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Maslow’s Hierarchy and Self-Actualisation

“The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” — Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a well-known theory of motivation. Published in 1943, it sets out psychologist Abraham Maslow’s belief that humans are motivated by five basic categories of needs which, in a nutshell, are physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation. A hierarchy exists, and the basic needs for physical survival such as food, water and shelter must be met before attention can be turned to the next level of need – creating a pyramid of motivational needs with each one that’s fulfilled providing the base on which the next level can be built. In this sense, self-actualisation is the apex of the pyramid, but what does self-actualisation mean, and can everyone achieve it?


Maslow’s definition of self-actualisation is as follows: “It refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualised in what he is potentially.” In other words, reaching your full potential. Of course, full potential is a very individual thing, meaning self-actualisation isn’t going to look the same for everyone.

“Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What human beings can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualisation.” – Abraham Maslow

The original hierarchy of needs has been scrutinised by many professionals over the years and the research methods used by Maslow to define the characteristics of a self-actualised individual can be considered flawed, but his work is still at the core of positive psychology to this day. His focus was firmly on human potential and how each of us could fulfil that potential, but he made it clear that “there are no perfect human beings” and all of us are in a constant state of “becoming” the best we can be.

Characteristics of Self-Actualisation

The shared characteristics Maslow identified in those he believed to be self-actualised individuals include:

  • An acceptance of themselves and others for what they are
  • An efficient perception of reality and ability to tolerate uncertainty
  • Spontaneity in thought and action
  • Strong moral and ethical standards
  • Creativity
  • And an ability to look at life objectively.

His research centred on 18 people, including Albert Einstein and Mother Theresa, and the behaviours he saw that demonstrated self-actualisation included:

  • Listening to their own feelings when evaluating experiences, not the voice or view of authority, tradition, or the majority
  • Being prepared to be unpopular if their views differed from others
  • Trying new things instead of sticking to safe, known paths
  • Being honest and avoiding pretence
  • Being present; fully absorbed and concentrating on the present moment
  • Taking responsibility and working hard
  • And having an awareness of their defences, and the courage to lower them.

Achieving Self-Actualisation

So, can we all achieve self-actualisation? Maslow believes so, saying, All the evidence that we have indicates that it is reasonable to assume in practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, that there is an active will toward health, an impulse towards growth, or towards the actualisation,” yet it’s known that only a very small percentage of the population have achieved this in reality. Why? Well, in Maslow’s words, “It seems that the necessary thing to do is not to fear mistakes, to plunge in, to do the best that one can, hoping to learn enough from blunders to correct them eventually,” and therein lies the answer – fear holds us back.

 “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” – Abraham Maslow

Self-actualisation is not an endpoint or a destination, it’s an ongoing journey and process. Are you willing to be true to who you are to become all you can be?

Don MacNaughton is a High-Performance Coach, Mentor and Key Note Speaker.

Next NLP & Life Coaching Diploma starts in Inverness in Feb 2020 for more details please email donald@zonedinperformance.com

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