What is Self-Actualization and 5 Ways to Achieve it

What is Self-Actualization and 5 Ways to Achieve it


The capabilities of humans are truly remarkable to think about. We hold a lot within us that we are not aware of. The Dalai Lama says “True change is within; leave the outside as it is”. This rings true for every one of us. Often we get stuck in the external demands and rules, we forget to get to know ourselves, understand ourselves, and perceive what we are capable of. This is precisely what self-actualization talks about.

Self-actualization is a concept most associated with the theory of Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in the Humanistic-Existential school of thought in psychology. However, the term was first used by Kurt Goldstein in 1943 where he asserted that every organism had one ultimate goal: to self-actualize. The term essentially refers to the desire for self-fulfilment. It means to gain realization of the underlying potential one possesses, it requires one to become aware of oneself in the entirety, to realize all one is capable of becoming and then working towards it. To understand this concept better, we must take a look at the theory it is based on.

Read More: Hierarchy of needs: Human Love and Belongingness explained by Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

Abraham Maslow is known for his theory of motivation as conceptualized in Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs published in 1964. He initially divided them into 5 stages, but he then added 3 more categories. These 8 needs are divided into ‘deficiency’ needs and ‘growth’ needs. Deficiency needs include needs required for basic survival while growth needs help make a fruitful life. The 8 stages are listed below starting bottom to top:

  • Physiological Needs are those which are necessary for our survival. These include components without which biological life would not exist such as air, water, shelter, sleep and so on. These do not ensure quality of life unless we add layers such as ‘clean water to consume’, ‘clean air to breathe’ and so on.
  • Safety Needs are those we employ for self-preservation. As the name suggests, they exist to make us feel safe within ourselves and our surroundings. These include security, law, stability, limits, protection and so on. Scholars have suggested that these provide individuals with a perception of safety rather than a surefire guarantee.

Read More: The Psychology of Self-Perception

  • Belongingness and Love Needs essentially refer to those aspects of human life that connect us to larger groups, namely society and community (ies). These include healthy interpersonal relationships, affection, intimate connection(s), work and so on. These components help us adjust, reside and grow within a societal framework. All of these are responsible for us establishing a sense of belongingness with others, particularly those who belong to the same social group or community as us.
  • Esteem Needs help us feel integral in the larger picture. They are essential in attaining a particular position in the hierarchical system. These include components such as achievement, status, rank and position. These guide how valuable and efficient we deem ourselves to be.
  • Cognitive Needs are those which allow us to put our mind to use and perform cognitive functions which lead to a sort of intellectual satisfaction. These include knowledge acquisition, deriving meaning, awareness of self and others and so on. These enhance brain and mental functioning which helps us to utilize our cognitive range. Furthermore, these are also essential in giving meaning without which it would be difficult to carry out tasks. 
  • Aesthetic Needs are those which satisfy us in indescribable ways. Aesthetics that we adopt or incline towards are those which are pleasing to our senses. Such needs involve elements of beauty, form, balance, symmetry, harmony and so on. We strive to achieve all that can comply with our aesthetic, that is, satisfy the pleasing component required by our senses. For example, the trendy dark academia aesthetic entails long checkered coats, darker lighting, a clean and posh look, etc.
  • Self-actualisation refers to becoming aware and fulfilling our potential and becoming whatever we are capable of becoming. It refers to maximizing potential and is characterized by personal growth. Initially, this was the highest stage of Maslow’s hierarchy but it was later changed. However, it is still widely believed that the core cause behind motivation is an individual’s innate need to self-actualize.
  • Transcendence replaced Self-Actualization by acquiring the topmost position in the hierarchy. Transcendence as a concept has occurred in almost every field and different theories inculcating the ways to achieve it have been dictated in almost every religion and mythology. It refers to experiencing or reaching a plane of existence that is beyond the normal mortal level. It has spiritual associations as well. For example, in the Bhagavad Gita, transcendence refers to freedom from the cycle of karma and uniting with the Supreme Reality.

Why Should We Self-Actualize?

According to Maslow, only 1% of people achieve self-actualization. So who are these people? In the popular animated movie series Frozen, Elsa’s ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Show Yourself’ are musically depicting her road to self-actualization. In both songs, she realizes the true extent of her abilities and reclaims her destiny as her own. Self-actualized people can be drawn out by the identification of certain characteristics such as:

  1. Autonomy and Responsibility tend to be defining qualities of someone who has self-actualised. They are aware of their free will and the inherent autonomy of being human. They thus take responsibility for their actions and how their life turns out. They enjoy making their own decisions and taking control. They are confident in their abilities and regularly take up challenging tasks.
  2. Perception of Reality can often be skewed based on our insecurities, flaws and biases. However, those who have self-actualized tend to have a very accurate and unbiased perception of reality. They can perceive the world for all it is all that it isn’t and all that it will be. They see through illusions and can perceive the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ as indicated by gestalt psychology
  3. Spontaneity and Flexibility come easily to those who have self-actualized. Since they have a strong sense of self, they do not need to be rigid with themselves. They understand the extent of their personality and therefore, do not squirm at the thought of throwing themselves into experiences out of their comfort zone. They may even enjoy it!
  4. Life Satisfaction refers to the extent to which an individual can attribute positive variables in the evaluation of their life. Research published in 2021 has suggested that life satisfaction is achieved within the process of attaining self-actualization since the bottom of the hierarchy of needs is composed of physiological needs and goes up to growth needs before reaching actualization. If someone has self-actualized, they will more or less be deeply satisfied with their life.
  5. Deep Connections in their personal lives and on a larger level with humanity. Empathy and care come naturally to them. They can tap into their ability to love people unconditionally and without constraints. Since they are stable within themselves, they are reliable to lean on which helps foster more meaningful connections.

These are only some characteristics that can be found within self-actualized individuals. However, achieving this has many more benefits. Let us look at some ways that can assist us with this.

How To Become Self-Actualized

There is no manual on achieving self-actualization, it can be a rather subjective process. However, there are certain things and habits you can inculcate or indulge in which will pave the path to self-actualization. Some such things are:

  • Becoming Moral can help you clarify your thought processes and begin identifying right from wrong. Immanuel Kant asserted that we should treat someone not as a means to an end but rather as an end within themselves. Self-actualized people find it very easy to separate means from ends. One must become morally sound to facilitate the process of self-actualization.
  • Concentration can help you examine life and yourself more carefully. Concentration can help you to experience any phenomenon in its complete sense. According to Maslow, there are certain moments in everyone’s lives where intense concentration suddenly occurs, he calls these moments self-actualizing. If you partake in meditation, you may have self-actualizing experiences once you fixate on an object or someplace in your mind.
  • Self-awareness refers to becoming conscious of your self-concept which includes one’s thoughts, ideas, emotions and so on. Usually, when we acquire knowledge about something, we are the actor and what we are gaining knowledge about is the object. Here, we are both the actor and the object, the knower and the known. Self-awareness, arising out of introspection and reflection, guides us into the realm of ourselves and is a way of realizing our entire potential.

Read More: The Power of Vulnerability

  • Strive for Self-Improvement must be never-ending. One must make a continuous attempt to live up to our underlying potential and fulfil all duties that we are capable of. The concept of Dharma as given in Hindu scriptures dictates that one must act according to their duty. The constant striving for growth and improvement is our inherent duty as human beings. Humanistic psychology believes that humans are innately good and have a drive to grow as individuals and self-actualize.

To reiterate, the path to self-actualization is yours to pave, however, the above-mentioned ways can facilitate this process. Self-actualization is an essential stage of life. It will help us experience and feel more deeply, and give meaning to our lives, another step towards transcendence and ascension.

References +
  • Rowden, A. (2022, October 26). What is self-actualization?  https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/self-actualization
  • Hopper, E. (2020, February 24). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Explained. ThoughtCo.  https://www.thoughtco.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4582571
  • Kapur, R. (2019). Individual Self-Actualization. ResearchGate.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337731274_Individual_Self-Actualization
  • Bennett, T. (2017, September 1). Self-Actualization: Reach your peak existence. Thriveworks.  https://thriveworks.com/blog/self-actualization-reach-peak-existence/
  • Figure 5. Maslow’s hierarchy of 7 needs. (n.d.). ResearchGate.  https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Maslows-hierarchy-of-7-needs_fig3_23961616
  • Sevi̇Nç, K., & Karataş, N. (2021). The Relationship between Self-Actualization, Life Satisfaction and Religiosity among Turkish Muslims. Zenodo (CERN European Organization for Nuclear Research).  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/359617379_The_Relationship_between_Self-Actualization_Life_Satisfaction_and_Religiosity_among_Turkish_Muslims

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