What It Really Means to Be Self-Actualized

When I was in high school and going through my teenage rebel phase, I quietly despised the concept of self-actualization.

Why? I thought it to be an ego-driven, selfish pursuit associated with personal ambitions — such as creating art no one would understand, or writing philosophy treaties that only added to the complexity of human problems. I thought those kinds of activities only took away from the time that could otherwise be spent serving others in simpler ways — baking bread, growing crops, or caring for the vulnerable.

If that sounds naive, that’s because these are thoughts of a 15-year-old. At the time, I was fascinated by the hippie culture of the 60s and 70s to the point of believing I was mistakenly born in the wrong era. I fantasized about Woodstock, listened to Janis Joplin, and wondered who I could become if I grew up hanging out with the “flower children.”

Would I be less of an individualist urban creature that I was — and more of a nature-loving, collective-minded human?

I’m mentioning that idealist teenage logic here for a reason. Even though the days when I believed self-actualization to be “wrong” or “selfish” are long gone, I do see it as just a pitstop on the human journey.

So what comes after that pitstop? Let’s explore.

What Is Self-Actualization? — The Traditional Answer

Most people are used to thinking of self-actualization as the ultimate stage of personal growth. But is it really?

Before we answer, let’s first take an express tour of the 20th century’s popular ideas on the topic. I don’t want to bore you with theories for too long. However, it’s important to have some background as to why we think of self-actualization the way we do.

The first person to ever mention the phrase was Kurt Goldstein, a psychiatrist from the early 20th century. He spoke of self-actualization as the ultimate motivation of all living organisms, innate not just to humans but also plants and animals. Goldstein didn’t see self-actualization as an abstract future goal. Rather, he thought of it as the overarching tendency to express oneself as fully as possible, given the context.

Then, there was Carl Rogers who saw self-actualization as the highest stage of human development and realizing one’s full potential. He introduced the idea of congruence — the state in which one’s current self-image is the same (or very close) to the vision of the ideal self. According to Rogers, this is required for a person to be “fully functioning.”

In other words, Rogers stated that when a person self-actualizes, they fully accept themselves. There’s no strive to become different than you already are and through that, you show up as your True Self.

Finally, we all know Abraham Maslow who’s most known for his hierarchy of needs, often presented in a form of the familiar pyramid. Self-actualization sits on top of this pyramid as the most refined of the human needs. Because of that supreme position, we’ve come to think of self-actualization as “realizing one’s full potential” — as in, becoming all that one can become.

These views of Goldstein, Rogers, and Maslow picture self-actualization as a mostly individual pursuit. It’s oriented towards fulfilling the whole spectrum of your needs and becoming “the best version” of yourself. Sounds like a “living-happily-ever-after” type of story in which a character achieves eternal bliss.

But I bet my teenage self would ask: “To what end?” Is self-actualization the whole point of living, the ultimate reward? Or is there something that comes after?

Self-Actualization or Self-Transcendence?

Abraham Maslow is the first person who comes to mind when we talk about self-actualization. But not many people know that his theory of human needs might not have been fully developed.

On June 8, 1970 — the day of his death — Maslow was still passionately writing in his notebook, developing his ideas. It seems that one of those he never managed to present to the public was the connection between self-actualization to self-transcendence.

A person who took Maslow’s ideas and developed them further is Richard Barrett — a former World Bank consultant turned psychologist and expert on human development. Barrett created a model of the seven levels of human consciousness, which correspond to consecutive stages of psychological development. His hierarchy was inspired by Maslow’s but — surprisingly or not — self-actualization is in the middle of it, and not on top.

In Barrett’s model, self-actualization (together with the preceding stage he calls “transformation” or “individuation”) is the turning point of human life, not the end goal. If all goes reasonably well, by the time you self-actualize, you learn how to meet our deficiency needs — i.e. those that grant you survival, feelings of safety, and respect. Then, self-actualization is the next step. Through it, you’re able to shift your focus towards growth needs that are all about fulfilling your potential.

The interesting thing is that, according to Barrett, this happens for your own sake first — but ultimately, it’s supposed to enable you to serve others.

The highest stages of psychological development in Barret’s model are “integrating” and “serving.” To attain them, you first need to self-actualize. That’s when you start shifting from ego- to soul-consciousness. Some would say that this happens when you’re no longer driven by fear in your life. Instead, you follow love.

Because this puts you at peace with yourself (as Carl Rogers noted), the logical next step is to serve others. Here’s how Barret sums it up in his book, Evolutionary Coaching:

“We begin our psychological journey by learning to survive, and we complete the journey by learning to serve. We start our lives in ego consciousness and if we are successful in meeting our deficiency and growth needs, we end our lives in soul consciousness.”

Self-actualization is the necessary step to undergo that transformation of consciousness. Now, the 15-year old, flower-power Marta is starting to like this even more.

Self-Actualization Is a Gateway To Selfless Service

All the thinkers and psychologists I mentioned in this article share this core view on self-actualization: The drive to self-actualize is innate and natural to humans. It’s not a product of our culture but rather, an organic part of our psychological development.

It’s likely that, when Maslow explored the concept of self-actualization, he simply ran out of time. He died at the age of 62 without saying all that much about the connection between self-actualization and the transcendence of self. As a result, we came to think of self-actualization as the ultimate goal of the human journey.

These days, as our global situation (pandemic & co) calls for more collective ways of thinking, self-actualization can help with that. Becoming self-actualized first may teach you how to serve others in the best possible way.

Many people — myself included — try to help others before they self-actualize. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t. We can still do a lot of good in this way. However, it seems that as long as we’re not at peace with ourselves, there’s always the ego element behind our actions.

You serve — but you also rely on that service to make you feel worthy or accomplished. You still don’t know how to love yourself unconditionally. This is a feat that self-actualization enables:

Accepting yourself regardless of how successful (or not) you feel at any given point.

From this place, you can start serving others not because you should — but because that’s the only thing you want to be doing. I don’t know about you, but my 15-year-old self is smiling at this possibility.

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