Self-Actualization: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter - Kimberly Thompson

This article is the sixth in the Taking Care of #1 series, about the hierarchy of human needs, how we experience those needs, and what we can do to help ourselves move toward higher-order living. 

In this series, I have discussed our survival needs, such as food, water, and air; our need for safety and security; our need to belong; and, our need to be respected and esteemed by others. In this article, I am going to discuss our need for self-actualization. defines self-actualization in this way:

Achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and grasp of the real world.” 

That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Yet achieving our full potential is a noble goal for ourselves and for our children. It has a lot in common with wisdom and maturity! Let’s examine the four components of this definition, for a thorough and down-to-earth understanding of what it means to achieve your full potential.

Creativity. Don’t confuse creativity with craft! Craft is the skill and work needed for creative thought to manifest. Creativity means coming up with novel solutions to problems and thinking outside the box. You can use your creativity in unlimited ways. Creative people are not stuck in ruts. They don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. They have abandoned their fear of failure and embraced a certain level of risk. Creative people would rather be proven wrong than to be stuck or stale.

One of the most creative people ever to walk the earth was Johann Sebastian Bach. Long ago, as an undergraduate music major, I studied counterpoint and its many rules. Bach amazed me with the huge body of music literature he produced, using this complex rule system. I came to believe that a rule structure actually fosters creativity, because it sets up a series of roadblocks to overcome and provides a structure for finding novel answers to complex questions. Without this structure, we would be constantly reinventing the wheel.

We may think of children as creative, and certainly children carry the seeds of creativity inside of them, but mostly they are just learning “the rules.” And there are so many sets of them! Rules for reading and doing math. Rules for how to treat other people. Traffic rules. School rules. Home rules. It’s as adults, after we have thoroughly learned “the rules,” that we can transcend them and apply the principles behind them. We can create something new.

Independence. Achieving your full potential will require you to think for yourself, stand on your own two feet, and sometimes swim against the current. Independence balances our need to belong. Without a generous dose of independence, our needs for belonging and esteem can turn us into followers and groupies. Of course, in some people it can get way out of control, because it is fueled by fear and a lack of trust in others. That is not the self-actualizing form of independence! Guided by a mature wisdom, independence fosters equality – a vital component to adult relationships.

Spontaneity. Self-actualizing spontaneity has a different quality than the spontaneity children enjoy. Children don’t have adult responsibilities, they don’t have much control over their world, and they don’t yet have a mature ability to plan ahead. It’s so much harder to be spontaneous as an adult! It requires that you let go of your plans, that you think on your feet and make a decision quickly, and that you remain open to new experiences. In return, a generous dose of spontaneity allows you to take advantage of the great opportunities that pop up unexpectedly.

Grasp of the real world. Have you ever uttered these words? “It shouldn’t be this way!” Unfortunately, the world doesn’t operate on the principle of what should be. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to people that don’t deserve it. It can be hard to believe that there is justice in the world. Instead of taking the short view, those who truly grasp the nature of the real world have as a motto, “It is what it is.” That doesn’t mean giving up or giving in! A good grasp of reality can peacefully coexist with a great deal of faith. Accepting what is enhances your peace and stability because you have accepted that justice works on its own timetable.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow pulled from the ancient Greeks when he wrote about divine justice:

            “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;

            Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”

Self-actualization is a lifelong process, and it can feel more like a dance (three steps forward, two steps back). You thought you had accepted reality, until the day that reality gets very bad and very painful. You thought you were intensely creative, until you find yourself blocked everywhere you turn. You thought you were independent, until you have a devastating loss. You thought you were spontaneous but now you’re stuck in a rut. Life stretches us, and it is only in the stretching that we discover who we are.


I’m Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist with a maternal mental health practice in Lubbock, TX. From pre-conception to the empty nest, mothers can work with me in-person and online. Download my free e-book, The Busy Mom’s Self-Care Planner, and bring yourself into your circle of care. You can also find my book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, on Amazon and the Praeclarus Press website.