Nobody’s perfect, right? We all have our flaws—like the pimple on my nose—and our downfalls—like my inclination to watch catty reality TV. But what if we used these to our advantage? What if instead of slapping ourselves on the wrist, we embraced our failures and others’ failures and saw our potential to be great and to be happy. Well, then we might turn into a modern day superhuman—or according to renowned humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, at least reach our peak existence.

I have just described what Maslow defines as self-actualization: the desire that leads to the realization of one’s full potential. While these self-actualizers certainly can’t shoot fire from their hands or possess superhuman strength, they are a rare, extraordinary breed. According to Maslow, only about 1% of adults have self-actualized and many of them probably won’t remain in this state forever. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to spot one or even become a self-actualizer yourself! Do the impossible (or the unlikely in this case). Generally, self-actualized individuals:

  • Are accepting of themselves and others. They don’t just tolerate their flaws, but embrace them.
  • Can laugh at their own mistakes. Self-actualizers recognize that everyone makes mistakes and are okay with making their own.
  • Develop and maintain meaningful relationships. They prioritize their loved ones and put their all into these relationships.
  • Accurately perceive reality. They understand the world and people as they are.
  • Have a greater sense of purpose and work toward fulfilling that purpose. Self-actualizers realize that they are on this earth for a reason and put their energy into accomplishing this mission.
  • Experience profound moments of pure happiness. Their lifestyle allows them to stay in touch with their emotions and become overtaken by complete joy.
  • Have an ongoing appreciation for life. These individuals live in the moment and appreciate the goodness of each day.
  • Show compassion toward others. Not only do self-actualizers share deep love in their relationships but for all of humanity.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Self-actualization was first discussed by psychologist Kurt Goldstein, but is known best for being the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy, which explores basic as well as more eccentric human needs, includes five stages:

  1. Physiological needs, or the essentials to life like food, air, water, sleep, and shelter.
  2. Safety needs, which include protection from elements (e.g., rain or snow), security, order, and stability.
  3. Love/belonging needs, including friendship, intimacy, trust, and affection.
  4. Esteem needs, like achievement independence, status, self-respect, and respect from others.
  5. Self-actualization needs, which include realizing one’s own potential and seeking personal growth.

Self-Actualization in Therapy

Jillian celebrated her graduation from college with a backpacking trip across Europe. She saw the Eiffel Tower light up at night, tasted the best spaghetti she’s ever had in Italy, and got to make a wish at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Today, she can’t help but think about that wish that hasn’t yet come true. She threw a coin into the water, hoping for nothing but happiness in the coming years. However, since her return home, she’s felt generally dissatisfied with her life: she doesn’t enjoy or feel fulfilled by her job as an accountant, which is not only taking a toll on her wellbeing but her relationship with her boyfriend. Jillian decides to take these issues and unload them onto her therapist. After listening to Jillian express her feelings of dissatisfaction, the therapist suggests the possibility of switching careers, which leads Jillian to reveal that she’s always wanted to be a teacher. The two then talk about potential benefits and drawbacks of going back to school and pursuing this career. Upon deciding to enroll in classes again and follow her dream of being a teacher, Jillian immediately feels happier and like her life has a greater purpose again. Her relationship with her boyfriend has also grown stronger since the therapy session.

This is an example of introducing self-actualization to therapy. Patients may feel negatively about themselves or about their lives or have unrealistic expectations, and therefore find it hard to embrace self-actualization. But confronting their negative feelings in therapy can often help these individuals resolve them and move toward the concept and practice of self-actualization, which we can all benefit from.
“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” –Abraham Maslow