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What Is Self-Actualization? How Can You Attain It?

    Maslows Hierarchy of Needs Showing What Is Self-Actualization

    Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist. He is best known for creating a hierarchy of needs – the culmination of which is “self-actualization.” He researched what helped some people to live in a state of positive mental health.

    He lived from 1908 to 1970 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, as the oldest of seven children. His parents were first-generation Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. 

    He may have thought about “needs” because his own mother certainly didn’t fulfill his needs. He is quoted as saying, “What I had reacted to was not only her physical appearance, but also her values and world view, her stinginess, her total selfishness, her lack of love for anyone else in the world—even her own husband and children—her narcissism, her Negro prejudice, her exploitation of everyone, her assumption that anyone was wrong who disagreed with her, her lack of friends, her sloppiness and dirtiness…”

    Although he later said it was important to focus on the positive qualities in people. Whether he managed to do this about his own mother, we are not sure.

    Maslow took a humanistic approach to psychology as he felt that people possess the inner resources for growth and healing and that the point of therapy is to help remove obstacles to individuals’ achieving them.

    What did Abraham Maslow research?

    Maslow wrote about what he saw as his “Eupsychia club” which he said meant people who had “decentralized, voluntary yet coordinated, productive, and with a powerful and effective code of ethics (which works).” 

    He said, “heroes that I write for, my judges, the ones I want to please: Jefferson, Spinoza, Socrates, Aristotle, James, Bergson, Norman Thomas, Upton Sinclair (both heroes of my youth).”

    Maslow believed to Albert Einstein, Henry David Thoreau, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa to be examples of self-actualized people. He used what he called “biographical analysis” to determine the levels of needs.

    He felt that all of these people were “reality centered” and able to differentiate the fraudulent from the genuine. They saw life’s problems as demanding solutions. They were comfortable being alone yet had healthy personal relationships with a few close friends and family. They valued these relationships more than having a large number of shallow relationships. They weren’t too bound by social conventions. 

    What are the levels of needs?

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs started with:

    1. Basic needs we have for food, water, sleep, sex, homeostasis, and excretion.
    2. Shelter and safety.
    3. The need for love and belonging – being part of a family and friend network.
    4. The sense of accomplishment or esteem where we hope for some recognition and appreciation or status in society.
    5. Cognitive level where we explore intellectually and provide our own internal stimulation.
    6. Aesthetic level, where we crave harmony, order and beauty.
    7. The highest and seventh level is the need for self-actualization – a feeling of harmony and understanding because we feel we are using our full potential. 

    How many levels of needs are there?

    Most people these days only show five levels and ignore the cognitive and aesthetic levels. Some put an extra level above self-actualization which they call the “transcendence” level. And Maslow never represented his hierarchy as a pyramid.

    Some people divide the needs into two categories – deficiencies and growth needs. Deficiency needs include physiological, security, social, and self-esteem needs. Growth needs are the cognitive, aesthetic and self-actualization levels. Unlike deficiency needs, they are motivated by the desire to grow as a person and reach their full potential.

    How have others criticized the levels of needs?

    Many have since criticized Maslow’s model as lacking any research or evidence to support it. Even Maslow himself said, “My motivation theory was published 20 years ago… in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analyzed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole with only the most minor modifications.” 

    But many people still find it useful to think about which levels of needs they have had satisfied. What level do you think you have reached in this hierarchy of needs? Are you basic needs met? Do you feel safe and secure? Do you feel loved? Do you feel appreciated? Do you feel intellectually fulfilled? Do you crave harmony, order and beauty? Do you feel you are using your full potential?

    Just below “self-actualization” is “self-esteem”. Narcissists tend to be overcompensating for low self esteem. Maslow felt that his own family didn’t appreciate him enough. But maybe they were just keeping him real and trying to stop his ego from getting away from him. 

    Maslow said self-actualizing people value truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, dichotomy, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, necessity, completion, justice, order, simplicity, richness, effortlessness, playfulness and self-sufficiency.

    How can you attain a state of self-actualization?

    Maslow said that in order to attain this state, we have to fulfill all the other needs in his hierarchy of needs. Even the first level – the basic need for food and water – can be hard for people who are faced with poverty. So your ability to fulfill even higher levels of needs can depend on your luck in life – where you were born and so on.

    But once those basic survival needs are met, we have to focus on being loving to others in order to create that feeling of being part of a friend and/or family network.

    Then we have to look at how we can serve others so that we gain that sense of appreciation.

    These levels can be challenging for many of us. Discussing this with a trained licensed therapist can help us make more progress towards the higher levels of need and towards self-actualization itself.