Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the source of our self-obsession

Self-esteem or self-obsession?
Self-esteem or self-obsession?
Image: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Whether you know it or not, a powerful cult is recruiting you. Cults display unwarranted admiration for a person or thing, and this one has chosen an especially irresistible figurehead: you.

The Cult of Self lulls us into believing that we’re better than others, that our needs matter more, and that we’re entitled to everything we desire. It convinces us that our Facebook friends are waiting with baited breath to hear our latest work accomplishment, or that all spelling bee participants should receive a ribbon so they don’t have to experience the misery of defeat.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. For thousands of years, traditional Judeo-Christian values emphasized modesty and humility as the measures of a well-lived life. In these times, the self was down-played for the sake of pursuing a greater collective goal. But in the mid 20th century, a new philosophy took hold: that each and every person is special, regardless of how talented they are.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the seeds of the Cult of Self were sown with the humanistic psychology movement. The famed Abraham Maslow was one of its earliest supporters, which lead to his proposal that humans have a hierarchy of needs. The higher-order need to achieve our full potential (which he called self-actualization) could not be achieved until our lower-order needs (like food and water, physical safety, and relationships) were met.

Unfortunately, by Maslow’s own admission, it was nearly impossible for human beings to truly reach their full potential. If we couldn’t reach enlightenment, there was a similar, far more attainable trait just one rung down in his ladder: self-esteem. By this token, we didn’t need to become great—all we really had to do was feel great.

In the 1970s, the fire of self-esteem began to catch. The mega best-seller The Psychology of Self-Esteem wildly claimed that there wasn’t “a single psychological problem—from anxiety to depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation” that wasn’t the result of low self-esteem. (Later research would prove him entirely wrong.) Nevertheless, the Cult had found its first followers, and by the 1990s and 2000s, membership had mushroomed. Schools completely banned competitive sports, instituted daily “I Love Me” lessons, and chose 30 class valedictorians.

Since then, our collective sense of self-importance has only intensified. One long-running study analyzed high schoolers’ responses to the statement “I am an important person” over nearly four decades. In the 1950s, only 12% agreed, but by 1989, that number had soared to roughly 80%. Continuing the trend, college students’ narcissism levels (measured by statements like “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve”) increased a full 30% between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s.

But young people aren’t the only card-carrying members of the Cult of Self. America’s growing “me” focus can be found everywhere from contemporary literature to the Twitter feeds of Congress people. One analysis of state of the union addresses between 1790 and 2012 found a decrease in the use of “other-related” words (his/her, neighbor) and an increase in “self-focused” words ( I, me, mine). Similarly, a Google Ngram search of more than 15 million books reveals that while use of the word “me” decreased nearly 50% between 1900 and 1974, it increased more than 87% between 1975 and 2007.

Social media has only added fuel to the fire. The nature of the medium makes it all-too-easy to focus exclusively on ourselves at the expense of others. In fact, one recent study showed that half of status updates are posted with the goal of looking good in the eyes of others. Presenting a humblebrag about our amazing vacation or a fabulous selfie kicks us into the inescapable echo chambers of our own awesomeness, and only serves to amplify our sense of self-importance.

Despite the short-term ego boost our positive illusions give us, they also have serious long-term consequences. For example, boosting the self-esteem of unsuccessful people hurts their performance more than it helps. Similarly, people with high self-esteem tend to be more violent and more vulnerable to drug and alcohol problems. When facing romantic turmoil, they’re also more likely to be unfaithful or engage in other destructive behaviors. Unrealistically positive views of ourselves can harm our relationships, too: In one study, college students with accurate self-perceptions were seen by others as intelligent, charming, and honest, while those with overly confident views were labeled as self-defeating, condescending, defensive, and hostile.

Leaving the Cult of Self

For many people, the mere idea of quitting the Cult of Self can feel scary. Despite the leap of faith it requires, canceling our membership frees us up to discover—and compassionately accept—the person we really are. Here are three tips to get back to reality.

  • Be an informer, not a “meformer”: Social-media users generally fall into one of two categories: Eighty percent are what communication professor Mor Naaman and his colleagues call “meformers,” who like to share what’s going on in their lives, and the remaining 20% are “informers,” who post other-oriented information, like an interesting article to help our friends get ahead at work. To build on Dr. Naaman’s work, we might infer that informers have more friends (in real life) and enjoy richer, more satisfying interactions. Both online and off, we’d all do well to focus less on ourselves and more on connecting with others. If you feel tempted to “meform,” ask yourself: Am I posting this to make me look good? Though the answer isn’t always easy, it’s far more gratifying in the long run to stop racking up “likes” and work on understanding, entertaining, and inspiring others.
  • Find loving critics: When it comes to our self-centered behavior, more often than not, the people around us can see what we cannot. Make the decision to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth: colleagues, family members, and friends who will (lovingly) knock you down a peg when you’re getting too big for your britches. Stanford researcher Hayagreeva Rao believes that leaders who have teenage children are less prone to overconfidence (paywall) for this very reason.
  • Focus on self-acceptance: Finally, the alternative to boundless self-esteem doesn’t have to be self-loathing. Where self-esteem means thinking we’re amazing regardless of the objective reality, self-acceptance means understanding our objective reality, giving ourselves permission to be imperfect, and deciding to value ourselves anyway. Research has shown that self-esteem and self-acceptance are identical pre­dictors of happiness and optimism, but only people high in self-acceptance hold positive views of themselves that aren’t dependent on external validation (like participation ribbons, Facebook likes, and gold stars). After all, the more realistically we are able to see ourselves, the more empathy and grace we can extend to the person we learn we are.