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Your Guide to Self-Actualization

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Your Guide to Self-Actualization
Self-actualization is a very individualistic experience. Hence it can mean a lot of different things. It varies from person to person. However, in the broadest sense, it is the process of becoming “everything you are capable of becoming”, as described by the renowned humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Some others say it is the “ability to become the best version of yourself”, as per Kim Egel’s definition, while others might say it is the act of attaining your fullest potential.

However, the question remains how to be your best self? How does one attain one’s fullest potential? Unfortunately, it is not quantifiable. There is no script manual for achieving self-actualization.

Teal Swan once said that when we tell people, they have so much potential and are wasting it. We need to realize that it’s because they can’t see that potential, and neither can we. Anyone’s potential is what they think their potential is. When you understand this, you stop putting yourself in situations where you keep wanting people to meet your expectations of their potential.

Similarly, this fact also illuminates how the act of achieving one’s fullest potential is very subjective. So, to achieve self-actualization, one needs to figure out what one’s true potential is and then work towards attaining it. It implies that we are the only ones that can determine what self-actualization means.

But if you are here right now, you are somewhat on the right path to attain self-actualization.

Although there is no one guide to achieve it, there are things that you can do, habits you can adopt, or practices you can implement that will facilitate you in your journey towards self-actualization.

But to start this journey, we need to understand all we can, about self-actualization, from the work of a famous psychologist who devoted his entire life to studying it.

Maslow’s Concept of Self-actualization:

The tragedy with Maslow’s work is that it is very misunderstood. Maslow did not specify the rigidity of the hierarchy. It’s a misconception, as it varies from person to person. However, in the last stages of his life, Maslow studied self-actualization and self-transcendence. He studied the characteristics of many exemplary people he thought personified attainment of self-actualization or transcendence, including Mother Teresa, Viktor Frankl, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Einstein.

Self-actualization is one of the higher-order motivations. It makes us strive to realize our true potential to attain our “ideal self”. These needs are also known as our “being needs”. These needs are centred around expressing our creative, spiritual, or personal growth. They are achieved by fulfilling our full potential.

According to him, self-actualization is an ongoing process. It’s not something you attain once and stays with you. You need to keep working on it, just like if you lose weight and don’t maintain it, you’ll gain it back. But if you maintain a balanced diet and do regular workouts, you will sustain it. The same goes for self-actualization; it’s a continuous process.

What Self-Actualization Isn’t:

Since it is very hard to define self-actualization due to its individualistic nature, let’s go through what it is not for clarity.

People often think that being self-actualized means perfection. It’s a misconception. You can still have ups and downs in life. It’s knowing and accepting that there will always be highs and lows in life, you’ll be sad and happy, but everything will pass and will get better.

It doesn’t mean you have to be error-free in life; it means you have to accept that you have limitations and acknowledge them. And then, instead of hovering over those limitations, you make an active decision to focus on what your strengths are.

Let’s go through an example, which will clear the ambiguity. Imagine your friend wants to be a sketch artist to fulfil his creative side. But he finds out that he can’t sketch well. But he is amazing with abstract painting. Usually, when people set a goal they can’t attain, they focus on the failures and get stuck. It is not self-actualization. Instead, if they focus on what they can instead of what they can’t, they can achieve the same goal through abstract art, i.e. “creative expression”.

A self-actualized person will not keep working on an unattainable goal; he’ll refocus and reflect and realize he can develop his strengths and achieve more gratification. Whether he is a sketch or abstract artist, his need to put art out there in the world is being fulfilled.

When I picked up a science major at my parent’s request, I was upset that I wouldn’t pursue arts. I thought it would stand in the way of expressing my artistic and creative nature. And I shared this with an elderly figure in my life. He said something that stuck with me. He said research and innovation is also creative expression. Discovering new things, making new things would fulfil your creative needs.

And since then, in everything I do, I have found a way to utilize my creativity in it. Something as simple as making yourself a bowl of salad can be art. You play with colors and flavors. You pick out a bowl that goes with the aesthetics of the salad. Set your table up. The visuals of your creation will please your aesthetic sense and fulfil your creative needs.

What it Looks Like:

Self-actualization is unique to every individual. However, from the works of dedicated humanistic psychologists, we have synthesized a few characteristics of self-actualized people. Taking a look at them will further clarify what self-actualization looks like:

1. They live independently

These people are not bothered by what other people say about them. Societal norms and feedback do not influence them. They are perfectly okay spending time with themselves. They have a deep appreciation for solitude. They don’t always seek to be surrounded by the company because they are with themselves and the universe.

They see the world differently. They know that what others think is their perception based on their experiences. They see how people react, has nothing to do with them but everything to do with their perceptions, experiences, and conditioning.

You can often identify these people in a social group because somehow, their existence is so fresh and therapeutic for others. They seem wise, empathetic, and very connected to the present moment.

Their lives are not structured around others’ opinions. They are a few people to whom status quo bias doesn’t seem to bother. They are not afraid of living their truth. They don’t want to spend their lives living to fit into the roles that society defines for us. Instead of what we have been conditioned to believe, they see the world for what it is. Self-actualized people are closer to reality than anyone else around them.

2. Possess a sense of reality and truth

These people are more grounded and in contact with the actuality of things instead of the bubble most people live in. They can sense and detect vibes and energies. It’s not hard for them to see the falseness in others. They have a deep appreciation for the truth and reality of the things around them.

3. They are comfortable with the unknown

Self-actualized people are comfortable with not knowing things. Socrates said he is the wisest of all because he knows nothing. People who fret about the unknown burden themselves with something they have no control over. People plan and plan, have high expectations, live inside a box, and when things go sideways, they are disappointed. At the same time, self-actualized people know that not knowing is beautiful in its way. They are not carrying the burden of not knowing what lies ahead. They know what is in their control and what is not. Therefore, they are at peace with whatever the future holds for them.

4. They have compassion, kindness, and acceptance

When you are in touch with reality, you see people for who they are. They know we are all souls underneath flesh and bones. They also know that every human has an inherent value and respect. People are not good or bad. It’s their actions that are good and bad. But behaviour is modifiable, and rehabilitation is possible.

Therefore, they have compassion, kindness, and acceptance for everyone and themselves.

5. They possess a good-natured sense of humor

Living in the present moment means that you enjoy the tiny details of life and appreciate its fleeting nature. You are content with whatever life has to offer. They are happy and positive. Therefore, have a good-natured sense of humor. They don’t mind laughing at their own mistakes or themselves. Their nature inspires people around them to see humor and light in the most challenging of times.

6. They seek meaningful connections

They interact well with everyone and treat them with respect and kindness. However, these people also seek deep, meaningful connections with others. They don’t enjoy small talk or causal relationships with many people. Instead, they prefer a company of few but significant relations.

7. They have a sense of spontaneity

Self-actualized people are more easygoing. They spend their lives in a state of flow. They aspire to live as naturally and authentically as possible. They believe in living in the moment and aren’t afraid of missing out. Instead of sticking to a routine, they follow the path they want to and don’t fret over what would happen if they do something spontaneously.

8. They are creative

As discussed earlier, creativity is important for self-actualized people. They have a deep appreciation for and a knack for creativity. They appreciate art, nature, and beauty. Only being creative is not artistic, but these people have unique creative problem-solving skills. Their abilities lack inhibition. It is another aspect of their spontaneous nature.

And when I say spontaneous, it doesn’t mean they like to put themselves or others in dangerous situations just for the sake of an adrenaline rush. That is recklessness.

Spontaneity and thrill-seeking are different; being spontaneous means being open to experiencing new things.

9. They enjoy peak experiences

You might be wondering what peak experiences are. I know it isn’t easy to comprehend. But it’s very simple. It means experiencing things to the fullest, moments full of euphoria, wonder, and joy. It has immensely to do with the art of living in the present moment, of being mindful.

People also describe it as being connected with the universe, feeling like a part of something beautiful and big.

To some people, it does sound all made-up. I used to think the same. But on my healing journey, I discovered the art of being present and practising mindfulness.

10. Focus on things bigger than themselves

Another common characteristic of self-actualized people is seeing the bigger picture. They are capable of not only considering their own lives but dedicating their lives to a greater cause, mission, or deeper, meaningful purpose.

11. Stop and smell the roses

They have a great sense of appreciation for positive, joyful, aesthetic moments. They can see the beauty in a sunrise, in children’s laughter, or in smelling a beautiful flower. They enjoy each moment as if it was the first time, no matter how many times they have experienced it before.

12. Have a sense of justice

They possess a strong sense of justice and equality, a deep found compassion and respect for all. These people tend to go out of their way to promote peace and justice. They don’t mind standing up for unjust or unethical issues.

13. Possess Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or “social feeling

“Gemeinschaftsgefühl” is a term coined by Alfred Adler. It means “feeling for community” in German. He used it to describe a concern and interest in the general well-being of all humanity.

How to work toward it

If you are here and need to start working towards being self-actualized, below are a few habits or values you could work to make a part of your lives.

1. Be Present

In his writings, Maslow highlighted that one of the main characteristics of self-actualized people is their un-self-consciousness ability to be wholly submerged in the present moment. He wrote,

“ Self-actualization means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption. It means experiencing without the self-consciousness of the adolescent. At this moment of experiencing, the person is wholly and fully human. This is a self-actualizing moment. This is a moment where the self is actualizing itself.”

You can start practising mindful meditation to be more present in your inner and outer surroundings. It will help you observe yourself and the world around you to be one with the present moment.

2. Practice Acceptance

Acceptance is very important. Accepting things and others the way they are can make things so much easier. When you take the situations or human beings for what they are, you have a “come what may” attitude in life. We will be better prepared to deal with the negativities and difficult situations.

It improves your approach to life and helps you see and accept people for who they are. However, accepting people doesn’t mean that these people need to be in your life, per se, but you can accept and move on.

3. Get to know Yourself

Befriend yourself, get in touch with your inner world of emotions and feelings. Get to know who you are, learn about your traumas, triggers, and behaviors. Once you accept who you are and love yourself for who you are, your mistakes, your flaws, your limitations, only then you’ll be able to self-actualize.

4. Be True to Who You are

We learn from our initial attachments that we need to accommodate others’ needs to be loveable. But being true to who you are, means living authentically, and being your most genuine self, without thinking about who you want to please or have a positive image in front of.

When our inner self and what we show to the world is not harmonious, it starts messing up with our inner and outer worlds. We exhaust our mental capacities and defence mechanisms, leading to neurosis or psychosis.

I know the words, be true to who you are or live authentically, are thrown out there a lot. But what it means is honouring your truth and not being dishonest, manipulative, or denying your needs.

5. Be Aware of your Choices

There’s a progressive choice and a regressive one; actively choose the progressive one whenever we make a choice. Being more aware of options stems from being more present and mindful.

Our decisions need to be the ones that foster growth, not the ones that take away from it. Self-actualization is a continuous, ongoing process. Therefore, it is important to make choices that align with your self-actualizing journey continuously.

6. Recognize Peak Experiences

Learn to recognize peak experiences. They are the “transient moments of self-actualization,” according to Maslow. You can’t seek them out. Therefore, you can only be more present and mindful, so you can experience them in their entirety when they occur.

7. Don’t bother Non-Conformance

Self-actualization is the act of getting to know oneself and achieving it. It would be best if you unlearned who you’ve become owing to conditioning and conforming to society. To meet yourself, you need to unlearn all that. Not sticking to what is normal for people can be daunting because humans like to fit. And anything or anyone who questions that comforting belief is not well-received.

8. Practice Empathy & Compassion

Learn to practice compassion and empathy. Self-actualized people tend to see the beauty and love in everything or everyone around them. They have a deep sense of compassion and love for all. They see that everyone has an inherent value and respect. They can step into others’ shoes and understand things from their perspectives. If you want to develop your empathy and compassion, you can:

  • Explore different ways to better your community.
  • Volunteer for charitable organizations/philanthropic projects.
  • Calculate your carbon footprint and actively take measures to reduce it.

9. Get to Know and Befriend Yourself

Having meaningful relationships with others is important, but what is even more important is to develop a healthy, positive, and loving relationship with yourself.

People need to be able to enjoy their own company first. I used to think it’s another thing that gets thrown around a lot. I guess if nothing else, COVID-19 taught me how to be comfortable with and enjoy my company.

I always needed to be around people because I was not particularly eager to sit with my thoughts alone. Still, since we didn’t have another option during self-isolation, I accepted the reality, I got to know and befriend myself.

And let me tell you, it has made my life a lot easier. My friendships and relationships with family, colleagues, peers are a lot more meaningful.

10. Be prepared to deal with Psychopathology

This point might have been low on this list, but it has nothing to do with its importance. To get to know ourselves, our past traumas, behaviour patterns, compulsions, and delusions, we need to get in touch with a therapist.

“Why?” you ask; these people spent years studying the human psyche, behaviour, and emotions. They know how to get you in touch with who you are and help you live your life more fulfilling and holistically.

Unconditional positive regard, judgement-free association, and continuous approval reassuring the validity of your experiences can help overcome your traumas. It will help you align your real self to your authentic/ideal self.


We must see how self-actualization is not a one-shoe-fits-all process and that there are no set guidelines or instructions on how to achieve it.

We need to keep in mind that it is an ongoing journey of actively making conscious decisions that serve our self-actualizing journey.

Remember that you don’t have to hold yourself up to unrealistic/ unachievable standards. Just go through life with an open mind and an open heart.

You can also contact our expert psychology tutors to learn more about holistic and mindful living.

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Austin has 10+ years of experience in teaching. He has researched on thousands of students-related topics, issues, and concerns. You will often find him writing about the common concerns of students, their nutrition, and what is beneficial for their academics and health both.