Self-actualization: The realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.
Self-actualization represents a concept developed by American human psychological theorist Abraham Maslow. The hierarchy is based on a paper he submitted back in 1943, titled A Theory of Human Motivation. In 1954, Maslow published a book titled Motivation and Personality, which further expounded upon these ideas. According to Maslow’s theory, self-actualization involves the growth of an individual towards the fulfillment of his or her highest needs; the needs that, when met, will give meaning to life. Maslow went on to create a psychological hierarchy of needs, which illustrates a linear pattern of growth depicted in a direct and pyramidal order of ascension. Once an individual fulfilled each need that was described in the hierarchy, he would achieve self-actualization and therefore complete fulfillment. Maslow noted that self-actualizing individuals would inherently be able to resolve dichotomies, such as the long-standing question of free-will versus determinism and the conscious versus the unconscious. Additionally, he conceded that the vast majority of self-actualizers are highly creative and psychologically robust, and that even the mentally ill have the capacity to self-actualize (seeing as their psychopathology correlates with creativity).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Self-Actualization
The hierarchy of self-actualization created by Maslow is described as follows:
- Physiological needs – the need for food, adequate sleep, and air. These are the most basic needs, and until these needs are met, the individual will only be able to focus on staying alive.
- Safety, or the needs for protection and security – especially in those that emerge from extreme political or social instability. Human beings need to feel safe and protected, which often means being a part of a larger community.
- Belonging and being included, the need to take selfishly rather than giving, and unselfish love that is based upon growth rather than deficiency. Humans are social by nature, and thus have social needs.
- The needs for self-respect, self-esteem, and the healthy, positive feelings that are derived from admiration and acceptance. The individual needs to feel valued and loved not only by others, but also by him or herself.
- “Being” needs, concerning creative self-growth, prompted by fulfillment of potential and meaning in life. This is self-actualization – the ability of individuals to live up to their true potential. However, they will not be able to do so until all of the lower needs have been adequately satisfied.
Maslow believed that human needs could be successfully ranked, and that lower needs would have to be satisfied before individuals could move on to their higher needs.
Self-Actualization and Addiction
Okay, but how does all of this relate to individuals who are struggling with substance abuse disorders? The truth of the matter is, self-actualization and addiction are inked in more ways than one. In an exclusive study published in the Journal of Social Service Research, researchers concluded that a lack of ultimate aim in life share a close link with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as certain mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. The study was called ‘Attachment Style, Spirituality, and Depressive Symptoms Among Individuals in Substance Abuse Treatment’, and was conducted by researchers in the School of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches (BHOPB).
It was discovered that while insecure attachment styles increased the risk of developing depressive symptoms, a lack of existential-purpose played the largest role in the development of depression and addiction. Essentially, those who felt as if they did not have a clearly defined purpose in life were far more likely to become depressed and begin abusing chemical substances. The necessity of a spiritual connection when it comes to addiction recovery has been clear since Alcoholics Anonymous and the ’12-step model’ was first developed in the 1930s. In addition to developing a strong connection with a higher power, however, it has been found that recovering individuals must also develop a sense of personal purpose. Sponsorship (taking other addicts and alcoholics through the 12 steps) provides a temporary sense of purpose – and in some, this alone may lead to self-actualization. But for many, a further creative exploration will be necessary.
When we are active in our addictions, we wipe out each level of the hierarchy one by one, until we are left fighting for our base needs. In recovery, we slowly rebuild our personal pyramids (so to speak), fulfilling each need one at a time until we again have the potential for self-actualization. While we are using drugs and drinking to excess, achieving any kind of self-actualization will be utterly impossible. Our only purpose in life is to continue getting messed up, our self-esteem is smashed, our interpersonal connections suffer, we constantly put ourselves in danger, and we likely struggle to keep ourselves fed. We feel as if we need to continue using and drinking in order to survive. Once we enter into recovery, we will be able to move beyond our physiological needs, eventually making our way back up the hierarchy.
Climbing the Hierarchy
Active addiction constantly endangers our health and personal safety, even if we think we’ve got it ‘all under control’. Once we enter into recovery, we are able to enjoy a true sense of security – one we have likely grown accustomed to simply living without. Becoming involved in a broader sober community will also increase our feelings of safety. Soon, we will regain the ability to form deep and meaningful connections with other human beings. As we begin to rebuild our lives and continue to work hard towards self-betterment, we will slowly regain the respect and trust of our friends and family members. Our personal successes will boost our self-esteem, and we will begin to feel good about ourselves again. And once our lower needs are taken care of, we will be free to self-actualize.
And in the process of self-actualization, we will come to lead lives of meaning, purpose, and ultimate fulfillment. Sounds much better than waking up naked on a bathroom floor, sick and sweating – doesn’t it?