Abraham Maslow defined self-actualization as "self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." (Maslow, 1943).
Maslow's definition of self-actualization is often summarized as "the drive to fulfill one's potential." Working towards self-actualization seems to be an essential part of psychological health and happiness. Maslow was by no means the only person to study and describe self-actualization: Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers, and others have also made fundamental contributions. But for now, let's focus on Maslow's understanding of self-actualization. Here are a few of Maslow's insights on self-actualization that may help you on your path to fulfilling your potential.
1. Self-actualized people have mostly satisfied more basic needs. According to Maslow's now-famous "hierarchy of needs", self-actualization is a "growth need" or "being need" which can only fully arise once more basic "deficit needs" are mostly satisfied. For example, one would need to have access to food, shelter, and safety before they feel an intense drive to work on personal growth and development. As we fulfill our lower-order "deficit needs," we free ourselves to focus more on growth. You can probably think of examples of this in your own life. Think back to the last time you faced a serious illness, family conflict, or other crisis, and you'll probably recall that you found yourself less able to focus on your personal growth.
2. Self-actualized people allow themselves to grow. Because of their healthy acceptance of themselves and others, self-actualized people can hear criticism and address their shortcomings without becoming defensive or ashamed. They can freely admit to their errors and learn from their mistakes, which allows them to grow and develop without holding anything back for fear of failure. (For more on this, check out the resources under the Growth Mindset section of the Resources page).
3. Self-actualized people have deep, meaningful connections with others but also value solitude. Our relationships are crucial to our happiness and well-being, and self-actualized people tend to have deep bonds with their friends and family. The depth of these connections comes, in part, because self-actualized people have fulfilled their "deficit needs" to feel a sense of belonging, esteem, and control. Because they already feel accepted and valued, they don't base their relationships on pursuing popularity or higher social status. Instead, self-actualized people are free to form deep relationships based on genuine affection for the other person, shared interests, and the ability to be authentic, open, and vulnerable (Hoffman, 2020).
At the same time, Maslow's 1950 study of self-actualized people showed that they had "the capacity for detachment and need for privacy". Again, because they are not tied down by striving for belonging or popularity, they are also comfortable being alone and do not need constant reassurance or praise.
4. Self-actualized people are more selfless, accepting, and compassionate. Maslow's studies showed that self-actualized people tend to accept themselves and others readily. Self-actualized people focus less on trying to change the people they love and more on accepting and understanding them as they are. Self-actualized individuals see other people as they are. They strive to deepen relationships because they truly value them, not because they see them as a means to an end (for example, as a stepping stool to gain prestige or a feeling of belonging) (Maslow, 1950).
5. Self-actualized people are more objective and less influenced by the world around them. Maslow considered self-actualized people to be "far more apt to perceive what is 'there' rather than their own wishes, hopes, fears, anxieties, their own theories and beliefs, or those of their cultural group." (Maslow, 1950). Maslow felt that this clear and objective view of the world was in part related to the self-actualized individual's independence and self-acceptance. Because they have satisfied their need to belong, they aren't easily swayed by what others think and instead are free to form their own observations and judgments. This component of self-actualization fits well with the practice of mindfulness and acceptance, where we see things as they are, in the present moment, without judging or striving to change them (For more on this, check out the resources under the Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy section of the Resources page).
6. Self-actualized people have child-like creativity. Maslow described that "The creativeness of the self-actualized man seems rather to be kin to the naive and universal creativeness of unspoiled children." He felt that this quality was related to the self-actualized person's ability to see things more clearly and objectively, without being held back by fears of failure or concerns about what others may think of them. He clarified that self-actualized creativity does not have to be expressed in music or art but can manifest itself in even the most mundane tasks.
All of these characteristics of self-actualized people are things that we can identify and build in our own lives. Are there any qualities mentioned above that you would like to start working on today? Pick one and think of ways that you could expand that characteristic in your own life.
Hoffman E. The Social World of Self-Actualizing People: Reflections by Maslow's Biographer. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 2020;60(6):908-933. doi:10.1177/0022167817739714
Maslow AH. Self-actualizing people: a study of psychological health. Personality, 1950;Symposium 1: 11–34.
Maslow AH. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 1943;50:370 –396.
Maslow AH. The farther reaches of human nature. 1973. Chapel Hill, NC: Maurice Bassett.