Self-Actualization: Definition, Examples, and Characteristics

A woman seeking self-actualization.

Self-actualization refers to the need to fulfill one’s total potential. It represents the need for growth that people constantly strive for as they reach toward fulfilling their highest level needs.

Let’s take a closer look at how the need for self-actualization influences behavior.

Self-Actualization 101

It was the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow who popularized the concept of self-actualization as part of his famous hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, people are motivated to fill their most basic needs first before moving on to increasingly complex, psychological, and emotional needs. The hierarchy is most often portrayed as a pyramid, with the most basic needs for food, water, and shelter comprising the base of the pyramid and the need for self-actualization found at its peak.

So what exactly does self-actualization entail? “What a man can be, he must be,” Maslow explained. In other words, self-fulfillment is a major human motivator. Some key hallmarks include personal contentment, spiritual awareness, expressions of creativity, and giving back to society. It is the ultimate form of self-realization – a state of understanding the meaning of one’s life, of feeling completely alive, and becoming the best person one can possibly be.

While self-actualization is often portrayed as the ultimate outcome of life, Maslow suggested that actually achieving total self-actualization was exceedingly rare. Rather than thinking of self-actualization as a destination, it can be helpful to think of it as a journey. It is the pursuit of self-actualization that drives people to seek knowledge, to improve their abilities, and to continue growing all throughout life.

Self actualization emerged as part of the humanistic school of psychology. This outlook on psychology grew out of opposition to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic view of human nature. While Freud’s theory tended to take a more negative view of psychology, humanism instead focused on the positive nature of people. Rather than looking at maladaptive behaviors, humanistic psychology was centered on the belief that people are innately good.

The Characteristics of Self-Actualization

While Maslow’s hierarchy is often portrayed as being fairly rigid, Maslow himself acknowledged that there were individual differences in how people pursue their needs. For some people, the need for creativity and personal expression is paramount. For others, the need for esteem might take precedence. Well Maslow’s theory often suggest that people must fulfill the basic needs before they pursue higher needs, some people will pursue self-actualization even when lower level needs have not been met.

So what is it that makes a person self-actualized? Maslow identified a series of characteristics that most self actualized individuals share.

  • Self-actualization people are realistic. They tend to see things as they really are and are very sensitive to dishonesty. They do not distort reality to suit their belief systems and instead acknowledge what exists in the world around them.
  • Self-actualized people possess a great deal of autonomy. They are highly independent intend not to rely on others.
  • Self-actualized people are comfortable with and actually enjoy solitude. They have satisfying and fulfilling relationships with others but they also enjoy being alone.
  • Self-actualized people have a fresh way of looking at things. They have an appreciation for new experiences and are able to look at the world around them with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of wonder.
  • Self-actualized people are very accepting of both themselves and of others. They are comfortable with themselves and they appreciate other people for who they are.
  • Self actualized people are also more likely to have what are known as peak experiences. These are profound moments of fulfillment to leave a person with a sense of awe. These moments feel important and sometimes even life-changing. People often emerge from these moments feeling as if they have experienced something so powerful that they have changed fundamentally as a person. The humanistic approach continues to this day in the form of the modern school of thought known as of positive psychology, which is centered on what makes people happy.

Criticisms of Maslow’s Theory

One of the primary criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it that people do not necessarily need to fulfill all of the lower level needs before they strive for self-actualization. Even people who do not have some of their most basic needs for sustenance and shelter may still be concerned with fulfilling their potential as human beings.

However, Maslow himself believed that while the needs tended to be hierarchical, the order in which they are achieved was not necessarily rigid and set in stone.


 Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Towards a psychology of being. New York: Wiley.

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