Lizards, Fears, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I talk about the lizard brain a lot, because I find it’s a very useful way to understand ourselves, our actions, and our words. I’m certainly not the first or the only person to talk about this topic, but I’d like to present this in a different way.

Many of us have heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In case you haven’t, here’s a drastically oversimplified explanation!maslow

All human needs can be categorized into one of 5 categories: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization. In addition, these needs are ideally met in order. In other words, you cannot feel love and belonging if you’re drowning, because your physical need for air is compromised.

A good analogy is child development. An infant is focused on the bottom two layers of the pyramid: food, air, water, and shelter. Babies don’t care about their clothes, and babies don’t care about respect: they cry and scream until they get their basic physical needs met, and without those needs being met, they won’t grow. Toddlers focus on the second and third layers: safety and love. With their constant testing of boundaries, they are experimenting with safety as well as love. They begin to desire emotional connection with their parents, which is why time outs can be so effective. Preschoolers are moving on to the fourth layer: esteem. They want to impress people. They want mastery over themselves (potty training, self dressing, operating a TV, etc.). As children grow and learn, they start to work on self-actualization, although this need is often delayed until later in life.

If you’ve ever used the phrase “First World Problem,” you have a basic understanding of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. In the First World, our physiological and safety needs are easily met, and our love/belonging needs are also usually pretty assured. When our esteem is injured by a lack of respect, or our self-actualization is frustrated by a car breaking down on our way to yoga class, it’s a “first world problem.”

The truth is, those things really are problems. Humans long for self-actualization, for love and belonging, for healthy self-esteem. We desire something more than survival. Otherwise why would we have been creating art millenia ago?

Here is where the concept of the lizard brain becomes crucial for us. The lizard brain operates solely on the bottom two levels of the hierarchy. Air, water, food, shelter, defense: these are the needs our lizard brain is engineered to find and protect. Unfortunately, the lizard brain doesn’t ever turn off. It’s always on, always looking for survival.

So here I am, diligently operating at the fifth level of Maslow’s pyramid, seeking and creating my own self-actualization. My brain is happily occupied there, creating art, participating in loving community and sexual intimacy, enjoying healthy self-esteem. Meanwhile, Cannot Chameleon (my personal lizard brain), is busily shooting out survival messages. Air! Food! Water! Shelter! Safety!

In between inspiration, my higher brain receives Cannot’s messages and begins to apply them to the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Feedback about my latest blog post comes in, and my brain is capable of receiving it without any emotions. It’s just useful data. But then it mixes the feedback with the messages from Cannot, and suddenly the feedback becomes a survival threat.

Someone doesn’t like my writing? My self-actualization is failing. My self-esteem is based on a lie. I’m going to lose my place in the tribe. Then I’m going to be alone. Without protection, I will die.

What do we fear the most? Death. We also fear pain and suffering, but death (our own or others) is the deepest, most pressing fear. The problem we face is that as we move up the hierarchy, rejections that don’t threaten our life are still interpreted by our lizard brain as death threats. Potential emotional rejections feels so dire because unconsciously, we see them as potential death.

This month as we approach Halloween, I’d like to explore our fears. So take a moment and think: what are you REALLY afraid of? Stay tuned over the next few weeks as we explore fears all along the Maslow hierarchy!

Are your fears controlling your life? Schedule a Breath of Fresh Air with me and we’ll find you some freedom from fear!