Self-actualization can mean a lot of things depending who you ask.
One of the most broadly accepted definitions comes from Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist. He described self-actualization as the process of becoming “everything you are capable of becoming.”
Kim Egel, a San Diego therapist, similarly explains it as the “ability to become the best version of yourself.”
It all sounds great — but how do you actually become this best version of yourself? And how will you know you’ve achieved it?
“There’s no script for that,” Egel adds. “Everyone has to find their own unique ways to hear the inner wisdom that can help them live a life of truth.”
Only you can determine what self-actualization means for you, but we’ve got the info to help you get the ball rolling and make the process feel less daunting.
A lot of discussions about self-actualization refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He theorized that people need to satisfy four basic types of needs before they can satisfy a fifth need for self-actualization.
He organized these needs into a pyramid:
- The lowest stage contains the most basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter.
- The second stage represents safety needs.
- The third includes belonging or relationship needs.
- The fourth stage involves respect or esteem needs, both from the self and others.
- The fifth stage, or the tip of the pyramid, is self-actualization.
While this pyramid model can provide some general guidance on the path toward self-actualization, it has some limitations. For example, plenty of people lack adequate food and shelter while still enjoying and maintaining strong relationships and respecting others.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good thing to be aware of as you explore self-actualization, but it’s not the only way to approach things.
Again, self-actualization can mean a lot of things to different people. To cut through some of the ambiguity, it might be helpful to think about what self-actualization isn’t.
Self-actualization doesn’t involve perfection or things always going smoothly. You can become self-actualized and still face difficulties.
In fact, a huge part of self-actualization is recognizing your limits in addition to focusing on your unique strengths — whether those involve practical skills, parenting, artistic talents, or emotional insights.
From there, you would live your life in a way that best utilizes your strengths while taking steps to achieve your dreams, both large and small.
For example, say you dream of becoming a pop singer. You love music, but can’t really carry a tune. Eventually, you find that you’re pretty good at playing the guitar and making music that way.
You practice, develop this skill, and continue improving over time. Maybe you never become a pop singer, but you live out your need to make music in a different way.
Now that we’ve identified a basic definition of what self-actualization is (and isn’t), it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of what it truly means to be the best version of yourself.
There are a range of characteristics that tend to be associated with self-actualization.
Keep in mind that it’s possible to achieve it without meeting every characteristic, just as it’s equally possible to have these traits before reaching the point of self-actualization.
Generally speaking, self-actualized people:
- Live independently. They don’t structure their lives around the opinions of others. They may not seem swayed by social feedback. They also have an appreciation for solitude and don’t always need company.
- Have a sense for reality and truth. They may seem more grounded and in touch with actual possibilities and have an easier time detecting falseness from other people.
- Are comfortable with the unknown. They don’t mind not knowing what the future holds.
- Have compassion, kindness, and acceptance. This goes both for themselves and for others they encounter.
- Have a good-natured sense of humor. They can laugh at themselves when they make mistakes and help others see humor in challenging situations.
- Enjoy meaningful friendships. They tend to build long-lasting relationships with a few people instead of casual friendships with many people.
- Have a sense of spontaneity. They live more naturally, rather than in a rigid way, and aren’t afraid to follow what happens in the moment instead of sticking to routine.
- Are creative. Creativity doesn’t just refer to artistic abilities. Some self-actualized people might have a knack for looking at problems in new ways or thinking along different lines than other people do. They may simply lack inhibition, another characteristic of a spontaneous nature.
- Enjoy peak experiences. A peak experience describes a moment of euphoria, wonder, and joy, often characterized by a sense of feeling connected to the universe. They might seem like eye-opening moments, where deeper meanings suddenly become clear. They aren’t necessarily spiritual, though.
- Focus on things bigger than themselves. They tend to see the big picture instead of only considering their own lives, and may dedicate their lives to a mission, cause, or deeper purpose.
- Stop and smell the roses. They appreciate each positive or joyful moment — a sunrise, a partner’s kiss, a child’s laugh — as if it were the first, no matter how many times they’ve already experienced it.
- Have a sense of justice. They have compassion and care for all people, and work to prevent acts of injustice or unethical behavior.
- Possess Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or “social feeling.” This word, coined by Alfred Adler, describes an interest and concern for the general well-being of other humans.
If all of this feels unattainable, remember that self-actualization is a process, not an endgame. There’s no single point where you “should” end up on the journey.
“From a therapist’s perspective, self-actualization is a constant work in progress,” Egel says. “In our humanness, we are never going to stay completely the same.”
Self-actualization is an admirable goal to work toward. If you live your life with purpose and authenticity and show concern for others, you’re headed down the right track.
These tips can serve as additional guideposts along your way.
Learning to accept what comes — as it comes — can help you achieve self-actualization.
This might mean you work with situations as they turn out — such as a rainy day when you planned an outdoor event — rather than wishing things had happened in a different way.
It could also mean you get more comfortable accepting unknowns in your life. Or, maybe it means you try to avoid wishful thinking and look at things in more realistic ways.
Acceptance also refers to human experience. It’s not always easy to like people who behave in unkind or problematic ways. You can, however, still extend compassion by recognizing that everyone has their own circumstances to deal with.
Remember: Accepting someone doesn’t mean you have to spend your time with them.
To live with spontaneity, try enjoying each moment as it comes, without trying to worry about what you should do.
It might feel easy and safe to stick with what you know, but fight that urge. Take chances (within reason) and be open to trying new things.
Thinking back to your younger years can help you tap into your inner spontaneity. Maybe you used to roll down hills instead of walking along the footpath. Or you threw an impromptu picnic in the backyard, because why not?
Spontaneity can be as simple as taking a different route home or trying a food you’d never considered before. Your heart can be a great guide, so pay attention to any gut instincts you feel.
Get comfortable with your own company
Your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners play an important part in your life. But it’s just as important to nurture your relationship with yourself.
Pretty much everyone benefits from some occasional “me time.” Some people may need more or less than others. How you spend this time may matter less than what you get from it.
Self-actualized people typically feel calm and at peace on their own, so aim to reconnect with yourself until you look forward to your moments alone as much as (or more than) the time you spend with others.
Appreciate the small things in life
This sounds like a cliche, but it’s a key step to self-actualization. Take time to appreciate aspects of your day-to-day life that often go ignored in the busyness of living.
Think of things like:
- a delicious meal
- cuddles from your pet
- good weather
- a job you enjoy
This phrase gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? Living authentically involves honoring your truth and avoiding things like dishonesty, manipulation, or denial of your needs.
This might mean worrying less about what other people think of you.
Instead of living according to what other people say or suggest you should do, you follow insight gained from personal experience and live according to the guidance of your heart.
You’re also honest with yourself about your needs and desires. You respect the rights and needs of others, of course, but you work to achieve your goals as only you can. You work to maximize your potential, not someone else’s.
Self-actualized people have deep feeling for other living creatures. Their compassion extends beyond their immediate social circle and those they know in their daily life to humanity and the world as a whole.
Compassion comes more easily to some people than others.
If you struggle to understand and empathize with people who are very different than you, try learning more about people who have different life experiences through reading books or consuming other media produced by people from a different background.
Looking for more ways to build compassion? Try:
- volunteering for charitable organizations or human interest projects
- exploring ways to improve your community
- calculating your carbon footprint and taking steps to make improvements
Talk to a therapist
Therapy can help you take steps toward any of your goals, and self-actualization is no exception. Plus, you don’t need to be facing a mental health issue to seek therapy.
Wanting to develop compassion, spontaneity, and authenticity are totally acceptable reasons to seek therapy.
In therapy, you can also learn more about self-actualization in general terms, since the concept can be a difficult one to grasp.
Talk therapy, which most people just call “therapy,” is actually one type of humanistic therapy (which Maslow helped develop).
If you’d like to dig a little deeper into spirituality or existential topics, though, consider exploring more specialized approaches like transpersonal therapy or existential therapy.
Committing to the process of becoming self-actualized can feel overwhelming. Try not to get too caught up in doing all the “right” things or holding yourself to impossibly high standards.
For what it’s worth, Maslow believed true self-actualization was fairly rare. Egel agrees, asking, “How many people do you know who are living their life 100 percent true to themselves?”
Plus, past challenges or present life circumstances can make things like growth, self-reflection, and authenticity more difficult.
Finally, know that even the most self-actualized people still have room to grow.
“Growth never ends until the journey of life is complete,” Egel says. “Reaching a point of self-actualization has to be maintained, just as a level of peak fitness must be maintained by consistent healthy habits and behaviors.”
Recognizing this need for continued growth is also — you guessed it — part of self-actualization.
Self-actualization isn’t a one-size-fits-all goal. No two people are exactly alike, so everyone will probably have a slightly different path.
It’s also not something you can accomplish in a weekend.
True self-actualization may be more of a long-term (even lifetime) goal than a quick road to self-improvement. That said, working to maximize your potential and become your best self is a great way to lead a more fulfilling life.
So, while self-actualization might seem somewhat overwhelming, don’t let that stop you. Take each day as it comes and keep an open mind.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.