What are the steps and methods for achieving self-actualization?

Self-actualization is the process of becoming the best version of oneself and reaching one’s full potential. It is a concept introduced by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who believed that every individual has the innate desire to achieve self-actualization. However, this journey towards self-actualization is not an easy one and requires effort, self-reflection, and dedication. In this article, we will explore the steps and methods that can help individuals achieve self-actualization and ultimately lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Self-actualization is a term that has been used in various psychology theories, often in slightly different ways. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. In his view, it is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive: “the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive…the drive of self-actualization.” Carl Rogers similarly wrote of “the curative force in psychotherapy – man’s tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities…to express and activate all the capacities of the organism.” However, the concept was brought most fully to prominence in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory as the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are fulfilled and the “actualization” of the full personal potential takes place.


In Goldstein’s theory

According to Kurt Goldstein’s book, The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man, self-actualization is “the tendency to actualize, as much as possible, [the organism’s] individual capacities” in the world. The tendency toward self-actualization is “the only drive by which the life of an organism is determined.” Goldstein defined self-actualization as a driving life force that will ultimately lead to maximizing one’s abilities and determine the path of one’s life; compare will to power.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The term was later used by Abraham Maslow in his article, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explicitly defines self-actualization to be “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Maslow used the term self-actualization to describe a desire, not a driving force, that could lead to realizing one’s capabilities. Maslow did not feel that self-actualization determined one’s life; rather, he felt that it gave the individual a desire, or motivation to achieve budding ambitions. Maslow’s usage of the term is now popular in modern psychology when discussing personality from the humanistic approach.

A basic definition from a typical college text book defines self-actualization according to Maslow simply as “the full realization of one’s potential” without any mention of Goldstein.

A more explicit definition of self-actualization according to Maslow is “intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself…self-actualization is growth-motivated rather than deficiency-motivated.” This explanation emphasizes the fact that self-actualization cannot normally be reached until other lower order necessities of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are satisfied. While Goldstein defined self-actualization as a driving force, Maslow uses the term to describe personal growth that takes place once lower order needs have been met, one corollary being that, in his opinion, “self-actualisation…rarely happens…certainly in less than 1% of the adult population.” The fact that “most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization” he called the psychopathology of normality.

Maslow considered self-actualizing people to possess “an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and in general to judge the people correctly and efficiently.”

Common traits amongst people who have reached self-actualization are:

  • They embrace reality and facts rather than denying truth.
  • They are spontaneous.
  • They are “focused on problems outside themselves.”
  • They “can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings,” are similarly acceptant of others, and generally lack prejudice.

For Goldstein, self-actualization was a motive and, for Maslow, a level of development; for both, however, roughly the same kinds of qualities were expressed: independence, autonomy, a tendency to form few but deep friendships, a “philosophical” sense of humor, a tendency to resist outside pressures and a general transcendence of the environment rather than “coping” with it.

Self-actualization has been discussed by Schott in connection with Transpersonal business studies.


In psychology

Self actualization is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – becoming ‘”fully human”…maturity or self-actualization’ – and is considered a part of the humanistic approach to personality. Humanistic psychology is one of several methods used in psychology for studying, understanding, and evaluating personality. The humanistic approach was developed because other approaches, such as the psychodynamic approach made famous by Sigmund Freud, focused on unhealthy individuals that exhibited disturbed behavior; whereas the humanistic approach focuses on healthy, motivated people and tries to determine how they define the self while maximizing their potential.

Stemming from this branch of psychology is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, people have lower order needs that in general must be fulfilled before high order needs can be satisfied: ‘five sets of needs – physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualisation’.

As a person moves up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, eventually they may reach the summit — self actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs begins with the most basic necessities deemed “the physiological needs” in which the individual will seek out items like food and water, and must be able to perform basic functions such as breathing and sleeping. Once these needs have been met, a person can move on to fulfilling “the safety needs”, where they will attempt to obtain a sense of security, physical comforts and shelter, employment, and property. The next level is “the belongingness and love needs”, where people will strive for social acceptance, affiliations, a sense of belongingness and being welcome, sexual intimacy, and perhaps a family. Next are “the esteem needs”, where the individual will desire a sense of competence, recognition of achievement by peers, and respect from others.

Some argue that once these needs are met, an individual is primed for self actualization. Others maintain that there are two more phases an individual must progress through before self actualization can take place. These include “the cognitive needs”, where a person will desire knowledge and an understanding of the world around them, and “the aesthetic needs” which include a need for “symmetry, order, and beauty”. Once all these needs have been satisfied, the final stage of Maslow’s hierarchy—self actualization—can take place.

Classical Adlerian psychotherapy promotes this level of psychological development, utilizing the foundation of a 12-stage therapeutic model to realistically satisfy the basic needs, leading to an advanced stage of “meta-therapy,” creative living, and self/other/task-actualization. Gestalt therapy, acknowledging that ‘Kurt Goldstein first introduced the concept of the organism as a whole ‘, built on the assumption that “every individual, every plant, every animal has only one inborn goal – to actualize itself as it is.”

Maslow’s writings are used as inspirational resources. The key to Maslow’s writings is understanding that there are no keys. Self Actualization is predicated on the individual having their lower deficiency needs met. Once a person has moved through feeling and believing that they are deficient, they naturally seek to grow into who they are, that is self-actualize.



Maslow early noted his impression that “impulsivity, the unrestrained expression of any whim, the direct seeking for “kicks” and for non-social and purely private pleasures…is often mislabelled self-actualization.” In this sense, “self-actualization” is little more than what Eric Berne described as the game of ‘”Self-Expression”…based on the dogma “Feelings are Good”‘.

Broader criticism from within humanistic psychology of the concept of self-actualization includes the danger that ’emphasis on the actualizing tendency…can lead to a highly positive view of the human being but one which is strangely non-relational’. There is also the risk of confusing “self-actualizing and self-image actualizing…the curse of the ideal.” By conflating “the virtue of self-actualization and the reality of self-actualization,” the latter becomes merely another measuring rod for the “topdog” – the nagging conscience: “You tell me to do things. You tell me to be – real. You tell me to be self-actualized…I don’t have to be that good!” More formally, this may be connected with the charge that “Rogers and Maslow both transform self-actualization from a descriptive notion into a moral norm.”

In general during the early twenty-first-century, “the usefulness of the concepts of self and self-actualization continue to attract discussion and debate.”

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