What is Self-Actualization?
It’s considered the pinnacle of human needs, the ideal we all strive for, but what is self-actualization?
First, let’s concede that “destiny” is a fuzzy concept. It feels a tad uncomfortable to surrender to destiny and go along life’s path blindfolded.
To cope with the uncertainty of life, we all want to be our best selves. We all have dreams we want to see come true and goals we want to accomplish.
And while we are on the journey to get somewhere in life, we also want to feel happy, satisfied, and at peace.
We are all on the same road, which is towards self-actualization.
The theory of self-actualization touches on an abiding theme of human existence—the quest for material, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment and an intense yearning to fulfill one’s potential.
The theory is rooted in human psychology, but self-actualization is NOT a concept to be confined within the covers of textbooks. It is a blueprint for personal growth, a roadmap of sorts that will help you become a person who performs to his or her full potential.
Prolific inventor Thomas Edison said, “If we did all the things we were capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”
This is the essence of the theory of self-actualization.
There are many ways to define self-actualization but the common theme is the same.
For Merriam-Webster, the definition of self-actualization is, “the process of fully developing and using one’s abilities.”
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines self-actualization as, “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.”
Dictionary.com defines self-actualization as, “the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world.”
Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Self-Actualization
Maslow has mapped the entirety of human existence in this idea: we all have certain basic needs and fulfilling these needs helps us thrive.
He grouped these needs into categories spaced across five levels.
One has to fulfill the self-actualization needs of one level before ascending to the next.
The first level describes physiological needs like those for food, water, air, and sleep, aka the bare necessities of life.
The second level needs are those of safety and security, usually from the dangers that arise from social and/or political instability.
The third level describes the need for love and a sense of belonging or a feeling of connectedness.
The fourth level consists of the need for self-confidence and a healthy self-esteem.
The fifth level is the need for self-actualization. This is the pinnacle of all human needs because we all want to reach a level of self-mastery that reflects our true potential and makes us optimally functional.
Examples of Self-Actualization (Self-Actualized Individuals)
Maslow conceived of the concept of self-actualization after observing the works, habits, daily practices, attitudes, and beliefs of individuals he believed were self-actualized individuals.
Some of his subjects include Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson.
Here’s What Maslow Discovered:
Self-actualized individuals are not afraid of the unknown. Ambiguity does not shake them. In fact, these people tend to readily sacrifice the comfort of the familiar in favour of the thrill of the unknown.
They are self-aware people who understand their strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, they are able to accept their weaknesses and choose instead to focus on developing their strengths.
There is one remarkable difference between self-actualized people and those who are still straddling the lower rungs. Self-actualized people live meaningful lives. They have a purpose in life that goes beyond themselves and their mission is usually connected with the greater good. Compassion, selflessness, and humanitarianism are their traits.
Because they have a purpose to fulfill, self-actualized people are not bothered by the trivial. If you have met a self-actualized individual, you know it is a joy to be around these serene people who don’t complain about minor annoyances.
Maslow’s Theory Debunked
According to Maslow, a person cannot advance to the level of self-actualization if they do not make it past the lower levels. However, there are people around the world who have blasted right through this notion. They have skipped rungs and scrambled up to manifest their true and highest potential without caring for the so-called “fundamental” needs.
Nelson Mandela: Nothing Can Come in the Way of Purpose
Nobel laureate, former South African president, politician, and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela carried out his crusade for racial equality in a climate of political instability, racial hatred, and violence. He spent 27 years in prison for his revolutionary activities. He is an example of a self-actualized individual who lived a life of purpose, which was to create a classless society, despite being deprived of many of his fundamental needs.
Viktor Frankl: Physical Confinement Cannot Trap the Mind
Austrian psychologist and neurologist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, chronicled his experiences inside a concentration camp in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Rather than succumbing and sacrificing his spirit, Frankl used his time in confinement as an opportunity to reflect and ponder.
Being tortured made him ponder over themes of pain and resilience. Imprisonment led him to mull over life and the feeling of being alive. The horrors that surrounded him made him wonder if we can ever erase physical and mental scars.
He turned his thoughts, observations, and insights into a book where he surmised that man is driven by a quest to find meaning in life. Meaning enables man to overcome the trauma of even the most painful, dehumanized, and absurd living conditions.
Doing the Inner Work to Achieve Self-Actualization
Maslow’s model draws a parallel to psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of Individuation.
Jung described individuation as an organic transformational process that eventually brings about self-realization or the highest expression of one’s potential.
According to Jung, self-actualization is a process of personal development that takes place by integrating the conscious and the unconscious.
The conscious is what is out there. It is your actions, likes and dislikes, your responses and reactions.
The conscious is strongly driven by your unconscious mind and the key to achieving harmony is to decode the unconscious, which lies buried deep within us. To do so, you must decipher how your inner works influence the way you operate in the outer world and respond to external cues.
So, self-actualization is in the mind because the self flows from our inner worlds. External factors such as a nice house or fancy car aren’t vital to your self-actualization. What matters is what is going on in your mind or your “state of being.”
It is always nice to have a gleaming car in your garage and a tidy nest egg stashed somewhere, but you will still need to do the inner work to achieve self-actualization.
Self-Actualization is a Journey
Self-actualization is not a destination. You don’t reach self-actualization, sit back, put your feet up and celebrate. It is a lifelong journey.
Prepare for delays, detours, losing your way, getting stalled, and having to change plans. Tweak your mindset and view setbacks and failures as lessons. Let your failures make you resilient.
As former NFL player and coach Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
On your journey to self-actualization, don’t get hung up on plans and maps. A fluid mind is one of the hallmarks of self-actualized individuals.
According to Tim Ferriss, “People will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.” That is a steep a price to pay for staying home and sticking to plans!
Embrace the unknown and be okay with uncertainty. Backpack without a plan, travel on a shoestring budget, innovate, find workarounds – anything to put you out of your comfort zone.
How Do You Prepare for the Journey?
Start off by cultivating the attitudes of gratitude and forgiveness. Realize that you have much to be grateful for so open your heart.
Do not hold on to grudges; forgiveness will let you move on towards your purpose.
Cultivate a curious and non-judgmental attitude so you can observe without bias.
Don’t shut your mind to opposing viewpoints and unconventional thoughts. There is much to learn from people who think differently than you do.
Don’t follow conventions blindly. Don’t attempt to fit into the stereotypic mold.
Not everyone finds their purpose working a 9-5 corporate job; for some, living a meaningful life is working at an animal shelter. Not everyone dreams of owning a swanky condo in a posh suburb; some people also dream of living on the road.
Question and reflect on the answers to blast through the veils of reality to discover what holds meaning for you.
The Tools of Self-Actualization
The tools to achieve your highest potential are all around you.
Meditation: The #1 Tool for Self-Actualization
Start by meditating to clear the clutter in your mind. Meditation gives you deep insights into your self to hone your intuitive powers and find your life’s calling.
Meditation sharpens your focus and so you can complete the task at hand without glancing at your smartphone or finding some other distraction.
Research has proven it conclusively: meditation is one of the most effective mind development and productivity tools in existence.
Lucid Dreaming: Expand Your Reality
If you want to get in touch with your self, try lucid dreaming.
It takes practice, but when you’ve got the hang of it, lucid dreaming is an effective means of clearing negativity from inside of you, busting illusions of reality, and seeing yourself fulfilling your dreams.
Exercise and Healthy Living: Strengthening Your Roots
Choose from a repertoire of mind-body healing practices to stay healthy and build stamina to pursue your dreams.
Healthy living lets you forge a connection with that small voice inside you – call it intuition, sixth sense, or gut feeling – that always seems to steer you in the right direction.
Humanitarianism: Discover Yourself by Helping Others
Self-actualization is a personal endeavour but that’s not to say that it’s to be tackled alone. Remember that everybody is navigating their own journey and fighting their own battles.
So be kind, help others, volunteer. It not only brings in a sense of supreme fulfillment but also makes you step out of yourself to see beyond your problems and realize that you are much blessed.
Set Goals for Yourself
You won’t get anywhere near your best without a shoulder-to-the-wheel attitude. Get into the habit of setting and achieving goals. Results will take you closer to your dreams.
Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, knows a thing or two about how to strive to reach your highest potential. He says, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”
His declaration sums up the mantra that self-actualized individuals live by and the rich lives they build in the process.
Clarity, meaning, intention, commitment, focus, and discipline. Self-actualization demands much from you. But it is a small price to pay for being your best and charting your own destiny.