A Complete Guide to Self-Actualization: 5 Key Steps to Accelerate Growthby Scott Jeffrey
What does it mean to be a self-actualizing person? Are there characteristics of self-actualization? Are you a self-actualizing individual?
To answer these questions, we need to take a brief tour through the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Table of Contents
- What Made Maslow Different
- Maslow Didn’t Construct a Pyramid
- Growth Needs versus Basic Needs
- Self-Actualization Defined
- 13 Characteristics of Self Actualization
- 1) Superior perception of reality
- 2) Increased acceptance of self, of others, and of nature
- 3) Increased spontaneity
- 4) Increase in problem-centering
- 5) Increased detachment and desire for privacy
- 6) Increased autonomy and resistance to enculturation
- 7) Greater freshness of appreciation and richness of emotional reaction
- 8) Higher frequency of peak experiences
- 9) Increased identification with the human species
- 10) Improved interpersonal relations
- 11) More democratic character structure
- 12) Increased creativeness
- 13) Certain changes in the value system
- Are You Self-Actualizing?
- How to Pursue Self-Actualization (5 Steps)
- Final Thoughts on Self Actualization
- Suggested Reading on Self Actualization
- Read Next
What Made Maslow Different
In Maslow’s era, psychology had a single-minded focus on mental illness.
Neurosis and psychosis were the central themes as psychologists sought to understand and potentially heal mental afflictions.
But Maslow took a different approach. Instead of studying mental illness, he asked a different question:
“What does positive mental health look like?”
The summary of his lifelong research into this question yielded an original idea that’s still popular over 60 years later: self-actualization.
Maslow Didn’t Construct a Pyramid
Maslow has become well-known for identifying the basic human needs all humans share:
- Physiological needs (air, water, food, homeostasis, sex)
- Safety needs (shelter, clothes, routine, familiarity)
- Belonging and love needs (affection; connection to family, friends, and colleagues)
- Esteem needs: (self-respect and respect from others, high evaluation of oneself, achievement, reputation/prestige)
- Self-actualization needs: (self-growth, actualizing one’s innate potential)
Most people associate Maslow’s work with the hierarchy of human needs.
A pyramid or triangle is often how we see this hierarchy illustrated:
But did you know that Maslow never put these needs in a pyramid?
I believe I’ve read all of Maslow’s published work and I only recall him using the word “hierarchy” once! (In his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.”)
Maslow merely said that, in a general way, these needs are prepotent, meaning that lower-level needs have to be met before higher-level needs can become the focus of attention.
Very logical, right? You’re not going to be too invested in what people think of you (esteem needs) if you’re starving or thirsty (physiological needs). Your pride eventually breaks down when something threatens your survival.
This idea gave rise to the “hierarchy of human needs” depicted in a triangle. The triangle symbolizes a hierarchy of higher orders and a climb or ascent to the top of a ladder. But the reality is that we have all of these needs most of the time.
Growth Needs versus Basic Needs
Maslow drew a line between people motivated by growth needs and those driven by basic needs. All of the needs below self-actualization are basic needs. Maslow also called them deficiency needs.
When these needs aren’t being met, we feel something is missing in our lives, leading us to experience tension and exhibit neurotic behavior.
Without a roof over our heads, for example, our need for security is threatened. Until we fulfill our basic needs, gratifying them dominates our attention.
But once gratified, we can shift more and more of our attention to growth needs. Whereas basic needs are external, growth needs are internal.
With growth needs, we’re no longer motivated by what other people think—family, friends, colleagues, or anyone else. Instead, we’re driven by something deeper inside of us.
Maslow called these growth-motivated folks self-actualizing people. He defined self-actualization as:
- The ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities, and talents,
- Fulfillment of mission (or call, fate, destiny, or vocation),
- A fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person’s intrinsic nature, and
- An unceasing trend toward unity, integration, or synergy within the person.
Think of self-actualization as the need to become what one has the potential to be.
Maslow’s Definitions for Self-Actualization
One realizes this potential for its own gratification—not for any external gain or concern of what others will think or say (external esteem needs).
We find self-actualizing people in virtually every field of interest, including business professionals, artists, musicians, philosophers, painters, doctors, psychologists, athletes, and martial artists.
Do we need to have all of our basic needs before we can pursue self-actualization?
Thankfully, no. But the less tension you feel from your basic needs, the more time and energy you’ll have available to devote to actualizing your potential.
13 Characteristics of Self Actualization
How do you know if you’re on your path toward self-actualization?
In Motivation and Personality (1954), Maslow included a paper titled, “Self-Actualizing People: a Study of Psychological Health.
In this insightful report, Maslow highlights 13 characteristics of self-actualizing individuals:
1) Superior perception of reality
Self-actualizing people possess an unusual ability to judge others accurately and detect dishonesty in their personality. With superior perception comes the capacity to determine what’s good for the person and make effective decisions.
2) Increased acceptance of self, of others, and of nature
Maslow found that these mentally healthy people had less overriding guilt, crippling shame, and severe anxiety. Self-actualizing people can accept their nature, including their shortcomings and contradictions, without feeling real concern.
3) Increased spontaneity
They are more spontaneous in their behavior as well as in their lives, thoughts, and impulses. Naturalness and simplicity mark their behavior.
4) Increase in problem-centering
They are more focused on problems outside themselves as opposed to personal issues (ego-centered). They often have missions in life and tasks to fulfill that demand much of their energies.
5) Increased detachment and desire for privacy
They are comfortable being by themselves without the neurotic need to always be around people. They positively like solitude and privacy to a greater degree than the average person.
6) Increased autonomy and resistance to enculturation
They are relatively independent of their social environment. Motivated by a drive for internal growth, they are more focused on the development of their potentialities. In contrast, the average person is dependent on and motivated by social or cultural forces.
7) Greater freshness of appreciation and richness of emotional reaction
They can appreciate, freshly and innocently, the inherent elements of life with awe, wonder, and pleasure long after these things become stale to others. For example, they can gaze at a tree or a sunset for a long time without getting bored and looking for additional stimulation.
8) Higher frequency of peak experiences
In his book Religion, Values and Peak Experience, Maslow called this “a mystic experience or oceanic feeling.” He found that these mystical experiences are more intense forms of experiences where there’s a loss of self or transcendence of it. According to Maslow, everyone has access to peak experiences, but self-actualizing people have them more often.
9) Increased identification with the human species
Later research in developmental psychology confirms Maslow’s observations.
Humans develop from being identified exclusively with themselves (egocentric) to identification to a group, whether it be family, religious, or political (sociocentric) to identification with all of humanity (worldcentric).
10) Improved interpersonal relations
Capable of greater love and more obliteration of ego boundaries, they have deeper relationships than other adults. But they may only form deeper bonds with a select few individuals, maintaining a relatively small circle of friends.
11) More democratic character structure
They are friendly with anyone of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race, or color. Identifying more closely with the human species, they are less determined by (and often unaware of) any of these classifications.
12) Increased creativeness
A universal characteristic of all self-actualizing people Maslow studied was an increase in creative expression. This creativeness is not a “special talent” creativity that takes years of constant practice to cultivate, but rather a more innocent, playful, and spontaneous creative expression found in young children.
13) Certain changes in the value system
With their philosophic acceptance of the nature of their selves, of human nature, and of physical reality, they establish a firm value structure.
With appreciation and acceptance of human nature, many of our so-called “problems” are seen as gratuitous and fade out of existence.
Maslow did his best to isolate the characteristics he observed in his self-actualizing subjects, but he was quick to point out how interconnected these qualities are.
Are You Self-Actualizing?
Reviewing these characteristics of self-actualization, can you assess the progress in your development?
- Are you more spontaneous than you were ten years ago?
- Are you more autonomous now? Are you more comfortable being alone?
- Do you have a more democratic character structure?
- Have you improved your ability to form deeper bonds?
- Are you living a more creative life?
Maslow found that self-actualization occurs spontaneously as we meet our basic needs.
When you feel unsafe (safety need), unloved (belonging need), or unworthy (esteem need), your motivations are focused on meeting these needs.
When you’re out of your center, your drive to pursue basic needs takes over.
However, when you access your center in a state of mastery, there’s no longer a feeling of incompleteness. Instead, you can just be.
How to Pursue Self-Actualization (5 Steps)
Self-actualization is a key theme of so many of my personal development guides on this site.
The path to self-actualization can begin at a young age with curiosity and an exploratory spirit.
But for most of us (myself included), this curiosity wasn’t cultivated in youth; in fact, someone unknowingly squashed it.
For many adults, self-actualization comes out of a sense of dissatisfaction with how they are living or who they are becoming.
An inner knowing arises that we are capable of more. (Perhaps that’s how you got to this guide?)
Once you rekindle the self-actualization fire within you, your adventure begins. It often starts with a lot of reading and eventually ripens into practice.
You begin to see that there is an infinite number of ways you can develop your gifts and intelligence.
You might dive deep into certain practices right away or skim the surface in a lot of ponds first. Everyone is different.
Here are five steps you can take right now to accelerate your self-actualization:
Step 1: Get to know your core strengths.
Knowing your strengths will help you save time and focus on what comes naturally to you.
As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” Do what you love and what interests you.
Step 2: Learn how to stay in your center.
It’s a foundational skill for learning anything. I wish I discovered it a decade ago.
(See also The Mastery Method.)
Step 3: Craft a personal vision for the person you’re becoming.
The clarity this brings is undeniable.
Step 4: Put together a basic personal development plan.
A clear plan will help you cut through distraction and focus on what’s most important to you.
Step 5: Walk your path toward self-mastery.
It’s important to understand that we all fear and resist growth.
Knowing how to overcome resistance is critical if you want to actualize your potential.
Final Thoughts on Self Actualization
Self-actualization, Maslow explains, is a sign of positive mental health. Self-actualization isn’t for a gifted few. It’s everyone’s birthright.
Many of us resist our self-actualization because of fear. Maslow called this “aborted self-actualization.”
We do this without knowing it. When we’re spending most of your time-consuming media, for example, we’ve walked off our path.
The good news is that as soon as we realize it, we can start anew, right here and now.
Follow what you love—those things that light your fire and ignite your curiosity—and see where it will take you.
It’s an awesome adventure of discovery and growth.
Suggested Reading on Self Actualization
Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment
by George Leonard
Leonard is one of the pioneers in the field of personal coaching and the “human potential movement” (he coined the term). A third-degree black belt in Aikido, Leonard ran an Aikido school and was the president of the Esalen Institute. Esalen was a hotbed for new ideas in human potential in the 70s and 80s.
In Mastery, Leonard demonstrates his knowledge and experience as someone walking the path toward self-mastery and self-actualization. I wish I read this book in my 20s. My self-mastery guide was highly influenced by this small, yet powerful book.
The Farthest Reaches of the Human Nature
by Abraham Maslow
Maslow is perhaps my favorite psychologist and one of the most influential thinkers of the past century. Maslow’s strengths didn’t rest in his writing, but in his observations about humanity.
Although he’s most well-known for the hierarchy of human needs, his insights span far beyond just that. Most of his work is in the form of papers and textbooks. The Farthest Reaches was published after Maslow past away.
Years ago, I wrote a book on creativity and The Farthest Reaches was a big influence in that work.