Throughout our lives, we go through many different journeys.
As we grow older, we move away from the family home, and our needs change. Although some of our core needs remain the same – such as a place to live, clean water, food on the table – our emotional needs develop.
How we process these needs can have a dramatic impact on our sense of life fulfillment and overall satisfaction with who we are, and where we feel our life is going. Continuously securing, redeveloping, and progressing with the different levels of needs we have, helps us move towards what some psychologists refer to as self-actualization.
It’s a fascinating topic, and one worth exploring in more detail.
This article contains:
- What is Self-Actualization Theory? A Definition
- A Deeper Look at Maslow’s Theory
- Carl Rogers Work on the Topic
- Using Self Actualization in Therapy
- 3 Techniques Commonly Used
- 10 Questions We Should be Asking
- 3 Tests and Questionnaires to Measure Self-Actualization
- 6 Activities and Exercises to Help Reach Self-Actualization (incl. PDF)
- 5 Recommended Books
- 10 Quotes on the Topic
- A Take-Home Message
What is Self-Actualization Theory? A Definition
Self-actualization is a concept that stems from an area of psychology, referred to as 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 fulfillment to achieve our full potential. There are many definitions available that help to create a fuller idea of the concept:
“self-actualization is the process of fully developing and using one’s abilities.’
New Oxford American Dictionary definition:
“self-actualization is the realization or fulfilment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.”
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 allowed for differences and that the process of achieving it will manifest differently for everyone.
A Deeper Look at Maslow’s Theory
To contextualize his theory, Maslow also created the Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy helped Maslow to explain further how our needs can be identified, and the process by which we might be able to start working towards our own self-actualization.
The Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943) has five main levels that are ranked from lowest to highest, with self-actualization as the highest level:
- 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 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 idea of achievement and abilities, but that we also receive external recognition and respect from others regarding our accomplishments and abilities.
- Self-Actualization: This is the highest level of needs and relates to our need to pursue and fulfill 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.
Originally Maslow advised that the lower needs need to be satisfied before an individual could move onto the higher up needs. Still, he also stated that the need does not need to be achieved entirely before moving on. To recognize the uniqueness of individuals pursuing their needs, Maslow conceded that it is possible to pursue all needs, to some extent, at the same time (Vinney, 2018).
There have been several criticisms surrounding Maslow’s theory, namely:
- The lack of empirical evidence to support the concept of ‘self-actualization.’ Wahba and Bridwell (1976) reviewed several studies exploring the theory. They found only inconsistent support for both the theory of self-actualization and the process of progressing through the hierarchy as dictated by Maslow.
- Maslow’s assertion that many people would not be able to achieve self-actualization fully, if at all, because of the difficulty of fulfilling the lower four needs.
- The idea that the needs have to be met in the order that Maslow set out in the Hierarchy of Needs. Tay and Diener (2011) conducted research looking at the satisfaction of needs that matched with those outlined in the Hierarchy of Needs with participants across 123 countries. They concluded that while needs are indeed quite universal, the fulfillment of one need in order to achieve the fulfillment of another was not connected. While they found that you did not have to have another level of needs met to be working towards or achieving self-actualization, individuals who did have their basic needs met, were more likely to be successful at achieving self-actualization.
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.
Carl Rogers Work on the Topic
Around the same time as Maslow, another prominent Humanistic Psychologist who was exploring the theory of self-concept and self-actualization was Carl Rogers.
Adding to Maslow’s theory, Rogers (1951) placed a higher emphasis on the importance and impact of a person’s holistic environment for them to feel a sense of fulfillment and belonging.
Rogers felt that there are vital components that need to present within an individual’s environment that enable them to grow:
- Genuineness – The opportunity to be open and self-disclose safely.
- Acceptance – The opportunity to be seen and receive unconditional positive self-regard.
- Empathy – The opportunity to be listened to and understood.
Rogers also provided his definition of self-actualization:
“The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism.” (Rogers, 1951)
Going beyond the concept of self-actualization, Rogers (1963) went on to expand the concept to what he referred to as ‘The Fully Functioning Person.’ Unlike Maslow, Rogers believed that everyone could reach their full potential because the idea of becoming a fully functioning person is a process and ongoing journey throughout life, not an end goal or result.
Rogers defined the fully functioning person through five essential characteristics:
- Open to All Experiences – Both positive and negative experiences are accepted for what they are, and worked through as an opportunity for personal growth.
- Existential Living – Rogers defined this as the process of always being fully in the present, living in the moment, and being in touch with all of life’s experiences as they happen without preconceptions.
- Trusting of Feelings – A fully functioning person has trust that the decisions they make are the right ones for them, at the time they make them.
- Creativity – This includes creative thinking and risk-taking. Rogers believed that the ability to adjust, adapt to change, and seek new experiences was a core part of the fully-functioning person.
- Fulfillment With Life – Meaning a sense of overall satisfaction and contentment with life, not as an end goal, but as a continual process of seeking new experiences.
One of the main criticisms of Roger’s theory was its Western-centric view and reliance on individualism over the impact of being part of a wider community and the great sense of fulfillment this can bring. Despite this, Roger’s work on the topic is still viewed with a lot of credibility.
Using Self Actualization in Therapy
Self-actualization has been approached in therapy, and there are different therapeutic techniques a therapist might use to support a client who wants to work towards what self-actualization could look like for them.
The core therapeutic technique used to approach self-actualization is talk therapy. Some examples of talk therapy include:
Invented by Rogers himself, person-centered therapy puts the individual – so the client in the therapist/client relationship – at the heart of the treatment. This technique believes that the client, not the therapist has the answers they need to move towards achieving their full potential and encourages them to lead the discussions and things they chose to talk about with guidance from the therapist.
Heavily influenced by Maslow, transpersonal therapy seeks to align the spiritual aspects of self-exploration alongside more traditional ideas of the self. It’s still considered a talk therapy, but with the inclusion that the spiritual self needs tending to as much as the emotional and physical self. Typical questions this type of therapy might seek to help you answer include:
- How can we find purpose in a changing world?
- How can we find our true worth and potential?
- How can spiritual traditions and tools help with this?
Existential takes into account the teachings of psychology and biological science but also turns to philosophy to help us find answers to achieving a sense of self-actualization. To do this, existential psychotherapy seeks to explore how one can reflect on the human condition as a whole experience and your place within that.
3 Techniques Commonly Used
Across different talk therapists, there are many commonly used techniques that a therapist might use to help a client work towards a better understanding of what self-actualization means for them. Therapists usually use a wide range of different techniques, and how they use them will depend on the individual client, their needs, and their goals.
Here are three that are commonly used:
Empathy is a prevalent technique in many talk therapies and used by many therapists to help create a safe and non-judgemental environment in which their clients can further explore their ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Seligman (2006) stated that empathy is different to, and more important than, sympathy, as it demonstrates understanding for where the client is at rather than seeking to ‘know’ their individual experience.
Client: I feel alone and struggle to make friends.
Empathy response: I understand you feel alone and find making friends a challenge.
Sympathy response: I am sorry you feel like that.
Because self-actualization is such a personal and unique experience for each of us, many therapists use non-directiveness as a technique to encourage clients to explore their feelings.
Non-directiveness gives the therapy session over to the client and encourages them to think about what they want to explore and talk about, rather than the therapist leading the session with structured activities or pre-designed strategies to make a client think about a specific area.
Example questions to encourage non-directiveness:
What would you like to focus on today?
How do you feel about our last session? Is there anything you’d like to discuss more?
How do you feel today?
3. Open Questioning
Open questioning is an extremely useful and important technique in talk therapy, especially when focusing on self-actualization. It’s another way of encouraging the client to think more deeply about their ideas, thoughts, and emotions. These questions encourage the client to respond with full answers as opposed to ‘yes’ or ‘no responses.
Think questions that begin with what, where, who, when, and how.
Example open questions:
How did that experience make you feel?
Why do you think you feel that way?
When would you like to achieve this by?
What do you think you would do differently?
Where do you see this journey taking you?
10 Questions We Should be Asking
Working towards self-actualization is an ongoing process that will be heavily influenced by your changing life circumstances and developing experiences and needs. Self-reflection is crucial to helping you work through this process.
There are many questions one could reflect on to encourage growth, development, and a better understanding of your self-actualization journey. Here are 10 to help you on your way:
- 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 fulfillment?
- When was the last time you felt genuinely 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 fulfillment in life?
- How do you encourage and willingly bring new knowledge, thoughts, and ideas into your life?
3 Tests and Questionnaires to Measure Self-Actualization
Exploring self-actualization can be a rewarding and exciting way to understand your personal growth needs better. Psychologists have worked to create several resources to help measure self-actualization and provide participants with a starting guide point for further development.
Here are three commonly used tests by psychologists to measure self-actualization:
1. Personal Orientation Inventory (POI)
The POI was developed by Shomstrom (1964) as a measurement for the attitudes and values of ordinary to high-functioning adults. It was designed specifically to measure individual attitudes in relation to self-actualization and is used in therapy, as well as research and for individual personal development.
The POI consists of 150 statements that participants respond to with a Likert scale score and takes around 30-45 minutes to complete.
The POI is unfortunately not available for free, but you can purchase a copy.
2. The Short Index of Self-Actualization or Self-Actualization Scale (SAS)
The SAS was developed by Jones and Crandall (1986) as a short form way to measure self-actualization after previous tests and inventories were criticized for being far too long. Similar to the POI, the SAS aims to encourage participants to measure their current thoughts around their values and attitudes to create a baseline for their sense of progress towards self-actualization.
The SAS consists of only 15 statements and asks participants to respond with a score on 4 point Likert-type scale with 1 being Disagree and 4 being Agree.
3. Brief Index of Self-Actualization
The Brief Index of Self-Actualization is a medium length inventory that measures personal values to understand an individual’s process of self-actualization. It was created by Sumerlin and Nundrick (1996) in response to the need for an inventory that was neither too long nor too short as the previous two inventories have been criticized for. It was also fully developed from Maslow’s original writings and self-actualization model.
The Brief Index consists of 40 statements, designed to capture the core attitudes that Maslow originally outlined for a self-actualized individual. Participants are asked to respond to the statements with a score on a 5-point Likert-type scale.
You can access a copy of the Brief Index of Self-Actualization online.
6 Activities and Exercises to Help Reach Self-Actualization (incl. PDF)
As more people have come to understand the value of developing their sense of self-actualization, psychologists have developed many tests and resources to help individuals, including a range of online tests and resources.
Below I’ve included three tests that you can take for free online to get a better understanding of your self-actualization, two exercises that you can do individually or with a group, and a PDF with helpful guiding points:
1. Characteristics of Self-Actualization Scale
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 to.
- I have a clear perception of reality.
- I generally bring a creative attitude to my work.
- I have a strong sense of right and wrong.
- I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.
- I can stay true to my core values, even in environments that challenge them.
Responses are measured using a 5-point Likert-type scale from ‘Strongly Disagree’ to ‘Strongly Agree.’ It should take around 20-30 minutes to complete.
2. Savoring Accomplishments Exercise (PP Toolkit Resource)
An area many of us struggle with is acknowledging and accepting our successes and achievements. Without being able to do this positively and proactively, we can struggle to conceptualize what we might need to do next to progress with our idea of self-actualization.
If this sounds like you, this exercise is perfect for building a more balanced recognition of your achievements. Below I’ve briefly outlined how the exercise works:
You will need:
- A chair/s for however many people are taking part
- Pen and paper for notes and reflecting
Step One: Acknowledging Accomplishments
- Begin in a comfortable seated position and take a moment to regulate your breathing by taking three deep, slow breaths. Focus on the inhale and exhale of each breath.
- Think about a personal accomplishment you may have achieved recently – no matter how big or small. Bring to mind something you feel glad you achieved.
- Focus on the details of the achievement: where were you? Who were you with? What else was happening? Consider each of your senses concerning the moment.
- Next, turn your focus to your specific emotions: what were you feeling, immediately before, during, and after the achievement? Take a moment to enjoy this recollection of emotion.
- Reflect on any physical sensations associated with the moment: your facial expression, body language, and non-verbal acknowledgments.
- Allow yourself to feel wholly proud of the experience and the moment of achievement. Out loud or silently congratulate yourself and reaffirm your sense of accomplishment.
Step Two: Reflect on the Accomplishment
The next part of the exercise involves reflecting on the experience as a whole and reminding yourself of how far you’ve come and what you’ve achieved. The reflection part is also key for considering what you might need to do next to continue with your growth journey towards self-actualization.
Example reflection questions could include:
- How did it feel to take the time to acknowledge your accomplishments?
- Do you feel differently about your accomplishments now? In what ways?
- What has prevented you from acknowledging your achievements in the past?
- What changes can you make in the future to proactively acknowledge your accomplishments?
3. Healthy Personality Scale
The Healthy Personality Scale is another free online test you can use 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 can 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.’ Example statements include:
- I feel others’ emotions.
- I keep others at a distance.
- I handle tasks smoothly.
- I lose my temper.
- I remain calm under pressure.
4. Self-Actualization Test
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.’ Some example statements include:
- I find it easy to get creative.
- When a problem arises, I first accept it and then work on solving it.
- When I express myself, other people respect it.
- If asked, I can easily state my achievements.
- I feel that my relationships lack intimacy.
5. Inward and Outward Strength Expression Exercise (PP Toolkit Resource)
A crucial part of self-actualization for Maslow was the identification and acceptance of our 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.
You will need:
- Pen and paper
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.
- You can pick one strength to focus on or a few.
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 judgment 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 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 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 of Any Discrepancies
If you feel you would express your strength more outwardly or inwardly, now is the time to reflect on why that is. What needs will be met by doing this? 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 thinking more about what you can proactively and positively do to 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.
6. Understanding Self-Actualization PDF
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 idea 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.
5 Recommended Books
In this article, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of self-actualization, the techniques and therapeutic ideas about how to use it, and its rich history within Humanistic Psychology.
If you’re keen to read more deeply about the topic, here are five books I highly recommend you start with:
- Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization by Karen Horney (Amazon)
- Self: A Guide to Self-Actualization by Cole Feldman (Amazon)
- Self-Actualization: How to Master the Art of Renewing Your Mind, Through Decluttering Your Life and Tidying Up, to Become a Better You, for Long Term Fulfillment by Dean Covey (Amazon)
- The Motivation Manifesto: 9 Declarations to Claim Your Personal Power by Brendan Burchard (Amazon)
- A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow (Amazon)
10 Quotes on the Topic
Knowing where to start on the idea of self-actualization for yourself might seem like a daunting task – especially if it’s something you have considered much before.
Reading through inspirational quotes can be a great way to get a better sense of what the concept can mean, and motivate your thinking and ideas:
Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.
To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.
If your forever was ending tomorrow, would this be how you’d want to have spent it? Listen, the truth is, nothing is guaranteed. You know that more than anybody. So don’t be afraid. Be alive.
Every living organism is fulfilled when it follows the right path for its own nature.
Self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.
Self-transformation commences with a period of self-questioning. Questions lead to more questions, bewilderment leads to new discoveries, and growing personal awareness leads to transformation in how a person lives. Purposeful modification of the self only commences with revising our mind’s internal functions. Revamped internal functions eventually alter how we view our external environment.
Kilroy J. Oldster
Radical acts of self-transformation do not occur spontaneously, meaningful change requires a specific and deliberative act of will.
Kilroy J. Oldster
The central inner conflict is one between the constructive forces of the real self and the obstructive forces of the pride system, between healthy growth and the drive to prove in actuality the perfection of the idealized self.
Life is an ongoing process of choosing between safety (out of fear and need for defence) and risk (for the sake of progress and growth). Make the growth choice a dozen times a day.
A Take-Home Message
I hope after reading this article, you have a better sense of the concept of self-actualization and how it can be used in therapy to support client development.
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from reading this, its 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 will go through many different iterations of ourselves and what helps us to feel fulfilled throughout our lifetime.
By ensuring you take the time to self-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 steady progress towards what self-actualization can mean for you.
- Jones, A., & Crandall, R. (1986). Validation of a short index of self-actualization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12.
- Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50.
- Merriam Webster Definition of ‘Self-Actualization. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-actualize
- New Oxford American Dictionary Definition of ‘Self-Actualization. Retrieved from: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/self-actualization
- Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centred therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable.
- Rogers, C. (1963). The concept of the fully-functioning person. Psychotherapy, 1.
- Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counselling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Ltd.
- Shostrom E. L. (1964). An inventory for the measurement of self-actualization. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 24.
- Tay, L. and Diener, E. (2011). Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 101, no. 2.
- Vinney, C. (2018). Understanding Maslow’s Theory of Self-Actualization. Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/maslow-theory-self-actualization-4169662
- Wahba, M. A. and Bridwell, L. G. (1976). Maslow Reconsidered: A Review of Research on the Need Hierarchy Theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, vol. 15.