A Guide to Self-Actualization – Abraham Maslow and the Healthy Individual

“What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.”

Abraham Maslow

While most psychologists study sick people, the 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow devoted his career to studying the most successful and psychologically healthy. Such individuals, he discovered, share one overarching life theme – they are self-actualizers. Self-actualization is the life-long process of expressing our unique set of inner potentials, strengths and talents in a manner which promotes health in body and mind, and fulfillment in life. In this article we are going to summarize some of Maslow’s key findings on how to self-actualize.

“Self-actualizing people, those who have come to a high level of maturation, health, and self-fulfillment, have so much to teach us that sometimes they seem almost like a different breed of human beings. But, because it is so new, the exploration of the highest reaches of human nature and of its ultimate possibilities and aspirations is a difficult and tortuous task.”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
Every Human Being is Born with an Innate Impulse to Self-Actualize

The impulse to self-actualize is an unconscious drive etched in the fabric of our being. To self-actualize, we don’t need to consciously “push” ourselves, we merely need to clear away the obstacles in our mind and environment that are holding us back.

“Man demonstrates in his own nature a pressure toward fuller and fuller Being, more and more perfect actualization of his humanness in exactly the same naturalistic, scientific sense that an acorn may be said to be “pressing toward” being an oak tree…”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
Self-Actualizers are Motivated by Growth and Spiritual Needs

Our primary motivation as human beings is to satisfy our basic animal needs such as food and shelter. But once these basic needs are fulfilled, humans differ in what they strive for next. Some of us become relatively passive and seek safety, pleasure, and comfort. In contrast, self-actualizers seek out what are called growth, or spiritual values. They live in the service of beauty, creativity, truth, love, or else pursue a vocation or mission in life.

“…healthy people have sufficiently gratified their basic needs…so that they are motivated primarily by trends to self-actualization (defined as ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, as fulfillment of mission (or call, fate, destiny, or vocation), as a fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person’s own intrinsic nature, as an unceasing trend toward unity, integration or synergy within the person).”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
Self-Actualizers are Autonomous and Non-Conformist

Self-actualizers enjoy healthy relationships and the company of others. But they do not rely on other people for their mental health as they have cultivated sufficient self-love to be content on their own. Their numerous hobbies and projects ensure they are never bored or lonely. Furthermore, self-actualizers are non-conformists in the sense that they use their own internal compass as their guide in life, rather than strictly following the norms and values of their culture.

“[Self-actualizers are] self-sufficient and self-contained. The determinants which govern them are now primarily inner ones, rather than social or environmental. They are the laws of their own inner nature, their potentialities and capacities, their talents, their latent resources, their creative impulses, their needs to know themselves and to become more and more integrated and unified, more and more aware of what they really are, of what they really want, of what their call or vocation or fate is to be.”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

“Since they depend less on other people, they are less ambivalent about them, less anxious and also less hostile, less needful of their praise and their affection. They are less anxious for honors, prestige and rewards.”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
Self-Actualizers are not Immune to Negative Emotions and Thoughts

While the self-actualizer’s great health and peak mental condition make them appear almost super-human, in actual fact these individuals are still prone to anxiety, stress, fear, and unhappiness. But how the self-actualizer differs from most other people is that such emotions are not stimulated by petty worries, but by what Maslow called “the real problems of life”; that is, the existential and universal problems such as death, suffering, and evil. Furthermore, states of stress and anxiety do not affect and inhibit the self-actualizer as much as the ordinary person, as they have a greater tolerance to negative emotions.

“It is true that people whose deficiency needs have been gratified and who are primarily growth-motivated are by no means exempt from conflict, unhappiness, anxiety, and confusion.”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

“I could describe self-actualization as a development of personality which frees the person from the deficiency problems of youth, and from the neurotic (or infantile, or fantasy, or unnecessary, or “unreal”) problems of life, so that he is able to face, endure and grapple with the “real” problems of life (the intrinsically and ultimately human problems, the unavoidable, the “existential” problems to which there is no perfect solution). That is, it is not an absence of problems but a moving from transitional or unreal problems to real problems.

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
Self-Actualization – The Greatest of Tasks

If Maslow is correct in his assertion that the impulse to self-actualize is etched into the fabric of our being, the more we resist this impulse and remain stuck in the mediocrity of an underdeveloped self, the more we are doomed to suffer. Yet the pain of suffering can act as the stimulus that impels us to begin shaping our life in a way that facilitates self-actualization.

“He who belies his talent, the born painter who sells stockings instead, the intelligent man who lives a stupid life, the man who sees the truth and keeps his mouth shut, the coward who gives up his manliness, all these people perceive in a deep way that they have done wrong to themselves and despise themselves for it. Out of this self-punishment may come only neurosis, but there may equally well come renewed courage, righteous indignation, increased self-respect, because of thereafter doing the right thing; in a word, growth and improvement can come through pain and conflict.”

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being