Strengths and Self-Actualization

After studying Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow developed a different type of psychology—a “healthy” psychology, as he deemed it. In fact he was the first to use the term “Positive Psychology”. Positive Psychology is part of the roots of the modern strengths movement. Maslow believed all humans have a drive to succeed and fulfill their human potential that we’re not simply reacting to crisis.

Maslow, was a second-generation Jewish immigrant from Russia and the eldest of seven children. Maslow was born in Brooklyn, New York, a timid, awkward young man who confronted heavy anti-Semitism growing up. He writes about being picked on by gangs, called names, and pelted with rocks over the course of his young life.

Of course, Maslow himself wasn’t perfect. He was a human being just like all of us, struggling with the ghosts of his past and a difficult relationship with his mother, a woman who never loved him, according to Maslow.

You may have heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


 Each of us have five levels of needs—physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. If you travel to a developing country, for example, you’ll see how the majority of its population concentrates on meeting basic physiological needs—food, water, and warmth—making it difficult to focus on anything else.

Safety encompasses not only physical security, protection, and shelter, but a sense of emotional security as well.

Belonging is the need for relationships, love, and, most importantly, unconditional acceptance. You can satisfy this need with family, friends, or another type of “family” that you consciously create. When I was a teenager in high school, a family I knew would take me to church every Sunday—something I had never been involved in before. This adopted family connected me with positive influences in my youth group and, though I had a great relationship with my parents, their presence added to my sense of belonging and being part of a community.

Self-esteem is that part of us that wants to gain mastery over ourselves, to achieve, and to make a difference. We want to know that who we are is important.

Self-actualization is our highest need and, according to Maslow, the pinnacle of life. It involves using our creative talents, having a mission in life, making a difference in the world, and pursuing a goal worthy of our talents.

Maslow was the first person to perform case studies on healthy, successful people. Instead of focusing on mental illness and abnormal psychology, Maslow studied historical figures who were successful—inspirational leaders like President Thomas Jefferson or psychologist and philosopher William James. He then moved to case studies on his contemporaries, all while fleshing out his own theory on success psychology, which eventually led him to develop the thirteen characteristics of self- actualizing people.

The 13 Characteristics of Self-Actualizing People

  1. Self-actualizing people are comfortable with reality and have a clear view of it.
  2. Self-actualizing people have a natural sense of spontaneity and simplicity without pretension.
  3. Self-actualizing people are mission- driven. Instead of focusing on themselves, self-actualizing people direct their attention to fulfilling a mission or purpose for the world around them.
  4. Self-actualizing people have a healthy sense of detachment and a need for privacy.
  5. Self-actualizing people are autonomous and not too reliant on others. The self-actualizing individual is strongly independent.
  6. Self-actualizing people feel deeply grateful.
  7. Self-actualizing people have peak experiences.
  8. Self-actualizing people have a feeling of kinship with the human race.
  9. Self-actualizing people have strong relationships, though they tend to limit deep, intimate relationships to a small number of people.
  10. Self-actualizing people have a democratic character structure; they want to treat others fairly and be treated fairly themselves.
  11. Self-actualizing people have ethical discrimination between means and ends.
  12. Self-actualizing people have a great sense of humor.
  13. Self-actualizing people balance the polarities in their personality. For example, a self-actualizing person who is serious can also be playful and childlike.

How will you use your strengths for each of the 13 characteristics of self-actualization? Please share an example below.

2 replies
  1. Ralph M. Rickenbach
    Ralph M. Rickenbach says:

    Towards the end of his life, Maslow agreed with Clare Graves that self-actualisation will not and cannot be the pinnacle. He added a next level, the need of transcendence, and expected further levels to emerge over time.

    Clare Graves, Don Beck, Jean Gebser, Ken Wilber have added to the research of Maslow and brought it forward.

    I would agree that the consciousness of people that reach self-actualisation is broader than of any “level” before that, but it is far from perfect. There is more to strive for and to grow into.

  2. brent
    brent says:

    Ralph that is so interesting to hear. I’ll have to study the transcendence concept and create another blog article. Also I read recently that a journalist who was interviewing Maslow was the one who put his concepts into the pyramid or hierarchy of needs. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ralph.


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