Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Hierarchy of Needs
Part Two

I hope you’ve had a chance to read last month’s article on the first three lower-level needs. If you did not, click HERE.

This month we tackle the upper two levels of esteem needs and self-actualization.

Maslow’s fourth level in the pyramid is all about respect. (Yes, Aretha had it down pat.) People want to be respected and esteemed by others. There are two types of respect: external and internal.

External respect is the lower order esteem need. You might say this is the need for status, recognition, and prestige. We want to be valued and accepted by others. This could come in the form of attention, reputation, dignity, and even dominance over others. A person can be famous or have national/international glory, but both require the opinions of others (the public) to make them so.

This is considered the “lower” order esteem need because it’s based on the opinions of others and it’s not intrinsic to yourself. This kind of esteem can come and go, and can certainly be lost. Just ask Tiger Woods.

Internal self-respect is the higher order esteem need. We want to feel that we’ve contributed something worthwhile, something of value. This includes possessing inner strength, competence, mastery, independence, freedom, and self-confidence. Something that we do—activities, club, our jobs, or hobbies—or something we live through and experience gives us this feeling of contribution and competency.

This is a “higher” order esteem need because once you respect yourself, it’s harder to lose that respect.

These two levels of esteem needs aren’t a package deal. You can have one but not both. A character with low self-esteem will not be able to improve his view of himself by receiving accolades and fame. A narcissist would think highly of herself, but wouldn’t have the external esteem to go with it because, well, let’s face it. Who really likes narcissists?

When this esteem need isn’t met, a person or character could have low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. Helplessness, depression, or emotional weakness can also happen if these needs are not realized.

Up until now, we’ve been dealing with the four lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid. These levels make up what Maslow calls the deficit needs, because if a person doesn’t have enough of something, a deficit occurs and she feels a need. Maslow’s theory was that self-actualization occurs when a person not only meets the lower deficit needs, but masters them.

When she attains self-actualization, she reaches her full potential. Don’t think of this as the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Instead, think of it as people desiring to be everything they are capable of being. This is a broad concept for self-actualization, but when applied to individuals, it can be very specific.

One character might desire to be an author or a good parent. Someone else might want to be a pro football player or invent something special. When these things happen, among others, individuals will have a peak experience, which is a profound moment of supreme happiness. They are full of love, understanding, and harmony. They feel whole, vibrant, and aware. Self-actualizing people have many peak experiences.

When I started thinking about characters in our books, this theory can dovetail off of Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation & Conflict (GMC). What our character most wants, his ultimate goal, could also be called his self-actualization. The conflict would be the deficit needs going unmet or being derailed.

I figured the motivation to reach a person’s self-actualization would originate from one of the needs not being met (deficit needs)—perhaps for a long time, like a childhood hurt of learning your birth parents gave you up for adoption, or a lifelong hurt of never feeling safe and always having to look over your shoulder. A person could be motivated to be the best financial provider for his family (self-actualization) because his father left them, so his mother always struggled to make ends meet. See how this could fit with GMC?

I said it last month, but I’ll say it again. Maslow had a theory. It may or may not float your boat, or it may be a useful way of organizing and prioritizing a character’s needs. There has been little evidence found for why Maslow ranked the needs on his pyramid like he did. Some researchers have found no evidence for a hierarchy at all.

One thing that is definitely true: characters can skip around or jump through the hierarchy. One of my blogger buddies pointed out that this theory could explain why it’s so interesting or admirable when a character skips around on the pyramid.

Livia Blackburne wrote, “Girls swoon over Edward Cullen because he breaks the expectations of the pyramid—ignoring his need for food in order to meet a ‘higher’ need. In the same way, we admire a monk who fasts for a month in order to get religious enlightenment. Jumping the pyramid makes you larger than life—and in some cases, story worthy.”

I couldn’t agree more and couldn’t have said it better myself. Give a character enough of a motivation or conflict, and you can really play around with these levels.


The Character Thrapist