Humanistic Psychology Personality Self-Improvement Theories

Self-Actualization: What You Can Do to Achieve Your Full Potential

A woman seeking self-actualization.
(Last Updated On: February 2, 2023)

Self-actualization refers to fulfilling your full potential. It represents the need for growth that people constantly strive for as they reach toward fulfilling 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 how self-actualization is defined, the characteristics of self-actualization, 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.

Key Takeaway: 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.

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 served as 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. 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 is as a continual process that works to maintain and improve a person’s self-concept. This then 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.

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 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 are 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.

Key Takeaway: 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. It is this desire to fulfill our potential that keeps us striving, reaching, and trying to meet our goals and become better than what 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.

Key Takeaway: 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 a more self-actualized person 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: Self-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.

Sources:

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