It seems that everyone is constantly trying to better themselves and put the best version of themself out there. That may look different for each person. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you were able to reach your highest potential? Self-actualization is a concept that says you can achieve the best version of yourself with the right tools and mindset.
What Is Self-Actualization?
Chances are the term “self-actualization” rings a bell if you think back to your college intro to psych course. It’s based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a concept developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow. Often illustrated as a pyramid, Maslow’s theory states that people need to satisfy their needs at the bottom of the pyramid first before they’re able to move up. From bottom to top, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are:
- Physiological needs: food, rest, warmth
- Safety needs
- Belongingness and love needs: friendship and intimate relationships
- Esteem needs: feelings of accomplishment
- Self-actualization needs: achieving your fullest potential
By reaching the top of the pyramid, you discover enlightenment or the purpose of your life. Maslow believed that self-actualization is actually quite rare, and only about 1% of adults actually reach it. Modern psychology suggests that this number may actually be higher and isn’t limited by age, gender, or race.
How Is It Used in Therapy?
When talking about self-actualization in psychology, many mental health professionals associate it with person-centered therapy. This kind of therapy is based on the idea that humans are good and that their behavior is motivated by the desire to reach their fullest potential. Person-centered therapy goes against ideas and theories proposed by psychologists like Sigmund Freud, who believed that people are only motivated by aggression or sexual desire.
Self-actualization is an ongoing process and not something that is finished once you achieve it. You can get to self-actualization alone or with the guidance of a therapist. Maslow believed that self-actualization is measured through peak experiences, not a singular moment. This looks different for everyone, as each person has their own unique strengths and abilities.
What Are Some Self-Actualization Examples?
Becoming self-actualized means developing the best aspects of yourself, since not every aspect of your personality is meant to be developed. As Maslow explained, self-actualized people do what they’re born to do: athletes perform, artists create, writers write, and so on. Maslow also identified several characteristics that he thought signified that a person had reached self-actualization.
- Acceptance of yourself, others, and nature
- Identifying with the human race as a whole, not just your community or inner circle
- An emphasis on higher-level values, like justice, simplicity, truth, and self-sufficiency (among several others)
- A greater perception of reality
- Clearer discrimination between good and evil and means and ends
- Resolution of conflicts
- Enjoyment of and desire for privacy and solitude
- Spontaneity and simplicity
- Problem-centering, or losing yourself in tasks that you enjoy
- Appreciation of deep emotions
- Frequent peak experiences
- Deep personal relationships
- A philosophical sense of humor
Examples of self-actualized people. Maslow identified several historical figures that he thought met the criteria for being self-actualized. He identified people who came from different backgrounds and who worked in various fields but all eventually showed the essential characteristics to be considered self-actualized. Some of these people are:
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Albert Einstein
- Abraham Lincoln
- Jane Addams
- Aldous Huxley
- Thomas Jefferson
While not identified by Maslow himself, some other famous examples of self-actualization include Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Viktor Frankl. Each of these people was able to see past their own safety and needs to find creative solutions to the problems that they faced. This came with the understanding that they wouldn’t be able to fully fix their problem but used the tools at hand and the right mindset to come to a compromise.
How Can I Self-Actualize?
As noted, becoming self-actualized is actually quite rare, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work toward it. Working toward self-actualization can put you on the path toward a more fulfilling life. So, are you up to the challenge of learning how to self-actualize? There are certain behaviors that can lead to self-actualization that you can begin to practice.
One of the first steps to self-actualization is to experience your life through the eyes of a child. This means giving each task your full attention and becoming fully absorbed in it, not giving it a half-hearted attempt. To go along with this, you need to take responsibility for all of the tasks and commitments that you vowed to fulfill and work hard to finish them.
Self-actualized people also practice honesty, both with themselves and with others. This means listening to your own inner voice and feelings even if that goes against authority or the majority. If your gut instinct is telling you that something is wrong or right despite popular opinion, listen to the feeling. In the same vein, self-actualized people don’t play games with others or lead them on. Instead, being honest from the get-go will serve everyone in the situation much better.
How Can I Practice Self-Actualization Exercises?
There are exercises that you can practice in your daily life to work toward self-actualization. The first thing you can do is practice acceptance. This means adopting a new way of thinking so that you don’t have a this-or-that mentality. This opens you up to being creative and seeing the world in a way you probably didn’t before.
Self-actualized people practice living authentically and making time for themselves. Make time to be at peace with yourself, for example, by going on a walk, meditating, or journaling. This can teach you the value of solitude and time to reflect. Self-actualized people aren’t reliant on the thoughts and opinions of others, so they embrace who they are while focusing on their strengths and knowing their limitations.
While you can work toward self-actualization on your own, consider trying therapy. On your path to becoming your best self, it’s normal to experience bumps and hurdles that seem difficult to overcome without help. A mental health professional can offer you guidance and a fresh perspective without judgment.
Lastly, do what makes you happy. Find creative and fulfilling hobbies and activities that let you live your most authentic life. Chase your dreams and find something that you’re passionate about, then work that passion into your daily life.