Looking Out For #1, Part One - Kimberly Thompson

My grandfather had a saying, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” Funny that burnout is now our term for the exhaustion that comes from pushing ourselves too hard for too long. I must admit that really identify with the sentiment!

I’m a crash-and-burn kind of gal. Especially when it comes to my work, I plunge enthusiastically into too many projects all at once, leaving it all on the field – until. Until I just can’t do it anymore. Until there’s not enough coffee in the whole world.

So I get it. Everything feels more interesting and important than looking out for your mind-body health. But there are things I’m learning in midlife, when I can’t push myself nearly as hard as I used to, that I wish I’d learned in my twenties. In this series, I’m passing those things along to you.

In this series, I’ll be using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs as a framework to explore what it means to look after yourself well. This hierarchy is usually illustrated as a pyramid, with the more basic needs at the bottom. I’m going to invert that and discuss the basic needs first, progressively moving down to the needs that evolve as the basic needs are met. Future posts will cover each aspect of human need in more depth.

Physiological Needs. These are things necessary for human survival, such as air, water, food, shelter, clothes, sleep and sex. People do whatever they need to do to get these needs met – go out into a dangerous environment to hunt for food, leave the circle of friends and family to work in a faraway place, endure disrespect to keep a badly needed job, and neglect their passion in favor of a steady paycheck. Food insecurity, unstable living environments, or sleep deprivation at crucial periods of development can impact children’s physical growth and emotional security for the rest of their lives.

Safety Needs. There are many aspects to our safety needs. The most immediate need is for a secure home where we can retreat and sleep in peace. We need neighborhoods and communities where crime is low and authorities protect rather than exploit. Some marginalized communities historically have not had their safety needs met, leading to chronic stress and intergenerational trauma. Sometimes families themselves don’t provide safe environments, because of domestic violence, drug use, and criminal activity. When safety needs are not met, the ability to move on to higher-order need fulfillment is damaged.

Belonging Needs. Everybody needs to belong somewhere. The family is the crucible of the personality, and  a sense of belonging in the family is crucial to the development of a healthy one. If they don’t get their belonging needs met in the family, children will seek it elsewhere. Belonging means that you feel like you are an important part of something that is greater than yourself. An adult whose belonging needs were not met early in life may resign herself to a life of loneliness and isolation, or she may compulsively seek connections that are unhealthy and unsatisfying. She may be unable to move to higher-order need fulfillment, because she will do without respect, recognition, and meaning just to belong.

Esteem Needs. Once there is a sense of security about lower-order needs, the need for esteem stirs. This is the drive for importance, status, and respect. We need others to recognize us and we also need  self-esteem. When overblown, the need for esteem can show up as grandiosity and self-centeredness. But in general, the need for recognition is a healthy part of the human psyche. Would anybody willingly take on the burdens of leadership without it? The need for esteem  keeps society from disintegrating into chaos.

Self-Actualization. The highest-order need of all, self-actualization drives us to fulfill our deepest and greatest potential. To self-actualize is to manifest what you were born to be and to do. It is more of a process than an end goal, and it is very individual.  When you self-actualize, you are transcending yourself and responding to a call to a life beyond yourself. In many ways it is a spiritual process.

Throughout our lifetimes we may move through each level many times. Some reading this may have experienced periodic food insecurity, unsafe living conditions, loneliness, dead-end jobs, and periods where you felt you were just spinning your wheels. You may have had to concentrate on reestablishing yourself at a lower level before you could move back up the ladder. I’m going to challenge yourself to consider whether you are habitually depriving yourself of things that you legitimately need, and I want you to ask yourself why. It might be a little uncomfortable to do, but it’s important. Why on earth are burn out or rust out the only two choices?


I’m Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist with a maternal mental health practice in Lubbock, TX. From pre-conception to the empty nest, mothers can work with me in-person and online. Download my free e-book, The Busy Mom’s Self-Care Planner, and bring yourself into your circle of care. You can also find my book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, on Amazon and the Praeclarus Press website.