One of the things I love the most about psychology is its scope of application. On the one hand, it studies and treats the maladaptive and pathological side of our experiences as human beings and on the other hand, it concerns itself with our potential to grow and our mental health in a positive way. Positive psychology deals and helps with ‘problems of living’. It supports those of us looking to grow and improve our lives by learning more about ourselves, by turning re-search into “me-search’, those of us that want to become more self-aware.
Lately, I have been thinking about the power of self-actualization, a concept that I learned a while ago but never gave the full attention it really requires.
Around 1940, Abraham Maslow outlined some ideas regarding our needs to either grow and become the best we can be or the need to satisfy our deficiencies (psychological and physiological deficiencies that is). This concept was reflected then on a pyramid that was called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The reason why I wanted to address this today is that every so often I encounter clients who are struggling with life satisfaction, or with optimal psychological health, they are feeling kind of stuck. They feel like their lives are going nowhere or like there is something missing. Keep in mind all of this is happening even though they have what most will call a ‘fairly good life’, and in some cases a life worthy of envy (in a healthy way of course).
Of course, right away I propose to them to explore the hierarchy of needs. What is that you ask? Well, as humans, we have an almost unconscious or innate desire to be well, to grow and improve our lives so that we can achieve the family, the job, the life we dream of. In doing so unknowingly or knowingly, we are climbing a pyramid of psychological needs.
More or less these are the levels:
- Physiological needs. These are the needs for food, sleep, and air.
- Safety or security; we all have the need for protection from violence, social and political instability.
- Love and belonging. We need to feel loved and connected to others; as Sue Jonhson has found in research, we are hardwired for connections.
- Self-esteem. It turns out that based on Maslow’s theory, the drive to achieve a healthy level of self-esteem is part of our journey to reach the highest and last level of the pyramid…
- Self-actualization needs
Of course in the pyramid, the levels are inverted with physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization needs at the top.
For this post, I wanted to focus specifically on the self-actualization.
Self-actualization is our tendency to grow towards the fulfillment of our highest psychological needs, the need for meaning, the embodiment of values. What does that mean? It means that we strive to maximize the use of our personal abilities and resources, we want to be the best version of ourselves and feel both challenged and accomplished. Of course, this process is different for everyone especially because we each have different ideas of what feeling accomplished means.
Let me ask you: Do you feel you are frequently performing at your full potential? Do you accept yourself for who you really are? Do you feel the need to be independent, creative and autonomous? Are you consistent at setting healthy boundaries for yourself and others? Do you feel you have access to your talents?
If you answer yes to all or most of those questions, chances are you are already on your way to self-actualization and if you answer ‘no’ to all or most of the questions, chances are you are still working through satisfying your deficiency needs; do not despair. It means you are working on satisfying your basic needs, Just be careful, it is possible that defensive and protective behaviours are getting in the way of your growth.
The next step is to feel free so you can focus on health, growth, wholeness integration and life problem-solving. Self-actualization takes time, resources (especially personal) and self-awareness. It is a journey and happiness is a side-effect. I invite you to continue to strive for it…it’s so worth it.
Why is it worth it? Self-actualized people report a greater level of well-being, and satisfaction personally, professionally and in relationships. They are more authentic and autonomous and as a result, they experience self-transcendence.
There are several self-actualization tests out there on the web. Click here for my favourite one…it has been developed by one of the leading psychologists researching the topic.
I believe we are all naturally walking towards self-actualization, even though sometimes we stall on the road either because of distorted beliefs, maladaptive traits or behaviours, outdated defense mechanisms, or even our love for ‘stability’. Whatever your reason is for stalling, I am sure you can build the capacity to become aware of it, explore it and outgrow it one little step at a time.
You can also read more about self-actualization on my website conscientiacounselling.ca
Share this post with someone you love…we all deserve it.