Self-actualization, defined, and why do people not feel entitled to it?

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to be a fully “actualized” human being. For a long time, I don’t think I felt entitled to self-actualization. It seemed overly introspective and indulgent. How can I be so focused on meeting my higher needs when some people are in circumstances that prevent them from meeting their basic needs like food and shelter?

For me the road to self-actualization has only been possible through in-person therapy. For a long time I felt guilty I was in therapy while people who “really needed it” were not. I was from a two-parent, comfortable home with no history of physical or sexual abuse. My assumption was that I was by default a healthy person and thus deserved no further self-examination even though I couldn’t help but do it. Then I began to realize this: it’s not going to matter to people whose basic needs aren’t being met what I choose to do to meet my own needs. And to the extent I can become a fuller and more emotionally healthy being, I am probably going to be a better contributor to society.

Sadly, in our culture, therapy and self-examination is often considered soft, self-indulgent, and neurotic. (The irony is that people who are spending time examining themselves are trying to free themselves of their neuroses). It’s Stuart Smalley’s “daily affirmations” and Woody Allen’s brain tumor hypochondria in Hannah and Her Sisters and the idea of “needing therapy” as a pejorative. Don’t get me wrong, I love Smalley, and Woody Allen can be funny, but they have painted a certain picture of the kinds of people who need therapy.

Back to actualization. What does it mean?

Self-actualization is a term coined by Abraham Maslow over 50 years ago referring to the goals of his most “emotionally healthy” clients. In his studies, he described the activities of those who had their basic needs gratified and were seeking a higher purpose in their lives. Maslow defined the qualities of their deeply human activities as including:
-keen sense of reality; aware of real situations
-see problems in terms of challenges and situations requiring solutions, -rather than see problems as personal complaints or excuses
-need for privacy and comfortable being alone
-reliant on own experiences and judgment; independent; not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views
-accepting others as they are and not trying to change people
-comfortable with oneself, despite any unconventional tendencies
-a few close intimate friends rather than many surface relationships
-sense of humor directed at oneself or the human condition
-spontaneous, creative, inventive, and original
-seek peak experiences that leave a lasting impression

— Jonathan Bartlett summarizing Abraham Maslow (of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”).

I am not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But the above list is incredibly inspiring. Self-actualization is about how to have a meaningful, below-the-surface life. It is about listening to that voice that asks is this it? and searching for something more even if you don’t and can’t and never will findit. (Because there is no it, is there…?)

It is interesting to me that that this journey gets scoffed off in our culture as self-indulgent. And that even uses of words such as “journey” and “affirmation” are seen as hokey. More to think about…