The Quest for Self-Actualization

The Quest for Self-Actualization

Terms like self-actualization and validation are thrown around a lot today; as our culture steadily moves more and more toward the celebration of the individual, these phrases are often used as catchy descriptors for the realization and affirmation of the self… But where do they come from, and what processes truly underlie self-actualization?

The term self-actualization owes its origins to the Humanistic psychological theory, most notably the theories of Abraham Maslow. Maslow coined the term self-actualization to describe the growth of an individual toward fulfillment of their highest needs, those most advanced concepts and “big questions” humans struggle with, such as the pursuit of the meaning of life.

Maslow believed in, and created, a psychological hierarchy of needs (many of us are already familiar with Maslow’s pyramid of needs), the fulfillment of which culminates in the realization of a person’s “being values”, the very top of the pyramid which symbolizes meaning.

Maslow believed that individuals who managed to become self-actualized people were able to resolve common ideological conflicts, such as that between determinism and free will, due to their enhanced creativity and psychological robustness.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ascends in the following order:

  1. Physiological needs (physical, survival-based needs), such as the need for food, water, sleep and air. These are on the bottom of the pyramid and represent our most basic needs.
  2. The need for safety, security, and protection; the need for a stable and secure environment free from strife is next on the pyramid; human growth cannot progress beyond this stage without safety, as feeling safe allows people to cease thinking about their survival-based needs and move on to more intangible desires.
  3. The need for love and belonging comes next, love from family and partners, peer acceptance, etc. This love sets the stage for the next level of the pyramid:
  4. The need for self-esteem, self-respect, and respect from others; the fundaments of self-love, in essence.
  5. The “being” needs of creativity and the pursuit of meaning.

Examples of people believed to be fully self-actualized individuals include Mahatma Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, and Nelson Mandela; Ghandi was willing to risk his life to stand up for the value of freedom, Frankl, despite having endured the holocaust, never lost his hold on his belief in life’s meaning, and Mandela also ascribed to a strong belief in life’s meaning all throughout his time of imprisonment. They were able to see past the lack of safety in their circumstances and remain in tune with their being values, despite the dichotomy of life and death present in their situations (evidence of psychological robustness).

Each individual was able to see creative solutions for the problems in his situation, showing the creativity of fully self-actualized people. They understood that while the dualities of their situations were not fully resolvable,  a balance, a compromise could be found through the use of creativity.


Art as a Means of Self-Actualization


The ability described above is essential to resolving the many dichotomies people face when on the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid; they frequently deal with contraries like “freedom and determinism”, “the conscious and the unconscious”, etc., and resolve them by using art (and other means of creative solution-generating) to create a synthesis between the opposing polarities.

In the case of freedom and determinism, for example, we see a duality that is very well-balanced in the artistic process, with the artist channeling both self-expression and being the receiver of artistic expression, being both the utilizer of the conscious mind and the recipient of the unconscious.

Art can also be seen as joining the “self” with the “other”; in communicating with his or her self, he or she can also communicate with others through the use of metaphor and allegory (devices which allow for free expression, and thereby represent a form of self-communication). This creates a union between the self and the audience, a dialogue that goes both ways simultaneously while creating epiphanies in both the subject (artist) and object (audience). Art relies on this existence of contraries to be properly interpreted.

An example of one such epiphany can be seen in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Morning Song”, wherein she states:

Im no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the winds hand.

This evocative metaphor is used to describe her own peak experience, and in doing so she created a communication between herself and her audience which allowed her to self-actualize. Plath, despite being a sufferer of mental illness, was able to use her poetic ability to engage in the deconstruction and reconstruction of the self in a way that resulted in epiphanies and resolved contraries.

It can thus be said that self-actualization through creating art is possible and beneficial to a wide variety of individuals, including those suffering from mental illness. The interpretation of art as a whole (by both artist and audience) is a tool of self-realization, and self-realization is one in the same with self-actualization.

Self-actualization is therefore possible for all creative individuals, and as the human mind is itself creative, we are all creative individuals, to varying degrees. Self-actualization may thus be possible for all of us, if we approach it through the right channels.


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