Self-Actualization – The End Goal or a Delusion?
This is Abraham Maslow.
He is considered one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century because of his association with the famous hierarchy of human needs.
This hierarchy depicts the idea that human needs can be categorized into different tiers. Tier one includes physiological needs, tier two includes safety needs, tier three includes belongingness and love needs, tier four includes esteem needs, and the final tier includes self-actualization.
An interesting fact, however, is that Maslow never really used the term hierarchy to explain his theory. He merely suggested that there is a causality between lower tier needs and higher tier needs by virtue of prepotency. Most probably, the pyramid was an illustration designed by one of his publishers in order to offer to the reader a more visual representation of Maslow’s ideas.
In his three most important works, “Motivation and Personality,” “Toward a Psychology of Being,” and “A Theory of Human Motivation,” he delved deep into the topic of self-actualization; a theme that attempts to overcome the limitations of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and introduce a new scope in the way humans endeavor to actualize their potential.
He joined a branch of psychology called humanistic psychology that has its roots in phenomenology, existentialism, and eastern philosophy. Its main premise is that the ideas put forth by the traditional psychoanalytic theory are innately pessimistic and this constitutes an impediment in the way humans progress through life.
Maslow was a positivist and a pragmatist. The basic framework of his theories was that only through a life devoted to personal responsibility and constant self-improvement can an individual ever be truly happy.
A catalyzing factor in the development of his ideas was the advent of WWII that produced so much pain and suffering around the world. He firmly believed that humans regress to more aggressive behaviors when their path to self-actualization is vague or obstructed by calamities that disorient their true purpose.
His whole journey through life connotes an attempt to investigate the ineffable mysteries of the psyche through a focus on what can be done rather than on what cannot be done. His work wasn’t ostentatious, but rather it provoked thinking via a thorough analysis of the human condition.
Most of his interest in this area emerged from his examination of people that fulfill the conditions of a self-actualized person. He looked at people like Albert Einstein and he saw figures who met the standard of self-actualization and could act as archetypes for the rest of the world.
In a way, Abraham Maslow can be considered the forefather of the contemporary self-development movement.
The 15 pillars of self-actualization
If we remove the biological parameters from the equation, as well as every other trait that can be bequeathed to a person from their lineage, a human is a tabula rasa. That is, one has the capacity to develop and evolve to a state that one truly desires insofar as one invests heavily towards that state.
According to Maslow, that state isn’t something obscure or elusive. After a lot of contemplation, he came to identify some major patterns that repeat throughout instances of people he called self-actualized. In the wake of extensive research, he formulated a framework of self-actualization that works as a great foundation for personality development.
In his seminal book – Motivation and personality, he attempts to lay out the characteristics of self-actualized people, after a study he did on people who, according to him, met the criteria of self-actualization. These people were contemporaries of his time as well as important historical figures:
The main characteristics that he identified are as follows:
1. More efficient perception of reality and more comfortable relations with it.
The relationship between a person and reality is a very intense one. Reality constitutes an amalgamation of known and unknown territory, thus rendering our perception of it quite challenging. Maslow argues that self-actualized people embrace the unknown without fear and that “doubt, tentativeness, uncertainty, with the consequent necessity for abeyance of decision, which is for most a torture, can be for some a pleasantly stimulating challenge, a high spot in life rather than a low.”
He also points out that people high in neuroticism can actually distort their judgment, and even reality itself, because of their neurosis.
2. Acceptance (self, others, nature)
Here Maslow puts emphasis on the idea of responsibility and, to some extent, stoicism.
“They (self-actualized people) can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings, with all its discrepancies from the ideal image without feeling real concern. It would convey the wrong impression to say that they are self-satisfied. What we must say rather is that they can take the frailties and sins, weaknesses, and evils of human nature in the same unquestioning spirit with which one accepts the characteristics of nature.”
That way, acceptance can offer clarity to one’s perception and allow one to make more sagacious choices.
3. Spontaneity; Simplicity; Naturalness
Spontaneity, simplicity and naturalness, all can lead to less artificiality in the way one orients himself in the world.
“His (self-actualized person) unconventionality is not superficial but essential or internal. It is his impulses, thought, consciousness that are so unusually unconventional, spontaneous. and natural. Apparently recognizing that the world of people in which he lives could not understand or accept this, and since he has no wish to hurt them or to fight with them over every triviality, he wiII go through the ceremonies and rituals of convention with a good-humored shrug and with the best possible grace.”
Unconventionality, in itself, is a somewhat puzzling trait. Indeed, a self-actualized person goes through life with a critical attitude, but at the same time he or she won’t obsess over unconventionality and constantly experience friction, especially in trivial matters.
“Our subjects are in general strongly focused on problems outside themselves. In current terminology they are problem centered rather than ego centered. They generally are not problems for themselves and are not generally much concerned about themselves; e.g., as contrasted with the ordinary introspectiveness that one finds in insecure people.”
The detachment of the ego, when one attempts to tackle a problem, constitutes a fundamental precondition to effective problem-solving.
“They (self-actualized people) seem never to get so close to the trees that they fail to see the forest. They work within a framework of values that are broad and not petty, universal and not local, and in terms of a century rather than the moment.”
5. The quality of detachment; The need for privacy
The ability of an individual to seek and enjoy isolation is considered paramount in one’s pursuit of self-actualization. Without a certain amount of seclusion, one cannot dive deep into complex ideas and also develop a significant level of self-discipline, self-decision, and self-government.
That, however, does not convey that the self-actualized person is antisocial, but rather that he or she prefers to invest in less superficial relationships.
6. Autonomy; Independence of culture and environment; Will; Active agents
“Since they are propelled by growth motivation rather than by deficiency motivation, self- actualizing people are not dependent for their main satisfactions on the real world, or other people or culture or means to ends or, in general, on extrinsic satisfactions. Rather they are dependent for their own development and continued growth on their own potentialities and latent re- sources.”
Here Maslow attempts to create an interesting osmosis between the terms autonomy, independence, will, and action-taking. This attempt highlights a proclivity towards a worldview that can help the self-actualized person maintain a relative serenity in the midst of circumstances that would, usually, make other people extremely uncomfortable.
7. Continued freshness of appreciation
Gratitude is a virtue. But throughout the twists and turns of life, we end up forgetting how critical gratitude can be in appreciating all the little, but immensely beautiful, things that life has to offer.
“Thus for such a person, any sunset may be as beautiful as the first one, any flower may be of breath-taking loveliness, even after he has seen a million flowers. The thousandth baby he sees is just as miraculous a product as the first one he saw. He remains as convinced of his luck in marriage thirty years after his marriage and is as surprised by his wife’s beauty when she is sixty as he was forty years before. For such people, even the casual workaday, moment-to·moment business of living can be thrilling, exciting, and ecstatic.”
8. Peak experiences
“Apparently the acute mystic or peak experience is a tremendous intensification of any of the experiences in which there is loss of self or transcendence of it.”
The loss of self can lead to tremendous revelations in the way our cognitive apparatus perceives different experiences and, to a certain extent, the world as a whole. Peak experiences have a mystical aspect entrenched to them and they act as mechanisms that can allow the self-actualized person to transcend the ordinary in order to connect with the sublime.
According to Maslow, “this word, invented by Alfred Adler, is the only one available that describes well the flavor of the feelings for mankind expressed by self- actualizing subjects.”
This is a German word that, roughly, translates to “sense of community.”
Our need for identification, affection, and sympathy is deeply embedded in our constitution and it is this need that drives our desire for the pursuit of a greater good.
In a nutshell, Gemeinschaftsgefühl describes the capacity of the self-actualized human to develop a vision bigger than himself.
10. Interpersonal relations
“They are capable of more fusion, greater love, more perfect identification, more obliteration of the ego boundaries than other people would consider possible.”
Here Maslow is tapping into the characteristic of self-actualized people to seek deeper connections in their interpersonal relations. Loyalty and a small dedicated circle are favored over a plethora of shallow connections. Selectiveness can offer a sense of clarity in our relationships and allow room for further interpersonal evolution.
11. The democratic character structure
“They can be and are friendly with anyone of suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief. race, or color. As a matter of fact it often seems as if they are not even aware of these differences, which are for the average person so obvious and so important.”
The ability to not discriminate and to adopt a democratic stance when it comes to judging others is a fundamental constituent of a self-actualized personality. A certain degree of humility is required to demonstrate such an attitude, as well as the proclivity to judge people more by their character and less by their status and racial characteristics.
12. Discrimination between means and ends, between good and evil
The line that divides right from wrong, evil from good and moral from immoral can oftentimes be quite vague. Our ability to make sane decisions when we orient ourselves through every social ecosystem is predicated upon our capacity to understand the importance of that vagueness. Nothing is absolute and many truths can be rebutted. Self-actualized people understand that well and try to act as if their life is designed around that idea.
Moreover, “self-actualizing people most of the time behave as though, for them, means and ends are clearly distinguishable. In general, they are fixed on ends rather than on means, and means are quite definitely subordinated to these ends.” In that sense, they are more likely to appreciate the doing itself for what it is regardless of the result that it will lead them to.
13. Philosophical, unhostile sense of humor
Humor is a very debatable topic because humor, most of the time, is directed towards someone and this can implicitly communicate a level of hostility towards that someone. For self-actualized people things are quite straightforward:
“Characteristically what they consider humor is more closely allied to philosophy than to anything else. It may also be called the humor of the real because it consists in large part in poking fun at human beings in general when they are foolish, or forget their place in the universe, or try to be big when they are actually small. This can take the form of poking fun at themselves, but this is not done in any masochistic or clownlike way. Lincoln’s humor can serve as a suitable example. Probably Lincoln never made a joke that hurt anybody else; it is also likely that many or even most of his jokes had something to say, had a function beyond just producing a laugh. They often seemed to be education in a more palatable form, akin to parables or fables.”
There is no limit to the degree one can engage in creative work. Creativity has an axiomatic character and that can help push through any mental barrier the thinking human may face.
“It is as if this special type of creativeness, being an expression of a healthy personality, is projected out upon the world or touches whatever activity the person is engaged in. In this sense, there can be creative shoemakers or carpenters or clerks. Whatever one does can be done with a certain attitude, a certain spirit that arises out of the nature of the character of the person performing the act. One can even see creatively as the child does.”
15. Resistance to enculturation; The transcendence of any particular culture
The idea of enculturation is akin to the idea of groupthink. Maslow tries to shape the type of thinking that self-actualized people have maintained in order to not allow cultural imperatives to define their reality. Cultural influence does have pros and cons and, therefore, Maslow argues that in a world that attempts to impose certain norms upon us, it is the duty of self-actualized people to question those norms.
The End Goal or a Delusion?
Reaching the stage of self-actualization is not an easy thing.
Maslow attempted to portray the archetype of the self-actualized person by collecting an amalgamation of characteristics exhibited by people he considered to be the perfect representation of this archetype.
As far as I am concerned, this constitutes a problem, for he relied on a very narrow group of people in order to create an all-encompassing narrative that can make his case sound epistemologically solid.
Indeed, figures like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein are celebrated by the whole of society as individuals that achieved remarkable things and whose personality and attributes we usually define as exemplary.
However, his choice of people seems elitist and factors such as environmental, racial and biological influences haven’t been taken into account in order to understand how easy it is for someone to reach a self-actualized state.
In the grand scheme of things, the possibility that such characteristics can be attained by anyone seems utopian to say the least. 1
To dwell within the boundaries of this utopian pursuit is to inhabit a space whose intellectual topography is modeled almost entirely from ambitious assertions and the purpose of these assertions is to reinvent the meaning of our lives.
Self-actualization isn’t the end.
But self-actualization isn’t a delusion either.
It is none and both at the same time.
We can call it a mechanism.
It’s a mechanism that acts as a compass whenever the moral, intellectual and intuitive processes that orient us towards what is good for us are out of sync.
And this happens far too often.
The chaotic nature of reality leaves no room for alternatives.
But such an endeavor, regardless of how demanding it seems, can be within our reach.
The person who wants to be self-actualized believes that he is worthy of self-actualization. And it is so because he makes it so.
As it is mentioned in “Toward a Psychology of Being”:
“Abraham Maslow doesn’t pretend to have easy answers, absolutes, or solutions that bring the relief of finality, but he does have a deep belief in people.”
Self-actualization constitutes a vision for humanity and should be treated as such.
Our constitution is fluid and it is this fluidity that allows us to constantly innovate in the way we approach our relationship with ourselves and with each other.
Ontological questions grow our appetite for life and through an interplay between the known and the unknown we will always define our mode of being and become more enamored with the machinations of the cosmos.
It is this interplay that will define if and when we can all reach this fascinating state that is self-actualization.
When you want to discover the right path towards self-actualization, a simple daily action plan can create monumental changes in your life. In “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses” project, I have collected the most interesting daily habits, inspired by renowned individuals, that aim to help people reinvent the way you approach life and focus on adopting practices that are not only feasible but also enjoyable and meaningful. You can check it out here.
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