Humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow introduced self-actualization as the process of fulfilling your potential in the world. It is about becoming who you really are and were always meant to be. This involves the integration of the wounds that may have once been a source of shame or confusion and allows for a coherent sense of yourself. Here, you reclaim a sense of dignity which allows you to walk in the world with the knowledge that you are so much more than your trauma or pain. This opens up the possibility for a deep sense of belonging in the world.
It is possible to grow from adversity. Traumatic life experiences can help you appreciate the precious gift it is to be alive. Perhaps because of your experience feeling so deeply hurt, your pain has become a source of compassion and wisdom. Maybe you have discovered moments of emotional or spiritual significance.
“Self-actualization is associated with a greater capacity to hold polarities and contradictions. You cultivate the wisdom to know that all relationships will have their challenges, that moments of pain are an inevitable part of life, and that opening your heart to love involves the risk of loss.”-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
We all have the capacity to overcome adversity when we have sufficient support. Post traumatic growth is cultivated by orienting to your strengths, attending to your pain, and taking charge of the narrative you create to define your life. Qualities associated with post traumatic growth include being more likely to accept yourself as you are, having an increased appreciation of life, developing new interests or passions, or discovering a new spiritual framework for your life (Tedeschi et al., 2018).
Just as the phoenix rises from the ashes, you have the capacity to rise again. You have an opportunity to realize that you are stronger than you previously believed. You might question how to accept a world that has betrayed you and that could betray you again. However, over time, you become increasing able to hold the complexity of the human experience. You realize that this world contains experiences of harm and loss; however, this is also a world of love and care. There is a great maturity in being able to hold the truth that hurtfulness and happiness can co-exist around and within you.
Self-actualized individuals tend to be open-minded, creative, trustworthy, responsible, and value-driven. They have a positive view of self and are aware that they are always in the process of becoming a person. In addition, self-actualized individuals are typically more able to cope successfully with an uncertain future. Rather than needing to make themselves or another person wrong, they become increasingly capable of handling conflicts with equanimity. As a result, they walk through the world with an effortless grace that emanates from within.
Sometimes, an experience of self-actualization arises through transcendent or peak experiences. This might occur in a spiritual practice such as meditation or when climbing a mountain peak. Maslow described mystical experiences as providing a profound sense of heart opening, a loss of self, or an overwhelming feeling of being one with the universe. Within a peak experience, you might discover a feeling of awakening or an enhanced desire to actualize your potential with meaningful actions in the world.
Of note, the quest for a peak experience might also serve as a way to bypass your pain. Therefore, you may want to ask yourself whether you are seeking transcendence as a means to avoid conflicts or challenges in your life. If this is true, you can balance out a desire for peak experiences with an emphasis on staying grounded in your body, connected to the basic tasks of living, and engaging in acts of kindness towards others. Most importantly, self-actualization is not about being better than someone else and it is not about being perfect. It is about being yourself—honestly, wholeheartedly, and authentically you.
Maslow compassionately offers that it can be challenging to turn your attention toward self-actualization until you feel safe and secure with your underlying needs. This includes having financial security, stabilized health, restful sleep, caring relationships with others, and an established sense of your own self-worth. Additionally, self-actualization is not necessarily a permanent state of being. Rather, there will be times when you might feel empowered to be your best self and there will be times when you may need to rest.
Many people believe that self-actualization sits at the top of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, Maslow (1969) actually viewed self-actualization as a rite of passage that allows the individual to go beyond the single self into self-transcendence. Whereas self-actualization is about fulfilling your potential, Maslow identified self-transcendence as being about furthering a cause beyond yourself. Moreover, a desire to give back to the world arises as a result of the peak experiences common to self-actualization.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (1942/2006) asserted that you become more human when you focus on loving another person or serving a cause. Self-transcendence is associated with developing greater understanding of and desire to protect the welfare of all people. For example, you might seek to contribute to other people through actions that support social justice, political, or environmental causes. You move from a focus on yourself as an individual toward a curiosity about the mystery of life and identifying yourself as part of larger collective whole. You have an opportunity to discover a deeper, felt sense of self beyond the transient nature of the roles that you play in life or the changing of your surroundings.
Self-actualization is the birthright of every human being. However, most people are held back by fear. You grow by confronting your fears, working through feelings of shame, resolving anger, working with your shadow, grounding into your body, connecting to your breath, learning to empower yourself, reclaiming your worth, identifying your strengths, and clarifying goals for your future.
Take some time to cultivate self-actualization with the following questions:
- What already inspires you to be your best self?
- What helps you to manifest your potential in the world?
- In what ways do have feel called to bring your gifts out to your community or to the world?
- What keeps you up at night and begs to be given form?
- In what new ways are you ready to grow and flourish?
Frankl, V. (1946/2006) Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1969). The farther reaches of humannature. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology,1(1), 1–9.
Tedeschi, R. G., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., & Calhoun, L. G. (2018). Posttraumaticgrowth: Theory, research, and applications.New York, NY: Routledge.