Caterpillar casting shadow of butterflySelf-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 their talents while still being mindful of their 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.

What Is Self-Actualization?

The process of self-actualization is different for everyone, and not all individuals achieve all levels of the hierarchy throughout their lives. While Maslow believed achieving self-actualization is somewhat rare and posited that only about 1% of the adult population has self-actualized, current research shows this number may be higher. Further, self-actualization has not been found to correlate with age, gender, income level, or race.

Self-actualization is thought to be best conceptualized as the sum of its parts rather than as traits viewed in isolation. For example, a person who has a creative spirit, which is one trait of self-actualization, may still not be fully self-actualized. Some experts say the theory of self-actualization is more about how open a person is to growth and health rather than about achieving ideals such as perfection, success, or happiness.

In addition, those that do self-actualize will not necessarily remain in that state. People may travel between several levels of the hierarchy over their lifespan, based on life circumstances, individual choices, and mental health.

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.

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 needs associated with self-actualization include:

  • Acceptance of facts
  • Lack of prejudice
  • Ability to solve problems
  • Sense of morality
  • Creativity
  • Spontaneity  

When these needs are met, a person may be more open to the process of self-actualization.

Self-Actualization Characteristics and Traits

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 they’re 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
  • Have a well-developed sense of creativity, sometimes referred to as a “creative spirit”
  • 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.

Examples of Self-Actualization

Self-actualization may manifest in many forms, and some of how a self-actualized person may appear can depend on their age, culture, and other factors. A few examples of behavior a self-actualized person might exhibit include:

  • Finding humor in a given situation
  • Getting enjoyment and satisfaction out of the present moment
  • Understanding what they need in order to gain a sense of fulfillment 
  • Tendency to feel secure and unashamed in who they are

Becoming self-actualized is not always a straightforward process, and it can take years for some people to reach self-actualization. To learn more about how therapy can help you become more self-actualized, click here.


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