of safety.
Safety is a continuous, life-long need in all stages of development. The presence or absence of safety alters our brains, our bodies and our sense of who we are. This safety is not just physical, it is emotional and psychological as well. Maintaining a continuous focus on safety is important in helping people to grow and develop into their best selves, whomever that may be.
The Matrix of Needs derives its’ form from the biological sciences, specifically the Extra-Cellular Matrix, or ECM.The ECM provides the structural integrity needed for cells to maintain a shape, a form which supports the functions of the cell. It is not that form follows function, but rather that form supports function. The Matrix of Human Needs is represented by this graphic:
What is unseen though, is the structure that supports each of the different parts, as represented by this graphic:
Safety at a physical and emotional level is represented by the white lines in the graphic, which are the grout, so to speak, that supports the different parts of the structure to form the whole. Safety is what empowers humans to grow, develop, and mature. When safety is not present, the biopsychosocial structures that provide strength and resilience weaken, resulting in behavioral attempts to compensate by doing more of – that is, if the weakness is in subsistence, we may eat more, or if it is in communication we may talk more, or if it is in attachment we may seek out attachments more, or if it is in achievement we may work more. If the weaknesses are in social relationships, we may socialize more, or if they are in affiliation we may join more groups. Or we can compensate by doing less, the pathway of despair, depression and dissociation. Using the previous examples, we may eat less, we may talk less, we may see other people less, we may work less.
Safety is a continual need, from conception to death. If, however, we only look out for our own safety, we revert back to a hierarchical model in which we “look out for number 1.” At a macro level, looking out for number one becomes looking out for my clan, my country, my religion, etc.
This lack of safety becomes part of the culture, part of the way of being, unless and until people decide to change it. The roots of racism, which is being addressed now in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, is colonialism, which is the beating heart of war. Only when each of us decides that we are safer together than apart will we experience the kind of safety we need to bring interdependence to fruition.