Do you feel like you have more potential than you’re expressing?
Like there’s this gap between who you are and who you could be?
That can be a frustrating place to be.
Luckily, one of the most prominent psychologists of all time studied this exact problem.
And he came up with some pretty fantastic ideas for solving it.
Abraham Maslow & “The Self-Actualizing Individual”
Back in the day, mainstream psychologists like Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner focused most of their time on mental illness.
When Abraham Maslow came along, he was one of the first psychologists to instead focus primarily on happiness.
He studied the greatest people of his generation, folks like Eleonore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, and in the process coined the phrase “the self-actualizing individual.”
Maslow argued that “What human beings can be, they MUST be.”
So, he wasn’t talking about a mere wish or desire. No, according to Maslow, you have a NEED to “self-actualize” — to express your latent abilities and live your full potential.
Just like you lungs need oxygen, your mind needs self-actualization, or it will suffocate.
Deprived of it, you might not gasp for air, but you will experience other painful symptoms like stress, anxiety, or even depression.
What Must YOU Be?
Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What human beings can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature.
— Abraham Maslow
If you want to feel truly fulfilled, you need to realize your potential.
You have to ask yourself what truly makes you come alive, and then do those things.
If it helps, you can start by reflecting on questions like these (ideally in a journal):
- What did I spend time doing as a kid?
- What activities absorbs me so much that I forget to eat and sleep?
- If money wasn’t an issue, what would I spend my time doing?
Then, it’s all about taking consistent action toward realizing those things.
But don’t feel like you have to make a huge change overnight.
Also, note that the self-actualizing process doesn’t necessarily have to be about finding a more meaningful career. It’s an individual process that can just as easily be about becoming a great parent or friend (or something else entirely).
That’s why Maslow asks the question the way he does:
What must YOU be?
Growth or Safety
According to Maslow, you have two options at any given moment. You can either:
- Step forward into growth.
- Step back into safety.
I like to think of it as a voting game. Every time I take a step forward, I cast a vote for self-actualization. And each time I step back into safety, I cast a vote against it.
Here are some examples:
- I wake up in the morning. If I get up immediately, that’s a positive vote. If I snooze, that’s a negative note.
- It’s time to hit the gym. If I go there, that’s a positive vote. If I stay at home watching TV, that’s a negative note.
- I feel the need to pursue an interest. If I take the first step, that’s a positive note. If I ignore the feeling, that’s a negative note.
These are, of course, just a few possible situations. The truth is, every single moment is a chance to step forward into growth or back into safety.
And here’s why paying attention to your votes is so important: At the end of the day, they will determine how fulfilled you feel.
If your negative votes outweigh your positive by 10,000, you’ll experience some level of stress and boredom. And, as a result, you’ll likely turn to comfort foods, alcohol, TV, or something else that temporarily alleviates those feelings.
But if your positive votes instead outweigh your negative by the same number, you’ll experience happiness and contentment. There won’t be a need for alleviating negative feelings, so you can use that time to take even more action toward self-actualization.
Your positive votes make things spiral upward. And your negative votes make things spiral downward.
So, if you want to feel fulfilled, what you need to do is step forward into growth, instead of back into safety. Again, and again, and again.
How to Feel Fulfilled, In Summary
Here’s what we’ve covered in this article:
- According to Abraham Maslow, you have a NEED to “self-actualize.” Otherwise, your mind can’t breathe.
- To feel truly fulfilled, you need to realize your potential. You need to find what you’re passionate about and take small steps in that direction.
- In any given moment you can step forward into growth or step back into safety. Pay attention to your votes because they will determine how fulfilled you feel.
- Positive votes make things spiral upward. Negative votes make things spiral downward.
Now, before we part ways, a friendly warning is in place. Dr. Maslow also said: “If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life.”
I mean, yikes!
Luckily, he also encouraged us not to be perfectionists about it: “It seems that the necessary thing to do is not to fear mistakes, to plunge in, to do the best that one can, hoping to learn enough from blunders to correct them eventually.”
So, before you move on to whatever you’re doing next, I encourage you to cast a positive vote right now. Then, as you go about your day, remember that each new situation is a chance for you to step forward into growth.
Make a game out of casting as many positive notes as you can. Before you know it, all those small self-actualization actions will start adding up.
Your mind will get the oxygen it needs, and you’ll feel fulfilled, energized, and excited.
Sound good? Let’s plunge in! :)
Photo by Joshua Earle.