Truism Logo

Find a Therapist

Take our online quiz to match yourself with the right therapist for your needs. Enter your location, insurance and preferences and we’ll find the right match for you.

What Is Self-Actualization, and How Can Therapy Help You Reach The Top Of Your Pyramid

What is self actualization

It’s not uncommon to think of therapy as something we go to in reaction to crisis, or trauma. The healing potential of therapy is great, and it can help us overcome the greatest challenges we face in life. But therapy isn’t just for those people who are struggling. Individuals who want to achieve their highest potential in life often look to counseling to provide them with the insights and tools they can use to live with purpose and meaning. 

This quest is what Abraham Maslow, a renowned psychologist, termed “self-actualization.” You may be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the famous pyramid taught in basic psychology courses everywhere. But what exactly is self-actualization, and how can therapy aid in climbing to the top of this metaphorical pyramid? In this exploration, we delve into the essence of self-actualization or the “self-actualization pyramid”, its significance in our lives, and the transformative role of therapy in achieving this pinnacle of personal development.


Self-Actualization Defined

Self-actualization represents the realization of an individual’s potential, aspirations, and talents. Unlike the pursuit of basic needs such as food, safety, or social belonging, self-actualization is about becoming the most that one can be; it’s about fulfilling one’s own unique capabilities. As Maslow famously stated, “What a man can be, he must be.” This notion suggests that there is a driving force within each of us that propels us towards realizing our full capacities and living a life that is authentically ours. 

It’s important to note that self-actualization is a highly individual process. What it means for one person can be vastly different from another, depending on their personal ambitions, talents, and the context of their life. An artist might find self-actualization through painting, a teacher might find it in educating and inspiring the next generation, a parent may find it in the growth and development of their child.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: A Layered Approach

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a framework for understanding the various levels of human motivation, from the most basic physiological needs to the peak of self-actualization (and beyond, as we will see). This pyramid illustrates how our focus in life shifts as we satisfy each level of need, moving from the physiological, to safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally, to self-actualization.

An essential insight from Maslow’s theory is that while these needs can be overlapping and interdependent, one need tends to dominate our focus at any given point. Additionally, needs at the bottom of the pyramid tend to be more pressing than needs at the top, and therefore tend to receive priority in our attention. For example, it would be difficult to make any meaningful progress working on your self-esteem (Esteem Needs) if you don’t have enough food to eat (Physiological Needs).

However, the path is not strictly linear. Individuals may experience and work on multiple levels simultaneously, reflecting the complexity of human motivation and development. Remember, the Hierarchy of Needs is just a model that reflects the tendencies of human behavior and development. It’s not ironclad. Furthermore, self-actualization is not synonymous with perfection, or the end of life’s challenges.


maslow's hierarchy of needs


The Role of Therapy in Achieving Self-Actualization

Therapy can be a powerful tool in the journey towards self-actualization. By providing a supportive and understanding environment, therapy helps individuals explore and understand their own needs, motivations, and barriers to growth. Additionally, a holistic approach to mental health may encompass many facets of an individual’s life, as opposed to simply focusing on coping with a particular symptom. Here’s how therapy aligns with each stage of Maslow’s hierarchy, facilitating personal development:

      • Physiological and Safety Needs: While these basic needs are typically met outside of the therapeutic setting, therapy can address psychological safety, helping individuals overcome fears, anxiety, and trauma that may hinder their sense of security and well-being.

      • Self-Actualization: Therapy provides a space to explore personal values, goals, and talents. It encourages self-discovery and supports individuals in pursuing their passions and realizing their potential. Therapy can help identify and overcome obstacles to personal growth, facilitating a path towards self-actualization.


    Transcendence: Beyond Self-Actualization

    Maslow later introduced the concept of transcendence as the pinnacle of the pyramid, representing the highest form of human development. The transcendence stage sees an individual going beyond personal needs to focus on the broader picture, helping those around him or her achieve their fullest potential. The focus shifts to a greater purpose, what Maslow described as a desire to reach the infinite. It encompasses the development of the spiritual or altruistic self, the ability to see beyond one’s current culture while finding harmony with nature, society, and the cosmos.


    Towards An Ideal

    Self-actualization is a journey, not a destination. It’s about continuously striving to realize and express our deepest capacities and live a life of authenticity and meaning. Therapy can be a valuable ally in this journey, offering insights and support as we navigate the complexities of our needs and aspirations. It helps us understand that while the path may be fraught with challenges, each step forward is a step towards realizing our true potential.

    As we embrace the journey towards self-actualization, we open ourselves to the possibilities of what we can become. It’s a journey worth taking, filled with discovery, growth, and the ultimate fulfillment of contributing to something greater than ourselves. Let us then, with courage and hope, take that step forward, guided by the light of our own potential, towards the summit of our personal development.



    Robb Kornoelje is the owner of The Truism Center, a relationship enthusiast, and the creator of the “30-Day Relationship Challenge.” This 30-day, fully online email course offers gentle guidance to identify behaviors causing trouble, find ease with emotions, and enhance self-awareness. With a focus on stress-free communication, the challenge encourages a stronger connection with others, nurturing compassion, and fostering forgiveness. Join Robb on this journey to improve the fabric of your relationships—one day at a time.