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Self-Actualization – What It Means and How It Helps In Personal Growth?

Self-Actualization – What It Means and How It Helps In Personal Growth?

Updated on Aug 26, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Self-actualization - Meaning, Examples, Characteristics & Ways to Achieve

Key Takeaways

  • Self-actualization is the highest attainment of personal growth.
  • It’s about realizing one’s maximum potential for growth and innovation.
  • The concept was thoroughly worked out by the research of Abraham Maslow.
  • Self-actualization gives you a sense of worth and competence.
  • It’s all about growing and developing yourself to the fullest extent.

We all have gone through the times in our life when we had real doubts about the aim of our life. Thoughts about what we’ve achieved, and what not have always clouded our mindset from time to time. 

Such thoughts that tick in our minds make us question our talents and whether or not we tend to create the foremost out of them. This is where the question of personal understanding and self-actualization comes into being. 

As Abraham Maslow suggested, self-actualization is a motivation construct relating to the method by which an individual reaches his/her full potential. 

It’s the most important intrinsic motivation that guides your goals and aspirations. Further, it also helps to realize your own abilities for achieving something that is socially credible. 

Let’s learn more on this topic here….

Self-actualization – definition, and meaning

Self-actualization is all about fulfillment and achieving your fullest potential. You become who you ought to become. It is a tendency to utilize your talents to the optimum level of growth and development.

Self-actualization is seen as the final or the ultimate goal of all living organisms. All the behaviors, instincts, and drives measure the manifestations of this overarching motivation. 

In recent times, self-actualization is thought of as a method of skyrocketing your talents and capacities to understand your full potential which is artistic and intellectual in nature. 

Through the usage of your talents, you’ll be able to reach your full potential.

However, it’s an extremely personal method that will vary from person to person, as everybody has completely different motivations and personality dynamics.

No two people can walk on similar paths to reach their potential. Thus, self-actualization relies on individual aspects as well. 

Abraham Maslow was interested in knowing about people who use all their talents and abilities to the fullest extent. These people do the best they are capable of doing. 

People who are self-actualized have a specific goal in life. They are devoted to their work and aim to achieve whatever they have wished for. 

You will always find them self-disciplined, autonomous, and are always motivated to achieve something big in life.

Historical development of Self-actualization theory

In order to understand the concept well, let us start from the beginning about how self-actualization became so popular in mainstream psychology.

Kurt Goldstein 

Generally the concept of “self-actualization” is mostly popularized by Abraham Maslow. 

But it was initially introduced by Kurt Goldstein with the view that self-actualization is the primary goal of every organism. It is the ultimate desire for self-fulfillment.

It is the intensity of an organism to become actualized in his/her true potential or capacity.

Hence, he viewed that every human being, animal, and plant has an innate tendency or goal to actualize themselves and to reach their potential.

 In his book, “The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man”, he showed that every living organism behaves according to some bodily motivation. 

Once the basic bodily needs such as hunger and thirst are satisfied, the organism strives to achieve something big.

The organism wishes to realize its potential and strive for personal growth under suitable circumstances.

Now you know that “Self-actualization” means something that comes close to the realization of one’s “essence”, one’s core self. 

A person is willing to risk his or her life to maintain that self. He will use all that he knows to realize his true worth. 

Contribution of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers described self-actualization as a continuing process where an individual’s self-concept is maintained and further improved through different experiences. 

According to Rogers, we humans have an underlying actualizing capacity.

We have the power to develop all abilities in ways that improve and strengthen our capacity to become autonomous and self-dependent. 

Our knowledge of ourselves stems from the fact that our mind must be in a state of congruence to achieve self-actualization. 

This means that self-actualization occurs when an individual’s ideal self is similar to their real self. 

But the tension between the ideal sense of self and the true sense of self can produce incongruence, which is a complex problematic state arising from the distortions of one’s personal actualizing motives.

Thus, a self-actualizing person is one who is in the process of seeking and exploring his/her potential and abilities. They are trying to find a match between their true and ideal selves. 

Rogers claimed that a self-actualized person is a fully functioning being. 

So, what does a fully functioning person mean?

A fully functioning person is defined as one who knows his truest self. 

Alfred Adler in his individualistic theory pointed out that fully functioning people are in touch with their own thoughts, feelings, and capabilities.

They have faith in themselves and know what drives them towards perfection. The fully functioning person doesn’t try to act like someone else which generates feelings of low esteem.

They remain actively engaged with their psychological, emotional, and physical needs, and find themselves at par with their real selves. 

A fully functioning person can attain self-actualization easily because they will use their best potential to achieve the desired life goals.

Thus to become fully functioning, a person has to have unconditional positive regard from others, especially the primary caregivers or parents in childhood. 

We can understand unconditional positive regard as a way in which you will be accepted by others as you are. It means acceptance despite your failings or shortcomings.

When there is no mismatch between your ideal self and real self and you become who you wish to become, your path towards self-actualization becomes progressive.

Maslow’s need hierarchy theory

Maslow’s need hierarchy explains that we all have some lower-order needs, as well as higher needs to self-actualize. In his need theory, Maslow designed the needs in a pyramid.

The lower-order needs are shown at the base of the pyramid. And self-actualization is at the top. The true potential is reached by walking on the stairs of needs. 

You need to tread upon each basic need to reach the final one.

So Maslow pointed out that human beings have lower-level needs which must be met before they can step into the higher-order needs. 

Thus, this follows a stairway journey so that the high-level needs can be satiated, such as self-actualization. Below mentioned are Maslow’s hierarchy needs.

The basic and the lowest level need is the physiological safety need that everyone has to fulfill initially. Then they will proceed to the other higher-order needs which are safety needs. 

It’s all about feeling safe and having a strong sense of security in doing things. You should always be careful in all aspects of life experiences.

Next, we have social needs or the sense of belongingness that motivate people to communicate with each other, and in having great interpersonal relationships.

Belongingness needs to focus more importantly on not feeling lonely and excluded in this world.

Then we have the self-esteem needs that give you a sense of personal worth and self-respect. 

The last one is self-actualization which paves the way for ultimate success in your life.

The description of Maslow’s needs

1. Basic needs or physiological needs

The basic needs are the physiological needs that are needed for survival. If these needs are not met, the organism will not be able to survive. 

These needs comprise food, water, shelter, sex, clothing, and sleep. When these needs are unmet, the body will not work properly. So these needs are quite important. 

2. Safety needs

When an individual’s physical or bodily needs are fulfilled, the needs for safety and security begin to operate highly in one’s life. 

This need primarily focuses on humans’ desire to experience order, security, and control in their lives. 

Safety needs are fulfilled by the family and the community.

These needs are emotional and financial security which include employment, social and personal welfare, law and order, stability, wealth and property, healthy living among many, etc.

3.  Psychological needs (Need for love and belongingness)

The third need shown in the need hierarchy theory is love and belongingness. Human beings hate solitary living. They always want to be loved and accepted by other fellow beings.

Belongingness needs arise after physiological and safety needs are fulfilled.

This is the third level of human motivation needs and consists of feelings of friendship, trust, belongingness, and love. 

Basically, this refers to an emotional need for interpersonal relationships and a sense of togetherness.

These mainly include intimacy, trust, and acceptance. It also means to show love and affection for one another.

4. Esteem needs 

The Esteem needs are the fourth level of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy theory. It mainly includes feelings of self-worth and accomplishment. 

These esteem needs have been divided into two categories.

(I) esteem needs for one’s own self such as dignity 

(ii) the need for recognition or respect from others such as status.

Esteem needs include self-esteem and self-image together.

5. Self-actualization needs 

These needs are at the highest level in the needs hierarchy theory. It mainly focuses on the realization of a person’s potential, seeking and thus resulting in peak experiences. 

This happens when a person experiences the world totally as it is, and there are feelings of happiness, joy, and extreme wonder.

So now, we know that Maslow’s work is considered to be a part of humanistic psychology.

It is one of several branches in psychology for understanding and evaluating human personality and social behavior.

This approach mainly focuses on healthy aspects such as motivating people and trying to understand how each individual defines the self while maximizing their potential. 

Thus, we come to know that self-actualization in particular helped change our view of human nature from a negative or clinical point of view and change the direction to a more positive view where a man is motivated to realize his true potential. 

Focusing mainly on the negative issues of people reduces the positive human component in them, hence Maslow put his focus on human potential, and how we strive to reach that potential. 

So the value is on human motivation which is the key component which was based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth and development through a problem-solving attitude. 

Maslow’s futuristic ideas

In his further works, Maslow suggested that there are two more additional needs that an individual must move through before achieving self-actualization. 

These are the cognitive needs, where an individual will gather information and develop an understanding of the world around them, and “the aesthetic needs,” which include a need for perfection, order, and also beauty. 

Another step in the needs hierarchy was added by Maslow beyond self-actualization, which is self-transcendence. 

Self-transcendence is the highest and most inclusive or holistic level of human consciousness. So we can see a person is influenced by values that go beyond the personal self. 

Such as mystical experiences, aesthetic pleasures, service to fellow humans, and the thirst for knowledge on religion, faith, spirituality, and science.

Self-actualization examples

So the question is who is self -Actualized? What do they do being Self Actualized?

Famous personalities

There are many famous personalities such as Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi naming a few, are live examples who had reached Self-actualization.

They lived purposefully for the betterment of the society in which they desired to bring about a change. 

Employee growth capacities

Workers having self-actualization needs are more thoughtful about their growth and development in the workplace. 

They try to avail opportunities for more difficult assignments in their work, where their skills can be enhanced, the leadership roles, participation in decision-making on important issues.


As we all know, Art is considered a great platform for Self-actualization as it increases the mental health and well-being of people. 

Artists introduce the aspect of aesthetic creativity and audiences interpret the art which ultimately moves toward self-realization, which may be said as a form of Self-actualization.

The psychology of self-actualization 

Throughout our lives, we travel through many different journeys which are known and unknown. 

As we age and grow wiser, we tend to have a different approach. We move away from our family and our needs and desires take a different turn. 

Some of our main needs which we cannot live without remain the same, such as a place to stay, proper drinking water, and food on the table to fill our stomachs. 

Our other needs such as emotional needs tend to develop over time through social interaction and acceptance of each other unconditionally.

So the big question is how we process these needs that can have a large impact on our life and provide us with a sense of fulfillment.

Also, add total satisfaction with ourselves in every aspect and with our true identities. 

We are always securing, developing, and improving the needs that help us move toward self-actualization and be in a state of contentment with ourselves and with others in society.

To self-actualize, you need to let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly idealize to reach your truest potential. 

So a self-actualized person is one who is living aesthetically and creatively by fully using his or her resources. 

A self-actualized person desires self-fulfillment. He/she strives for perfection by using all her talents in their fullest form. 

15 Signs/characteristics of a self-actualized person

As we can see, Maslow found that self-actualizers do share similarities in their traits and characteristics. 

Thus, we can say that each of these people had somehow managed to find the true nature that is unique or available only to them, and this is one of the main goals of life. 

Certain characteristics of Self-Actualized people are as follows:

1. Accurate perceptions of reality

Self-actualizers are able to assess situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the aspects of other people around them.

They can easily know when others are behaving fake or are not honest.

2. Acceptance of self and others in the world

Self-actualizers know how to accept their own human nature with all its flaws and errors.

The flaws of others and the issues related to human conditions are accepted with kindness and tolerance.

3. Personal reliance on experiences and judgment

Self-actualizers are not dependent, or reliant on various cultural contexts and environments to form opinions and views on something. 

They are autonomous in their thinking and can judge people and situations without a biased attitude.

4. Genuine and natural

Self-actualizers are honest to one’s own self and they don’t change for others to please them.

They are rational and honest decision-makers. They will never do anything that can undermine their self-image and esteem needs.

5. Work-oriented

They often have an extreme tendency to view life as a mission that pulls them to a purpose to fulfill.

They are workaholics who strive to attain life goals that they have set for themselves.

6. Autonomy is valued

Self-actualizers value independence and autonomy more than the influence of other people. They tend to be resourceful and not go with the flow of others.

7. Enjoys appreciation of the universe 

The self-actualized person tries to constantly be appreciative of life’s positivity and enjoys a continued freshness of appreciation and also feels in tune with the universe. 

8. Positive interpersonal relationships

The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are formed by creating loving bonds that are long-lasting. They can cultivate deep and positive relationships with others.

9. Enjoys peace and solitude

Although self-actualizing people have deep bonds with others, they value solitude and are at peace being alone and not in crowds. 

Sometimes they love to enjoy their solitary life. This quality also makes them thoughtful and insightful beings.

10. Embracing gratitude

There is a tendency to embrace gratitude and maintain a high appreciation for all things even for the regular blessings in life.

11. Sense of humor

Selfactualizers have a non-hostile sense of humor. So this refers to the ability to create jokes or humor and laugh at oneself without causing hurt to others.

12. Compassionate towards others 

Possessing a humane value in life is of utmost importance to a self-actualized person. So, possessing humanity is important so he can be compassionate towards others. 

They are warm, accepting, and humble in nature.

13. Few friends

Often self-actualizers keep minimal friends. There are few close intimate friends rather than many casual relationships.

14. Social Interest

Maslow mentioned that the self-actualizers generally possess the quality of togetherness, which in turn refers to the social interest or sense of a community being or a feeling of togetherness with everyone.

15. Peak Experiences

We can understand peak experiences as moments of intense happiness or euphoria. So this is a form of emotion where you feel blissful.

This experience has an everlasting effect on your outlook and attitude towards life.

How to achieve self-actualization?

Do you have aims and objectives in your life? What makes you achieve them?

What is the driving force that makes you work harder? So Maslow has mentioned different ways you can realize your truest potential. 

1. Work out choices

We know that we are faced with many choices in life. There are so many choices that are consistently presented to us. 

So, Maslow suggested that for all of these many choices, a person could separate each option as being either beneficial or not beneficial. 

Sometimes we tend to be biased in our opinions.

Rather than being biased and choosing the safe and comfortable option, we need to choose wisely and consider those choices which promote growth.

2. Understand yourself deeply

You need to identify and search for your strengths, dreams, and aspirations in which you are passionate. 

So you need to find more ways to understand what makes you feel happy in your life. 

Rather than thinking about society, and your friends and asking them how you should feel about a particular situation, it is best to get to know your own self.

3. Nonconformity 

When you are at par with your own needs, capacities and abilities it is quite important to embrace them. 

Asking yourself about the reasons you’re making a certain decision can be beneficial for you.

It helps you to understand or get an idea of whether you are living life for yourself or for others.

4. Engaging in introspection 

Introspection is a process of in-depth self-awareness. By being aware of what you’re thinking, believing, and feeling, you’ll be able to make many wise choices in life. 

You will also know the reasons behind your thoughts, emotions, and actions.

As your self-understanding increases, the understanding of your person’s drives will also become clear, leading to greater self-acceptance.

5. Practicing actualization of your potential

Maslow said that self-actualization is not the last goal but it is also the process of realizing one’s capacities at any time and in diverse ways. 

Though it is a very difficult process to practice in reality, it is not something that cannot be achieved at all. 

So, if you think that you have the potential to be a great teacher or a scientist, you will not be content with being just a common teacher or just an ordinary scientist. 

So self-actualized individuals are always working to excel in their fields.

6. Finding peace and happiness

You need to find peace in what you do and derive the happiness you gain from it. That adds to the self-fulfillment in life. 

Once you feel that you are in tune with your surroundings and gain a sense of calmness you will be content in life. 

7. Attend to the present time

It is important that you make a conscious effort to take in what is happening in the environment, the thoughts you have, and the emotions that are in tune with your needs.

A feeling of being stuck is not the solution. So being in the present situation contributes to a greater sense of peace and accomplishment.

8. Going for therapy 

Sometimes you may face barriers in trying to achieve your goals.

There may be hurdles or roadblocks that you may not be resolved on your own. These areas of problems need support and help. 

Seeking therapy can be beneficial as the therapist may help you gain a deeper knowledge of yourself and help you achieve your true potential.

Self-actualization vs. self-realization

Self-actualization is a motive that drives one towards attaining the highest potential in life. On the flip side self-realization is a process of understanding one’s true self. 

It’s about unleashing your personality in its highest form of spiritual development.

Let’s understand the points of difference between these two concepts in detail.

Self-actualization is actually the major motive or drives to realize one’s full potential. It’s about knowing your true worth based on whether you have fulfilled your needs and goals.Self-realization is actually the process of fully realizing and understanding one’s core personality dynamics. It simply means to unleash the hidden secrets of one’s true nature.
Self-actualization is basically a western concept originally introduced by Kurt Goldstein.Self-realization traces its roots to eastern concepts, particularly Indian philosophy.
The concept of self-actualization is majorly used by humanistic branches of therapy specifically by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow who are humanistic psychologists.The concept of self-realization is used mainly by psychodynamic theorists like Carl Jung and Neo Freudians.
In self-actualization, the self is seen only in terms of the consciousness and identity of human beings.In self-realization, the self includes the unconscious processes of humans.
In self-actualization, the self relates to the outside external world, where people think, feel and act.In self-realization, the self relates more to the personal inner world.
A self-actualized person trying to achieve it is aesthetic and has deep relationships with others.
While a person who achieved self-realization has inner peace and has a strong sense of spiritual enrichment.
Self-actualization vs. self-realization

Application of the Theory of self-actualization

Self-actualized people are functional individuals. These people are engrossed in doing all they are capable of doing. 

The theory of self-actualization talks about the person’s desire or wish for self-fulfillment or the tendency for him to become what he actually is.

The form and shape that these needs will take will be different for different individuals. It usually varies greatly from person to person in general.

So in one individual, it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal doctor and provide good medical advice to others.

In another person, self-actualization may be expressed in sports and becoming the best player. Sometimes it may be expressed in creativity and inventions as well.

As Abraham Maslow said, the basic needs or the lower order needs of humans must be met such as g before a person can attain self-actualization needs. 

Critical evaluation of Maslow’s theory

Is Self-Actualization really attainable? Do men go through all these stages of needs before attaining self-actualization needs?

Despite the popularity of Maslow’s self-actualization as a concept related to positive psychology and motivation, it does have many points which are prone to criticism. 

Some of the key points which have been disregarded by other psychologists are as follows:

1. Lack of Hierarchical Structure

Maslow’s theory was confusing in terms of his hierarchical order of needs. Every individual has some methods or order that helps in his/her needs fulfillment.

Some people may be deprived of their lesser-order needs but may still strive for self-actualization needs. 

There are always some people for whom the need for self-esteem may be more dominant than social needs. 

While for others, the need for aesthesis could be more important than the need for safety or belongingness. Thus, no two people can actually be the same in their order of need fulfillment. 

2. No data on cause and effect relationship

A big issue with Maslow’s theory is a lack of a true cause and effect relationship between need and behavior. 

A certain need may cause multiple types of behavior in different persons. On the flip side, specific human behavior may be caused due to a result of various needs. 

Thus, the needs stages and their hierarchy is not quite simple but rather very complex to understand.

3. Lack of personal awareness

We know that the needs and satisfaction of those needs is basically a mental process which is a covert feeling. 

Many times even the individual may not understand his or her innate needs. There may be a lot of confusion regarding the personal understanding of one’s needs. 

Thus, a question arises about how it is possible to be fully aware of such needs and processes as suggested by Abraham Maslow.

4. Human behavior is not common across the globe

This is a serious flaw of Maslow’s need theory of motivation.

The theory assumes that human behavior is common and we all behave in similar ways in various situations. But in reality, this is not so.

Even though characteristics of humans are similar across the world but where basic human instincts are being thought of, not all individuals think alike and this is an important factor that has been overlooked by the theory.

Thus, we can say that Maslow’s theory never took into account the individual differences in fulfillment of needs.

5. Cultural differences are not included

Culture is an important context nowadays.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was designed keeping in mind the ideologies of the western world and thus it is not quite true in multi-cultural setups.

We know that American culture is individualistic but Asian culture has a collectivist concept. So the needs hierarchy is sometimes not culturally relevant in various cultural contexts.

6. Problems with the re-evaluation of the theory

A major issue with Maslow’s theory of human motivation is the usage of some of his concepts.

The concepts are difficult to understand. As such it became a challenge for other researchers to re-evaluate the theory. 

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

Abraham Maslow’s theory is a very important concept in the field of motivation. This theory has many uses in the field of education and human resources.

Self-actualization is a valuable and important area in the field of positive psychology as well. It can be viewed as an important area of personal well-being and happiness.

The concepts of this theory are also used to measure future brilliant minds. In medical advice and diagnosis, the concepts of need also help to understand pathological behavior.

But a big question arises about the relevance of self-actualization for the common man.

Maybe the common man will take time to understand that achieving one’s full individual potential is a different satisfaction in itself. It may take some time, but it’s possible.

Self-actualization is about achieving your wishes and desires or being anything that sparks or lights up your passion.

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