The concept of self-actualization, over the years, has gained a lot of popularity. It has made experts as well as lay persons from varying backgrounds to be highly interested in the idea. The popularity of the concept is reflected in its usage in a wide range of areas such as teaching, counseling, healthcare, leadership, and management.
The pioneer of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, in the mid-20th century (1950s to 1960s), popularized the concept of self-actualization in the context of his theory of personality and motivation. According to Maslow, self-actualization is an innate tendency. It is the tendency of individuals to realize and fulfill their true potential and abilities. It is the desire to become more and more what one idiosyncratically is and to become what one is fully capable of becoming.
This suggests that the concept of self-actualization is about individuals being unique in their own way. The state of self-actualization, according to Maslow, is not about being a better person. Instead, it is about being the person that one is supposed to be, which indicates that every individual is unique in their own way. Thus, for every individual, the idea of self-actualization is going to be different from the other.
Self-actualization is about individuals reaching their full existential capacity. It is not about achievement or becoming an extraordinary individual. It is actually about personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential to the highest level possible, whatever the endeavor may be. It is an intrinsic unfolding process, which does not rely on any rewards system.
Further, self-actualization is not about striving for specific goals or reducing a deficiency. It is about striving for stimulating and challenging tasks and events, and by doing so, enriching one’s life. Instead of accepting life as it is, self-actualization involves constantly seeking new challenges, and avoiding secure and routine behaviors and attitudes.
Maslow’s description of the concept of self-actualization was a moving away from the causal tradition in psychology. Maslow opposed the existing deterministic perspectives of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. He suggested that behavior is not driven by a cause, something that has already existed. Behavior, instead is driven by a future state that the individual is striving for. This is called teleology or the teleological perspective.
For Maslow, self-actualization is a future state that individuals strive for and it is not a cause that has already existed. It is not something that is pushing the individual, but it is actually pulling the individual. This makes self-actualization describe behavior from the teleological perspective, which is a shift from the traditional physical sciences approach (determinism) that psychology had been following.
Like Maslow, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers also emphasized on self-actualization. Around the same time as that of Maslow, Rogers suggested that self-actualization is innate, and it is the greatest motivating factor of individuals. Rogers believed that people have an innate tendency to enhance themselves. According to Rogers, self-actualization or the actualizing tendency (as he referred to it) is an active, controlling drive towards the fulfillment of potential, which helps in maintaining and enhancing the self.
Rogers, further, suggested that human beings have a tendency to always seek new experiences and avoid environments that lack stimulation. From his clinical experiences, Rogers suggested that people have a directional tendency to grow and have new and varied experiences.
Additionally, Rogers suggested that human beings are basically good. Human beings develop this innate goodness when society is helpful. According to Rogers, people are not able to develop their innate goodness due to faulty socialization patterns. In this regard, Rogers suggested unconditional positive regard to be very important. If parents or caregivers show unconditional positive regard then the child grows into a healthy individual. Therefore, according to Rogers society and socialization patterns play a role in self-actualization.
Rogers suggested that self-actualization is the highest level of psychological health. He referred to self-actualized people as psychologically healthy individuals or fully functioning persons. Rogers described the fully functioning person as actualizing and not actualized because he believed that growth never ends - it is always a work in progress. Rogers believed that his concept of self-actualization is similar to that of Maslow.
In describing the concept of self-actualization, Maslow borrowed the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung’s idea of the self archetype and the transcendent function. Archetypes are archaic, generalized, emotionally toned collections of associated images derived from the collective unconscious (aspects of the unconscious that have its roots in the ancient past of the entire species). In the early to mid-20th century, Jung suggested that the self archetype is innate and has the potential of being realized in everyone. It involves a process called the way of individuation and leads towards self-realization.
According to Jung, the way of individuation is a process by which individuals become the definite, unique being that they are. It is about fulfilling the peculiarity of the individual. Jung, therefore, suggests that the self is the final goal of striving. This self-realization does not come easily. The person has to go through a wide range of experiences and make many efforts to resolve conflicts within the psyche.
The self, according to Jung, becomes a unifying force by the transcendent function. The transcendent function works towards the ideal goal of perfect wholeness. It reveals the essential person by producing and unfolding the original, potential wholeness.
Apart from Jung’s self archetype, the concept of self-actualization used by Maslow has also been found to be similar to the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler’s idea of striving for superiority. According to Adler, striving for superiority is the innate, ultimate drive of human beings to realize their full potential. In the early 20th century, Adler suggested that striving for superiority is a fundamental human need - people strive to feel superior to overcome their feelings of inferiority and inferiority complex. This striving for superiority is not in the sense of social status and dominance. It is rather an urge for completion and perfection.
Adler suggested that striving for superiority is the final goal of all humankind. It unifies personality and makes all behaviors comprehensible. Adler also suggested that striving for superiority is a way to compensate the feelings of inferiority and weakness. People are always pushed by the need to overcome inferiority and pulled by the desire for completion and wholeness.
Even though the concept of self-actualization was popularized by Maslow, the term was originated by the neuropsychiatrist, Kurt Goldstein. Goldstein had a holistic approach. He was one of the major proponents of the holistic movement at the beginning of the 20th century. He criticized the reductionist approach and atomization in neurology that existed at that time. He opposed experiences to be viewed in terms of smaller components. He rejected the localization theory (each brain area has specific functions), suggesting that the brain functions as a whole, and if damage occurs in one brain area other areas take over the functioning of the missing brain area.
The holistic approach of Goldstein led him to introduce the concept of self-actualization. Self-actualization, according to Goldstein, is a striving for completeness. It is the organic principle by which individuals become more fully developed and complete. Goldstein, in the 1930s, suggested that self-actualization is the main motive of human nature. It is the creative trend of human nature. Human beings are governed by the strong tendency to actualize their potential.
According to Goldstein, each individual has certain potentialities, which are expressed through interests, preferences, and aptitudes. The fulfillment of these potentialities is finding a way towards completeness and represents self-actualization.
Goldstein, further, suggested that even though self-actualization is a universal phenomenon, the process differs from person to person. This is because people differ with respect to their innate potentialities. These differences direct them in their own ways towards growth, development, and self-actualization. It also differs because of the different environments and cultures that they may belong to.
The concept of self-actualization is a part of Goldstein’s organismic theory. The organismic theory views the individual in totality and emphasizes the integration of personality. It is about viewing individuals in terms of a holistic and unified experience and viewing any event in the context of the organism.
Goldstein applied the Gestalt approach to his organismic theory. Gestalt psychology suggests that the mind has a tendency to organize experience into configurations and wholes. It emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than the sum of its parts, indicating that consciousness or experience as a whole cannot be reduced to smaller components.
The organismic theory formed the basis of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on the individual’s present, in-the-moment experiences rather than examining the past. It also involves taking responsibility and understanding the context of the person’s life.
Self-actualization is a widely known concept in the discipline of psychology. The concept was popularized by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, but it was the neuropsychiatrist Kurt Goldstein who originated the idea. Goldstein applied the Gestalt theory and used the findings of his studies of patients with brain damage in introducing the term.
Additionally, Maslow’s description of self-actualization has been found similar to Carl Rogers’s idea of actualizing tendency, Carl Jung’s concept of the self archetype, and Alfred Adler’s idea of striving for superiority. The concept of self-actualization, therefore, provides a link between the fields of neuroscience, Gestalt psychology, humanistic psychology, and psychoanalysis.
This article can also be found on the blog Life and Psychology