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The Theory of Self-Actualization

Mental illness, creativity, and art.

Key points

  • Self-actualization, according to Abraham Maslow, represents one's growth toward fulfilling their highest needs—i.e., meaning in life.
  • Creativity attempts to resolve dichotomies such as “freedom and determinism" and “the conscious and the unconscious."
  • Self-actualization through art may enhance the psychological well-being of an individual.

“Self-actualization” represents a concept derived from humanistic psychological theory and, specifically, from the theory created by Abraham Maslow. Self-actualization, according to Maslow, represents the growth of an individual toward fulfillment of the highest needs—those for meaning in life, in particular. Carl Rogers also created a theory implicating a “growth potential” whose aim was to integrate congruently the “real self” and the “ideal self” thereby cultivating the emergence of the “fully functioning person." It was Maslow, however, who created a psychological hierarchy of needs, the fulfillment of which theoretically leads to a culmination of fulfillment of “being values," or the needs that are on the highest level of this hierarchy, representing meaning.

Maslow’s hierarchy reflects a linear pattern of growth depicted in a direct pyramidal order of ascension. Moreover, he states that self-actualizing individuals are able to resolve dichotomies such as that reflected in the ultimate contrary of free will and determinism. He also contends that self-actualizers are highly creative, psychologically robust individuals. It is argued herein that a dialectical transcendence of ascension toward self-actualization better describes this type of self-actualization, and even the mentally ill, whose psychopathology correlates with creativity, have the capacity to self-actualize.

Maslow’s hierarchy is described as follows:

  1. Physiological needs, such as needs for food, sleep, and air.
  2. Safety, or the needs for security and protection, especially those that emerge from social or political instability.
  3. Belonging and love including, the needs of deficiency and selfish taking instead of giving, and unselfish love that is based upon growth rather than deficiency.
  4. Needs for self-esteem, self-respect, and healthy, positive feelings derived from admiration.
  5. And “being” needs concerning creative self-growth, engendered from the fulfillment of potential and meaning in life.

Erikson created a theory of psychosocial dichotomies represented as “trust versus mistrust” and “autonomy versus shame and doubt” as examples. In terms of Erikson’s final stage of development, that of “ego integrity versus despair," the successful resolution of this stage corresponds with a sense of life’s meaning. It is clear that the self-actualized person might be in danger of dying, but nevertheless may find meaning in life. This means that lower-level needs might be unfulfilled even in situations represented by “being values," such as a sense of meaning in life. Note, however, that Maslow asserted that one’s needs may be only partially fulfilled at any given moment.

Mahatma Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, and Nelson Mandela may serve as examples of people who each personify a reality self-actualization. At the risk of his life, Gandhi utilized civil disobedience for purposes of freedom. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who never relinquished his grasp of life’s meaning. And Mandela maintained an attitude of meaning in life even while he was imprisoned. The safety needs of these individuals may have been threatened, but it may be understood that many people whose safety needs are compromised may be cognizant of being valued. They may find life to be meaningful explicitly because of situations of danger to their lives, situations represented by the dichotomy of life and death, in particular.

As indicated, Maslow identified self-actualizing people as individuals who are highly creative, who have peak experiences, and who are able to resolve the dichotomies inherent in opposite contraries such as those constituted by “freedom and determinism," “the conscious and the unconscious," as well as “intentionality and a lack of intentionality.” Creativity, a hallmark of a self-actualizing person, may be perceived to reside within a dialectical relationship. While most dichotomies cannot be explicitly understood as resolvable, the above dichotomies can be seen to be resolved through creative activity. Using the one aspect of each of these dichotomies as a “thesis," and another as an “antithesis," art may represent the “synthesis” of the dichotomous relationship.

The dichotomy of free will and determinism, because it relies on both freely willed and causal activity, is resolved by art in terms of both the artist’s self-expression and the receiver of artistic expression, in that both of these individuals may be understood to utilize conscious and unconscious aspects of themselves in order for artistic expression and reception to ensue. The conscious and the unconscious parallel the free-will and determinism dichotomy, in that conscious action might be considered to be freely willed and unconscious action may be considered to rely largely on causality.

Another dichotomy that explicates the artistic process is a resolution of subject and object. The term “subject," indicating “the artist” may be indicative of “the self,” and the term “object” may describe “the other” or “the audience.” Through art, there is a joining of the self and the other, a communication between the two. This is accomplished by the artist’s use of metaphor and allegory that allows for free expression that may culminate in a communication with the audience by the artist and what may be described as a communicative function within the artist himself. Essentially, art may culminate in dialogue between the artist and the audience, or self-dialogue and self-realization within the artist. Peak experiences, described as epiphanies, are also realized by both the subject and the object through art. Art, more than any other type of communication, is perhaps the least dogmatic, even if it is indefinite. This is true for all forms of art. Art may only be understood when it is interpreted by the self or the other, and this is accomplished by both the artist and his audience.

The mentally ill poet, Sylvia Plath, may be said to have realized an epiphany when she described the birth of her child in the poem, “Morning Song":

I’m no more your mother

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

Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Through unique and innovative language, she described her own peak experience. It is, then, the creative communication between herself and her audience and that epiphany within herself that allowed her to achieve that moment of self-actualization. As stated, Plath was known to suffer from mental illness, and she may not be readily understood that be a self-actualizing individual. Nevertheless, deconstruction and reconstruction of the self becomes a possibility through poetic self-expression, resultant epiphanies and recognition of an evolving self that is characterized by self-actualization. Metaphor and allegory, as used in artistic expression, can be utilized to create self-permeable boundaries that are nevertheless intact, for both the artist and his audience.

Self-actualization through art may enhance the psychological well-being of the individual. Interpretation of art, on the part of both the artist and the audience, becomes an avenue toward self-realization, perhaps of an idiosyncratic and subjective nature, yet it is self-realization. And self-realization is self-actualization. It has been suggested that it is only the most functional people who are able to achieve being values, resolution of dichotomies, peak experiences, and meaning in life. It is contended that self-actualization is a possibility for all creative individuals. More or less, we are all creative.

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