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How Toxic Parents Topple the Foundations of Maslow’s Pyramid

toxic parents and Maslow's pyramidWe all share similar needs, and for them to be satisfied in order to create a good life and become all that we can be.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow described the levels of need in ascending order. We can jump over a level, but if we do, then the inner structure of our life feels shaky because of the omission. Some argue that this isn’t necessarily a linear process or a step-by-step climb.

The levels of need are:

  • physiological
  • safety
  • belonging
  • esteem
  • self-actualization

For many people, particularly those with an unhappy childhood and toxic parents, even the foundation level isn’t firmly in place. Thus the pyramid is prone to wobble, or even topple, when shaken by life events. This is often the underlying basis of the work within the psychotherapeutic relationship — to examine the foundations and shore up and underpin them to give the base more solidity and resilience.

How Does the Pyramid Get Toppled?

If our parents’ own foundations were shaky, they will have passed this on to us in they way they related to us and the extent to which they met our basic human needs.

If they failed to provide us with a sense of being wanted, loved and valued, or to meet our physical needs for a healthy life, this will also have affected us on a deeper, subconscious level, as well as on the physical level.

If a child doesn’t consistently feel safe and secure, unconditionally valued and with a sense of belonging within a loving family, these will all cause the child’s foundations to become weak and unstable.

Any child who is used, confused or abused will struggle to feel that they are ever on solid ground, or that they can trust their needs to be met by themselves or by others.

Without the right parental love, support, guidance and care we need, we develop and internalize the associated messages and toxic beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs include:

  • I am a burden, a nuisance, clumsy, stupid, ugly, worthless, useless
  • I can’t trust anyone
  • I don’t deserve to have good things happen to me, to have friends, to be loved, to be supported, to be successful or rich, to have good health
  • I shouldn’t expect to feel safe and secure, or to feel wanted and valued

The child is left with the painful feelings of:

  • confusion
  • emptiness
  • pervasive sadness
  • guilt
  • shame
  • disgust
  • despair

These feelings eat away at the pyramid, and create a pervasive lack of hope that life can ever feel safe, solid, secure, calm or happy.

How can we rebuild the pyramid? We must find empathy for the struggles of our inner child, who has been trying to get by as best they could on shifting sands.

We need to rebuild to a new blueprint that takes into account the real and present-day conditions and elements and incorporates:

Self-awareness: how you perceive and respond to what you experience; and the effects of your behavior upon others.

Education about what firm foundations feel like, and how to achieve them.

Learning new skills to fill in the gaps for ourselves, such as with self-compassion, self-care and new boundaries.

Emotional balance and intelligence — the ability to identify and regulate your emotions and attune to the emotional state of others. Knowing how to lift or calm yourself when needed to get yourself back into balance.

Control of erratic and irrational thoughts — learning how to identify, diffuse or discard them. With this self-control also comes better Clarity and Choice.

Transformation — or what Maslow refers to as the path to ‘self-actualization’ — that place you would have reached much earlier had the conditions been more favorable along the way.

There’s an acronym in there that helps us to remember the steps we need to take to S.E.L.E.C.T our lives and rebuild and renovate that pyramid from the ground up to our own plan and time-scale.

You can then create a life on your own terms and no longer passively accept the one handed down to you by ignorant or maleficent parents, or other people who have shaped your past.

S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life © starts with self awareness of the state of your foundations, then follows the steps needed to climb higher and higher up that pyramid.

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How Toxic Parents Topple the Foundations of Maslow’s Pyramid


Maxine Harley

Maxine Harley has a masters degree in integrative psychotherapy. Visit www.maxineharley.com, where you will find free resources to help you on your way to self-awareness, healing and growth. As both a mind healer and mentor she specializes in helping women to overcome their troubled childhood and toxic parents, and reparent their wounded inner child. She also offers therapeutic self-development mentoring to women to help them to excel as partners, parents and professionals. She has written two published books, is an online columnist, blogger for several platforms, and a contributing writer and an expert leader for Psychologies Magazine. She lives in West Sussex, England.


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APA Reference
Harley, M. (2018). How Toxic Parents Topple the Foundations of Maslow’s Pyramid. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-toxic-parents-topple-the-foundations-of-maslows-pyramid/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.