The Elements of Self-Actualization…and Why Coaches Should be Aware of Them

The desired outcome of mentoring or coaching adult learners is to help those individuals achieve self-actualization through transformational experiences. The more self-actualized an individual, the more aware and able that individual is to transition into or improve within knowledge-based careers. Therefore, it is important to understand how motivations are realized in individuals, as well as understand what characteristics demonstrate a self-actualized individual. Rather than career, income, or social status, a truly self-actualized individual will exhibit very specific behaviors that Maslow (1970) reported from a holistic analysis to help further future clinical and experimental studies. These behaviors are shared in more detail below.

  • Clearer and more realistic perceptions of reality. Maslow (1970) indicated this through a study that showed more secure students having a more accurate judgment of their professors than students who were less secure.
  • General acceptance of one’s self and others. Maslow explained that individuals with this characteristic “can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings, with all its discrepancies from the ideal image without feeling real concern” (p. 155).
  • The capacity for spontaneous behavior. Maslow explained that “their behavior is marked by simplicity and naturalness and by lack of artificality or straining for effect” (p. 157).
  • The individual’s tendancy to focus on problems bigger than the individual’s own issues, leading to a problem-centric mindset instead of ego-centric mindset.
  • The ability to work alone or be detached without insecurity or discomfort.
  • Autonomy in the environment, largely due to the fact that “they are propelled by growth motivation rather than by deficiency motivation” (p. 162).
  • The capacity for fresh appreciation of what the individual has already experienced many times.
  • The depth of personal relationships, “capable of more fusion, greater love, more perfect identification, [and] more obliteration of the ego boundaries” (p. 166).
  • The democratic character structure. Maslow had gone into detail on the differences between authoritarian and democratic mindsets (p. 303), and found in his analysis of self-actualization characteristics that every participant in the study demonstrated the democratic mindset.
  • The capacity to distinguish the means and ends, even if they did not have it articulated well. However, the participants still consistently demonstrated strong moral standards even if they were not conventional.
  • A unique sense of humor. While many individuals find amusement in hostile, superior, or authority-rebellion humor, self-actualized individuals typically align their humor to philosophy.
  • Creativity without exception. All individuals who met the criteria for self-actualization in Maslow’s study demonstrated originality or innovation within the realm of creativity.
  • General resistance to culture identification. While individuals work well within a variety of cultures, they do not necessarily identify with a specific culture and even resist doing so (Maslow, 1970, pp. 153-171).

Maslow (1970) summarized his profile of self-actualization characteristics by noting that individuals with these characteristics have a very strong value system due to a “philosophic acceptance of the nature of… self, of human nature, of much of social life, and of nature and physical reality” (p. 176).  Also dichotomies in these individuals are resolved. Maslow explained this by providing the example of dichotomies being between the “heart and head, reason and instinct, or cognition and conation” (p. 179) and noting that the previous antagonist behaviors between these elements become synergistic. As the goals for both academic mentoring and coaching work to provide individuals the guidance necessary to experience the journey of transformation, the continual effort is to reach self-actualization. Individuals will likely have some characteristics, while missing others. This awareness can help mentors and coaches assist individuals more effectively.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Joanna Cotler Books.

Excerpts of my doctoral thesis about coaching methods being infused to adult education have been used for this post.

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.

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