Self-actualization is a concept which attempts to describe what motivates people and what is the driver of human behaviour. It explains the goals in life that shape behaviour and how individuals can realise their full potential.  

What is Self-actualization?

Associated with humanistic psychology, self-actualization refers to a person’s desire to realise their full potential. Abraham Maslow (1943) proposed that self-actualization formed the pinnacle of “hierarchy of needs” that people strive to fulfill (Figure 1). At the bottom of the hierarchy is the basic survival needs; once these needs are met and people are satisfied, they aspire to fulfill more abstract goals. These include the need for love and belonging (social needs), the need for esteem and respect, and a sense of purpose that can be achieved only when people fulfill their true potential – in whatever area that is meaningful to them (i.e., creativity, professionally, spiritually etc).

Hierarchy of needs explained

According to psychologists, behaviour is motivated by the desire to fulfill a set of needs. Deficiencies do not motivate people, rather the need and desire for growth and success. Experiences listed on the peak of the hierarchy of needs is only possible to experience once the basic needs are met and people have reached the highest state of personal growth.

Basic needs

  • Physiological needs: A person must satisfy their basic need for air, food, shelter, warmth, and rest. These needs are met in childhood and should be available in adulthood before an individual embarks on a journey to start seeking higher needs to give more meaning to their life.
  • Safety needs: A persons need for stability, physical security, employment, and health must be met to feel safe and free of fear.

Psychological needs

  • Belonging and love: People strive to satisfy their psychological need for love and social connections (family, friends, and communities).
  • Esteem: Striving for recognition from others, prestige, and a sense of achievement, which gives them confidence in their abilities and increases self-esteem.


  • Fulfilment: When a person is doing everything they are capable of, they have reached a state of self-actualization.

Reach out to the counsellors at Halcyon if you are having trouble in achieving your basic and/or psychological needs.

Barriers to personal growth

According to Maslow (1943), people desire self-actualization but only one percent of people can ever achieve it. Basic needs are not fully resolved and can resurface throughout life, which stops progression to self-actualization. Experiences such as bereavement, job loss, unhappy marriage, and financial needs, among others can contribute towards unmet psychological needs (esteem and love/belonging needs) which in turn hinders true potential. Todays modern world is hypercompetitive, and information driven which also stops a person from achieving their basic and psychological needs. Individuals receive constant feedback from their peers, employers, family and/or friends which deprives them of reflection and time necessary for personal growth.

Steps towards self-actualization:

  • Do not compare: Instead of comparing yourself to others, focus on your own personal growth.

  • Accept: Being self-critical of ourselves will stop progression. Instead, accept and understand your strengths and weaknesses and use them for your benefit.
  • Be aware of your defence mechanisms: Unhealthy coping/defence mechanisms such as blaming others, deflecting, and projecting your feelings onto others will hold you back from achieving your goals.

  • Aware of honest choices: Sometimes, we choose goals based on others perception of what we should be doing. Take a moment and examine your true motives to make genuine choices and act with integrity.

  • Experience life: Immerse yourself in moments and truly enjoy and learn from failures, rather than letting them define you.

  • Trust yourself: adopt a positive outlook and utilise the resources available to manage and deal with life challenges.

  • Keep growing and learning: Self-actualization is a continuous process. Do not be afraid to take up new challenges. You do not know what you are capable of until you give it a try!

Counsellors at Halcyon can provide help for a range of difficulties that you may be facing, which is hindering your progression towards a happy, healthy life. We provide services that can help you to push down the barriers that are stopping you from living a quality life. Book a session now!

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once, other (and “higher”) needs emerge. These, rather than physiological hunger, dominate the organism. And when these, in turn, are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency” (Maslow, 1943, p. 375).