Understanding the Theory of Self Actualization and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

"What a man can be, he must be."

-Roger Maslow

Human beings are complex, so we need these seven theories to explain what really motivates us.

What motivates us? That’s a question that psychologists and scientists have been trying to answer for centuries, as we try to predict what cognitive, chemical, and circumstantial influences shape our daily behaviors.

In part one of this blog, we covered the six theories of human motivation most prevalent in the field of human psychology today, including:

Instinct Theory.

Drive Reduction Theory.

Arousal Theory.

Incentive Theory.

Cognitive Theory.

Self-Determination Theory.

Today, we’re going to go in-depth about Self-actualization Theory, which encompasses the highly recognizable Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The theory of Self Actualization was established by famed psychologist Roger Maslow, who revolutionized the field of self-improvement in the 1950s and 60s with his work to prove that human beings are innately motivated to strive for their own inner potential. In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, Maslow documented that he studied thousands of “exemplary people” such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, as well as the “healthiest” 1% of the college student population to arrive at his grand theory.

He called it self-actualization, as it was the true realization of each person’s inner potential. But instead of a nirvana-like state of perfection, that potential will be different, changing and ever elusive for most people.

However, the foundation of Maslow’s theory of self-actualization is that people are most often stunted and blocked from reaching this state of highest potential - also called transcendence – because “lower-order needs” get in the way.

Basically, those are physiological and then, psychological needs, which are fundamental to human existence. Without these, Maslow argues, human beings most often have no chance of realizing their potential, or self-actualization.

Maslow first introduced this Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation.”

Stacked like a pyramid, the lowest level of human needs (lower order needs) are the first that need to be satisfied. For without these, it is extremely difficult for human beings to move on to the next highest level of the pyramid, and eventually, pursue self-actualization.

According to Maslow, the Hierarchy of Needs includes:

Physiological Needs:

The most basic (or primal) of human needs are the things our bodies need to sustain life. These include air, water, food, and other metabolic functions. Of course, human beings also need clothing, shelter, and protection from the elements under this umbrella of needs.

Safety Needs:

Once our physiological needs are met, we crave safety. If you constantly feel under threat or in danger, it will be nearly impossible to advance your motivations in the direction of self-actualization. But too often, war, natural disasters, the circumstances of poverty or unsafe living conditions, or even family and child abuse stunt our human development.

It’s interesting to note that there are many different kinds of security, including not only personal/physical security, but security for health, finances, and concerns for safety in the future that drive our motivations.

Social/love/belonging needs:

The next highest need on Maslow's Pyramid is far more psychological and interpersonal and less physical. Human beings have an intrinsic need for social belonging, acceptance, and interaction. People need human interaction, friendships, intimacy, and love.

These needs are often satisfied by their family from a young age, but surrogate relationships can take their place, and we can also feel accepted and part of our "tribe" with co-workers, clubs, religious organizations, sports teams, or even gangs in some cases.

Esteem needs:

Closer to the top of the pyramid, Maslow thought that all human beings have a need to feel respected and valued (by others and by ourselves), feeding our self-esteem. Maslow made the distinction that there are two versions of esteem: a lower version and a higher version.

He believed that the lower version of esteem is the call to feel respected by others, while the higher version of esteem is the need for status, fame, prestige, and attention (basically, feeding our egos!)


The highest and most elusive need on Maslow’s Pyramid is self-actualization, which was also called “transcendence” by the famed psychologist. According to Maslow, "Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness.”

This is also our highest potential and can be described as the meaning and purpose for our lives.

Maslow thought that people needed to have their most basic needs needed to be satisfied (or "mastered" as he called it) before we could pursue higher needs. For example, that would mean that we couldn't really pursue love and esteem if we didn't have food to eat.

Maslow realized that this theory was essentially about our motivations, not perfectly categorizing their manifestations. He pointed to the fact that the most basic needs dominate our consciousness until we satiate them, and also that many motivations are in play within our brains at the same time.

But Maslow understood that it's also not impossible to pursue higher goals despite something important lacking in our lives, jumping higher on the pyramid of needs. He called this phenomenon “meta motivation" and pointed to great people throughout history and human kind who had focused on higher concepts in their life, even when their lower needs weren't met.

Maslow saw that people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, Ann Frank, Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others pursued their higher purpose in life, even when going hungry, isolated in a prison cell, or under the constant threat of physical violence or death.

Now that you understand the theory of Self-Actualization and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs take some time to think about where your motivations lie.

Are you still dominated by pursuing safety needs, including the need for financial safety? Are you looking for love, belonging, and being accepted into a social group? Or, is the need for respect, value, and esteem prevalent in your daily thoughts?

Wherever you feel you are on this pyramid, one thing we can all agree on is that there is always a goal to reach our full potential as a human being, or self-actualization, and we now know it’s within reach!


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