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Self-Actualization: The Milestone You Missed

5 signs you are self-actualized but no one told you.

Key points

  • Self-actualization happens when a human being reaches the height of his or her potential.
  • Current research suggests the number of the self-actualized is higher than previously thought.
  • Self-actualized people have a way to self-soothe and ground themselves to avoid emotional derailments.

The problem with becoming a self-actualized person is that no one sends you a certified letter announcing that it has happened. If you are not careful you will blow past this magnificent milestone and miss a well-deserved party.

What does it mean to be self-actualized? According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization happens when a human being reaches the height of his or her potential. It is worth noting that reaching the height of one’s potential does not mean there is no room for growth and exploration.

Consider the joy you would experience if you reached the summit of Mount Everest after a long and arduous climb. You may rest for a moment and then look around and realize there is so much to explore in this newly discovered territory. From the changes in the air pressure to the spectacular view and elements of nature­­­—in so many ways, reaching the summit would be the start of a whole new journey.

To experience life fully is to embrace continual evolution.

While Maslow believed that self-actualization was rare, occurring in about 1 percent of the population, current research suggests the number of self-actualized individuals is higher.

The art of becoming self-actualized is not an exact science. It is a unique personal discovery that only you can eventually come to realize and take ownership of.

A few years ago, a client in her early 40s reached out for help through a relationship transition. She had been in a relationship for 12 years and shared, “The relationship is exactly the same, but I have changed over the years, and it’s obvious my partner is unwilling to embrace the changes in me.”

I asked her to describe the changes she had experienced. Her answer remains with me to this day. She said, “I’ve finally accepted who and what I am fully. I’m liberated from shame and traveling baggage-free. I own my life’s lessons, and I’m living them out. I have entered the finishing school of life, so to speak, and I like it!”

We worked together for a brief time as we both agreed she had entered the territory of self-actualization. I helped her to create a self-actualization rite of passage, a ritual celebration for herself, and off she went into the next chapters of her life, bold and balanced.

While generally there are no formal graduation ceremonies held when we reach the personal and psychological milestone of becoming self-actualized, in over 29 years as a therapist, walking hundreds of individuals, couples, and families through support journeys, I have noted five common signs that point to a person being self-actualized.

1. Being comfortable in your skin.

Finding comfort in our physical and psychological skin can take a lifetime. I’ve found that people in the zone of self-actualization accept and embrace their perfectly imperfect bodies while actively living out the deeply held values within their minds. It’s not that insecure moments never creep in; they do. But these people have a way to self-soothe, ground, and nurture themselves through the upsets of life and avoid derailments.

2. Gravitating unapologetically toward things that bring peace and joy.

Last year, I collaborated with a man who transformed his hobby of restoring old cars into a thriving business later in life. He was 60 years old when he made his first million dollars, doing work he loved. I asked him how he made the decision to launch his business.

He said, “I finally realized I always had the option to do work I love and be paid for it. I’m no longer interested in things that don’t bring some sort of value and joy to my life. Why would I be?”

3. Greater ease in letting things and people go.

A woman was reflecting on a friendship she had recently let go of. She shared with a group of students, “The friendship ended because it was time to part ways. There will be all kinds of energies and people that enter and exit your life. It is a great disservice to the self to continue to reach for and tether yourself to people who have served their purpose in your life. Only pain can come from it.” I have observed that self-actualized people are more likely to let go and resist holding on tightly when release makes the most sense for them.

4. Taking things less personally.

Taking things personally is a major trigger for many people. Self-actualized people often have a refreshing sense of humor in the face of what could be offensive. A former client found out that he was not invited to a relative’s barbecue. He did not understand why because, normally, he was included in family gatherings. Instead of being hurt by the revelation, he said, “I’m guessing they got tired of me hogging all the potato salad and burgers.”

5. Respecting emotions and leading with logic.

Balancing emotions and logic can make us feel like we are walking on a tightrope. Displays of grace and growth in this area of life are common among self-actualized people. A man who was passed over for a promotion that was promised to him said, “I’m angry, but I have a resume to rewrite, so I can’t sit in this stew of upset too long.”

At the end of the day, becoming self-actualized is about accessing the absolute best of who you are and living out the rich benefits of reaching this hard-earned milestone.

More from Sheila Robinson-Kiss MSW, LCSW
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