Self-Actualization – Becoming the Best Version of Yourself
For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have debated the question: what contributes to a fulfilling, accomplished and successful life?
Self-actualization, in Maslow's "hierarchy of needs", is the highest human need that must be satisfied if we are to realize our full potential and become the best version of ourselves. He described self-actualization as the process of becoming "everything we are capable of becoming". Accomplishing self-actualization allows us to find meaning and purpose in our lives and to lead a more fulfilling life.
Most of us are familiar with the "hierarchy of needs" of Maslow's multi-colored pyramid – a model of human motivation. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic needs, such as food, water, warmth and rest. Further up are the needs for security, belonging and self-esteem. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, which occurs when we maximize our potential by becoming the "best version of ourselves".
The first step toward self-actualization is to accept our true self, and the second is to recognize that self-actualization is a process not an endgame.
First, people have a hard time accepting who they really are – because there is so much pressure in today's overly competitive and over-informed society to be someone they are not. How many people do you know who live their lives 100% true to themselves? Most of us tend to measure our self-worth by benchmarking our abilities and accomplishments against those around us. We should avoid comparisons with others and try to be detached from others' judgment. This means accepting ourselves as we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, willing to take the necessary steps to embrace our true nature and realize our dreams. Where people are mainly driven by external factors - wealth or status - they become what they think others admire, respect or fear, rather than who they are or want to be. It is the perceptions of others that influence and control their destiny, not they. So, let's stop conforming to others' expectations, let's not be afraid to go against the tide, and let's start being ourselves. The empowerment that will result is astonishing.
Second, self-actualization is a process - the journey is never over. Growth never ends until the journey of life is complete. We must be willing to continue growing and progressing to maximize our potential and become our best self. There is no such thing as a finished product, no such thing as a final destination. When you conquer one thing you must move to the next. Recognizing this need for continued growth is part of self-actualization.
To summarize the above: there are four important steps to consider in unlocking self-actualization :
- Stop measuring yourself against others,
- Learn to accept yourself holistically,
- Understand that you are in control,
- Don’t stop progressing and growing.
The health benefits of self-actualization are obvious. There is a demonstrated link between self-actualization and well-being; if realizing one's full potential is both pleasurable and fulfilling, it logically follows that well-being is also positively affected. Several studies in the field of positive psychology have identified self-actualization as a component of well-being (Compton, 2001; Kim et al., 2003).
The potential for self-actualization is something that lies within each one of us. There is no one profile that lends itself to self-actualization; anyone can reach self-actualization and do it in their unique way. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Columbia University, found that self-actualization scores conformed to a normal distribution, much like IQ or height. He also found that self-actualization was independent of age, education, race, ethnicity, college GPA, or childhood income, and gender. While environmental barriers exist and some environments may help to bring out the best (or worst) in us, he found no evidence that the characteristics of self-actualization were limited to any one category of humanity.
Over the course of his life, Maslow became increasingly convinced that self-actualization is a healthy self-realization on the path to self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is a personality trait that involves the expansion of personal boundaries, including, potentially, the experience of spiritual ideas, such as seeing oneself as part of the universe. Self-actualization has been shown to correlate positively with an increased sense of unity with the universe.
Of the characteristics that Maslow associated with self-actualization, there are six that I consider to be essential and reliable indicators of self-actualization – the descriptions of these six characteristics are taken directly from Maslow's book, Motivation and Personality:
1) Self-actualized people have purpose
Each of us has a WHY, a purpose, a cause or a deep-rooted belief that is the source of our passion and inspiration. Moreover, the purpose grows from our ability to make a difference in the lives of others. We all have an innate need to do things that are beyond ourselves.
"[They have] some mission in life, some task to fulfill, some problem outside themselves which enlists much of their energies. [...] This is not necessarily a task that they would prefer or choose for themselves; it may be a task that they feel is their responsibility, duty, or obligation. [...] In general these tasks are nonpersonal or unselfish, concerned rather with the good of mankind in general."
2) Self-actualized people are humanitarians
They identify with and show affection for the entire human race. They possess Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or "social feeling". This word, originally invented by Alfred Adler, describes an appreciation and concern for the general well-being of other humans.
"Self-actualizing people have deeper and more profound interpersonal relations than any other adults [...] They are capable of more fusion, greater love, more perfect identification, more obliteration of the ego boundaries than other people would consider possible. [...This devotion] exists side by side with a widespreading [...] benevolence, affection, and friendliness. These people tend to be kind [and friendly] to almost everyone [...] of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race, or color."
3) Self-actualized people focus on the bigger picture
They are not bothered by small things.
"They seem never to get so close to the trees that they fail to see the forest. They work within a framework of values that are broad and not petty, universal and not local, and in terms of a century rather than the moment.[...] This impression of being above small things [...] seems to impart a certain serenity and lack of worry over immediate concerns that make life easier not only for themselves but for all who are associated with them."
4) Self-actualized people embrace the unknown and the ambiguous
They are not intimidated or threatened by it, but they accept it, feel comfortable with it and are often fascinated by it. They don’t stick to routine.
Maslow quotes Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”
5) Self-actualized people are motivated by growth, not by the satisfaction of needs
While many people still struggle with the lower levels of the 'Hierarchy of Needs,' the self-actualized person focuses on personal growth.
"Our subjects no longer strive in the ordinary sense, but rather develop. They attempt to grow to perfection and to develop more and more fully in their own style. The motivation of ordinary men is a striving for the basic need gratifications that they lack."
6) Self-actualized people resist enculturation
They don't let themselves be passively shaped by culture: they reflect and make their own decisions, opting for what they feel is good and rejecting what they consider bad. They do not embrace all things, like a sheep, nor do they reject all things, like a typical rebel.
Self-actualized people: "make up their own minds, come to their own decisions, are self-starters, are responsible for themselves and their own destinies. [...] too many people do not make up their own minds, but have their minds made up for them by salesmen, advertisers, parents, propagandists, TV, newspapers and so on."
Because of their self-decision, self-actualized people have ethical standards that are personal and independent rather than dictated by society.
"They are the most ethical of people even though their ethics are not necessarily the same as those of the people around them [...because] the ordinary ethical behavior of the average person is largely conventional behavior rather than truly ethical behavior.”