Self-Actualization in Psychology: Theory, Examples & Characteristics

Key Takeaways

  • Self-actualization is the complete realization of one’s potential, and the full development of one’s abilities and appreciation for life. This concept is at the top of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, so not every human being reaches it.
  • Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are three individuals who have contributed immensely to our understanding of the concept of self-actualization.
  • The present day understanding of self-actualization, tends to be more aligned with the view of Maslow than with the perspectives of Goldstein or Rogers.
  • According to Maslow, the internal drive to self-actualize would seldom emerge until more basic needs are met.
  • Self-actualized people have an acceptance of who they are despite their faults and limitations, and experience to drive to be creative in all aspects of their lives.
  • While self-actualizers hail from a variety of backgrounds and a diversity of occupations, they share notable characteristics in common, such as the ability to cultivate deep and loving relationships with others.

Self-actualization (also referred to as self-realization or self-cultivation) can be described as the complete realization of one’s potential as manifest in peak experiences which involve the full development of one’s abilities and appreciation for life (Maslow, 1962).

The attainment of self-actualization involves one’s full involvement in life and the realization of that which one is capable of accomplishing.

Generally, the state of self-actualization is viewed as obtainable only after one’s fundamental needs for survival, safety, love and self-esteem are met (Maslow, 1943, 1954).

Kurt Goldstein

Even though the term “self-actualization” is most associated with Abraham Maslow, it was originally introduced by Kurt Goldstein, a physician specializing in psychiatry and neuroanatomy during the early part of the 20th century.

Goldstein (1939, 1940) viewed self-actualization as the ultimate goal of every organism, and refers to man”s” desire for self-fulfillment, and the propensity of an individual to become
actualized in his potential.

He contended that each human being, plant and animal has an inborn goal to actualize itself as it is.

Goldstein pointed out that organisms, therefore behave in accordance with this overarching motivation.

In his book, “The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man”, Goldstein argued that self-actualization involves the tendency to actualize an organism’s individual capacities as much as possible (Goldstein, 2000).

According to Goldstein’s (1940) view, self-actualization was not necessarily a goal to be reached in the future, but an organism’ innate propensity to realize its potential at any moment under the given circumstances.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers described self-actualization the continuous lifelong process whereby an individual’s self-concept is maintained and enhanced via reflection and the reinterpretation of various experiences which enable the individual to recover, change and develop (Rogers, 1951).

According to Rogers (1967) the human organism has an underlying “actualizing tendency”, which aims to develop all capacities in ways that maintain or enhance the organism and move it toward autonomy.

According to Rogers, people could only self-actualize if they had a positive view of themselves (positive self-regard).  This can only happen if they have unconditional positive regard from others – if they feel that they are valued and respected without reservation by those around them (especially their parents when they were children).

Self-actualization is only possible if there is congruence between the way an individual sees themselves (self-image) and their ideal self (the way they want to be or think they should be). If there is a large gap between these two concepts, negative feelings of self-worth will arise that will make it impossible for self-actualization to take place.

Congruence Circles Illustrating Self Actualization

Rogers (1967) posits that the structure of the self is a consistent yet fluid pattern of perceptions of oneself which is organized and formed via evaluational interactions.

However, tension between one’s ideal sense of self and one’s experiences (or self-image) can produce incongruence, a psychopathological state stemming from the perversions of one’s unitary actualizing tendency.

For Rogers (1967), a person who is in the process of self-actualizing, actively exploring potentials and abilities and experiencing a match between real and ideal selves is a fully functioning person.

Becoming a Fully functioning person means “that the individual moves towards “being”, knowingly and acceptingly, the process which he inwardly and actually “is”. He moves away from what he is not, from being a facade.

He is not trying to be more than he is, with the attendant feelings of insecurity or bombastic defensiveness. He is not trying to be less than he is, with the attendant feelings of guilt or self-deprecation.

He is increasingly listening to the deepest recesses of his psychological and emotional being, and finds himself increasingly willing to be, with greater accuracy and depth, that self which he most truly is”.

Fully functioning people are in touch with their own feelings and abilities and are able to trust their innermost urges and intuitions.

To become fully functioning, a person needs unconditional positive regard from others, especially their parents in childhood.

Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of acceptance of others despite their failings.

However, most people don’t perceive the positive regard of others as being unconditional. They tend to think they will only be loved and valued if they meet certain conditions of worth.

These conditions of worth create incongruity within the self between the real self (how the person is) and the ideal self (how they think they should be or want to be).

Abraham Maslow

Maslow, as did Goldstein, viewed self-actualization as the realization of one’s potential. Howver, Maslow (1967) described self-actualization more narrowly than did Goldstein by applying it solely to human beings—rather than all organisms.

Maslow pointed out that human beings have lower order needs which must be generally met before their higher order needs can be satiated, such as self-actualization. He categorized those needs as follows (Maslow, 1943):

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

1. Basic needs:

a. Physiological needs (ex- water, food, warmth and rest).

b. Safety needs (ex- safety and security).

2. Psychological needs.

a. Belongingness needs (ex- close relationships with loved ones and friends).

b. Esteem needs (ex- feeling of accomplishment and prestige).

3. Self-actualization needs (realizing one’s full potential).

Self-actualize is the final stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so not every human being reaches it.

To Maslow, self-actualization meant the desire for self-fulfillment, or a person’s tendency to be actualized in what he or she is potentially.

Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have a strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed economically, academically or athletically. For others, it may be expressed creatively, in paintings, pictures, or inventions.

Maslow further explained that self-actualization involves the intrinsic development of an organism. He contended that self-actualization is more growth-oriented than deficiency-focused (Gleitman, Fridlund, & Riesberg, 2004).

Maslow acknowledged the apparent rarity of self-actualized people, and argued that most people are suffering from a psychopathology of normality.

Unlike Sigmund Freud whose psychodynamic approach was focused on unhealthy individuals engaging in disturbing conduct, Maslow was associated with the humanistic approach which focuses on healthy individuals.

Consequently, Maslow’s perspective is more consistent with a positive view of human nature which sees individuals as driven to reach their potential. This humanistic perspective markedly differs from the Freudian view of human beings as tension reducing organisms.

Examples of Self-Actualized People

Moving beyond mere theory and speculation, Maslow identified several individuals whom he considered as having attained a level of self-actualization (Maslow, 1970).

Noteworthy herein are the diversity of occupations and the variety of the backgrounds which these individuals represent while still meeting the criteria of self-actualization.

  • Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; American President)
  • Albert Einstein (1879- 1955; Theoretical Physicist)
  • Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965; Writer, Humanitarian, Theologian, Organist, Philosopher, and Physician)
  • Aldous Huxley (1894- 1963; Philosopher and Writer)
  • Baruch Spinoza (1632- 1677; Philosopher)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962; Diplomat and Activist)
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935; Settlement Activist, Sociologist, Public Administrator)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826; American President, Architect, Philosopher)
  • William James (1842- 1910; Philosopher and Psychologist)

Characteristics of Self-Actualized Individuals

Abraham Maslow based his theory on case studies of historical figures whom he saw as examples of self-actualized individuals including Albert Einstein, Ruth Benedict, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Maslow examined the lives of each of these people in order to assess the common qualities that led each to become self-actualized.

Based on Maslow’s description of self-actualizers, one can find several striking similarities which these supposedly self-actualized individuals share in common.

Some of such characteristics which distinguish self-actualized individuals from the rest of humanity are as follows (Maslow, 1954, 1970).

  1. Self-actualized people are accepting of others’ as well as their own flaws, often with humor and tolerance. Not only do self-actualized people fully accept others, they are also true to themselves rather than pretending in order to impress others (Talevich, 2017).
  2. Self-actualized people also tend to be independent and resourceful: they are less likely to rely upon external authorities to direct their lives (Martela & Pessi, 2018).
  3. Can cultivate deep and loving relationships with others.
  4. Tendency to exude gratitude and maintain a deep appreciation even for the commonplace blessings in life.
  5. Can often discern between the superficial and the real when judging situations.
  6. Seldom depend upon their environment or culture to form their opinions.
  7. Tendency to view life as a mission which calls them to a purpose beyond themselves.

Critical Evaluation

Despite the popularity of self-actualization as a concept associated with positive psychology and motivation theories, it does not cease to draw criticism.

The Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne for instance, has called self-actualization the game of self-expression based on the belief that good feelings are to be pursued (Berne, 2016).

Additionally, critics have pointed out that self-actualizing tendencies can lead to a positive but non-relational approach to human beings (Thorne, 1992). Moreover, Fritz Perls has noted that the focus can easily shift from striving to actualize one’s sense of self, to merely attempting to build an appearance of self-actualization which can be misleading (Perls, 1992).

Vitz (1994) has contended that Maslow and Rogers have turned the psychological concept of self-actualization into a moral norm. Finally, the possibility of self-actualization has also come to be seen as a special privilege reserved only for a select few.

In response to these concerns, Maslow has acknowledged that expressions of unrestrained whims and the pursuit of private pleasures have often been mislabeled as self-actualization (Daniels, 2005). Maslow too, shared the concern that the concept might be misunderstood.

In fact, when many people wrote to Maslow describing themselves as self-actualized persons, Maslow doubted whether he had sufficiently articulated his theory (Steven, 1975).

However, Maslow did not hold that only an elite few could attain the state of self-actualization. On the contrary, he pointed out that often people living in strikingly similar circumstances experience enormously different outcomes in life.

He reasoned that such a reality underscores the importance of attitude as a factor that influences one’s destiny.


Berne, E. (2016). Games people play the psychology of human relationships . Penguin Life.

Daniels, M. (2005). Shadow, self, spirit: essays in transpersonal psychology (p. 122). Imprint Academic.

Gleitman, Henry & Fridlund, Alan & Riesberg, Daniel. (2004). Psychology (6th Ed.) . New York: Norton.

Goldstein, K. (1939). The Organism . New York, NY: American Books.

Goldstein, K. (1940). Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company.

Martela, F., & Pessi, A. B. (2018). Significant work is about self-realization and broader purpose: defining the key dimensions of meaningful work . Frontiers in psychology, 9, 363.

Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Perls, F. S. (1992). In and out the garbage pail . Gestalt Journal Press.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered. Therapy, 515-520.

Rogers, C. (1963) The Actualizing Tendency in Relation to “Motives” and to Consciousness. In: Jones, M.R., Ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1-24.

Rogers, C. (1967). On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable.

Rogers, C., & Kramer, P. D. (1995). On becoming a person : a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.

Thoma, E. (1963). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Psychosomatics, 4 (2), 122–123.

Stevens, B. (1975). Body work. Gestalt is, 160-191.

Thorne, B. (1992). Key figures in counselling and psychotherapy. Carl Rogers. Sage Publications, Inc.

Talevich, J. R., Read, S. J., Walsh, D. A., Iyer, R., & Chopra, G. (2017). Toward a comprehensive taxonomy of human motives . PloS one, 12 (2), e0172279.

Venter, Henry. (2017). Self-Transcendence: Maslow’s Answer to Cultural Closeness. Journal of Innovation Management, 4 (4), 3-7.

Vitz, P. C. (1994). Psychology as religion: The cult of self-worship . Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Ayesh Perera


B.A, MTS, Harvard University

Ayesh Perera has worked as a researcher of psychology and neuroscience for Dr. Kevin Majeres at Harvard Medical School.