Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a popular motivation theory that was published by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 article, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” The theory contends that as humans we strive not only to meet our most basic needs, but also to satisfy a higher set of needs.

Maslow presents this set of needs as a hierarchy, as follows:

  • Physiological/bodily needs.
  • Safety needs.
  • Love/belonging needs.
  • Self-esteem.
  • Self-actualisation (the desire to be “all that you can be”).

The theory argues that the most fundamental level starts with the physiological need for food, water, shelter, etc.. This is followed, in order, by security and social needs. Maslow believed that the higher-level needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualisation, could only be met after the lower level needs had been satisfied. It is usually illustrated by a triangle or pyramid (see graphic). 

There are many articles exploring this theory in detail, so this article is going to focus on just one of these needs, self-actualisation.

Like many people I first came across Maslow on a management development course. The trainer was casually dismissive of the theory – it was almost like “I have to tell you about this, but we’ll spend as little time on it as possible and move onto something more modern”. Without doubt Maslow’s hierarchy has its critics, but revisiting it now I want to focus on how his ideas about the traits of self-actualisation resonate with the more contemporary concepts of emotional intelligence, self-mastery and principled leadership.

Basic Definition

The simple definition of a “self-actualiser” is a person who is living creatively and fully realising his or her potential and true self, but not, as we’ll see in the characteristics, at the expense of other people.

This definition has been expanded, originally by Maslow but also by others, to explore the characteristics of people who are self-actualised.

The Characteristics

Maslow’s self-actualising characteristics are:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualisers often judge situations correctly and honestly. Maslow himself considered self-actualising people to possess “an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and in general to judge people correctly and efficiently.”

We all know, or know of, individuals who are quick to label anything they disagree with as ‘fake news’, but I think the key here is to view the world ‘…correctly…’. This is very hard to do if we are overly ego-driven or neurotic or hung up on how others perceive us.

When considering ourselves this is also about having the awareness to accurately rate our own abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualisers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with tolerance.

Self-actualising people tend to lack the extreme feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety that comes with being a normal human being. In simple terms they are, or have learned to be, more content with life and all of its shortcomings. This is in direct contrast of the person who is constantly crippled by anxieties and worries.

This is not to say that they never experience guilt, shame or anxiety, they just experience it in appropriate amounts and rarely let it control or hinder them.

  • Reliant on own experiences and judgement. This is about thinking independently, and not being reliant on the society, culture and environment in which we operate to form our opinions and views.

Maslow noted that the majority of his subjects never really “identified” with any organisation or culture, they always seemed to set themselves outside of it, as if they didn’t belong to anything at all. This was noticed when he would ask them about American culture versus that of other cultures. They didn’t hold American culture with any higher regard than that of other cultures.

This is not to say that they are not loyal to an organisation or group, or even country, but that loyalty is not blind.

Self-actualisers also tend to have good critical thinking skills and apply them equally to their own opinions.

  • Spontaneous and natural. Being true to oneself, rather than being how others want. “Their behaviour is marked by simplicity and naturalness, and by lack of artificiality or straining for effect.” (Maslow 1970).

The self-actualising person is motivated by developing more fully into their own style, which is in direct contrast to the non-self-actualiser, who is primarily motivated by basic needs gratification and/or the need for approval.

This is about being assertive while also demonstrating empathy and social awareness. Being true to oneself is not the same as begin rude and selfish, and explaining it away as “I’m just being honest” or “I speak as I find” or “what you see is what you get”. It is possible to be all of these things and be diplomatic, tactful and considerate.

  • Task centred. “Self-actualising individuals customarily have some mission in life, some task to fulfill, some problem outside themselves which enlists much of their energies” (Maslow, 1970).

Self-actualising people are more problem centred than ego centred. They also live with a wider breadth of vision, and this ability to view the world with such a large frame of reference holds a social and interpersonal importance. It has an innate way of imparting feelings of serenity and lack of worry that makes life less painful for themselves, and for those who are associated with them.

Within this larger frame, they focus on a mission in life, driven by a sense of duty or obligation.

  • Autonomy. Self-actualisers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful, independent and self-motivating.

“Self-actualised people are not dependent for their main satisfactions on the real world, or other people or culture or means to ends or, in general, on extrinsic satisfactions. Rather they are dependent for their own development and continued growth of their own potentialities.” (Maslow 1970)

The self-actualising person is not at all dependent on what others think of them; although they will not dismiss it out of hand since the feedback may be helpful for personal growth. This state of detachment can sometimes be mistaken for contempt or rebellion, especially by those who desire to control others.

  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualiser seems to constantly renew appreciation of life and all it brings. A partner or a joyful experience flower will be appreciated time after time as it was at first.

“Self-actualising people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others… for such a person, any sunset may be as beautiful as the first one” (Maslow, 1970).

In part this is down to looking for, and finding, something new to appreciate, which in turn helps to foster an attitude of lifelong learning.

This freshness also tends towards creativity in viewing situations, circumstances or problems.

“Each one shows in one way or another a special kind of creativeness or originality or inventiveness that has certain peculiar characteristics… which is akin to the universal creativeness of unspoiled children.” (Maslow, 1970).

  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualisers are marked by deep loving bonds.

“Self-actualising people have deeper and more profound interpersonal relations than any other adults (although not necessarily deeper than those of children.) They are capable of more fusion, greater love, more perfect identification, more obliteration of the ego boundaries than other people would consider possible.” (Maslow, 1970).

Self-actualising people also tend to have very few close intimate friends rather than many superficial relationships. 

They also have no problem speaking “realistically and harshly of those who deserve it, and especially of the hypocritical, the pretentious, the pompous, or the self-inflated.” (Maslow, 1970). Social ranking is of no importance when the self-actualised person recognises deception; whether these be of a religious, political or work-based nature.

  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualising people also value solitude and are comfortable being alone.

“For all my subjects it is true that they can be solitary without harm to themselves and without discomfort… it is true for almost all that they positively like solitude and privacy to a definite greater degree than the average person.” (Maslow 1970).

  • Non-hostile sense of humour. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself, not take life too seriously and to find humour in situations that do not belittle others.

“They do not laugh at hostile humour or superiority humour… characteristically what they consider humour is more closely allied to philosophy than anything else… more akin to parables or fables.” (Maslow, 1970).

Self-actualised people tend to joke about humanity as a whole, and all of its shortcomings.

In terms of laughing at ourselves, Peter Ustinov summed it up perfectly, “It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.”

  • Socially compassionate. “All my subjects may be said to be democratic people in the deepest possible sense… they can be and are friendly with anyone of a suitable character regardless of class, education, political belief, race or colour… it is as if they are not even aware of these differences.” (Maslow, 1970).

Self-actualisers have a democratic character structure (rather than authoritarian): they don’t seek power over others but have a sense of equality with and empathy towards others.

These people easily learn from anybody who has something to teach them, no matter what characteristics they may have. This quality is often viewed as humility in the purest form. The majority of Maslow’s subjects exhibited an ability to respect all humans, just based on the fact that they are a fellow human being. This goes along with their strong sense of ethics.

Part of the criticism for Maslow’s theory was the feeling that the possibility of ‘self-actualisation’ is reserved for those people who have been lucky in life and don’t have to struggle for their day-to-day survival in a dead-end job. However, Maslow (2011) suggested that it was very much about the attitude the individual brought to his/her life that might be the crucial catalyst for where one’s life and self-growth goes. There are many examples of when people have been in basically the same circumstances, but have turned out very differently, which might indicate that attitude can have an enormous bearing upon one’s fate.

At the start I made the comment about how self-actualisation, while not new, resonates with more modern concepts of emotional intelligence, self-mastery and principled leadership. To keep this article to a reasonable length I have resisted the urge to compare and contrast as I have gone along, but there is an easy way to demonstrate this resonance. Simply re-read each characteristic and replace the term ‘self-actualiser’ or ‘self-actualised person’ with a similar term (e.g. emotionally intelligent person) from the model of your preference.

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