Self-Actualization: Are You on the Path?

What does it mean to be self-actualizing?

In college, I remember being impressed with the description of self-actualization—it inspired in me a life goal to become one of those people. I also have a flashbulb memory of a scene from a film we watched in class describing self-actualized people. In my recollection, a woman was walking up broad concrete steps on a university campus and her underpants fell off (!). She laughed, stepped out of them, picked them up and put them in her bag, and continued on her way. (When I looked for that scene in old movies about Maslow, I could not find it. Hmm, now I’m not sure about that memory!)

What are the characteristics of a self-actualized person? Abraham Maslow gathered information about such people using interviews and historical analysis of a couple of dozen people he admired. He wrote about their characteristics in his books, Motivation and Personality. He also was interviewed in this film. In my discussion below, I use these sources to describe the characteristics of self-actualizers.

(Note: Maslow quotes below are from his book, Motivation and Personality)

Evolutionary baselines. I am always interested in using our evolutionary baselines for making judgments. That is, I use human genus history, specifically in 99% of human genus existence, as a measure against which to make judgments about what is normal for humans. In the 99% we provided the evolved nest, the developmental system for supporting optimal development. Anthropologists and others have described groups in modern times that lived like our 99%—small-band hunter-gatherers (SBHG). We can examine their outcomes and compare them to self-actualizing characteristics.

How do characteristics of self-actualizers align with those of our evolutionary heritage as represented by small-band hunter-gatherers (SBHG)? Below I go through Maslow’s terms/descriptions and note how they are (or not) related to our evolved nest and evolved community life. Native American communities have many of the characteristics of SBHG even if they were complex hunter-gatherers. So I will refer to them as appropriate. Most references for these comparisons are listed in the reference section.

1. More efficient perception of reality and more comfortable relations with it.

Maslow points out that neurotic people (the unhealthy) actually don’t perceive the world effectively or correctly—they are cognitively wrong about themselves and the world.

Notice how this point emphasizes healthy development, that healthy development is NORMAL for well raised human beings, NOT the neuroticism that Freud ascribed to all human beings.  From my examination of our ancestral contexts, I concur: Neuroticism is not a universal human outcome.

What is neuroticism? According to Maslow, neurotic needs include a desire to dominate, or to subject oneself to the will of another person. These are the predominant self-protective mechanisms I discuss, that result from undercare (Narvaez, 2014). He also mentions the desire to inflict pain. In my view, this would be the effect of early trauma.

Maslow did not focus on how to develop a healthy child but that’s what we are examining in my lab. We are testing the importance of the evolved nest, which appears to be necessary for optimal development (and non neuroticism). Nest-raised individuals are less neurotic and mixed up about how to live well, which we can see in societies that provide the evolved nest and don’t traumatize their children (Narvaez, 2014, 2015, 2016). In these societies, who lived close to the earth, proper perception was required for survival. You would not last long without it.

2. Acceptance of self, others, nature

Self-actualizing folks accept themselves and others as they are, without complaint or critique. They are not aggravated or threatened by difference. In my view, this is a sign of proper neurobiological development (lack of stress reactivity in vagus nerve or HPA system).

For example, Maslow discusses how a self-actualized parent allows their children to blossom without interference or control. This is the usual way of raising children in small-band hunter-gatherer communities around the world (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). Parents and community members assume the child has his or her own spirit guiding development and that much harm can come from interfering.

3. Spontaneity: Simplicity, naturalness

Self-actualizers are not conventional. Maslow wrote:

“Their ease of penetration to reality, their closer approach to an animal-like or childlike acceptance and spontaneity imply a superior awareness of their own impulses, desires, opinions, and subjective reactions in general. Clinical study of this capacity confirms beyond a doubt the opinion, e.g., of Fromm that the average normal, well-adjusted person often has not the slightest idea of what he is, of what he wants, of what his own opinions are” (158-159).

Among SBHG, spontaneity is dominant—there are no set roles or demands made on individuals. The band spends minimal time gathering and hunting—in which individuals can freely participate or not on any given day—and instead spends the majority of time socializing with banter, dancing, singing, and story telling.

4. Problem centered

Self-actualizing people are more problem centered than ego centered. They also live with a wider breadth of vision, a larger frame of reference that brings about a certain serenity in everyday affairs. Within this larger frame, they focus on a mission in life, driven by a sense of duty or obligation.

In our 99%, serenity is the norm, as calm neurobiological structures underpin personality.

However, a higher purpose may or may not be characteristic in our ancestral context. Some groups don’t worry about such things (e.g., Everett, 2009) while others do (Australian Aborigines; Lawlor). In Native American communities a larger framing of life, an attachment to the cosmos and a respect for life forces are built into daily ritual and form part of the adolescent’s vision quest and transition to adulthood (Deloria, 2006).

5. A quality of detachment and need for privacy AND

6. Autonomy, will, active agency; independent from culture and environment

Self-actualizing people are less needy of others, and of their approval than others are. They make their own decisions. They are independent, focused on growth rather than on getting a good reaction from the community. Self-actualizing individuals are nonconformist unlike deficiency-motivated people who need others and their approval. (Note that the assumption here is that non-actualizers care about fitting in. But these days in the USA, we have an increasing number of people and families that are socially oppositional—they purposefully behave in ways to annoy the community.)

Interestingly, though SBHG adults are highly autonomous—doing their own thing as they will, like going on a walkabout for a few days—they are also highly communal. They are committed to group living and democratically discuss actions and decisions when in the group, which has no leaders and does not use coercion.

7. Continued freshness of appreciation

Self actualizing people appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of their experiences. They feel grateful for everyday miracles (e.g., sunsets). They have rich subjective experiences, even of the same events. They are emotionally present to life experience.

Among Australian Aborigines (Lawlor) this is clear as they sing their songlines day after day. Anthropologist Colin Turnbull describes the “forest people” (Mbuti) as living in gratitude for the forest, which they treated like a beloved mother.

8. Common mystic or peak experiences

According to Maslow, self-actualizers are more likely to have mystic experiences, “feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and specie with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences” (MP, p. 164). There are also milder forms that are commonly experienced by most people.

Maslow noted that some self-actualizers did not have peak experiences at all (“nonpeakers”). Nonpeakers were more practically focused and he thought more likely to be crusaders, reformers, politicians, or workers whereas the “peakers” were more likely to be in the arts (poets, composers), philosophy or religion.

I don’t have information on this from SBHG except that group dancing and ceremonies of trance are routine.

9. Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a word invented by Alfred Adler and refers to a feeling of identification with, sympathy and affection for humanity, like an older brother has for a younger sibling. The self actualizing person has this attitude toward others who cannot see the truths that are so clear to her.

The wise elders in Native American communities have been described with this type of insight and patience (but also exasperation) towards the lesser aware adult members of the community (Cooper; WindEagle & RainbowHawk).

10. Deeper interpersonal relations

Self-actualizers are capable of deeper relationships than others—greater love, fusion, and less ego boundedness. They tend to have only a small circle of friends, usually who are close to being self-actualizers themselves.

Hard to say for SBHG since this is not the usually focus of study.

11. A democratic character structure

Self actualizers have a democratic character structure (not authoritarian): they don’t seek power over others but have a sense of equality with and empathy towards others of good character, no matter their background. They are ready to learn from their encounters with anyone. This suggests they had good early experience (Narvaez, 2014). This contrasts with the authoritarian personality which at the very least involves an emphasis on submitting to authority, including its values and beliefs, and aggression toward targeted outsiders, and is related to a preference for social dominance (Altemeyer).  Authoritarians respond to events motivated to keep their worldview intact through resistance to change, managing uncertainty and threat with the use of rigid scripts for social life (“rubricizing” according to Maslow, 1970). (For a review, see Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway, 2003). These concerns suggest that they are stress reactive.

SBHG societies are fiercely egalitarian. No one coerces another, even parents to children. It would be grounds for breaking off a relationship. Since they are not stress reactive, they won’t easily shift into a self-protective mindset where authoritarianism seems good and right.

12. Discriminatory between means and ends, between good and evil

Self-actualizers are strongly ethical, and exhibit moral standards in their behavior, doing right and not doing wrong. They also enjoy the means as well as the ends.

Similarly, SBHG expect others to share and not coerce others. They are known for their playfulness and enjoyment of everyday tasks.

13. A philosophical, unhostile sense of humor

The sense of humor among self-actualizers is not hostile (e.g., laughing when someone gets hurt), superior (focused on someone’s inferiority), or rebellious. They find humorous the human situation—humanity’s pride, bustle, ambition, striving and planning. Their humor can poke fun at the self, but not in a masochistic or clownlike way.

Similar nonhostile humor have been described among SBHG.

14. Creativity

Each self-actualizer is creative in a unique way, and “in to the naïve and universal creativeness of unspoiled children…greater freshness, penetration, and efficiency of perception…less inhibited, less constricted, less bound, in a word, less enculturated…more spontaneous, more natural, more human” (pp. 170- 171).

As noted above, SBHG groups are often described as spontaneous and unscripted.

15. Resistant to enculturation and transcendence of any particular culture

Self-actualizing do not approve of and identify with their culture—i.e., they are not well-adjusted. They do follow casual, superficial conventions (clothes, language, food).  Though they may desire cultural change, they have accepted the slow pace of change. They have a detachment from American culture—“they weigh it, assay it, taste, and then make their own decisions” (p. 173). They have a “less than average need for the familiar and customary” (p. 173). They are less “American” and more “members at large of the human species” (p. 174).

Interestingly, SBHG have similar personalities and worldviews all over the world. Because early experience deeply shapes personality, I have suggested that the evolved nest, which SBHG provide, offers a “cultural commons” for the development of a calm, social and virtuous personality (Narvaez, 2014).

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