Question: "What is self-actualization?"

Answer: Self-actualization is a common term, but difficult to define precisely. In essence, to become “self-actualized” is to reach one’s full potential. The concept and term did not originate with psychologist Abraham Maslow, but it is most often associated with his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Gestalt therapist Karl Goldstein is generally credited with first discussing self-actualization. Self-actualization is also a common concept in person-centered therapy and other humanistic approaches to psychology.

Humanistic psychologies generally hold that, given the right conditions, humans will grow in positive ways. Self-actualization is thought of as the fulfillment of that growth. People who are self-actualized are said to be more truly “themselves” and to be living out their full potential. Maslow talked about the self-actualized having characteristics such as maintaining a firm grasp of reality; being accepting of self and others as they are; possessing authenticity, objectivity, creativity, spontaneity, and a sense of humor; being unswayed by popular opinion; and having the ability for solitude, an appreciation for life, deep relationships with few, and strong morality. In short, a “self-actualized” person is self-assured and independent, yet also cognizant of others. Because humanists believe people to be good at their core, it makes sense that Maslow would see a self-actualized person as having positive characteristics—the true you is a good you. It is interesting to note that his version of self-actualization is meant to lead people to unselfishness.

From a biblical perspective, there are many troublesome issues associated with the concept of self-actualization, which can be likened to sanctification, yet is devoid of God and therefore will not work. Humans are not inherently good, so the true you is not going to be a good you. Nor are we naturally inclined to grow in ways that would make us unselfish (Jeremiah 17:9; Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:10–18, 23; Ephesians 2:1–10). The teaching of self-actualization hints at the reality that we are made in God’s image and that He has designed us with a specific purpose in mind (Genesis 1:27; Ephesians 2:10). We do have potential in that God wants to transform us to be more like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17; Ephesians 4:20–24). But, again, the process requires God. God wants us to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15; cf. 2 Peter 3:18). We do not become more fully “ourselves” or reach our full potential by an effort of self. Rather, we become who God designed us to be by following Him and yielding to the Holy Spirit (Philippians 1:6; Galatians 5:16).

There are some difficulties with the concept of self-actualization from an academic perspective as well. As it is not well-defined, self-actualization is extremely difficult to study or test empirically. Also, Maslow’s descriptions of a self-actualized person assume moral value, yet there is no basis for such morality without God. Who is to say that full human potential or actualization involves things like creativity or a willingness to stand apart from the crowd? What determines that those things are worth striving after or “good”? Who is to say that such “potential” is inherent in all humans?

Self-actualization is an interesting concept and a seemingly universal aim. In itself, the concept is not biblical or particularly helpful. But, understood as the human yearning for more, the innate recognition that we are made in God’s image yet marred with sin, and the desire to achieve our full purpose in Christ, the concept touches on biblical truth.