One of the best known American psychologists was Abraham Maslow. As most are aware, he created the famous “Hierarchy of Needs” theory, which sought to explain the connection between an individual’s happiness and the meeting of their psychological needs. As time and experience have shown me, this theory helps to shed light on much of the success of high-control religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. How so? Let’s first take a look at Maslow’s famous pyramid:
McLeod, S. A. (2016). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
As adults, we are typically responsible and able to meet the most basic needs, the physiological ones, shown at the bottom of the pyramid. There are examples of members in high-control groups who have even these needs met for them. When I served at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a teenager, I was provided with lodging, food, warmth and water. I wanted for nothing physically. Expanding up the next step of the pyramid we find safety needs. As a Jehovah’s Witness, these needs are met by the group as well. I frequently heard “Where else will you go?” as a loyal member. The world outside the confines of the group is painted as a a frightening place, fraught with murderers, thieves and adulterers. If any sheep stray away from the flock, surely they would be instantly devoured by one of the many wolves just waiting for them on the perimeter! Yes, I felt safe and secure among “Jehovah’s people.” I believed that “sometime soon” the rest of the world would be destroyed, so there was no sensible reason for me to seek the meeting of my needs for security outside the group.
The meeting of psychological needs as a Witness is more complex. I learned that my only “true friends” were other Witnesses, and that individuals who were not Witnesses were simply “bad association,” not worthy of my attention unless I was trying to convert them. I believed that I had many great friends in the Witnesses, but when I decided to leave not one remained with me, in fact they never spoke to me again. Is that true friendship? So tight is the need to keep intimate relationships within the Witnesses that those who marry someone “out of the truth,” in other words, a non-Witness, are regarded as “spiritually weak.” And what of the need for esteem, the next level up in the hierarchy? This was my greatest need when I decided to dedicate myself to the group at the age of sixteen. I felt like an outcast at school. However, once inside the Kingdom Hall, I was a star. I participated in all the meetings, raising my hand to answer well formulated and guided responses to the questions raised in the study guides. Many came up after meetings to congratulate me on my “deep spiritual wisdom.” I carried several responsibilities in the Kingdom Hall, such as helping with the microphones and the “literature counter.” When I made it known to all that my goal was to serve at the JW headquarters, one elder remarked that I would be a “spiritual giant.” Me, a giant! Imagine that! My head swelled to epic proportions as all my needs for prestige and accomplishment were met many times over.
Sounds really good so far right? So why did I not stay? Because the highest need in the pyramid above, my need for self-actualization, was not met. There is no room for creativity in the Witness organization. If one dares to make time for creative activities such as writing, painting or singing (unless they are singing Witness songs or writing or painting along Witness themes), they are deemed to be “spiritually weak.” No, a good Witness fills their time with meeting attendance, hours in field service trying to convert non-adherents, and countless hours reading the literature that is released at a breathtaking pace. There is no time for for attention to one’s self, let alone time to think. But I knew that I was meant to do more than be someone’s puppet. Inside I felt suffocated and trapped. My own spirit cried out for release! I was good at doing, at completing the tasks I had been given. I was not allowed to question why I was doing what I was doing or the effectiveness of my own actions. I was dying inside, but I made up my mind to leave before I lost myself for good.
Today, I am grateful to have the time to do the things I love and spend quality time with the ones I love. I write freely, without feeling guilty for the time I spend doing it. My creative urges are no longer suppressed. I am truly free! Free to become the best version of myself. Free to pursue the next level of the hierarchy, added later and not shown here, which is transcendence. I am motivated to share what I have learned, to help others realize their full potential also. If you are in a high-control group, please question what you are doing with your life right now. I recall an aptly named JW book from many years ago title “Is This Life All There Is?” Indeed, is a life spent in all-consuming slavery to an organization’s cause a life fully lived and fully realized? I suppressed my own voice for years until I learned to follow it. Listen to your inner voice. Follow your heart. Create your own reality. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” It’s never too late.