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 figures—including Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)—whom 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, and a tendency to establish close personal relationships with a few people. Maslow also formulated a list of behaviors that he believed could lead to self-actualization.
These included such directives as: experience life with the full absorption and concentration of a child; try something new; listen to your own feelings rather than the voices of others; be honest; be willing to risk unpopularity by disagreeing with others; assume responsibility; work hard at whatever you do; and identify and be willing to give up your defenses.
Carl Rogers also emphasized the importance of self-actualization in his client-centered therapeutic approach and theoretical writings. Like Maslow, he used the term to designate a universal and innate tendency toward growth and fulfillment that governs the human personality. Rogers believed that self-actualization is closely related to each individual’s perceived reality and self-concept—the way one thinks of oneself.
According to Rogers, one’s self-concept can become distorted by the need for approval by others, which can lead to alienation from one’s true beliefs and desires and suppression of one’s self-actualizing tendency. Rogers’ client-centered therapy is based on the idea that people will instinctively choose the path to self-actualization on their own once it becomes clear to them.
The Personal Orientation Inventory, a test designed to measure self-actualization, is based on Maslow’s writings and consists of 12 scales, including time competence, inner directedness, spontaneity, self-acceptance, and capacity for intimate contact.