Self-actualization is a term that has been used in various psychology theories, often in slightly different ways. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize all of one’s potentialities. In his view, it is the master motive, indeed the only real motive a person has, all others being merely manifestations of it. However, the concept was brought to prominence in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory as the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and meta needs are fulfilled and the actualization of the full personal potential takes place.
According to Kurt Goldstein’s book The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man, self-actualization is the tendency to actualize, as much as possible, the organism’s individual capacities in the world. The tendency to self-actualization is the only drive by which the life of an organism is determined. Goldstein defined self-actualization as a driving life force that will ultimately lead to maximizing one’s abilities and determine the path of one’s life.
The term was later used by Abraham Maslow in his article A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow explicitly defines self-actualization to be the desire for self fulfillment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming. Maslow used the term self-actualization to describe a desire, not a driving force, that could lead to realizing one’s capabilities. Maslow did not feel that self-actualization determined one’s life, rather, he felt that it gave the individual a desire or motivation to achieve budding ambitions. Maslow’s usage of the term is now popular in modern psychology when discussing personality from the humanistic approach.
A more explicit definition of self-actualization according to Maslow is intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself, as self-actualization is growth motivated rather than deficiency motivated. This explanation emphasizes the fact that self-actualization cannot normally be reached until other lower order necessities of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are satisfied. While Goldstein defined self-actualization as a driving force, Maslow uses the term to describe personal growth that takes place once lower order needs have been met.
Self actualization resides at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and is considered a part of the humanistic approach to personality. The humanistic approach is one of several methods used in psychology for studying, understanding, and evaluating personality. The humanistic approach was developed because other approaches, such as the psychodynamic approach made famous by Sigmund Freud, focused on unhealthy individuals that exhibited disturbed behavior.