Abraham Maslow: Bullied but not Broken

It’s hard to imagine it, right? Abraham Maslow, father of humanistic psychology and creator of the famous hierarchy of needs theory, was a victim of bullying. And this bullying came at him from all the places and all the people in his life. He simply could NOT escape the physical and emotional pain and isolation that were inevitable consequences to growing up amidst constant threats and attacks.

Maslow had no friends aside from cousins. He was raised by angry, cruel, physically and emotionally abusive parents. He lived in a “multi-ethinic working class neighborhood,” but was singled out due to physical status –  small, clumsy, awkward,  his temperament –  shy, sensitive, strange, his socioeconomic status – the son of poor, uneducated, Jewish immigrant parents, and his religion –  the only Jewish kid in a non-Jewish school during a time when anti-semitism was a social norm. 

How did Maslow rise above his circumstances? How did he manage to survive, heal, and thrive?

He buried himself in books, learning in isolation when not required to be with others. He found purpose and meaning in the subject of psychology and created a brilliant theory that he personally used to understand his own pain so that he could heal and thrive. This theory has stood the test of time and is used broadly in many fields of study. Neal Burton, MD, describes Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation as “intuitive and potentially useful theory of human motivation.” 

In my personal and professional opinion, it’s more than potentially useful. I use it all the time in my personal life and professional life. Maslow’s theory provides a framework for understanding what it means to be human, what a human truly needs to reach his full potential. His hierarchy of needs theory is clear and easy to understand, a great starting point for assessment of human struggles.  Surviving is good, yes, but if that’s all there is, how does a human human well while being victimized by a bully?

Humans who experience bullying, acute or chronic, experience danger and emptiness every single day. The are in a perpetual state of fight or flight, wondering if they will have to run or fight. They don’t feel safe. They can’t focus, learn, relax, or trust. People who are victims of bullying are at risk for developing emotional and physical problems.

Like Maslow, against all odds, some find a way through it. Some do not. Some survive, heal, and eventually thrive, but the surviving is a lonely, painful process fueled by hope. The survival process, temporary or long term,  costs time and energy and slowly chips away at the hope of better things. Without hope, what’s the point?

Maslow hoped. Despite having zero support from his parents and no social support network, he found purpose and meaning in learning, eventually falling in love with the study of psychology. And then, he found purpose, meaning, and love with his wife, Bertha and his two daughters. By the time he was 26 years old, he had earned his Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, and PhD, and he found his tribe in the world of academia and his little family.

I like to imagine that at some point he had the opportunity to use his intelligence and wit to gloat just a little bit like the character, Will, in the movie “Good Will Hunting” did after defeating a bully with his “wicked smarts.”

Caution – profanity in video

We must create hope. Instead of using the “make lemons out of lemonade” aphormism, I suggest we adopt the apple as our symbol of hope! Apples are associated with health, knowledge, and luck. We know that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, but a bunch of good apples can make all kinds of good things.

WE CAN REDUCE THE SEVERITY, FREQUENCY, AND NEGATIVE OUTCOMES of bullying. One of the goals of the Plainfield Parent Community Network is to create the opportunities for education, circles of support,  and access to resources that can and will help us all survive, heal, and thrive.

We are looking for good apples. Join us on March 9th at the Plainfield Parent Community Network Event. I will be speaking about bullying and Corey Worden, M.A., LCPC, will be speaking about mental health and parenting. If you share our vision of hope and healing, join us!