Abraham Maslow places our need to be self-actualizing at the top of our hierarchy of needs, but instead of developing his theory of what this need consisted of, he took the reverse engineering approach. Maslow studied people that he had observed to be living self-fulfilling lives, and determined that they all had common characteristics. He concluded that self-actualizing people were:
  • Experiencing life fully, vividly, and selflessly.
  • Making life choices that led to progression not regression (growth over fear).
  • Listening to their inner voice and letting the self emerge.
  • Taking responsibility for themselves.
  • Having peak experiences.
  • Self-examining, finding their defenses and then giving them up.

Basically, a self-actualizing person is someone who is growing into the best person they can be.

While self-actualization is placed at the top of the hierarchy of needs, it should be noted that each of the traits of a self-actualizing person would appear to help satisfy the needs below it. If we are working on becoming a better person, it stands to reason that we would probably feel pretty good about ourselves and our standing in society. These same traits would also make us pretty attractive to a potential mate as well as a group of friends. It’s almost as if we could just bypass all our lower needs and kill about five birds with one stone.

The reality is a bit more complicated. Satisfying each of our lower needs - our physiological and safety needs, our need for love and belonging, and our need for esteem - involves trial and error. A lot of trial and error. For some it could be a lifetime of trial and error. But as we satisfy each of these lower needs, we are developing the tools necessary to eventually become self-actualizing. Once we have this set of tools at our disposal, we really just have to open our minds and let self-actualization happen (this will be easier for some than for others).

Some, possibly many, people are able to live complete lives without really becoming self-actualizing. We could say they are living fulfilling lives, maybe just not self-fulfilling. For them, satisfying their physical needs, their need for love and to be loved, and their need to feel important, may be all that’s needed. But there are others that may have satisfied each of these needs and yet they still feel like something is missing.

Self-Examination Exposes Stuff
It is so important for us to look deep into ourselves, to find out who we really are and what got us here. Actually, it is a necessity, for we cannot fix what we don’t know needs fixing. For many, if not most, this can be too painful to experience. Some memories may seem just better left buried, and some probably are, but failing to know as much about ourselves as we possibly can will leave us incomplete. Out of that pain will come growth, and it’s that growth that will make us stronger and put us in control of becoming the person we wish to become.

Failing to uncover the stuff deep in our subconscious that’s holding us back, will leave obstacles in our path toward developing loving relationships, developing our self-esteem, and ultimately discovering who we are really meant to be. This process can be painful, but understand that what lies on the other side of that pain will make the journey worth it. And we just need to remember that whatever happened to us, whatever was done to us, was done by someone who was the product of their conditioning. If we can forgive them, and forgive ourselves for the regrettable things that we may have done to others, then maybe we can move forward and not be chained to our past.

Why do so few of us fail to seek self-actualization?
Maslow suggests that there are regressive forces in the psyche that inhibit growth. While most of us will claim that we desire to achieve our greatest potentials, we are often far more attracted to the easy path of safety and comfort. We avoid challenges that would lead to personal growth, refuse to face our fears, and remain passive in a manner which inhibits our capacity to self-actualize.

If we allow ourselves to succumb to these dark forces, we will pay a steep price. Anxiety, guilt, shame, and self-hate, will manifest and torture us internally. The presence of these symptoms does not mean that all is lost. Maslow suggests that if we can learn to view these symptoms, not as a sign that we are ill and in need of medication, but rather as a cry from the growth forces within us, warning us that change in our life is needed, we will have taken the first step toward self-actualization and becoming one of those rare individuals who succeed in being human.

“He who belies his talent, the born painter who sells stockings, the intelligent man who lives a stupid life, the man who sees truth and keeps his mouth shut, the coward who gives up his manliness, all these people perceive in a deep way that they have done wrong to themselves and despise themselves for it. Out of this self-punishment may come only neurosis, but there may equally come renewed courage, righteous indignation, increased self-respect, because of thereafter doing the right thing; in a word, growth and improvement can come through pain and conflict.” - Abraham Maslow

Whether we like it or not, we as humans are always seeking to improve.

Read more - The Road to Self-Actualization (coming soon!)