Many have at least heard of Abraham Maslow’s now-famous Hierarchy of Needs. The ideas he encapsulated weren’t new, but in 1943, when he wrote his book, A Theory of Human Motivation, he organized the ideas in a way that has made them very popular in psychology, in management training, and among self-help coaches the world over.
Maslow argued that each level must be satisfied before the next level can be achieved. Many psychologists today tend to believe that the hierarchy is more like a continuous cycle that we move through in life. However, there are still a large number who argue that you can’t truly enter a higher level until the level beneath is completely fulfilled.
In the last decade or so, in developed countries in particular, a growing number of business leaders, management experts, and self-help gurus have focused an outsize amount of attention on the concept of self-actualization. The concept wasn’t new when Maslow outlined his hierarchy, but his definition has gained perhaps more traction than any other because of the way he framed it.
The desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.
— Abraham Maslow
Conceptually, that’s a good thing. I’m a firm believer in the need to make regular improvements. That is the reason an estimated 150 million people in the United States alone make New Year’s resolutions.
The phrase, “desire to become more and more what one is” recently caught my attention.
There are three significant hurdles associated with this way of thinking:
- A desire to become more of what one is — whatever that may be — can quickly lead to unhealthy focus on self-fulfillment. In a word: perfectionism.
- The tail-end phrase — to become everything that one is capable of becoming — is often overlooked in favor of focus on a single area in life. Another word: obsession.
- There is a narrow bridge between esteem to self-actualization. That bridge crosses a chasm of selfishness. That is, when trying to attain the level of self-actualization, we often do it at the expense of those around us, particularly our loved ones.
In short, perfectionism is refusing to accept any standard short of perfection.
Always striving to be better is one thing, but continuously seeking for something unattainable is dangerous. Perfectionism is often linked with clinical issues like anger management problems, depression, anxiety, self-harm, social anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and many more.
None of the aforementioned clinical issues just impact the perfectionist. In every case, those around the perfectionist are also impacted.
Seeking for self-actualization can easily give way to perfectionism. The phrase “to become everything that one is capable of becoming” may lead an individual to believe he or she cannot progress any longer. This is the definition of perfectionism.
Obsession is an idea or thought that continually preoccupies your mind. By its definition obsession with someone or something generally impairs an individual in their ability to focus on other things. Most people don’t suffer from clinical obsessions — where that one thing is literally all he or she can think about, but even without developing any type of clinical obsession, unhealthy levels of obsession with self-actualization can occur. This happens when a desire to achieve self-actualization in one area causes us to set aside other equally important things such as relationships or personal health.
For example, suppose I’m trying to attain an idyllic physique. So, I start going to the gym two hours every day. In order to carve out that kind of time, I would regularly have to wake up earlier than I already do. However, even that would not be enough. I would have to skip out on personal engagements with family and friends.
Selfishness, simply defined, is the act of lacking consideration for others. Put another way, it is being concerned primarily with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
Selfishness can occur earlier than perfectionism and obsession because it begins in the esteem level. Esteem is respect or admiration. Seeking for esteem leads to self-absorption and narcissism. In the age of social media, this is a more precarious problem than ever before. People seeking to be “influencers” on social media often become self-absorbed, some even falling to the level of self-worship.
To a certain degree, a measure selfishness is required in self care. Selfishness is a biological safety net. It is required for self preservation.
As with perfectionism and obsession, selfishness can get out of control when chasing self-actualization.
There are some inherent problems with Maslow’s hierarchy that have been studied in great deal since the hierarchy was first published. Dr. Robert Enright published an article in May 2018 on why the self-actualization theory isn’t quite right.
The key is to realize our ability to attain any one of the hierarchy levels can be influenced by external factors outside of our control. Sometimes, it’s good to minimize the impact of those external factors. Such is the case for people living in nations with oppressive leadership where even meeting the needs of the physiological and safety levels is tenuous. Other times, it’s important to remember the external factors, even embrace them, in an effort to achieve self-actualization. Think of family, friends, and other loved ones. We all have a responsibility to them. It’s a matter of striking an appropriate balance between the self-care required to achieve self-actualization and the time and effort we put into help others get there.
We can only truly attain self-actualization by helping others get there at the same time.