If you’ve heard the term “self-actualization” thrown around in the personal development or self-help world and thought it was way too lofty of a goal for you, we don’t blame you. It certainly sounds like self-actualizing would require retreating from the world and meditating in silence for a couple of years before you could even come close.
We’re happy to report that’s not the case—in fact, self-actualization is something that’s accessible to all of us. Yes, even you!
Self-Actualization Definition: What is Self-Actualization?
This might sound overly simplistic, but self-actualization is basically just becoming who you are, in the fullest sense of the word. It is achieving the utmost of your potential across all areas of your life. Think of it as the crest of the mountain that is self-development.
Many people automatically think of Abraham Maslow when they hear the phrase “self-actualization;” he was a psychologist who developed a framework that is commonly taught in schools and is still widely known in a colloquial sense today.
Self-Actualization and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s theory of self-actualization posits that you must have certain needs met before you can even think about others. This makes sense if you think about how you can hardly focus on anything else when you’re too hot or too cold. It’s easy to initially think a person can’t strategize getting their needs for connection met when they just want to feel physically comfortable (though we’ll circle back to this misconception soon).
Maslow organized his identified needs into a pyramid, with the lowest tier of the pyramid being our basic survival needs (food to eat, water to drink, a roof over our heads). The second tier contained safety needs, the third level was for relationship and community needs, the fourth included respect and esteem needs, and the very tip was—you guessed it—self-actualization.
Criticisms of Maslow’s Pyramid
You can see how as you move higher up the pyramid, the needs become progressively more involved to meet. While the theory makes sense in some ways, it has been criticized. You don’t always have to get a “bottom-tier” need met in order to progress to higher ones, which pokes some holes in the theory.
From our example above, people who are housing-insecure can absolutely still have a need for community and strive to get that need met. Maslow’s theory would seem to indicate this isn’t the case.
Some sources also say that Maslow actually never organized the needs into a pyramid and that these needs were not even the primary focus of his research. They state Maslow was more interested in why self-actualized people are more motivated by the holistic picture of life, versus being caught up in the minute details or battles day to day.
Self-Actualization vs Self-Esteem
When you’re first learning about the concept, self-actualization can be hard to differentiate from self-esteem. They sound somewhat similar and both involve a way that you feel toward the “self,” after all.
However, they differ in that self-esteem is a way you regard and feel toward yourself, while self-actualization is an end state you’re striving toward. Self-esteem may affect your feelings toward self-actualization—if you have high self-esteem, you may feel more motivated to self-actualize and confident that you can do so, but they are distinctly different concepts.
Work on Becoming Your Ideal Self
Reach Your Goals: 7 Exercises to Build a Life You Love
Ways to Work Toward Becoming Self Actualized
Because self-actualization needs are so personal, there’s no general benchmark we can provide that will let you know when you’ve achieved it, or even when you’re close to it. Only you will know that, based on what matters to you and the ways in which you want to grow.
Reaching self-actualization, or coming close to it, also won’t mean that you achieve perfection or never have challenging emotions ever again. Instead, it means that when you face challenges as an actualized version of yourself, you’re able to more authentically respond to them.
Here are some ways to work toward self-actualization:
Think About Your Strengths and Self-Perceived Weaknesses
This might be obvious, but to become the best version of yourself, you have to start where you’re at. What are you really good at? (If you’re struggling to come up with things here, ask people that love you!) What would you like to be better at?
Once you’ve identified some things, brainstorm ways to grow the areas you’re good at and become better at the others you struggle with.
Identify Goals in the Major Areas of Life and Take Steps Toward Them
Think about the major areas of life and what you want to achieve in each. You might consider things like relationships, career, money, spirituality, learning/education, creativity, and community.
If you can identify goals in each area you map out, you can then list some small steps you could take to work toward those goals. This will give you a roadmap of sorts toward your own self-actualization needs.
Evaluate Your Support Network
You’ll need a strong support system to become the best version of yourself. If you aren’t already, consider working with a therapist or a coach. A structured relationship like this can help you better understand yourself and your patterns, as well as hold you accountable because you’re consistently meeting with someone to talk about things.
We also suggest examining your close relationships. If your relationships with friends and family are not loving and supportive, you may find they derail you as you try to reach your goals. It’s okay to create space or pull away from relationships that aren’t working for you and try to seek out ones that meet your needs.
Invest in Your Community
Remember that third tier of Maslow’s pyramid? It was all about relationships and community needs. Getting involved in your community, whether through attending local events or volunteering, can provide a sense of purpose in your life and also help you establish an identity. You might also cultivate meaningful relationships through your community efforts, satisfying the whole tier at once!
Work Through Money Issues or Financial Fears
Something that can hold us back, oftentimes without us even realizing it, from reaching our full potential is when we have blocks around money or finances. If you’re scared to even look at your bank account or you’re too intimidated to learn about how to save for retirement, take a baby step toward remedying this.
Financial health, and ideally financial security, are a part of your self-actualization journey, so you definitely want to explore how you feel about money.
Practice Self Love and Self Compassion
Being compassionate and loving with yourself can help you stay grounded when life throws twists and turns at you, as it is bound to do. Accepting yourself as you are means that you know you’re doing your best and you won’t be hard on yourself if you’re not where you want to be, right away.
Take on New Challenges That Will Lead You Toward Things That You Want to Accomplish
In order to reach your full potential, you have to push yourself and expand your life and skill set. Accept challenges, even if you feel intimidated or worry you aren’t ready for them. You’ll learn valuable lessons along the way, no matter what the outcome of your efforts may be.
Trust that you are ready for the things that come your way and that new things are leading you in a fuller direction in your life.
Find Ways to Be Rooted in Yourself
A hallmark of self-actualized people is that they’re okay being in solitude; they aren’t afraid to be alone. Experiment with spending time on your own and having fun with yourself. Whether it’s meditating, taking yourself out for solo dates, or doing a spa night at home just for you, what makes you feel good when no one else is involved?
Explore Your Spiritual Side and See if Anything Resonates
While it is not at all necessary for self-actualization, some people find that having a spiritual foundation or practice helps them stay optimistic and hopeful as they work toward their goals.
If you’re not sure how you feel about this, consider trying out different spiritual practices or communities and seeing if anything feels comfortable to you. And don’t be afraid to think beyond the “traditional” spiritual and religious options; for example, there are lots of people who find their spirituality in nature.
Remember: You’re on Your Own Path
The only person you have to please is you. You’re trying to actualize yourself, for yourself. If you feel discouraged or confused because you’re working toward things that others aren’t, or you aren’t keeping up with other people’s paces, try to keep your perspective. At the end of the day, if you’re doing your best, you’re doing enough.
Savor the Journey Toward Self-Actualization
It’s true with most things related to self-development that it’s more about the journey than the destination, so try to enjoy it! If you fall short of some of your goals some of the time, don’t beat yourself up about it. How many people do you know that are 100% in alignment with who they want to be, 100% of the time? We are, after all, only human. Try to focus on the small wins and the areas you have improved as you work toward becoming a more fully actualized version of yourself.
Access Your Full Potential
Unlocking Your Potential: 5 Exercises to Build Creative Confidence