Theories about Addiction and Recovery

There are a number of theories that offer insight as to how people fall into addiction and how they escape from it. While these theories can most certainly be helpful it is important to keep in mind that they may not be telling the full story. One of the theories that have been of great value in helping people understand addiction and recovery has been Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Background on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The hierarchy of needs is a theory of personal growth put forth by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow. It is based on a paper he submitted back in 1943 called A Theory of Human Motivation and his ideas were further developed in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality. Maslow came about his theory by studying people who he considered successful to see if he could find the secret of their success in life. The hierarchy of needs has had a powerful influence on modern thought in regards to personal development, but it has also been criticized for being ethnocentric (only concerned with the values and ideas of one culture) and for containing elements that some would say are pseudoscientific. Despite these criticisms it remains an influential and powerful theory.

Hierarchy of Needs Explained

The word hierarchy can be defined as a graded or ranked series. Maslow believed that it is possible to rank human needs, and that the lower needs have to be satisfied before people can move onto the higher ones. The hierarchy of needs is usually portrayed as a pyramid with different levels indicating specific needs. Starting from the bottom of this pyramid it contains:

* Physiological needs are the most basic and this includes things like food, air, and sleep. Until these physiological needs are met the individual will be focused on just staying alive.
* Security needs refer to those things that keep the individual safe from harm. This can include things like membership of a community where there is protection given by belonging to this group.
* Humans are referred to as social animals and this means that they have social needs. Once the individual has taken care of their physiological and security needs their next concern will be companionship, love, and affection.
* Next up on the hierarchy of needs is esteem. The individual needs to feel valued not only by other people but also be themselves (self esteem).
* At the top of the pyramid is self actualization. This refers to the ability of people to live up to their potential – they will not be able to do this until the lower needs are satisfied.

Victor Frankl was a neurologist/psychiatrist who was influenced by the work of Maslow. He suggested adding another layer to the pyramid just above self actualization. He refers to this as self-transcendence. This is a spiritual state similar to Nirvana in Buddhism – it means going beyond the ego.

Addiction and the Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been used to describe addiction in two ways. On one hand it can describe the different types of alcoholic based on what level they are dealing with in the hierarchy. It can also be used to describe what happens to people who become involved in substance abuse.

There can be different reasons for why people turn to alcohol or drugs depending on their location on the hierarchy. So for example:

* The individual may use these substances because they are deluded into thinking that it is necessary for their physiological survival. An example of this would be the person who is afraid to stop because they worry about severe withdrawal symptoms.
* The person may turn to substance abuse because they believe that it benefits their security needs. When they are inebriated they develop a false sense of security.
* These substances can deceive the individual into believing that their social needs are being catered for. The truth is that the friendship found in bars and drug dens tends to be shallow.
* One of the most common reasons for why people use alcohol or drugs is that it seems to give their self esteem a boost. Unfortunately this effect is only temporary because addiction means that the individual will lose the respect of many people and eventually they will lose all their own self worth.

As the individual falls deeper into addiction it will usually means that they descend lower on the hierarchy of needs. This occurs because:

* Sometimes substance abusers will sometimes have spiritual experiences that help them end their addiction, but it is unlikely that they will ever have a transcendence experience. This is because most spiritual paths involve sobriety – with the exception of shamanism where drugs may be used in a very controlled way to reach heightened states of consciousness.
* In order to self actualize the individual will need to have all their lower needs met. The individual may be a high functioning addict but the fact that their lower needs are not being properly catered for will keep on dragging them back down.
* Addiction causes people to lose respect and inebriation means that they do things that they later feel guilty about. This means that although the individual may have begun using alcohol or drugs as a means to boost their esteem it will be having the opposite effect.
* Substance abuse is poisonous when it comes to interpersonal relationships, and the individual may spend their time with fellow addicts who are unreliable and a negative influence. This means that the person’s social needs will not be met.
* Alcohol and drugs can give people a sense of security but it is actually making them more vulnerable. By the time the individual realizes how badly their addiction has impacted their life they may have descended to using these substances out of a sense of physiological necessity.
* By the time the individual reaches the bottom of the hierarchy of needs they will feel unable to cope without alcohol or drugs. If they have to choose between food and these substances they will choose intoxication every time – the addict can be stuck at this basic level of survival indefinitely.

Rock Bottom and the Hierarchy of Needs

The point at which the individual becomes willing to end their addiction is referred to as their rock bottom. This point can occur at any stage on the hierarchy of needs. It is like a descending elevator and the individual has to decide where they want to get off. Some will have a high rock bottom because they see how alcohol and drugs is preventing them from reaching their potential (self actualizing). Other people will descend all the way down to the psychological level where they will risk death if they do not stop. The longer the person delays their recovery the more they will lose. If they later relapse back to addiction they will soon return to where they left off.

Recovery and the Hierarchy of Needs

While addiction may be viewed as a fall down the hierarchy of needs the act of recovering is the exact opposite. It may take a bit of time but the individual can completely turn their life around. They can make it all the way up to self actualizing and beyond. The way this occurs will be:

* By breaking the addiction the individual no longer feels the need use alcohol or drugs in order to survive. This means that they can move beyond physiological needs and move up the hierarchy.
* The individual will be no longer involved in an activity that is endangering their health and personal safety so they can now enjoy a real sense of security. In early recovery the individual may become involved in the sober community, and this can further add to the feeling that they are safe.
* The sober person will develop the ability to establish deep and meaningful relationships with other people. They are no longer involved with a group of unreliable addicts who work to keep each other down.
* As the individual rebuild their life they earn the respect of friends and family. Their successes over time also boosts their own self esteem.
* Now that the individual has taken care of their lower needs it means that they are free to self actualize.
* For some people recovery becomes a spiritual path. This means that they are on a journey that will take them to self transcendence.

Scientific Validity of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been influential, but there have also been some criticisms of this theory including:

* Different cultures have their own values and beliefs, but Maslow can be accused of being ethnocentric because of his focus on western culture. In his study he focused on people like Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Beethoven.
* His original study into what makes people successful has been criticized for not being rigorously scientific. This leaves him open to accusations of personal bias.
* Many people have argued that the hierarchy is too simplistic and does not fully reflect how things work in reality.
* The added on idea of transcendence has been criticized for lacking scientific evidence to support it.

Despite these criticisms it is undeniable that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be a useful tool when considering personal development. This is why after almost 70 years since they were first published his ideas remain popular.