Are You Self-Actualizing?
Being and Becoming
Self-actualization is an ongoing state of being and becoming. It is not just one great moment in life. Nor is it only an end state. It is the process of actualizing one’s potentialities at any time, in any amount.
Life is a series of choices, one after another, and at each choice point, we have a progression choice or a regression choice: We can regress toward defensiveness and fear, or we can move toward growth. “To make the growth choice instead of the fear choice a dozen times a day,” psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “is to move a dozen times a day toward self-actualization. Self-actualization is an ongoing process; it means making of the many single choices about whether to lie or be honest, whether to steal or not to steal at a particular point, and it means to make each of these choices as a growth choice.”
In self-actualizing moments, we are experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption. We are wholly and fully human. In throwing ourselves fully into the experiencing of a moment, we recover some of the innocence and sweetness of childhood, though without the selfishness, self-consciousness, or emotional immaturity characteristic of children. In that sense, self-actualizing people, as Maslow pointed out, are not “ordinary people with something added, but rather are ordinary people with nothing taken away.” After all, our innate drive for personal growth can be stifled by many factors, such as societal or cultural pressure, an unstable childhood, or lack of experience or education.
Self-actualization is a state at which our unconscious and conscious combine to form an integrated personality, a whole “self,” which comes from within. The self-actualizing person has an authentic self, and strives, from his or her very core, towards growth like a plant reaches toward light.
Self-actualization requires opening oneself up to oneself… endeavoring to find out who one is, what one likes, what’s good and bad for oneself, and what one’s mission is. That means identifying one’s defenses, and finding the courage to give them up. (For an in-depth look at defense mechanisms, see: Defense Mechanisms.)
Are You Self-Actualizing?
Characteristics of Self-Actualized People
While people self-actualize in their own unique ways, self-actualizers do tend to share certain common characteristics. Maslow’s clinical studies led him to describe self-actualizing people as follows. How many of these characteristics do you have?
Efficient perception of reality, comfortable with reality
Self-actualizing people have superior perception skills and are acutely aware of their environments, both human and nonhuman. Able to judge situations accurately and honestly, they’re good fraud detectors. They perceive things as they are — realistically and objectively — rather than distorting their perceptions to fit their own needs.
Comfortable acceptance of self, others, and nature
Self-actualizers can accept themselves (and their pasts) and others for what they are; that is, they can accept human nature — including their own — with all its flaws. They can accept shortcomings, imperfections, weaknesses and the inherent contradictions of the human condition with humor and tolerance. They can accept others’ flaws without criticizing and their own without feeling shame or guilt. They are not, however, posers, self-satisfied or self-aggrandizing, for they are focused on the gap between what is and what could be and dedicated to improvement.
Spontaneity in thought and action
Self-actualizers are extraordinarily alive, engaged and spontaneous. They are open to change and new experiences and are not afraid of the unknown. They are able to abandon familiar comforts to explore new possibilities. They are unshackled by convention, non-conformists, but they are not non-conformist or anti-conformist for the sake (or appearance) of being so because they are not externally motivated.
The mature self-actualizer has goals, directedness, and intentions — all of which create a sense that there is purpose and meaning to life. They’re mission-oriented and often have a mission to fulfill in life that is beyond themselves. They tend to see situations as challenges, rather than problems. Self-actualizing people, Maslow said, are, without exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside themselves, but they are not ego-centered or self-centered. They are passionately devoted to working hard at something that’s precious to them, a “calling” or vocation that they love, which fate has called them to somehow, so that the work-joy dichotomy disappears.
Self-actualizers are self-regulated from within. They are independent and resourceful and they respect the autonomy and individuality of others. They are inner-directed (rather than other-directed) and able to maintain an internal locus of control, thus, they are not dependent on the external world for approval or fulfillment of their internal needs. They are self-determined, the primary causal agent in their own lives. They tend to rely on their own judgment, experiences and personal standards to make quality of life decisions, rather than allowing cultural or societal pressure or the opinions or interference of others to influence their views. They do not cling to the collective fears, beliefs, and laws of the masses. They accept responsibility for their own continued growth and development. Seeking answers from within oneself, by its very nature, means taking responsibility; it is an act of emotional maturity. “One can see it, feel it, know the moment of responsibility,” Maslow said. “There is a clear knowing of what it feels like. Each time one takes responsibility, this is an actualizing of the self.” Autonomy ultimately enables psychological empowerment.
Deep appreciation and continued freshness of appreciation
Self-actualizers experience awe, pleasure, and wonder in their everyday world and often with an “innocence of vision,” like that of a child. They often have deep appreciation for basic life-experience and seem to repeatedly renew appreciation for life’s daily gifts that others take for granted. A sunset, for example, might be experienced as intensely each day as if it were being observed for the first time.
Fellowship with humanity, Gemeinschaftsgefuhl
Self-actualizers have a high degree of social consciousness. They have concern for the welfare of humankind and more complete identification with and understanding of the human condition in general. They have strong connections to others, including deep feelings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion for others. This connection sometimes has an unconditional element in that it may be co-existing with an objective awareness of negative qualities in the people for whom one feels empathy.
Profound interpersonal relationships
The personal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep, loving bonds. Other people usually admire self-actualizers and are drawn to them, but self-actualizers prefer to have a few close, intimate friends than many shallow relationships. Their circle of friends may be small, and usually includes other self-actualizing persons.
Comfort with solitude
Despite having satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people are comfortable being alone and value solitude and privacy. They may even mistakenly seem to be asocial to others. They feel secure and self-sufficient and do not depend on others to nourish their sense of self-worth. They are not necessarily ruffled by what disturbs others.
Non-hostile sense of humor
Self-actualizing people have a good sense of humor that is spontaneous and thoughtful and does not did not involve hostility, superiority, or sarcasm. It may often take the form of a wry comment or a gentle prodding about the shortcomings of human nature. They have an infinite capacity to laugh at themselves.
Self-actualizers have a democratic character structure. They don’t discriminate on the basis of factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or culture, or education. They are humble in recognizing that their knowledge may be small, compared to the vast reservoir of knowledge that exists. They’re open, ready and willing to learn from anyone and respect everyone as potential contributors to their own knowledgeable. They embrace and enjoy the individuality of others.
Strong moral/ethical standards
Self-actualizing persons are highly ethical, always able to clearly distinguish between means and ends and able to subordinate means to ends. They are adept at and comfortable with resolving dichotomies such as good-bad, right-wrong, selfish-unselfish. They have a high tolerance for doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
Self-actualizers are often highly creative, each in his/her own way. This creativity may not be a special-talent creativity (e.g., painting or sculpting); rather, it may be a fresh, open way of looking at things. Self-actualizers are continually developing and becoming, rather than attempting to achieve a fixed state wherein all problems are solved.
Frequent peak experiences, plateau experiences
One of the most important aspects of self-actualization, these experiences are moments of ecstasy, harmony, awe, wonder, and a sense of limitless horizons, followed by the understanding that the experience had deep meaning that could be applied to everyday life. These moments are what we think of as “the epiphany,” luminous, transient moments during which we have a sense of oneness with the universe. They can even happen in the most commonplace environment… while preparing a meal, listening to music, or mowing the lawn.Shortly before Maslow’s death in 1970, he began developing exercises to help people achieve “the plateau state of consciousness,” such as gazing at a tiny flower intensely and with total attention, a state not unlike the initial state of meditation in some forms of meditative practice. “The great lesson from the true mystics,” he wrote, “is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.”
The possibility of peak experiences is innate in all of us, but for many, they remain dormant. Achievement of our basic needs and discovering or evolving into a fuller sense of self stimulates peak experiences. From peak experiences comes the experience of flow. The term flow, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), describes a mental state in which we experience the feeling of enjoyment and energized focus that accompanies the act of being fully immersed in an activity, whether at work or play. Characteristics of flow include: sharper focus, enhanced perception, feeling liberated, self-confidence and absence of fear, and a sense that no time had passed. Flow is what, today, we might call “being in the zone.” You know it when it happens. It is optimal experience, the ideal performance state. And it can be inspiring, exhilarating and transformative.
But Maslow also identified a more longitudinal or longer-term form of peak experience: the plateau experience. Plateau experiences include elements of peak experiences, such as awe, wonder, mystery, surprise, or “aesthetic shock,” but they’re “constant rather than climactic.” For the plateauer, heights or peaks of experience have become part of everyday experience, or as Maslow described it, one perceives “under the aspect of eternity and becomes mythic, poetic, and symbolic about ordinary things.” Ordinary things may not be special or exceptional, but one begins to live “in a world of miracles all the time.”
Must you have all 15 characteristics to be considered self-actualized? No. Self-actualization is not about achieving perfection. It’s also fair to say that people who are not normally self-actualizing might display one or two of these characteristics.
“Being” or “Deficiency?”
Maslow identified the first 4 levels in his construct of human motivational needs (physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem (discussed in Overview of Self-Actualization) as deficiency needs or D-needs. These are the fundamental cognitive and emotional needs that, if unfulfilled, can lead to neurosis or psychosis.
The higher Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendent needs are growth needs — Being-needs, or “B-needs” that might be achieved, for example, by engaging in meaningful, useful work and service, promoting the cause of justice, creatively expressing oneself or finding spiritual fulfillment and self-transcendence in appreciating what is true, beautiful and good.
Self-actualization is enjoyed for its own sake; it is not pursued for relief, as are lower needs in the hierarchy.
Within his larger construct of human motivation, Maslow identified two kinds of cognition (that is, thought, perception, senses, intuition): D-cognition or Deficiency-cognition, and B-cognition or Being-cognition.
D-cognition is the ordinary way of perceiving reality; in fact, you may find that many people view it as the only way, the preferred way, the most productive way. D-cognizers are typically so focused on deficiency that are unable to perceive and respect the reality of B-cognitions. They are primarily motivated at the lower levels of the needs hierarchy, existing almost exclusively in the realm of “single vision.” B-cognizers, on the other hand, have achieved “double vision.” They can view the world via both D-cognitions and B-cognitions.
The higher-level B-cognition manifests in two forms:
- a global or universal type of consciousness “in which the whole of the cosmos is perceived, and everything in it is seen in relationship with everything else, including the perceiver” (Maslow, 1971, pp. 252-253); and
- a sharp focusing of attention on a specific object — whether it be a lake, a painting, or another person — so that the rest of the world, including the perceiver, disappears. “The percept,” Maslow said, “becomes the whole of the cosmos.”
Self-actualizing people, in one way or another, devote their lives to the actualization of “being” values (B Values), or universal values that define their Being. B-values are the ultimate values, which are intrinsic and cannot be reduced to anything more ultimate or pure.
Maslow described B-values as “meta-motivators” or “meta-needs;” that is, they add meta-layers to the hierarchy of motivational needs. Self actualizers pursue and achieve more B-Values than people who are stuck at the lower levels of D-cognitions or D-values.
B-cognitions always involve one or more of these B-values, even if not always consciously (Maslow, 1971/1976, p. 129):
- Truth: (honesty; reality; nakedness; simplicity; richness; essentiality; oughtness; beauty; pure, clean and unadulterated; completeness).
- Goodness: (rightness; desirability; oughtness; justice; benevolence; honesty); (we love it, are attracted to it, approve of it).
- Beauty: (rightness; form; aliveness; simplicity; richness; wholeness; perfection; completion; uniqueness; honesty).
- Wholeness: (unity; integration; tendency to oneness; interconnectedness; simplicity; organization; structure; order; not dissociated; synergy; homonomous and integrative tendencies).
- Dichotomy-transcendence: (acceptance, resolution, integration, or transcendence of dichotomies, polarities, opposites, contradictions); synergy (i.e., transformation of oppositions into unities, of antagonists into collaborating or mutually enhancing partners).
- Aliveness: (process; non-deadness; spontaneity; self-regulation; full-functioning; changing and yet remaining the same; expressing itself).
- Uniqueness: (idiosyncrasy; individuality; noncomparability; novelty; quale; suchness; nothing else like it);
- Perfection: (nothing superfluous; nothing lacking; everything in its right place; unimprovable; just-rightness; just-so-ness; suitability; justice; completeness; nothing beyond; oughtness).
- Necessity: (inevitability; it must be just that way; not changed in any slightest way; and it is good that it is that way).
- Completion: (ending; finality; justice; it’s finished; no more changing of the Gestalt; fulfillment; finis and telos; nothing missing or lacking; totality; fulfillment of destiny; cessation; climax; consternation closure; death before rebirth; cessation and completion of growth and development).
- Justice: (fairness; oughtness; suitability; architectonic quality; necessity; inevitability; disinterestedness; non-partiality).
- Order: (lawfulness; rightness; nothing superfluous; perfectly arranged).
- Simplicity: (honesty; nakedness; essentiality; abstract unmistakability; essential skeletal structure; the heart of the matter; bluntness; only that which is necessary; without ornament; nothing extra or superfluous).
- Richness: (differentiation; complexity; intricacy; totality; nothing missing or hidden; all there; “non-importance,” i.e. everything is equally important; nothing is unimportant; everything is less the way it is, without improving, simplifying, abstracting, rearranging).
- Effortlessness: (ease; lack of strain, striving or difficulty; grace; perfect and beautiful functioning).
- Playfulness: (fun; joy; amusement; gaiety; humor; exuberance; effortlessness);
- Self-sufficiency: (autonomy; independence; not-needing-other-than-itself-in-order-to-be-itself; self-determining; environment-transcendence; separateness; living by its own laws; identity).
Satisfying our lower D-needs may make us feel both fulfilled and satiated. But when we satisfy B needs, we feel fulfilled but never satiated. After all, is there any such thing as too much beauty, goodness, or truth?
Maslow believed that one could be, technically, self-actualizing and “healthy,” yet still not experience Being-cognitions, particularly peak, plateau or mystical/transcendent experiences. But those who are satisfied with self-actualization without Being-cognitions are still at a lower stage of motivational development than those who are motivated to seek experiences of Being-cognition.
It is at the level of B-cognitions that self-actualization begins to intersect with self-transcendence or self-realization.
Maslow believed that B-Values were actually the meaning of life for most people, yet many are never consciously aware that they have these meta-needs. Being deprived of them can breed what he described as meta-pathologies or “sickness of the soul.” Thus, the goal is to make these motivational drives conscious because they are the ideal aspirations of humans. Meditation can be a valuable tool for awakening and enhancing this discovery of the inner self. (To learn how, see: How Meditation Enhances Self-Actualization).
Finding the Path
Not everyone reaches the higher rungs on the ladder of human growth and development. Sadly, many people end their days here on earth without ever having fulfilled their potential. But each day presents new opportunities to take steps toward self-actualization, even if they’re only baby steps. Sometimes, achieving our full potential requires preparation and hard work.
What percentage of the population are fully evolved self-actualizers? Maslow estimated that the psychologically healthiest 1 percent of the U.S. adult population was. But he also believed that because all humans have the innate potential for self-actualization, many more self-actualizers exist than we might suspect and that if you hunt for them, you’ll find them.
If you’re not in that 1 percent, here are some of Maslow’s suggestions for pursuing self-actualization (Maslow, 1970a, p. 176)…
- Experience life like a child, with full absorption and concentration
- Try new things instead of sticking to safe paths
- Listen to your own intuition in evaluating experiences instead of the voice of tradition, authority or the majority
- Be honest, avoid pretense and game playing
- Learn to live with being unpopular if your views don’t coincide with those of the majority
- Identify your defenses and have the courage to give them up
- Accept responsibility and work hard
Lower motivational needs assemble a foundation for the higher motivation of self-actualization. And self-actualization provides an important development link to the still higher heights of self-transcendence, spiritual fulfillment and enlightenment.
To learn how Sahaja meditation provides a fast track to self-actualization and beyond, see How Meditation Enhances Self-Actualization.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Maslow, A. (1962). Lessons from the peak-experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2, 9-18.
Maslow, A.H. (1970a). Motivation and Human Personality (rev ed.). New York: Harper.
Maslow, A. (1970b). Religions, values, & peak experiences. New York: Viking.
Maslow, A.H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
Privette, G., & Bundrick, C. (1991). Peak experience, peak performance, and flow: Personal descriptions and theoretical constructs. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(169-188).