I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel stuck at a vague crossroads. I’ve dedicated almost a decade of my life to a very specific area of my professional identity, and despite my best efforts I have to concede — I’m not exactly happy.
The events of this year have caused many of us to stop and reflect. To really consider whether the ways we’re living are making us happy. Whether through unexpected and forced job loss or redundancy or simply from observing global events and realising life is short when we don’t account for the unexpected.
Throughout our lives, we go through many journeys. As we move through these journeys our needs change, but we don’t often give this much thought. It’s certainly where I’m at now. The ways I’ve lived my life were suited to my needs in my mid-twenties, but I’m now in my mid-thirties. My needs have changed and with that, I need to re-evaluate how I live my life to ensure they’re being met.
How we process our needs can have a dramatic impact on our sense of life fulfilment and overall satisfaction with who we are and where we feel our life is going. Continuously securing, redeveloping and progressing with the different needs we have, helps us move towards what some psychologists refer to as ‘self-actualization’.
What is Self-Actualization Theory?
Self-actualization is a concept that stems from an area of Humanistic Psychological Theory.
Humanistic Psychology Theory encourages us to look at the individual as a whole and places importance on concepts that support positive growth such as free will, self-efficacy and self-actualization.
Self-actualization theory encompasses a core theme of human existence: our search for emotional, physical, material, and spiritual fulfilment in order to achieve our full potential.
The theory of self-actualization is attributed to prominent Humanistic Psychologist, Abraham Maslow. For Maslow, self-actualization is the process of becoming the best version of yourself. According to him:
“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, 1943)
Self-actualization accepts that everyone is unique and their needs, values, and desires will always be different. Self-actualization acknowledges that the process of achieving it will manifest differently for everyone.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In order to contextualize his theory, Maslow also created the Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy helped Maslow to further explain how our needs can be identified and how we might be able to start working towards our own self-actualization.
The Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943) has five levels, ranked from lowest to highest, with self-actualization at the top:
- Physiological Needs: The basic needs we need to keep us alive, including food, water, shelter, sleep and warmth.
- Safety Needs: This encapsulates our need to feel safe and secure in our environments — whether that’s at home or at work.
- Loving Needs: This goes beyond romantic relationships and includes our need to feel like we belong, within our communities, friendships, family, and other social relationships.
- Esteem Needs: This relates to our need to feel like we have been successful in our own idea of achievement and abilities, but that we also receive external recognition and respect from others regarding our achievements and abilities.
- Self-Actualization: This is the highest level of needs and relates to our need to pursue and fulfil our full potential and abilities. The needs that are most commonly associated with self-actualization are acceptance of facts, lack of prejudice, problem-solving, morality, creativity and spontaneity.
Breaking down my needs into this format has been really beneficial to better understand what areas I need to work on. Before I went any further in exploring the theory, I wrote down all the needs I have for each of the five areas and decided whether they’re being met or not. This created a greater sense of clarity and I feel more in control and confident about addressing the gaps.
Originally Maslow advised that the lower needs need to be satisfied before an individual could move onto the higher up needs, but he also stated that the need does not need to be completely achieved before moving on.
Most of the research surrounding Maslow’s self-actualization theory is inconsistent, but that doesn’t mean that the theory should be dismissed altogether. Many psychologists agree that it is an important founding concept in positive psychology, and useful to explore when supporting individuals to feel fulfilled in life.
10 Questions to Ask to Explore Self-Actualization
Working towards self-actualization is an ongoing process that will be heavily influenced by your changing life circumstances, developing experiences and needs. Self-reflection is absolutely crucial to help you work through this process.
Once I had my list of needs, I wanted to dive deeper. I examined psychology journals and online articles from psychologists and honed everything down to these ten questions to further my understanding of how my needs have changed and how to address that:
- In what ways are you open to new ideas and concepts?
- How often do you take the time for self-contemplation and reflection? How could you improve this?
- To what extent do you accept yourself and your life’s circumstances?
- What control do you think you have over what happens to you and how you respond?
- How do your current relationships help foster a sense of personal growth in your life?
- Where do you feel you could make improvements in your life to help foster a greater sense of fulfilment?
- When was the last time you felt truly content? Where were you and what were you doing?
- How do you give back to others?
- In what ways do you think you could make more time for the things that give you a strong sense of fulfilment in life?
- How do you encourage and willingly bring new knowledge, thoughts and ideas into your life?
5 Activities and Exercises to Work Towards Self-Actualization
As more people have come to understand the value of developing their own sense of self-actualization, psychologists have developed a number of tests and resources to help:
Developed by Kaufman (2018) this test is fully aligned with Maslow’s original core attitudes for self-actualization. It’s completely free to access online and consists of 30 statements that you respond and receive a report on the areas you’re strongest in and the areas you need to work on.
This is another free online test you can that measures your healthy personality functioning in line with existing psychological personality inventories that measure healthy personality. A high score on this test indicates that you have a healthier personality and are able to self-regulate effectively, as well as having a generally optimistic view.
This test contains 30 statements that you respond to based on how much you agree the statement is like you, from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’.
This free online test is aligned with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and asks you to respond to different statements that match up to the different needs as represented by Maslow. Much like the other tests, in this test, you are presented with a selection of statements and ask to rate how much you feel they are reflective of you, by choosing ‘Agree’ or ‘Disagree’.
A crucial part of self-actualization for Maslow was the identification and acceptance of our own personal strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to acknowledge that there are some areas in life we will be weaker at than others, and instead of seeing that as a negative, to work to bring those areas into balance with the things we are strong at.
This exercise aims to help you do just that. It focuses on one area — social strengths — but you can follow the exercise for other areas by switching the focus.
There are six parts to the exercise, which I’ve briefly summarized below, but the downloadable resource contains extra tables and diagrams that are very helpful when reflecting on this topic:
Step One: Identify Your Strength/s
- Strengths are things you do well — you can be more general or you can focus on one specific area such as a social strength meaning things you do well with other people. For example, forgiveness, generosity, listening, or support.
Step Two: Identify the Outward Use of this Strength
- Next, reflect on how this strength expresses itself outwardly — so how it plays out with others and the world around you.
- For example, if you said your strength was being a good listener, how do you demonstrate this outwardly? Do you cancel plans to listen to a friend in need? At work, do you ask to hear everyone’s points of view? Do you listen without judgement and interrupting?
- Write down as many ways as you can that this strength is expressed outwardly.
Step Three: Identify the Inward Use of this Strength
- Now do the same but for how this strength is expressed inwardly, so how it benefits or supports you and your growth and your needs.
- For example, if we look at listening again: Do you take the time to listen to what your body is telling you? Do you listen to when emotions come up and explore why they have arisen? When you react in certain ways, do you listen to why that might have been?
- Again, write as many of these down as you can.
Step Four: Compare Your Outward and Inward Expressions
- Now reflect on what you have written and compare the two. Do you express this strength more outwardly or inwardly? Are there any crossovers? Do you wish you could express this strength more outwardly or inwardly? Why?
Step Five: Reflect on Any Discrepancies
- If you felt you would express your strength more outwardly or inwardly, now is the time to reflect on why that is. What needs do you feel doing this would meet? How would it help your personal growth? How would it help you build better connections and relationships?
Step Six: Restore Balance
- Once you have analyzed the discrepancies, now start to think more about what you can proactively and positively do address the imbalance you might have identified.
- Try to think of three or more actionable ways in which you can express your strength in ways that you feel will better support your ongoing growth.
This is a fantastic resource for better understanding and exploring the concept and ideas behind self-actualization, but also as a guide for ways in which you can work towards your own concept of self-actualization.
This handout includes further information about the 11 core attitudes that Maslow felt led to self-actualization, and a simple ‘Eight Ways to Self-Actualize’ guide to help you on your way. I’ve briefly described what those eight ways are below:
- Experience things fully. Live in the moment and let it absorb you.
- Life includes both safety and risk: both are needed for growth. Accept both.
- Let your true self emerge. Don’t be swayed by ideas of what you think or others think you ‘should be’. Be true to yourself.
- Always be honest with what you need and take responsibility for those needs.
- Do what makes you happy — even if it’s unpopular.
- Always work to do things to the best of your ability, no matter how small they are.
- Learn what you are good at and what you are not good at: be at peace with both.
- Finding out who you are, what you like and don’t like, what you are good at and bad at, what is for you and not for you, will help you achieve your mission in life. Be open to the lessons of experience and have the courage to overcome challenges.
It’s worth remembering that self-actualization is not an ‘end goal’. It is a process, a journey, and something you should continually seek to be working towards throughout your life. As human beings we are not one-dimensional, we go through different iterations of ourselves and what helps us to feel fulfilled throughout our lifetime.
By ensuring you take the time to reflect and think about what your needs are and how you can be proactively behaving and seeking out ways to meet them, you’ll already be making strong progress towards what self-actualization can mean for you.