Self-actualization is the final stage of development in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This stage occurs when a person is able to take full advantage of his or her talents while still being mindful of his or her limitations. The term is also used colloquially to refer to an enlightened maturity characterized by the achievement of goals, acceptance of oneself, and an ability to self-assess in a realistic and positive way. Self-actualization can be explored in therapy.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Although the concept of self-actualization was originally discussed by Gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein, it is most often associated with humanistic psychology, particularly the humanistic psychologist Maslow, who used self-actualization as the pinnacle of his hierarchy of needs. Maslow developed the concept of the hierarchy of needs to address both the basic and esoteric needs of human existence. Its stages include physiological needs, safety needs, the need for love and belonging, the need for esteem and, finally, self-actualization.

Self-actualization occurs when a person is able to take full advantage of his or her talents while still being mindful of his or her limitations. Once the most basic needs for an individual to remain alive have been met, desires that concern safety and affection follow, then esteem needs. Once esteem needs such as self-confidence and self-respect have been met, a person might begin to self-actualize. The hierarchy also serves as a model of development in which babies start at the lowest level by attempting to gain food, water, and shelter.

The process of self-actualization is different for everyone, and not all individuals achieve all levels of the hierarchy throughout their lives. Achieving self-actualization is somewhat rare: According to Maslow, only about 1% of the adult population has self-actualized, and those that do self-actualize will not necessarily remain in that state. People may travel between several levels of the hierarchy over the lifespan, based on life circumstances, individual choices, and mental health.

Characteristics of Self-Actualization

For Maslow, self-actualization describes the desire that leads to the realization of one's full potential: A self-actualizer is a person who has reached the apex of human existence. In other words, that person has become everything he or she is capable of becoming. This realization of potential can occur in many ways but generally includes the achievement of sound psychological health and a strong sense of fulfillment.

In general, self-actualized people:

  • Accept themselves and others. 
  • Maintain deep and meaningful relationships.
  • Can exist autonomously.
  • Have a sense of humor, particularly an ability to find humor in their own mistakes.
  • Accurately perceive reality, both as it pertains to the self and others.
  • Have a sense of purpose and perform regular tasks geared toward that purpose.
  • Experience frequent moments of profound happiness (what Maslow called “peak experiences”).
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion for others.
  • Have an ongoing appreciation of the goodness of life. Some might refer to this trait as childlike wonder.

Because self-actualization involves a strong sense of purpose and self-awareness as well as the imperative that one's basic needs are met, it can be a challenging goal to reach. However, people who do self-actualize at some point in life may be able to retain access to this level because they have learned the necessary skills to achieve fulfillment.

Not all people seek self-actualization as a goal, and different people or cultures may have differing opinions about what constitutes a self-actualized state of being.

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Self-Actualization in Person-Centered Therapy

The association of person-centered therapy with the human potential movement helped to define human nature as inherently good, suggesting that a drive to achieve one's full potential motivates human behavior. This demonstrated a change in ideas from those of people like Sigmund Freud, who suggested that humans were motivated by sexual desires and aggression

In person-centered therapy, the therapist and the person in therapy form a personal relationship as equals, and the person in therapy chooses the direction in which therapy sessions unfold. People who feel negatively about themselves or who have unrealistic expectations about life may find achieving self-actualization to be difficult, but resolving this self-concept and other negative thoughts in therapy can often help individuals move toward self-actualization, which focuses on individual strengths rather than individual failings.

Case Example

  • Discussing self-actualization in therapy: Yosef, 38, enters therapy due to feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction, and general unhappiness. He tells the therapist that he finds himself unfulfilled in his job as a computer programmer. He does his job well and makes good money but finds himself dreading going to work because he is so often bored. This boredom has spread to other areas of his life, he tells the therapist, explaining that he feels difficulty becoming excited about anything in life, and that his melancholy is affecting his relationship with his live-in girlfriend. He recognizes his growing disinterest in his job but feels it is too late for him to embark on another career and says that he does not even know what career he might be interested in. The therapist explores with Yosef the possible benefits and drawbacks of his switching careers and refers him to a career counselor, where he decides to take an aptitude test to see other fields he might possibly enter. Yosef’s aptitude test indicates that he might enjoy a career where he can spend more time with people, and he decides to pursue a degree at his local community college in human resource management. Once Yosef has made his decision, he feels much more engaged in his daily activities. He reports to the therapist that he is able to be more empathic and understanding of his girlfriend’s needs and desires and that he has regained his interest and excitement in daily life.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Person-centered therapy. (n.d.). Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Retrieved from
  3. Self-Actualization. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved from
  4. Weinberg, H. (2005). The effective time-binder and maslow's "self-actualizing person". Et Cetera, 62(3), 313-317. Retrieved from