What is self actualization? (And how to achieve it)

Humans have an innate desire to realize their full potential. At least, that’s what Abraham Maslow’s theory of self actualization argues.

Do you feel like you are reaching your full potential? Are all of your life’s needs in terms of love, self-confidence and survival necessities being met?

If not, self actualization psychology might just be able to give you the answer:

What is self actualization?

The most compelling definition of self actualization is that it is “a psychological process where the goal is to maximize a person’s abilities and resources. The process may vary from person to person.”

The term “self actualization” was actually first invented by theorist Kurt Goldstein. But it is most often thought of as being linked to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”.

Goldstein’s theory that self actualization – a process which he thought of as the way a person became a holistic self, an individual who realizes that their own self and their environment are part of the same whole – drives human behavior was picked up by Maslow and incorporated into his famous hierarchy.

Maslow defined it more simply. Referring to self actualization, he said, “What a man can be, he must be.” As the final level of his hierarchy, it represented the pinnacle and full realization of a human being’s potential.

More, it was something which could only be achieved after all other more basic needs had been met.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

According to Maslow’s theory, self actualization needs a person to have already had their other requirements in terms of survival met.

The original five-stage Hierarchy of Needs which Maslow postulated includes four layers below self actualization. They are, in order:

  • Physiological – these are the basic survival needs. Food, water and air to breathe.
  • Safety – these are things like shelter or a group for protection as well as things like guaranteed clean water or health care.
  • Love (also called belonging) – these are your needs in terms of being liked and loved by others.
  • Esteem – these are needs related to being respected by others, leading to self-confidence.

It is important to note that, for Maslow, self actualization was only possible as the top level of the hierarchy. Each lower stage needs to be met before the next one can be tackled.

The idea is a logical one. After all, you will almost certainly want your food and water needs to be met before you start worrying about health care. You are likely to want all of those needs to be met before you start looking around to make friends.

The development of self actualization theory

It has since been pointed out (mainly by Maslow himself) that the original Hierarchy of Needs:

  • Is not a hard and fast system – after all, there are people who have no shelter and no guaranteed food and water supply who would count themselves loved, liked and respected by others.
  • Incomplete – Maslow later expanded his hierarchy to a seven-stage and then an eight-stage model, including levels for cognitive and aesthetic needs before self actualization could be achieved – as well as transcendence needs after self actualization has been achieved.
  • Different for different individuals – Maslow himself noted that for some individuals, the hierarchy did not hold. For example, some people prioritize the fulfillment of their esteem needs over being liked or loved.

As far as self actualization theory within the larger context of psychology goes, it is often seen as fitting in well with the approaches of Freud to studying personality.

Freud mainly looked at unhealthy individuals who displayed divergent behavior. As a Humanist, Maslow looked mainly at healthy, motivated people. It is a more positive view, where a person is a potential self which can be motivated to achieve its full potential.

The characteristics of self actualized people

Self actualized people are fulfilled people. They are doing all that they are capable of doing – utilizing all of their potentials.

According to Maslow, self actualized people were actually exceedingly rare. But he pointed out that, while every individual’s path to self actualization was different, self actualized people – no matter who they were in life – all had certain characteristics in common. These included:

  • Good judgment about people and the world – able to detect dishonesty in personalities and generally be a good judge of character and situations.
  • Accepting of self, others and the world – understanding of themselves and others, including their flaws. Accepting their own shortcomings and those of other people with tolerance and even humor.
  • Comfortable alone – their belonging needs are met but they are comfortable in solitude.
  • Use their own experiences – they do not display herd mentality or simply follow the prevailing opinion on a topic.
  • Natural – they are true to themselves rather than behaving how others want them to behave.
  • Task-focused – the majority of self actualized people tended to have a main goal in their life beyond themselves.

There are also a whole range of other characteristics. These include being socially compassionate, having a sense of humor which is non-hostile (and equally well directed at themselves) and having peak experiences where they felt “at one with the universe”.

How to achieve self actualization

When it comes to how to achieve self actualization, Maslow pointed to several attitudes which people who had achieved the final stage of his hierarchy seemed to share:

  • Experiencing life as a child – living in the moment with full concentration.
  • Trying new things – a person stuck in the same rut or doing the same safe thing over and over again, would rarely achieve the final stage.
  • Being true to yourself – not listening to what tradition, culture, authority or the greater majority of people around you might think. Linked to this, being content with being unpopular if your views do not match the majority.
  • Honesty – no “playing games” or being false with people, or yourself.
  • Being responsible – hard work and taking responsibility where needed.
  • Relaxing your defenses – it takes bravery not to hide behind your natural defenses and assumptions about yourself and the world. It was identified as a key part of the path to self actualization to give them up though.

It is for this combination of reasons that we often find ourselves discussing self actualization and what it can mean to different people at the Spirit Vine Center. The kind of “at one with the world” peak experience which Maslow identified as being a characteristic of self actualized people is a common effect when drinking the traditional ayahuasca brew.

It could even be the reason why so many people go away after their ayahuasca experience with the desire to make serious changes in their life. Maslow believed that self actualization was more than the realization of your potential. He argued that every person had a strong desire to achieve it.

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