What does it mean to be self-actualized?
According to Abraham Maslow, who was instrumental in developing the theory of self-actualization,self-actualization is a continuous process of realizing our own unique potential. The theory proposes the famous hierarchy of needs to show that self-actualization sits at the top of all of our motivations. Often, this theory is wrongly described as suggesting that you can’t consider fulfilling your higher-order needs until your lower-order needs are fulfilled. However, you only have to think of a few examples of some of the most famous self-actualized individuals to see that this is not necessarily the case. Many creative people, such as authors and artists (e.g. Rembrandt and Van Gough) lived in poverty throughout their lifetime, yet it could be argued that they achieved self-actualization.
In fact, Maslow himself believed that many self-actualized people specifically chose to make, at times, life-threatening personal sacrifices in order to fulfill their inner potential. It’s also important to realize that there is no one state of perfection that characterizes self-actualization but, instead, each of us has our own idiosyncratic way of achieving inner fulfilment.
Abraham Maslow’s book Motivation and psychology started a philosophical revolution out of which grew humanistic psychology. This changed the view of human nature from a negative point of view – man is a conditioned or tension reducing organism- to a more positive view in which man is motivated to realize his full potential.
Characteristics of self-actualizers:
1. They perceive reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty;
2. Accept themselves and others for what they are;
3. Spontaneous in thought and action;
4. Problem-centered (not self-centered);
5. Unusual sense of humour;
6. Able to look at life objectively;
7. Highly creative;
8. Resistant to enculturation/social conditioning, but not purposely unconventional;
9. Concerned for the welfare of humanity;
10. Capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience;
11. Establish deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people;
12. Peak experiences;
13. Need for privacy;
14. Democratic attitudes;
15. Strong moral/ethical standards.
Behavior leading to self-actualization:
(a) Experiencing life like a child, with full absorption and concentration;
(b) Trying new things instead of sticking to safe paths;
(c) Listening to your own feelings in evaluating experiences instead of the voice of tradition, authority or the majority;
(d) Avoiding pretense (‘game playing’) and being honest;
(e) Being prepared to be unpopular if your views do not coincide with those of the majority;
(f) Taking responsibility and working hard;
(g) Trying to identify your defenses and having the courage to give them up.
The characteristics of self-actualizers and the behaviours leading to self-actualization are shown in the list above. Although people achieve self-actualization in their own unique way, they tend to share certain characteristics. However, self-actualization is a matter of degree,
‘There are no perfect human beings’ (Maslow, 1970a, p. 176).