Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Self-actualization—as a concept, a theory, and a model—has extended the domain and impact of psychology. Humanistic psychology—a branch of psychology that emphasizes growth and fulfillment, autonomy, choice, responsibility, and ultimate values such as truth, love, and justice—has become an important paradigm for understanding personality, psychopathology, and therapy. Applications have been extensive in education, counseling, religion, and business. Suggesting action and implying consequences, self-actualization holds clear and significant implications regarding the dimensions of psychology, the basic conception of humankind, and the functions and organization of society.
Self-actualization is often defined as a process of growing and fulfilling one’s potential, of being self-directed and integrated, and of moving toward full humanness. The most complete description of the self-actualizing person has been provided by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who devoted much of his professional life to the study of exceptional individuals. Maslow abstracted several ways in which self-actualizing people could be characterized.
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Characterizing Self-Actualizers (Psychology and Mental Health)
Compared with ordinary or average persons, self-actualizing persons, as Maslow describes them, may be characterized as follows: They show a more efficient and accurate perception of reality, seeing things as they really are rather than as distortions based on wishes or neurotic needs. They accept themselves, others, and nature as they are. They are spontaneous both in behavior and in thinking, and they focus on problems outside themselves rather than being self-centered. Self-actualizing persons enjoy and need solitude and privacy; are autonomous, with the ability to transcend culture and environment; have a freshness of appreciation, taking pleasure and finding wonder in the everyday world; and have peak experiences or ecstatic, mystic feelings that provide special meaning to everyday life. They show social interest, which is a deep feeling of empathy, sympathy, identification, and compassionate affection for humankind in general, and have deep interpersonal relationships with others. They carry a democratic character structure that includes humility, respect for everyone, and an emphasis on common bonds rather than differences; they distinguish between means and ends, and they possess a clear sense of ethics. Self-actualizers have a philosophical and unhostile sense of humor, and they are creative and inventive in an everyday sense. They are resistant to enculturation, with a degree of detachment and autonomy...
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Positive and Negative Reaction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Although Maslow approached his study of growing individuals from a somewhat more absolute, rational theoretical perspective than Rogers, who came from a more relativistic, phenomenological, and clinical direction, the theorizing and empirical observations of both psychologists converge on a similar description of a self-actualizing or a fully functioning person who makes full use of capacities and potentialities. Such descriptions have aroused much positive as well as negative reaction. One reason is the implicit suggestion that humankind can or should be self-actualizing. The values of actualizing one’s self—of fulfilling one’s potentials and possessing the characteristics described by Maslow and Rogers—are always implied. Thus, self-actualization is more than a psychological construct; it becomes a possible ethic. Many humanistic proponents have viewed values as necessary in their theorizing; Maslow made an impassioned plea that values, crucial to the development of humanistic psychology, be integrated into science.
Critics of self-actualization theory have argued that it reflects the theorists’ own values and individualist ideology; that it neglects sociohistorical and cultural changes by being rooted in unchanging biology; that there may be social-class or cultural bias in the descriptions; that the concept may be misused and encourage the creation of a cultural aristocracy of “superior”...
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A Positive Growth Model (Psychology and Mental Health)
Self-actualization presents a growth model that can be and has been used in diverse areas such as counseling, education, and business. In addition, there are implications for people’s way of conceptualizing humankind and for structuring institutions and organizing society.
As a model for therapists and counselors and their clients, self-actualization is an alternative to the medical or illness model, which implies that the person coming to the therapist is beset by disease and requires a cure, often from some external source or authority. The self-actualization model represents a positive process, a fostering of strengths. It is concerned with growth choices, self-knowledge, being fully human, and realizing one’s potential; yet it also encompasses an understanding of anxiety, defenses, and obstacles to growth. Psychological education, facilitation of growth, self-help and self-learning, and counseling to deal with problems of living and with dysfunctional defenses all are implied in the self-actualization model for human fulfillment and actualization of potentials. This model also avoids problems associated with an adjustment model, in which therapists may socialize conformity or adjustment to a particular status quo or societal mainstream.
Rogers employed the model in his nondirective, person-centered counseling, later called the person-centered approach. Grounded in trust and emphasizing the therapist’s...
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Use in Workplace Management (Psychology and Mental Health)
Maslow’s application of self-actualization theory to management represents another very influential contribution. Douglas McGregor described a humanistic theory of management (theory Y) that respects human rights and treats workers as individuals. This theory was contrasted with theory X, a managerial view that holds that people dislike work and must therefore be controlled, coerced, conditioned, or externally reinforced to obtain high work productivity. Maslow’s own book on management assumes the existence of higher needs in all workers that, if met in the world of work, would demonstrate the inherent creativity and responsibility of workers and result in greater satisfaction, increased self-direction, and also greater work productivity. Many influential management theorists, including McGregor, Rensis Likert, and Chris Argyris, have acknowledged Maslow’s influence on them. Many field and research studies have supported the value of the self-actualization model as applied to management. Maslow contended that such enlightened management policies are necessary for interacting with a growing, actualizing population; in the world of work, as elsewhere, the highest levels of efficiency can be obtained only by taking full account of the need for self-actualization that is present in everyone.
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Examining Synergic Societies (Psychology and Mental Health)
One of the major conclusions and implications stemming from the self-actualization model is that a synergic society can evolve naturally from the present social system; such a society would be one in which every person may reach a high level of fulfillment.
Ruth Benedict tried to account for differences in societies that related to the overall human fulfillment they could afford their citizens. She prepared brief descriptions of four pairs of cultures. One of each pair was an insecure society, described as nasty, surly, and anxious, with low levels of moral behavior and high levels of hatred and aggression. The contrasting culture was a secure one, described as comfortable, showing affection and niceness. The concept of synergy differentiated these two groups. In high-synergy societies, social arrangements allowed for mutually reinforcing acts that would benefit both individual people and the group; these societies were characterized by nonaggression and cooperation. In low-synergy societies, the social structure provided for mutually opposed and counteractive acts, whereby one individual could or must benefit at the expense of others; these were the cultures in which aggression, insecurity, and rivalry were conspicuous.
Roderic Gorney described how the absolute amount of wealth in a society did not determine the degree of synergy or quality of life in that society. More crucial, he found, were the...
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Influences and Contributors (Psychology and Mental Health)
The development of the self-actualization concept was influenced by many sources. Carl Jung, Otto Rank, and Alfred Adler, departing from Freud’s classical psychoanalytic formulations, emphasized the importance of individuality and social dimensions. Jung, credited with being the first to use the term “self-actualization,” developed the concept of the self as a goal of life; self-actualization meant a complete differentiation and harmonious blending of the many aspects of personality. Rank emphasized the necessity of expressing one’s individuality to be creative. Adler described self-actualization motives with the concept of striving for superiority or for perfection; this innate striving, or great upward drive, was a prepotent dynamic principle of human development. Adler also believed that a constructive working toward perfection (of self and society) would result from a loving, trustworthy early social environment.
Kurt Goldstein, the first psychologist who explicitly used self-actualization as the master motive or most basic sovereign drive, was a leading exponent of organismic theory; this approach emphasized unity, consistency, coherence, and integrity of normal personality. Goldstein held self-actualization to be a universal phenomenon; all organisms tend to actualize their individual capacities and inner natures as much as possible. Prescott Lecky also propounded the achievement of a unified and...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Goble, Frank G. The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow. New York: Pocket Books, 1978. An accessible, highly readable book. Summarizes in brief, succinct chapters the major concepts and ideas of Maslow, such as basic needs, human potential, psychological growth, values, and synergy. Concludes with a survey of applications in education, mental health, and business and industry.
Johnson, David R. Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2009. A comprehensive resource on interpersonal skills and their importance in self-actualization, this text has been updated to include coverage on such topics as online relationships, overcoming shyness, developing trust, and self-disclosure. Skill-building exercises are helpful for putting theory into action.
Jones, Alvin, and Rick Crandall, eds. “Handbook of Self-Actualization.” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, no. 5 (1991). A special issue. A collection of papers on self-actualization and optimal functioning, including theoretical and analytical papers, empirical studies, and examination of issues in assessing self-actualization. The papers, variable in quality and sophistication, cover the field broadly, present interesting implications, and point to future directions.
LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We...
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Self-Actualization (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
A prominent term in humanistic psychology that refers to the basic human need for self-fulfillment.
The term self-actualization was used most extensively by Abraham Maslow, who placed it at the apex of his hierarchy of human motives, which is conceived as a pyramid ascending from the most basic biological needs, such as hunger and thirst, to increasingly complex ones, such as belongingness and self-esteem. The needs at each level must be at least partially satisfied before those at the next can be addressed. Thus, while Maslow considered self-actualization to be the highest motivation possible and the essence of mental health, he recognized that most people are too preoccupied with more basic needs to seek it actively.
To arrive at a detailed description of self-actualization, Maslow studied historical figuresncluding Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)hom he believed had made extraordinary use of their potential and looked for common characteristics. He found that self-actualizers were creative, spontaneous, and able to tolerate uncertainty. Other common qualities included a good sense of humor, concern for the welfare of humanity, deep appreciation of the basic experiences of life,...
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