Self-Actualization: The Key to Human Potential

The theory of self-actualization states that there's intrinsic potential inside us that we must develop to its fullest in order to be happy.
Self-Actualization: The Key to Human Potential
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Mahatma Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, and Nelson Mandela are great examples of self-actualization. According to the self-actualization theory, each one of us must decode what’s inside us. This is an intentional, responsible, and creative personal growth that makes us fight in order to become what we aspire to be.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow said that a musician shouldn’t make anything that isn’t music. An artist must paint and a writer has to write if they want to be happy. Just like the creator of the hierarchy of needs teaches us, each person has aspirations and innate potential. Ignoring or discouraging them only leads to frustration.

Nonetheless, one thing we must consider is the difficulty of meeting those aspirations. Whether we like it or not, aligning our personal goals with our daily activities isn’t always possible. What’s more, sometimes we don’t have the chance to show our potential to the world or dedicate our lives to what we’ve always dreamed of.

Discipline, hope, and determination are very important factors in self-actualization. Assuming that it won’t be an easy journey is another thing you must accept no matter what, just like the successful people we mentioned earlier did.

In fact, Viktor Frankl pointed out that self-actualization isn’t a goal. Instead, it’s a constant journey through which you learn to improve and get as close to the best version of yourself as you can.

“Self-actualization is intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself.”

-Abraham Maslow-

Tree and sunrise.

The self-actualization theory

The self-actualization theory stems from humanistic psychology. Abraham Maslow was one of its most important figures. In books such as Toward a Psychology of Being, he pointed out the following ideas:

  • Self-actualization means being able to meet our most important needs, whether it be social status, emotional aspirations, or goals, among other things.
  • It’s also about defining what life means to us.
  • This theory states that we must do what’s already inside us. This means that if we don’t have the skills to be a scientist, it’s pointless to dream of becoming the next Stephen Hawking. Each one of us must be aware of our strengths and potential.
  • Carl Rogers, another relevant humanistic psychology figure, claims that self-actualization is also about finding a balance between the real you and the ideal you.

On the other hand, a very interesting detail about this approach is that Maslow defended the idea that we’re programmed to be self-actualized. W e have the powerful need of reaching that balance between who we are and who we could be. However, sometimes society can make it hard on us.

Man in the night.

Keys to achieving self-actualization

If we set our mind on the classic Abraham Maslow theory of human needs, we may believe that climbing to the top (self-actualization) is actually a linear process. In other words, we first need to feel secure. Then, we should satisfy the need for connecting with other people, the need for belonging and love, and the need for social status to finally get to the top.

However, studies like the one Wild Whitellman from the University of Atlanta carried out explain that we must reinterpret the theory of self-actualization.

Self-actualization isn’t a linear process

Victor Frankl, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi all experienced hardship. A lthough they weren’t meeting the pyramid needs in a linear way, they still focused on self-actualization.

  • Mahatma Gandhi used civil disobedience to free his people. Victor Frankl was committed to discovering what life meant to him even when he was in Auschwitz and Dachau. Nelson Mandela didn’t give up while he was imprisoned.
  • In other words, when you’re committed to your values and the strength that defines you, loneliness, unemployment, or being homeless won’t matter.

Be persistent and creative

The self-actualization theory reminds us that there’s a force inside us that makes us reach our goals. If you’re a musician, you shouldn’t give up on your passion and dedicate your life to another profession. You’ll always feel the need to be what you want to be and you must be persistent with your efforts.

Being creative and finding every possible path are the bridges that will help you overcome frustration to get to the top.

A young woman with a violin on her path to self-actualization.

Self-actualization is inside of you

Psychologist and philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also points out that self-actualization is innate. Our potential will slowly and eventually emerge. Thus, we must listen to it and focus on shaping it every day. For example, those who aspire to help people will be happy as nurses, social workers, psychologists, and even teachers.

There are many scenarios where you’ll be able to align your goals with your daily activities. When you do, and once you’re surrounded by the responsibilities you enjoy, you’ll discover what happiness truly feels like.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
    • Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-driven cognition and functional behavior: The fundamental-motives framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 63-67.
    • Krems, J.A., Kenrick, D.T., & Neel, R. (2017). Individual perceptions of self-actualization: What functional motives are linked to fulfilling one’s potential? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In press

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.