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What Is Self-Actualization in Psychology?

Self-actualization refers to fulfilling your full potential. It represents the need for growth that people constantly strive for to fulfill their highest-level needs. Self-actualization is the need located at the peak of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s theory suggests that the drive to pursue self-actualization only emerges after the lower-level, basic needs are met. As people become more self-actualized, they become more accepting, open-minded, and creative.

In this article, learn more about the meaning of self-actualization, its characteristics, and how you can become more self-actualized.

What Is Self-Actualization?

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 motivator of human behavior.

Some key hallmarks of self-actualization include:

  • Personal contentment
  • Spiritual awareness
  • Expressions of creativity
  • Giving back to society

Put simply, self-actualization is the ultimate form of self-realization. It is described as a state of understanding the meaning of one’s life, feeling completely alive, and becoming the best person you 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. In fact, he suggested that less than 1% of adults ever become self-actualized.

However, 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, improve their abilities, and continue growing all throughout life.

Other synonyms for self-actualization might include self-realization, self-discovery, self-fulfillment, self-reflection, soul-searching, and self-exploration.

Self-actualization can be defined as being fulfilled and achieving your full potential. It is more than just a state of being, however. It is a need that drives your behavior and journey toward achieving a fulfilling, happy life.

Characteristics of Self-Actualization

So what is it that makes a person self-actualized? Maslow identified a series of characteristics that most self-actualized individuals share. Self-actualized people tend to be:

  • 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.
  • Independent: They have a great deal of autonomy and intend not to rely on others.
  • Comfortable with solitude: They have satisfying and fulfilling relationships with others but they also enjoy being alone.
  • 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.
  • Accepting of both themselves and of others: They are comfortable with themselves and they appreciate other people for who they are.
  • They have peak experiences: They are more likely to have powerful moments of fulfillment that leave them with a sense of awe.

What Are Peak Experiences?

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.

One study found that people often link self-actualization with gaining status. However, the research also suggests that the things that people believe will be self-actualizing tend to change over the course of life. The fact that the things that bring your fulfillment are bound to change over time once against points to self-actualization being a journey and not an endpoint.

Examples of Self-Actualization

Self-actualization is personal. It differs from one person to the next because the things that lead to individual growth vary so much. What fulfills you might not fulfill somebody else.

Some examples of self-actualization include:

Engaging in Creative Pursuits

Expressing yourself thought art, writing, dance, music, and other forms of creative expression are great examples of self-actualization.

Pursuing Goals

Going after goals that help promote personal growth are also part of self-actualization. You might learn new skills, pursue your interests, and have new experiences that help you grow, learn, and feel more fulfilled in your life.

Taking Control

Autonomy is an important component of self-actualization. It involves taking control of your life and decisions and doing things that align with your personal values, beliefs, and aspirations.

Building Self-Awareness

Learning more about yourself is also key to the actualization journey. This involves not just figuring out what you like but also learning more about your strengths, weaknesses, motivations, emotions, and needs.

Forming and Maintaining Relationships

Actualized people are independent, but they also understand the need for connection and support. They build such relationships on reciprocity, support, and interdependence.

History of Self-Actualization

Self-actualization, as we know it today, is primarily associated with the work of Abraham Maslow. However, the concept itself was first introduced by Kurt Goldstein, a German neurologist.

Goldstein suggested that self-actualization was the motivating force of all organisms. In his view, this was an inborn desire to continue maximizing one’s potential and capabilities.

The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers also influenced our understanding of self-actualization. Rogers suggested that people possess an actualizing tendency that compels them to develop their abilities and maximize their potential in order to achieve their ideal self.

To do this, Rogers suggested that people utilize the organismic valuing process, in which they evaluate how subjective experiences will influence their self-improvement efforts.

Rogers also believed that matching a person’s self-image to their ideal self could lead to congruence. (However, when a person’s self-concept doesn’t match up with reality, it can lead to a state of incongruence.)

When this congruence is achieved, they are then able to self-actualize. The process of self-actualizing and achieving congruence between self-image and the ideal self helps people to become what Rogers termed a “fully functioning person.”

Rogers’ concept of self-actualization differs somewhat from Maslow’s. Where Maslow described it as the actualization of a person’s sense of self, Rogers described it as a continual process that works to maintain and improve a person’s self-concept. This allows a person to cope, grow, change, and enhance their self-image.

Self-Actualization and the Hierarchy of Needs

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.

For example, the theory suggests that people have to fulfill more basic needs for shelter, safety, relationships, and esteem before pursuing things that will allow them to realize their full potential.

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.

Maslow’s hierarchy includes the following:

  • Psychological needs: Air, water, sleep, food, shelter, reproduction
  • Safety needs: Employment, health, family, resources
  • Love and belonging needs: Intimacy, friendships, connection, family
  • Esteem needs: Self-esteem, respect, recognition, achievement, freedom, confidence
  • Self-actualization: Fulfillment, creativity, sense of purpose, spontaneity

Humanistic Psychology

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 humanistic approach continues today in the form of the modern school of thought known as positive psychology, which is centered on what understanding what makes people happy.

Limitations of Maslow’s Theory

It is important to recognize that while Maslow’s theory is popular and can be a helpful way of thinking about some of the things that motivate human behavior, it does have its limitations.

One of the primary criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that people do not necessarily need to fulfill all of the lower 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.

Maslow’s hierarchy is often portrayed as being fairly rigid. However, Maslow himself believed that while the needs tended to be hierarchical, the order in which they were achieved was not necessarily rigid and set in stone.

For some people, for example, the need for creativity and personal expression is paramount. For others, the need for esteem might take precedence.

Maslow’s theory often suggests that people must fulfill their basic needs before they pursue higher needs; some people will pursue self-actualization even when lower-level needs have not been met.

Maslow’s hierarchy is just one way of thinking about self-actualization and human motivation. While the needs found on the hierarchy are important, it doesn’t mean you have to meet all of those other needs first before you work toward becoming more self-actualized.

Benefits of Self-Actualization

The term self-actualization gets bandied around quite a bit in psychology as well as health and wellness circles. It is portrayed as the ultimate state of being—a destination that only the most enlightened among us will ever reach.

While Maslow believed that very few people reach a state of self-actualization, that does not mean that it is a goal unworthy of your pursuit.

All people possess an actualizing tendency that keeps them striving to improve themselves. This desire to fulfill our potential keeps us striving, reaching, and trying to meet our goals and become better than we once were.

Reaching a state of total actualization might not be common, but there are still many reasons why striving for actualization can have a positive effect on your life.

It Helps You Embrace Change

The journey toward actualization helps people become more open to new experiences and ideas. By becoming more open-minded, you take closer steps toward actualization and are able to let go of your fear of what you cannot know or control.

It Can Help You Accept Yourself

Maslow believed that one of the reasons why self-actualization is important is because achieving this state is linked to self-acceptance. Self-actualized people know they are not perfect, but they accept themselves for who they are.

It is important to recognize that self-actualization is not about perfectionism. It is about being fully yourself, embracing your life, and finding fulfillment.

It Can Help You Enjoy Life

While self-actualization is often portrayed as a destination, truly self-actualized people understand that it’s not about the outcome – it’s about the journey. As you strive toward becoming all that you can possibly be, focus on enjoying and appreciating things in the here and now.

Self-actualization take time, but it is something you can gradually work toward. Fortunately, you don’t need to become fully self-actualized to reap some of its many rewards. Trying to become more actualized can help you become more open, accepting, and satisfied with your life.

How to Become Self-Actualized

So how do you achieve self-actualization? Things that you can do to foster self-actualization include learning to accept yourself, living in the present, and becoming more compassionate toward yourself and others.

Other things you can do to work toward becoming your more actualized self include:

Practicing Acceptance

Strive to accept yourself and the world you live in. This doesn’t mean that you never strive for growth or change. Instead, it means that you can accept how things are instead of ruminating over how you wish they could be.

Be Open to New Things

Actualized people have the ability to approach the world with a fresh sense of perspective. Rather than getting set in their ways, they are eager to learn new things, have new experiences, and meet new people.

Appreciate the Little Things

Work on taking a mindful approach to life. Live in the moment and notice the small things that make your life wonderful.

Practice Empathy and Compassion

Consider how other people think and try to imagine how you might feel in their same place. Self-actualized people are capable of experiencing deep empathy and compassion for others.

Let Go of Perfectionism

It is important to remember that self-actualization is not about achieving a state of perfection or never doing anything wrong. Truly self-actualized people are always in a state of growth and learning, and they can recognize, admit, and accept mistakes.

Quiz: How Self-Actualized Are You?


Are you able to bounce back from life’s challenges?

Do you tend to have deep relationships with a small circle of close friends?

Do you ever feel deeply connected to the universe and its inhabitants?


Do you enjoy solitude?

Do you take responsibility for your own actions?

Is making the world a better place important to you?


Do you have a strong sense of right and wrong?

Have you ever experienced a moment of complete awe and happiness that felt transcendent?

How open are you to new things, experiences, and ideas?


Do you feel like you have a sense of purpose in your life?

Do you experience gratitude for the good things in your life?

Do you stay true to your values even when it’s challenging?


Are you spontaneous?

Would you describe yourself as a realist?

Do you feel a great deal of compassion and empathy for others?


How important is creativity and self-expression in your life?

Do you accept yourself for who you are?

Do you have a strong need to be independent and autonomous?


Do you appreciate the good things in life, even the mundane and everyday things?

Self-Actualization Test: How Self-Actualized Are You?
You are very self-actualized!

Actualizing tendency

Your results indicate that you have a high level of self-actualization. Maslow actually considered this quite rare! While you have many of the characteristics of a self-actualized person, you also know that there is always something new to learn and some way to improve yourself. After all, self-actualization is truly a journey rather than a destination.

Learn more:

You are somewhat self-actualized.

Psychological freedom means you have freedom to live according to your values

You possess some of the qualities of a self-actualized person, so you are off to a great start! Just remember that self-actualization is really more of a journey rather than a destination. As long as you keep growing and working toward self-fulfillment, you will find yourself becoming increasingly more actualized.

Learn more:

You are not very self-actualized.

Ego strength boosts resilience

While you do not yet possess many of the characteristics of a self-actualized person, this does not mean that you are done growing. Self-actualization is a process, so it is really more about the journey than the destination. As long as you keep striving to improve yourself and learning new things, you will continue to become more self-actualized as you come closer to fulfilling your potential.

Learn more:

Share your Results:


Maslow AH. Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row; 1954.

Maslow AH. Towards a psychology of being. New York: Wiley; 1962.

Krems JA, Kenrick DT, Neel R. Individual perceptions of self-actualization: what functional motives are linked to fulfilling one’s full potential? Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2017 Sep;43(9):1337-1352. doi:10.1177/0146167217713191