Self-actualization is a person’s quest to reach their full potential. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, a person must first meet several other needs, such as attaining self-esteem and gaining a sense of belonging, before reaching self-actualization.

There are many definitions for being self-actualized. Since people are so different, there is no one approach to self-actualization. Self-actualized people are often spontaneous, independent, true to themselves, and able to form opinions without the influence of others.

In this article, we outline self-actualization, explain its origins, and provide examples of some of the characteristics of self-actualized people. We also look at the steps involved in working toward self-actualization.

Self-actualization has several different meanings. One of the definitions of self-actualization that people most widely accept comes from the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Maslow described self-actualization as the complete realization of a person’s potential. He also stated that it involved fully developing a person’s abilities and appreciation for life.

Maslow described self-actualization as the highest in the human hierarchy of needs. Many people consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs one of the most impactful theories in motivation psychology and personality science.

Self-actualization involves a person progressing and growing, attempting to become the best person they can be, according to their own goals.

Several individuals played a role in developing the concept of self-actualization.

One of these was Kurt Goldstein, a physician specializing in psychiatry and neuroanatomy. Around 1940, Goldstein stated that self-actualization was the ultimate goal of every organism.

He often referred to the desire for self-fulfillment and the propensity of an individual to become actualized in their potential. Goldstein added that each human being, plant, and animal is born with a goal to actualize itself. He stated that this motivation is what drives all organisms.

Another person who helped develop the theory of self-actualization was Carl Rogers. Rogers was an American psychologist and one of the founders of the humanistic approach.

In 1951, Rogers described self-actualization as the continuous process in which an individual maintains and enhances their self-concept. According to Rogers, they can do this via reflection and interpreting various experiences, helping them to recover, change, and develop over time.

One of the most well-known names associated with self-actualization is Abraham Maslow.

Maslow was an American psychologist who came up with a hierarchy of needs. Maslow stated that human beings have a set of needs that need fulfilling in a specific order to reach self-actualization.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow proposed that five needs drive human behavior. He placed these into a pyramid, with the base layer of physiological needs needing to be met first before moving up to the next level.

According to the hierarchy, the needs should be met in the following priority order:

  1. Physiological needs: These are the most basic needs. Maslow summarized these as the drives for hunger, thirst, and sex. According to Maslow, a person must address these needs before moving on to the next level of fulfillment.
  2. Safety and security: Maslow states that these needs involve the human condition to feel safe and secure.
  3. Belonging: These needs capture the need for a partner, spouse, and family, which can provide company and attachment.
  4. Esteem: These are higher needs and include self-respect and confidence in the potential for personal growth and accomplishments.
  5. Self-actualization: This is the desire to accomplish everything a person can and become the best version of themself.

Maslow viewed self-actualization as the realization of a person’s potential and placed it at the top of the hierarchy of needs.

Learn more about Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs here.

If a person pursues self-actualization and attempts to find meaning and happiness in life, they may achieve more positive well-being, which may help improve their mental health.

Studies show that treatment processes that seek self-actualization may reduce anxiety surrounding death and depression in some people with depression.

A 2019 study analyzed older people with high blood pressure and the outcomes of their self-care behaviors for controlling their symptoms. It concluded that awareness of their potential and their role in disease control helped to positively manage high blood pressure.

The study added that by utilizing self-actualization for seniors, individuals could resist the destructive effects of internal and external stress and move in the direction of growth.

Self-actualization may occur when a person achieves their potential. Below are some of the common characteristics of self-actualized people:

  • Accepting: Self-actualized people are typically accepting of both their own and other people’s flaws. They are also often wholly true to themselves rather than changing who they are to impress others.
  • Independent and resourceful: Self-actualized people are good at taking care of themselves. They often do not require external authorities to help direct their lives.
  • Build strong relationships: Self-actualized people can build and nurture deep and loving relationships with other people.
  • Grateful: Self-actualized people are often grateful and deeply appreciate even the everyday aspects of life.
  • Good at judging situations: Self-actualized people can often easily distinguish between the superficial and genuine when judging certain situations.
  • Form their own opinions: Self-actualized people usually do not rely on their environment or culture to form their opinions.
  • Have a strong purpose: Self-actualized people can view life as a mission. They may believe they have a calling and a purpose beyond themselves.

There are several steps a person can take to work toward self-actualization. Below are some strategies that a person may wish to consider.

Practice acceptance

Acceptance is the first step on the path to self-actualization. A person should learn to accept themself and what comes during life, embracing the good with the bad.

Acceptance can include dealing with situations as they turn out, learning to accept the unknowns in life, and recognizing that everyone has circumstances that may influence their behavior.

Be authentic

A person should find out what they want to achieve and avoid the influence of others when deciding how to behave.

To become self-actualized, people should embrace who they are, understand their limitations, and focus on their strengths. Self-actualized individuals do not allow others to influence how they act.

External pressure from peers, society, and social media, can cause people to move away from their true path.

Be aware of choices

Maslow says that people face many daily decisions that give them the chance to move toward self-actualization and growth or toward defense, safety, and being afraid.

To work toward self-actualization, a person should consider their choices throughout the day and try to opt for the options that encourage growth.

Be spontaneous

It is important to live spontaneously and try to enjoy every moment as it arises. This means a person should not worry about what they should do and should avoid sticking to what they know.

To reach self-actualization, people should be open to trying new things and taking more chances.

Learn to become independent

People should be comfortable making their own decisions and living as independently as possible. To do this, a person should learn to make decisions without the influence of others and should live their life according to their vision.

Self-actualization may occur when a person achieves their highest potential in life.

There are many theories of self-actualization. The most well-known approach to self-actualization is Abraham Maslow’s.

Maslow described self-actualization as the complete realization of a person’s potential. He added that it involved fully developing a person’s abilities and appreciation for life.

Self-actualized people are often:

  • able to live independently
  • accepting of themselves and others
  • resourceful
  • able to build strong relationships
  • grateful, even for the more minor things in life
  • good at judging situations
  • able to form their own opinions

To work toward self-actualization, a person should:

  • learn to be more accepting
  • try and be authentic as much as possible
  • be aware of the choices they are making
  • live spontaneously
  • try to be as independent as possible

According to Mazlow’s theory, it is also important for people to first focus on meeting other needs further down the hierarchy. These are:

  • physiological needs
  • safety and security
  • belonging
  • esteem