Getting To Know Yourself: True Happiness Comes From Within

By Joanna Smykowski

Updated May 09, 2019

Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC

What is Self-Actualization?

Put quite simply, self-actualization is a state of being that means you have become your best self. Although the psychologist Abraham Maslow did not originally coin the term, he is credited with bringing it to life when he developed the hierarchy of needs theory. We will delve into these needs in more detail, but the idea is that in order to reach self-actualization, certain needs must be met. If you are someone who lives a life very different to what your natural talents or dreams are, it's less likely that you're going to be happy compared to someone whose actions in life line up with the goals they've set for themselves. It's important to remember that reaching the level of self-actualization that Maslow spoke of can be difficult in theory because not everyone has their basic needs met and therefore, cannot reach self- actualization until those needs are addressed. It's important to keep in mind that this isn't about achieving perfection but taking the time to make sure that we're exploring, reflecting, and discovering what makes us feel like our life is full and meaningful.

Hierarchy of Self-Actualization:

Aspiring towards self-actualization is an incredible goal in that it takes a certain level of awareness to differentiate between what you want and what you need. This is the overarching aspiration to maximize your potential, being the best self that you can possibly be while continuing to strive to improve. Abraham Maslow conceived and outlined this concept in his book Motivation and Personality, discussing what he believed to be some of the key characteristics of self-actualized people. We will go over some of these characteristics in addition to going deeper into the different levels of self- actualization. Please note that everyone is different and faces different circumstances, so the order of needs is not entirely rigid. There is flexibility among the hierarchy.


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From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. The needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs that are higher up.

The physiological category includes biological requirements for human survival. We cannot function without these needs being met. Because of this, all other needs become secondary until we can meet these basic needs. Other basic needs include the safety category that includes the need for security such as living in a safe neighborhood, finding a job, or having money available to you should something unexpected arise.

As we move up the hierarchy, we see the need for social interaction which highlights the importance of romantic, familial, and platonic relationships. This can also include the feeling of belonging that comes with being a part of a group such as a student organization or religious organizations. Humans are social creatures who crave connection with others. Anxiety and depression are common in people who do not feel loved or accepted by others. This also ties in with the 4th tier known as the esteem needs. People have a desire to be respected and appreciated for their achievements. For example, if we are working hard in our job, having someone tell us what a great job we're doing is really motivating in addition to making us feel like we're being seen and heard. We can meet this need in a variety of ways such as joining a sports team, taking up a new hobby, or joining a club at school. It's not always possible for us to receive external praise so we want to work on making sure we find self-esteem in our daily lives. This will lead us to self-actualization.

According to Maslow, the definition of self- actualization is as follows: "It may be loosely described as the full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities, etc. Such people seem to be fulfilling themselves and to be doing the best that they are capable of doing... They are people who have developed or are developing to the full stature of which they capable." People who are self- actualized put their personal growth above all else and are less concerned with what other people are doing or whether they're being judged.

Traits of Self-Actualized People:

These people find motivation in the potential for growth, not through a satisfaction of needs. Once you get to the point where you aren't needing certain things to get through life, you have more mental capacity to develop into a stronger and more earnest version of yourself. Self-actualized people aren't threatened or afraid of the unknown or rather, can accept the unknown and embrace it in the face of their fear. They are the people who have learned to accept themselves holistically, perceiving themselves as how they want to be while they work to change things about themselves that they consider to be weaknesses or deficits. They enjoy the moment at hand for its own sake, enjoying their existence in itself, and not just as a means to an end. It's also important to be spontaneous in both thought and action. While many of us might crave control and certainty, this sort of behavior and thinking does not allow for much growth. Maslow also believed that while self-actualization is about us as individuals, we should also be concerned about mankind as a whole.


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Be Yourself:

Unintentionally and inherently unconventional, self-actualized people accept that the world in which they live in cannot understand their minute characteristics. To achieve greater self-actualization, one must learn how to "let go" of the small things. There are many things in life that are outside of our control so instead of trying to change these things, we focus on what we can control and accept that we do not have the power to change every situation that arises to meet our desire. Finding your purpose in life can be a bumpy road and take time. A large reason why we are afraid to be ourselves is that we are afraid of judgment from others. Many people may craft their life choices based on what their family or friends might think, even if their opinion isn't always accurate. You might want certain things, but don't pursue them because you know that your parents or someone else important in your life will disapprove. While these people might have the best intentions and truly believe that they know what is best, you are the one who has to live with your decisions so it's important to be the kind of person that you can be happy with instead of the person that you think others want you to be. Those who care about you will stand by you even if they don't agree with your decisions. Choosing yourself not only means making self-care a priority but that sometimes difficult decisions must be made.

Happiness Comes from Within:

Talking with a mental health professional may be a good step to take in order to identify how you are progressing, in what ways you could improve, and get some general insights that only an outside perspective can provide. Professionals have partnered with this interface known as BetterHelp, to get assistance for people more affordable and without having to worry about appointment times. This is allowing quality care to reach further than it has before and open a door in a wall that many encounter when seeking help.


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