What Is Self-Actualization In Psychology: Theory & Examples (2024)

  • Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow are three individuals who have contributed immensely to our understanding of the concept of self-actualization.
  • The present-day understanding of self-actualization tends to be more aligned with the view of Maslow than with the perspectives of Goldstein or Rogers.
  • According to Maslow, the internal drive to self-actualize would seldom emerge until more basic needs are met.
  • Self-actualized people have an acceptance of who they are despite their faults and limitations and experience to drive to be creative in all aspects of their lives.
  • While self-actualizers hail from a variety of backgrounds and a diversity of occupations, they share notable characteristics in common, such as the ability to cultivate deep and loving relationships with others.
What Is Self-Actualization In Psychology: Theory & Examples (1)

Self-actualization (also referred to as self-realization or self-cultivation) can be described as the complete realization of one’s potential as manifest in peak experiences which involve the full development of one’s abilities and appreciation for life (Maslow, 1962).

The attainment of self-actualization involves one’s full involvement in life and the realization of that which one is capable of accomplishing.

Generally, the state of self-actualization is viewed as obtainable only after one’s fundamental needs for survival, safety, love, and self-esteem are met (Maslow, 1943, 1954).

Self-Actualization Theory

Self-actualization theory emphasizes the innate drive of individuals to reach their full potential.

Kurt Goldstein highlighted the holistic nature of self-actualization, encompassing physical, psychological, and social well-being.

Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization at the highest level, while Rogers focused on the importance of congruence and unconditional positive regard in fostering personal growth.

Kurt Goldstein

Even though the term “self-actualization” is most associated with Abraham Maslow, it was originally introduced by Kurt Goldstein, a physician specializing in psychiatry and neuroanatomy during the early part of the 20th century.

Goldstein (1939, 1940) viewed self-actualization as the ultimate goal of every organism and refers to man”s” desire for self-fulfillment, and the propensity of an individual to become
actualized in his potential.

He contended that each human being, plant, and animal has an inborn goal to actualize itself as it is.

Goldstein pointed out that organisms, therefore, behave in accordance with this overarching motivation.

In his book, “The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man”, Goldstein argued that self-actualization involves the tendency to actualize an organism’s individual capacities as much as possible (Goldstein, 2000).

According to Goldstein’s (1940) view, self-actualization was not necessarily a goal to be reached in the future but an organism’s innate propensity to realize its potential at any moment under the given circ*mstances.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers described self-actualization as the continuous lifelong process whereby an individual’s self-concept is maintained and enhanced via reflection and the reinterpretation of various experiences, which enable the individual to recover, change and develop (Rogers, 1951).

According to Rogers (1967), the human organism has an underlying “actualizing tendency”, which aims to develop all capacities in ways that maintain or enhance the organism and move it toward autonomy.

According to Rogers, people could only self-actualize if they had a positive self-view (positive self-regard). This can only happen if they have unconditional positive regard from others – if they feel valued and respected without reservation by those around them (especially their parents when they were children).

Self-actualization is only possible if there is congruence between how an individual sees themselves (self-image) and their ideal self (the way they want to be or think they should be).

If there is a large gap between these two concepts, negative feelings of self-worth will arise, making it impossible for self-actualization to occur.

What Is Self-Actualization In Psychology: Theory & Examples (2)

Rogers (1967) posits that the structure of the self is a consistent yet fluid pattern of perceptions of oneself that is organized and formed via evaluational interactions.

However, the tension between one’s ideal sense of self and one’s experiences (or self-image) can produce incongruence, a psychopathological state stemming from the perversions of one’s unitary actualizing tendency.

For Rogers (1967), a person who is in the process of self-actualizing, actively exploring potentials and abilities and experiencing a match between real and ideal selves is a fully functioning person.

Becoming a Fully functioning person means “that the individual moves towards “being”, knowingly and acceptingly, the process which he inwardly and actually “is.” He moves away from what he is not, from being a facade.

He is not trying to be more than he is, with the attendant feelings of insecurity or bombastic defensiveness. He is not trying to be less than he is, with the attendant feelings of guilt or self-deprecation.

He is increasingly listening to the deepest recesses of his psychological and emotional being, and finds himself increasingly willing to be, with greater accuracy and depth, that self which he most truly is”.

Fully functioning people are in touch with their own feelings and abilities and are able to trust their innermost urges and intuitions.

To become fully functioning, a person needs unconditional positive regard from others, especially their parents in childhood.

Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of acceptance of others despite their failings.

However, most people don’t perceive the positive regard of others as being unconditional. They tend to think they will only be loved and valued if they meet certain conditions of worth.

These conditions of worth create incongruity within the self between the real self (how the person is) and the ideal self (how they think they should be or want to be).

Abraham Maslow

As did Goldstein, Maslow viewed self-actualization as realizing one’s potential. However, Maslow (1967) described self-actualization more narrowly than Goldstein by applying it solely to human beings—rather than all organisms.

Maslow pointed out that humans have lower-order needs that must be generally met before their higher order needs can be satiated, such as self-actualization. He categorized those needs as follows (Maslow, 1943):

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

1. Basic needs:

a. Physiological needs (ex- water, food, warmth and rest).

b. Safety needs (ex- safety and security).

2. Psychological needs.

a. Belongingness needs (ex- close relationships with loved ones and friends).

b. Esteem needs (ex- feeling of accomplishment and prestige).

3. Self-actualization needs (realizing one’s full potential).

Self-actualize is the final stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so not every human being reaches it.

What Is Self-Actualization In Psychology: Theory & Examples (3)

To Maslow, self-actualization meant the desire for self-fulfillment, or a person’s tendency to be actualized in what he or she is potentially.

Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have a strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed economically, academically, or athletically. For others, it may be expressed creatively in paintings, pictures, or inventions.

Maslow further explained that self-actualization involves the intrinsic development of an organism. He contended that self-actualization is more growth-oriented than deficiency-focused (Gleitman, Fridlund, & Riesberg, 2004).

Maslow acknowledged the apparent rarity of self-actualized people and argued that most people are suffering from psychopathology of normality.

Unlike Sigmund Freud, whose psychodynamic approach was focused on unhealthy individuals engaging in disturbing conduct, Maslow was associated with the humanistic approach, which focuses on healthy individuals.

Consequently, Maslow’s perspective is more consistent with a positive view of human nature, which sees individuals as driven to reach their potential. This humanistic perspective markedly differs from the Freudian view of human beings as tension-reducing organisms.

Examples of Self-Actualizations

Examples of self-actualization can vary greatly from person to person as it involves the pursuit of personal growth and fulfillment in line with one’s unique values and aspirations.

Some examples may include:

  1. Pursuing a passion or creative endeavor, such as painting, writing, or playing an instrument.
  2. Setting and achieving meaningful goals that align with personal values and aspirations.
  3. Engaging in acts of kindness and altruism to contribute to the well-being of others.
  4. Seeking personal development through continuous learning and acquiring new skills.
  5. Embracing authenticity and living in alignment with one’s true values and beliefs.
  6. Cultivating meaningful relationships and connections with others based on mutual respect and support.
  7. Engaging in self-reflection and introspection to gain deeper self-awareness and personal insight.
  8. Making choices and decisions that prioritize personal happiness and well-being rather than external validation.
  9. Embracing and accepting oneself fully, including both strengths and weaknesses.
  10. Experiencing moments of flow, where one is fully immersed and engaged in an activity that brings a sense of joy, purpose, and fulfillment.

Moving beyond mere theory and speculation, Maslow identified several individuals he considered to have attained a level of self-actualization (Maslow, 1970).

Noteworthy herein are the diversity of occupations and the variety of the backgrounds which these individuals represent while still meeting the criteria of self-actualization.

  • Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; American President)
  • Albert Einstein (1879- 1955; Theoretical Physicist)
  • Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965; Writer, Humanitarian, Theologian, Organist, Philosopher, and Physician)
  • Aldous Huxley (1894- 1963; Philosopher and Writer)
  • Baruch Spinoza (1632- 1677; Philosopher)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962; Diplomat and Activist)
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935; Settlement Activist, Sociologist, Public Administrator)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826; American President, Architect, Philosopher)
  • William James (1842- 1910; Philosopher and Psychologist)

Characteristics of Self-Actualized Individuals

Abraham Maslow based his theory on case studies of historical figures whom he saw as examples of self-actualized individuals, including Albert Einstein, Ruth Benedict, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Maslow examined the lives of each of these people in order to assess the common qualities that led each to become self-actualized.

Based on Maslow’s description of self-actualizers, one can find several striking similarities that these supposedly self-actualized individuals share in common.

Some of such characteristics which distinguish self-actualized individuals from the rest of humanity are as follows (Maslow, 1954, 1970).

  1. Self-actualized people are accepting of others as well as their own flaws, often with humor and tolerance. Not only do self-actualized people fully accept others, but they are also true to themselves rather than pretending in order to impress others (Talevich, 2017).
  2. Self-actualized people also tend to be independent and resourceful: they are less likely to rely upon external authorities to direct their lives (Martela & Pessi, 2018).
  3. Can cultivate deep and loving relationships with others.
  4. Tendency to exude gratitude and maintain a deep appreciation even for the commonplace blessings in life.
  5. Can often discern between the superficial and the real when judging situations.
  6. Seldom depend upon their environment or culture to form their opinions.
  7. Tendency to view life as a mission that calls them to a purpose beyond themselves.

Critical Evaluation

Despite the popularity of self-actualization as a concept associated with positive psychology and motivation theories, it does not cease to draw criticism.

The Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne for instance, has called self-actualization the game of self-expression based on the belief that good feelings are to be pursued (Berne, 2016).

Additionally, critics have pointed out that self-actualizing tendencies can lead to a positive but non-relational approach to human beings (Thorne, 1992). Moreover, Fritz Perls has noted that the focus can easily shift from striving to actualize one’s sense of self to merely attempting to build an appearance of self-actualization, which can be misleading (Perls, 1992).

Vitz (1994) has contended that Maslow and Rogers have turned the psychological concept of self-actualization into a moral norm. Finally, the possibility of self-actualization has also come to be seen as a special privilege reserved only for a select few.

In response to these concerns, Maslow has acknowledged that expressions of unrestrained whims and the pursuit of private pleasures have often been mislabeled as self-actualization (Daniels, 2005). Maslow, too, shared the concern that the concept might be misunderstood.

In fact, when many people wrote to Maslow describing themselves as self-actualized persons, Maslow doubted whether he had sufficiently articulated his theory (Steven, 1975).

However, Maslow did not hold that only an elite few could attain the state of self-actualization. On the contrary, he pointed out that often people living in strikingly similar circ*mstances experience enormously different outcomes in life.

He reasoned that such a reality underscores the importance of attitude as a factor that influences one’s destiny.

Paradoxical narrative of self-actualization

Winston (2018) takes a fresh look at Abraham Maslow’s classic work on self-actualization. She provides a nuanced analysis of the paradoxical nature of self-actualizers’ perceptions of themselves, others, and the world.

Winston dismantles Maslow’s chapter on self-actualization from his seminal Motivation and Personality book and rearranges it to demonstrate the ongoing struggle Maslow faced in describing self-actualizers.

On one hand, he would characterize them in a certain way, only to provide a contradictory example shortly after. For instance, he described them as accepting reality yet noted they display resignation. Or as free from excessive guilt yet not immune to anxiety and self-criticism (Winston, 2018).

On one hand, Maslow portrayed self-actualizers as comfortable with uncertainty, doubt and vagueness. Yet he also stated they are rarely unsure or conflicted (Winston, 2018).

Additionally, he characterized them as capable of fully identifying with, and losing themselves in, close relationships. However, he also noted they retain a certain detachment from loved ones.

Rather than dismissing these opposing descriptions as contradictions or inconsistencies, as some scholars have done, Winston sees them as paradoxes that convey the complexity of psychological health. In her analysis, she uncovers three key paradoxes:

  1. Self-actualizers share common traits yet remain utterly unique individuals.
  2. Their perceptions of themselves, others and the world are simultaneously positive and negative. They have an accurate view of reality as messy rather than black-and-white.
  3. They can accept what cannot change yet have the courage to change what they can, displaying wisdom in discerning the difference (Winston, 2018).

Winston argues that the paradoxical nature of self-actualization illustrates that psychological health entails the contextually appropriate expression of human potentialities, whether viewed as positive or negative.

Her framework challenges approaches that unconditionally promote some potentials while suppressing others. Instead, she advocates examining the conditions under which any given potentiality may be adaptive or maladaptive.

For individualistic cultures only?

The concept of self-actualization, characterized by realizing one’s full potential, is often seen as the pinnacle of psychological development. However, the cultural specificity of self-actualization has been questioned (Itai, 2008).

Specifically, the individualistic focus on developing uniqueness, fulfilling one’s capacities, and prioritizing personal growth over social belonging may not generalize across cultures.

Research suggests self-actualization aligns closely with individualistic values prominent in the West, but not necessarily with the collectivist values of interdependence and social harmony found in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

Itai Ivtzan (2008) compared 100 British (individualistic culture) and 100 Indian (collectivist culture) participants aged 18-25 on their responses to the Personal Orientation Inventory (POI). The POI measures 12 characteristics seen as central to self-actualization (Shostrom, 1963).

As predicted, the British group scored significantly higher than the Indian group on 10 out of 12 scales, including time competence, inner-directedness, self-actualizing values, feeling reactivity, and self-acceptance.

Ivtzan concluded that the concept of self-actualization, as currently defined, lacks cross-cultural validity. The lower POI scores from the Indian group likely reflect measurement bias rather than truly less self-actualization. Cultures shape the meaning of self-fulfillment in different ways. While the drive to achieve one’s potential is universal, how this manifests likely depends on cultural values.

These findings underscore the need to re-examine concepts like self-actualization through a cross-cultural lens.

Applying Western models globally risks promoting an ethnocentric view of human motivation and adjustment. Future research should explore how self-actualization presents in diverse cultures. Practically, the study also cautions the use of self-actualization theory in multi-cultural organizational contexts.

FAQs

What is self-actualization?

Self-actualization is a concept in psychology that refers to the process of fulfilling one’s true potential, becoming the best version of oneself, and achieving personal growth, meaning, and fulfillment in various aspects of life.

According to Maslow, what are some of the traits and qualities of self-actualizing individuals?

According to Maslow, self-actualizing individuals exhibit traits and qualities such as autonomy, authenticity, creativity, self-acceptance, a sense of purpose, strong values, peak experiences, and the ability to have meaningful relationships. They strive for personal growth, fulfillment, and reaching their highest potential.

What is the difference between self-actualization and self-transcendence?

Self-actualization refers to fulfilling one’s potential and becoming the best version of oneself, while self-transcendence goes beyond the self and involves connecting to something greater, such as meaning, values, or the well-being of others, to achieve a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

References

Berne, E. (2016). Games people play the psychology of human relationships. Penguin Life.

Daniels, M. (2005). Shadow, self, spirit: essays in transpersonal psychology (p. 122). Imprint Academic.

Gleitman, Henry & Fridlund, Alan & Riesberg, Daniel. (2004). Psychology (6th Ed.) . New York: Norton.

Goldstein, K. (1939). The Organism. New York, NY: American Books.

Goldstein, K. (1940). Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.

Itai, I. (2008). Self actualisation: For individualistic cultures only?.International Journal on Humanistic Ideology,1(02), 113-139.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company.

Martela, F., & Pessi, A. B. (2018). Significant work is about self-realization and broader purpose: defining the key dimensions of meaningful work. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 363.

Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Perls, F. S. (1992). In and out the garbage pail. Gestalt Journal Press.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered. Therapy, 515-520.

Rogers, C. (1963) The Actualizing Tendency in Relation to “Motives” and to Consciousness. In: Jones, M.R., Ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1-24.

Rogers, C. (1967). On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable.

Rogers, C., & Kramer, P. D. (1995). On becoming a person : a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.

Shostrom, E. L. (1963). Personal orientation inventory.

Stevens, B. (1975). Body work. Gestalt is, 160-191.

Talevich, J. R., Read, S. J., Walsh, D. A., Iyer, R., & Chopra, G. (2017). Toward a comprehensive taxonomy of human motives . PloS one, 12 (2), e0172279.

Thoma, E. (1963). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Psychosomatics, 4 (2), 122–123.

Thorne, B. (1992). Key figures in counselling and psychotherapy. Carl Rogers. Sage Publications, Inc.

Venter, Henry. (2017). Self-Transcendence: Maslow’s Answer to Cultural Closeness. Journal of Innovation Management, 4 (4), 3-7.

Vitz, P. C. (1994). Psychology as religion: The cult of self-worship . Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Winston, C. N. (2018). To beandnot to be: A paradoxical narrative of self-actualization.The Humanistic Psychologist, 46(2), 159–174.https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000082

Further Reading

Self-Actualization: Understanding the Concepts

Self-Actualization is a concept in psychology that refers to the process of fulfilling one’s true potential, becoming the best version of oneself, and achieving personal growth, meaning, and fulfillment in various aspects of life. It is a fundamental aspect of humanistic psychology and has been extensively studied and discussed by prominent psychologists such as Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow.

Kurt Goldstein

Kurt Goldstein, a physician specializing in psychiatry and neuroanatomy, introduced the term "self-actualization" as the ultimate goal of every organism, emphasizing the holistic nature of self-actualization, encompassing physical, psychological, and social well-being. Goldstein argued that self-actualization involves the tendency to actualize an organism’s individual capacities as much as possible. He viewed self-actualization not as a future goal but as an organism’s innate propensity to realize its potential at any moment under the given circ*mstances [[SOURCE 1]].

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers described self-actualization as a continuous lifelong process whereby an individual’s self-concept is maintained and enhanced via reflection and the reinterpretation of various experiences, which enable the individual to recover, change, and develop. Rogers emphasized the importance of congruence and unconditional positive regard in fostering personal growth. He posited that self-actualization is only possible if there is congruence between how an individual sees themselves and their ideal self, and if they have unconditional positive regard from others, especially their parents in childhood [[SOURCE 1]].

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow, known for his hierarchy of needs, categorized self-actualization as the final stage of human needs, achievable only after lower-order needs such as physiological, safety, belongingness, and esteem needs are met. He described self-actualization as the desire for self-fulfillment, or a person’s tendency to be actualized in what he or she is potentially. Maslow emphasized that self-actualization involves the intrinsic development of an organism and is more growth-oriented than deficiency-focused. He also identified several individuals he considered to have attained a level of self-actualization, such as Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt [[SOURCE 1]].

Traits of Self-Actualized Individuals

According to Maslow, self-actualized individuals exhibit traits and qualities such as autonomy, authenticity, creativity, self-acceptance, a sense of purpose, strong values, peak experiences, and the ability to have meaningful relationships. They strive for personal growth, fulfillment, and reaching their highest potential [[SOURCE 1]].

Criticisms and Paradoxes

The concept of self-actualization has drawn criticism, with concerns raised about its potential to lead to a positive but non-relational approach to human beings and the possibility of it being seen as a special privilege reserved only for a select few. Additionally, a paradoxical narrative of self-actualization has been identified, illustrating the complexity of psychological health and the contextually appropriate expression of human potentialities. Furthermore, the cultural specificity of self-actualization has been questioned, with research suggesting that the concept may align closely with individualistic values prominent in the West, but not necessarily with the collectivist values of other cultures [[SOURCE 1]].

In conclusion, the concept of self-actualization, as elucidated by Goldstein, Rogers, and Maslow, provides a comprehensive framework for understanding human potential, personal growth, and fulfillment. It encompasses the holistic development of individuals and the realization of their inherent capacities, while also raising important questions about its cultural relevance and potential limitations.

If you have any further questions or need additional information, feel free to ask!

What Is Self-Actualization In Psychology: Theory & Examples (2024)

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