If only it were as easy to attain as attending a weekend course or enrolling in an online certificate program Like a lot of things in the modern world, it would be nice if we could get it quickly and easily.
As many have heard before, it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. It’s important to understand that self-actualization is not about hitting a milestone and achieving a goal (though there may be goals and milestones along the way).
It’s actually the process of becoming. The process is about becoming who you are in terms of self-awareness, fulfillment, appreciation, and satisfaction.
In this article, we’ll explore the idea of self-actualization, uncover why it’s important, and provide tips that help you on your journey to becoming self-actualized in the modern world.
What is self-actualization?
If you’ve heard of self-actualization already, you’ll most likely know of Dr. Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs that is often associated with his work.
What is self-actualization?
Dr. Abraham Maslow defined self-actualization as self-fulfillment. Namely, the tendency for someone to become actualized into their full potential. 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.
Essentially, Maslow has said that in order to reach your fullest potential — including your full development of abilities and appreciation for life — you must fulfill your most basic needs before you can reach self-actualization.
Maslow broke these needs into five foundational layers:
- physiological needs (water, food)
- safety needs (shelter)
- social needs (love and belonging)
- self-esteem needs
While many might be familiar with the pyramid depiction of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, interestingly there is no evidence that Maslow himself represented his theory in this iconic pyramid design. The visual might in fact contribute to our flawed thinking that self-actualization is a linear process.
However, the pyramid image is useful in understanding that each stage of self-actualization builds upon the one beneath it. The concept of self-actualization is harder to achieve if our basic human needs are not met.
Based on Maslow's theory, once we've met our more basic human needs, we can reach the highest level of self-awareness, self-realization, personal growth, and ultimately transcend into self-actualized people.
What is the importance of self-actualization?
There are likely very few people in the world who can claim to have reached a sense of self-actualization. But regardless, here are reasons to undertake the process of self-discovery. As you pursue a deeper sense of self-awareness and step into your potential, you may experience:
Stronger relationships, whether with family members, friends, or colleagues
Better fulfillment, personal growth, life satisfaction
A sense of contributing your talents and gifts in a meaningful way
More enjoyment of life, with less struggle and stress
6 ways to get started in your self-actualization journey
So how would you get started in this process of self-actualization? Below are some tips and mindsets to get started in this lifelong process.
See yourself clearly
As human beings, it can be challenging to step outside of ourselves with a sense of self-awareness. But when we consider this concept of self-actualization, it's important to understand we need clarity in how we see ourselves and our human potential.
It can be incredibly helpful to continually build a picture of yourself in terms of your inner motivation, strengths, values, and experiences. Consider yourself a detective in your own life.
If you were compiling a profile of yourself, what would you capture? You might want to reflect and journal about important qualities such as:
Strengths: What am I great at?
Joy at work: What do I love doing so much that I would do it for free?
Flow state: Where do I get so involved in an activity that I lose track of time?
Purpose: What sense of duty or mission motivates me in my work or life?
Blockers: Where do I get stuck?
Self-sabotage: How do I get in my own way? (Most of us do, at one point or another!)
Values: What are the values in my life that I am committed to?
Past: What life experiences have shaped me? Where have I seen self-growth?
Future: What would true fulfillment look like? What and who is a part of that?
Legacy: What would I want the words at my funeral to say? How do I want to be remembered?
These and many other prompts are useful for the process of continuing to get to know yourself. It’s only with self-awareness that you can continue to grow and evolve.
Look for prompts online such as this collection of great questions for self-discovery. Or pick up a guided journal like Michelle Obama’s Becoming (with over 150 reflection questions) that you can answer for yourself.
Curiosity coupled with the willingness and courage to explore the human aspect of our full potential are essential for this journey of inner work. It’s a holistic process — and you’d want to ensure you’re engaging your mind, your body, and your spirit.
Let go of beliefs that are limiting or have outlived their purpose
This mindset of ownership over our emotions and thoughts is important as it helps us feel in charge of our actions and lives. For example, we may find ourselves falling into patterns of procrastination, perfectionism, or even imposter syndrome.
As drivers of our own lives, it’s our responsibility to let go of beliefs that no longer serve us. Sometimes, we have characteristics of self that aren't furthering our development — and that's OK.
Larissa* experienced this first-hand in her work to overcome a decades-old pattern of procrastinating on important projects.
“Back to my first assignments in high school,” she shares, “I always left things to the last minute. I just kept telling myself that I’d start eventually, that I had plenty of time, and before I knew it, I’d have only the tiniest of windows to complete the assignment. It was a major source of stress and continued to be for years, from college into my working career. One day, after I’d stayed up late the night before trying to submit something before a midnight deadline, I realized the cost was too high for me. I knew I needed to change.”
No one was telling Larissa to change her patterns of behavior — she had to change it herself. She had to actively reflect and intently examine why she was telling herself stories that inhibited her growth and development: that her work had to be perfect or that she works best under pressure.
“I’m so much happier now that I’ve made steps to acknowledge that it’s an issue and improve it. Things aren’t perfect but that’s OK — I’m seeing progress and it’s getting better.”
Look for new opportunities
It’s often said that “you grow outside your comfort zone.” Sometimes, clichés are clichés for a reason. They tend to speak an important truth.
When considering your potential and growing into it, think of it as wearing a garment that can stretch and grow as you do. As a contributor in your own journey to achieve transcendence, it's important to get uncomfortable.
By taking on new challenges, or facing the discomfort of stretching yourself, you’ll gain valuable learning about yourself and confidence that builds esteem.
You might find a natural defensiveness creeping in. It's all part of human nature — change and challenges are tough. But out of change comes growth and the opportunity to reach our human potential.
That said, you’ll likely feel more able to take on these new challenges and stretch yourself when you’re feeling in a place of belonging.
When you feel more secure in yourself and your abilities, your self-esteem matches your sense of security. Stretch goals without those other criteria in place can spin some people into overwhelm. That’s where the pyramid concept can be useful.
Ask yourself: What do I need to be in place before I can move forward toward my potential? Consider that smaller, safer baby steps might be needed. In the end, you might find a freshness of appreciation for problem-solving, especially when you find fulfillment after tackling a new challenge.
Have a growth mindset
One of the philosophies behind Maslow’s work is that fulfillment of potential is about growth, which is centered around the idea of expansion into full potential.
Traditional development might have had you focus on weaknesses. Science and research shows this is not as rewarding or motivating as focusing on strengths. As Carol Dweck’s work in this area supports if you have a growth mindset you see your potential for development and strengthening, rather than your skills or growth trajectory being fixed or finite.
Positive psychology can certainly come into play here. With the notion that human strengths and motivations allow us to build meaning around our lives, growth mindset and positive psychology can often go hand-in-hand.
You don't have to do it alone
It's human nature to be afraid to ask for help. In reality, we know not many things can truly be accomplished alone. Though self-actualization sounds like it could be a solitary pursuit, there are huge benefits to knowing that you can become more aware of yourself with the help of — and in service of —other people.
Many people find that working with a therapist or counselor is useful for understanding the origins of our beliefs, behaviors, fears, or self-imposed blockers. With professional help, many find we can support ourselves at the highest level of our fully developed selves.
Equally and in addition, working with a coach can be powerful to understand where you are now, where you want to be, and taking steps toward that place of full potential where you bridge that gap.
Keep in mind that meaningful change often does take time, and a coach will partner with you in the process. Create steps — big or small — that move you toward your goals.
Pause and reflect
If you have an idea that becoming self-actualized will happen more easily in the solitude of the wilderness, think again. Oftentimes, it’s the day-to-day experiences, challenges, and questions that will help you learn and grow.
You can start with small actions in your daily routine. I like to recommend an approach called Street Wisdom, a non-profit movement simply centered around finding inspiration while taking a walk. This approach encourages us to look for answers all around us, especially in our urban environments.
You can also lean on resources like coaching. Yuri, a young professional, was feeling stuck about what to do next in his career.
“When I was considering my next career step, I had this urge to get away from all the stress of my hectic environment, but I couldn’t see a time when that was going to be possible. A friend invited me to try professional and personal development coaching. It turned out that I didn’t need a big getaway in order to work out some of what I wanted next for myself. I just needed to focus on the questions I was asking, and to be open to the answers. Being receptive to new ideas from my coach was a big help in the process of getting clearer on my purpose and ultimate career fulfillment.”
How to reach self-actualization
As mentioned earlier, it’s interesting that Maslow's theory never identified these levels of self-actualization in a pyramid shape. It's human nature to be resistant to change — and things don’t always proceed in a linear way.
But as we all know with any sort of journey, things are rarely linear. The same goes on the journey of self-actualization and finding the highest level of ourselves.
Take the example of Jamie, a senior leader who worked for nearly twenty years in an organization he joined in its early days.
“I had worked to build my career around my strengths and had a huge sense of purpose in my work. I loved interacting with our customers and helping meet their needs, and I’d developed people as managers, helping them build their skills in working with younger employees. It was a job I loved with all my being. During a period of disruption to our industry and declining profits, I found out that I was being made redundant. My first reaction was feeling like the floor had been removed from under my feet — my whole identity and sense of safety and belonging felt under threat.”
But once Jamie’s initial emotional upheaval had passed, he was able to look at the situation with some perspective. It was only in hindsight that Jamie allowed himself the opportunity to grow.
“It was a painful time but one that I can now look back on with gratitude for the learning lessons it gave me.”
Having a tolerance for change is part of the process of self-actualization. As humans, we know we need to adapt and adjust but we’re also creatures of habit. It can be easy for us to accept things in life as fixed or permanent — and harder to challenge the status quo.
For leaders, it’s also an important piece to know that during times of change and disruption, you might want to place more emphasis on mental health, well-being, and belonging to ensure your employees know how they matter and why their diverse, unique perspectives are important to your organization.
Humans are social creatures — it's human nature to connect with one another. If employees feel as if they don’t belong or their positions or psychological safety is at threat, they can’t give or be their best.
It's important that self-acceptance and self-growth are part of the conversation, especially at the leadership level.
Why physiological needs matter
From the perspective of staying alive and well, know that to create a practice of mental fitness, the basics matter. Even ambitious, self-aware people forget that sometimes, we have to care for our basic needs.
Human motivation can come into play here as well, which asserts that we each have a set of basic needs that must be met. This includes biological and psychological, safety, belongingness and love needs, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
“The times when I feel like I’m doing a lot of learning and growing are sometimes moments when I need to remember to go back to the foundations,” shared Johan, a product designer. “In my busiest of weeks, when lots of meetings get scheduled or we’re pushing for a deadline, I can lose track of time and find myself skipping lunch. By the middle of the afternoon, I’ll pause and ask myself, ‘Why am I feeling so drained?’ and then I’ll remember that it’s been hours since I’ve eaten. I have to remember and stick to good routines around my diet, sleep, and exercise.”
Practice gratitude, awe, and wonder
Nothing can be as beautiful as a pastel-hued sunset or the sense of wonder you get when connected to some of nature’s magical qualities like wondrous patterns of tree bark. You might feel a sense of awe experiencing something seemingly mundane through a child’s eyes — like watching the child light up after petting a neighborhood dog.
Evidence shows the benefits of gratitude and appreciating the gifts in our everyday lives are ten-fold. While it may seem challenging to tear ourselves away from our screens in such a hyper-connected, digital age, see time to practice gratitude, awe, and wonder, as part of the process of stepping into the space of creativity, abundance, and room to grow.
Though the characteristics of self-actualization may take a lifetime to build, a lifetime is exactly what each of us has.
*Author’s note: the names and examples are fictional and used for illustrative purposes