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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. Expressing one's creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to and/or positively transform society are examples of self-actualization. In Goldstein's 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." 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 essentially fulfilled and the "actualization" of the full personal potential takes place, although he adapted this viewpoint later on in life, and saw it more flexibly.
As Abraham Maslow noted, the basic needs of humans must be met (e.g. food, shelter, warmth, security, sense of belonging) before a person can achieve self-actualization – the need to be good, to be fully alive and to find meaning in life. Yet, Maslow argued that reaching a state of true self-actualization in everyday society was fairly rare. Research shows that when people live lives that are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match. For example, someone who has inherent potential to be a great artist or teacher may never realize his/her talents if their energy is focused on attaining the basic needs of humans.
In Goldstein's theory
Kurt Goldstein's book The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man (1939), presented self-actualization as "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". However, for Goldstein self-actualization cannot be understood as a kind of goal to be reached sometime in the future. At any moment the organism has the fundamental tendency to actualize all its capacities, its whole potential, as it is present in exactly that moment, and in exactly that situation in contact with the world under the given circumstances. Under the influence of Goldstein, Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchical theory of human motivation in Motivation and Personality (1954).
Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Abraham Maslow's book Motivation and Personality started a philosophical revolution out of which grew humanistic psychology. This changed the view of human nature from a negative point of view – man is a conditioned or tension reducing organism- to a more positive view in which man is motivated to realize his full potential. This is reflected in his hierarchy of needs and in his theory of Self-actualization.
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 textbook defines self-actualization according to Maslow simply as "the full realization of one's potential", and of one's "true self".
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 essentially 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 people correctly and efficiently."
Maslow based his theory partially on his own assumptions or convictions about human potential and partially on his case studies of historical figures whom he believed to be self-actualized, including Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau. Maslow examined the lives of each of these people in order to assess the common qualities that led each to become self-actualized. In general he found that these individuals were very accepting of themselves and of their life circumstances; were focused on finding solutions to cultural problems rather than to personal problems; were open to others' opinions and ideas; had strong senses of privacy, autonomy, human values and appreciation of life; and a few intimate friendships rather than many superficial ones. He also believed that each of these people had somehow managed to find their core-nature that is unique to them, and is one of the true goals of life.
Maslow's characteristics of self-actualizers
A self-actualizer is a person who is living creatively and fully using his or her potentials. What a man can do, he must do. It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. While the theory is generally portrayed as a fairly rigid hierarchy, Maslow noted that the order in which these needs are fulfilled does not always follow this standard progression. For example, he notes that for some individuals, the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for love. For others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs. In his studies, Maslow found that self-actualizers share similarities. Whether famous or unknown, educated or not, rich or poor, self-actualizers tend to fit the following profile.
Maslow's self-actualizing characteristics
- Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest, and are free to see reality 'as it is'.
- Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
- Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
- Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
- Task centering. Most of Maslow's subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem 'beyond' themselves (instead of outside themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer are considered to have possessed this quality.
- Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
- Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life's basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an "innocence of vision", like that of an artist or child.
- Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
- Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
- Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
- Peak experiences. All of Maslow's subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
- Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
- Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many superficial relationships.
In summary, self-actualizers feel finally themselves, safe, not anxious, accepted, loved, loving, and alive, certainly living a fulfilling life.
Instead of focusing on what goes wrong with people, Maslow wanted to focus on human potential, and how we fulfill that potential. Maslow (1943, 1954) stated that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth. Self-actualized people as those who were fulfilled and doing all they were capable of. It refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. "The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions." 
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-actualization'.
As a person moves up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, eventually they may find themselves reaching 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 quick routes to becoming self-actualizing: rather it 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. Elsewhere, however, Maslow (2011) and Carl Rogers (1980) both suggested necessary attitudes and/or attributes that need to be inside an individual as a pre-requisite for self-actualization. Amongst these, are: a real wish to be themselves, to be fully human, to fulfil themselves, to be completely alive, as well as to risk being vulnerable, and uncovering more 'painful' aspects in order to learn about/grow through and integrate these parts of themselves (which has parallels with Jung’s slightly similar concept of individuation).
Although initially being biologically-centered (or focused around the more ordinary, psychological self-nature), both Maslow (2011) and Rogers (1980) became more open to 'spirituality' and grew to accept a more open and ‘spiritual’ conception of man before the end of their lives. Also, there have been many similarities and cross-references between various spiritual schools or groups (particularly Eastern spiritual ways) in the past 40 years. One can also suggest that Sri Ramana Maharshi’s description, that complete and spiritual self-realisation is characterized by 'Being' (sat), 'Consciousness' (chit) and 'Bliss' (Ananda), is a reflection of humanistic thinking or experience; that the experience of a self-actualizing person partakes in these things to some degree: 'beingness,' 'awareness,' and a 'meaningful happiness,' even if one can go further than mere self-actualization into Self-transcendence, where Being-Consciousness-Bliss fully form.
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'. According to Fritz Perls 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!" Barry Stevens remarks: "Abe Maslow was unhappy with what happened with many people when they read what he wrote about 'self-actualizing people'. What they did with it was very strange. I have received a fair number of letters saying 'I am a self-actualized person'. Maslow said that he must have left something out. Fritz (Perls) put it in. He saw that most people actualized a self-concept. This is not self-actualizing."
According to Paul Vitz, this may be connected with the charge that "Rogers and Maslow both transform self-actualization from a descriptive notion into a moral norm"; although if it is indeed as good a reality as they purport, then a certain eagerness in their communication is understandable.
In general, during the early twenty-first-century, "the usefulness of the concepts of self and self-actualization continue to attract discussion and debate."
Also, there may be a common feeling that the possibility of 'self-actualization' is reserved for those people who have been lucky in life and don't have to struggle for their day-to-day survival in a dead-end job. Notwithstanding, Maslow (2011) suggested that it was very much about the attitude the individual brought to his/her life that might be the crucial catalyst for where one’s life and self-growth goes. There are many examples of when people have been in basically the same circumstances, but have turned out very differently, which might indicate that attitude can have an enormous bearing upon one's fate; however, there is always the question: what is it that makes attitude different from person to person?
Self-actualization in Carl Rogers' person-centred personality theory
Carl Rogers used the term self-actualization to describe something distinct from the concept developed by Maslow: the actualization of the individual's sense of 'self'. In person-centred theory self-actualization is the ongoing process of maintaining and enhancing the individual's self-concept through reflection, reinterpretation of experience, allowing the individual to recover, develop, change and grow. Self-actualization is a subset of the overall organismic actualizing tendency and begins with the infant learning to differentiate what is 'self' and what is 'other' within its 'total perceptual field', as their full self-awareness gradually crystallizes. Interactions with significant others are key to the process of self-actualization: 'As a result of interaction with the environment, and particularly as a result of evaluational interaction with others, the structure of the self is formed - an organized, fluid but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the 'I' or the 'me', together with the values attached to these concepts'.
The process of self-actualization is continuous as the individual matures into a socially competent, interdepedent autonomy, and is ongoing throughout the life-cycle. When there is sufficient tension between the individual's sense of self and their experience, a psychopathological state of incongruence can arise: '...I believe that individuals are culturally conditioned, rewarded, reinforced, for behaviors which are in fact perversions of the natural directions of the unitary actualizing tendency'. In Rogers' theory self-actualization is not the end-point, it is the process that can, in conducive circumstances (in particular the presence of positive self-regard and the empathic understanding of others), lead to the individual becoming more 'fully-functioning'.
- Outline of self
- Perfectionism (philosophy)
- Positive disintegration
- Self-knowledge (psychology)
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