How physicians can become self-actualized

What really makes a person complete?

What do we want in our lives, and what is it like to become our best, most fulfilled selves?

In the 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow tried to answer this question. This eventually led to his well-known hierarchy of needs. You might be familiar with the pyramid.

The premise of the theory is that once we fulfill our basic needs (food, water, shelter) and our core emotional needs (love, acceptance, self-esteem), then we can begin to work on the peak of the period.

Self-actualization — trying to become our best selves.

Maslow didn’t truly believe that we progressed in a stepwise fashion. Having to accomplish one level of the pyramid before progressing to another. It’s more a matter of degrees. In other words, one person might have 70 percent of their love needs met, and 80 percent of their safety needs, but still might be 20 percent self-actualized. The more one has met their lower needs, the more attention can be given to higher ones. But it might never be perfect.

So what does it actually mean to be self-actualized?

Well, according to Maslow, self-actualized people are real. They exist in everyday life. As you read this, consider if you know some people who are self-actualized. Often, they exhibit many of the following qualities.

It’s less complicated than you think.

1. They appreciate the simple things in life. Self-actualized people tend to look at basics of life — like nature, sunshine, parks, and trees — with awe, amazement, and even ecstasy. They can continually refresh these feelings, so they don’t become old. They remain continually amazed at the world around them.

2. They are OK with themselves as they are. Self-actualized people are fully OK with themselves as they are: full of quirks, imperfections, and flaws. They are at peace with who they are as people and also hold that view towards others. They tend to treat others the same regardless of their background, race, or status.

3. They are true to themselves. These individuals tend to keep their dignity and moral values regardless of their situation. They don’t conform to societal ideals of happiness and contentment. They tend to live in the moment of their experiences.

4. They possess a high degree of equanimity. Self-actualized individuals tend not to be overly swayed by the inevitable ups and downs of life. They keep a positive mindset when misfortunes come their way. And they try not to hold on to the pleasant experiences when they end. They accept that life is a series of both positive and negative moments.

5. They feel a deep sense of purpose. Self-actualized individuals feel as if they’ve got a particular mission to complete in life. They find their work inspiring and important and often feel it will accomplish some greater good.

6. They are realistic. Another major characteristic of self-actualized people is they tend to see the world in a more realistic light. They are interested in getting to the truth of their experiences and tend to view their experiences through a more logical and rational lens.

7. They want to help others. Self-actualized people possess a humanitarian streak. They want to make things better, not just for themselves, but for all of humanity. As such, they are often working towards ways in which they can genuinely help others.

8. They have peak experiences. These are periods of self-transcendence. An experience that what is happening is bigger than yourself.

Consider flow events. Maslow described these events as: “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 ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences.”

9. They possess strong morals. Self-actualized individuals have a strong sense of their own intuitions. They can easily tell, deep down, when they’ve done something that they might feel is wrong.

10. They are creative. Self-actualized people tend to possess a creative spirit. They bring creativity into all areas of their lives. They can think “outside of the box” and come up with novel solutions to difficult problems.


Maslow also got criticized for being elitist. Meaning that he was talking only about a condition that was exclusive to those who were privileged. But what Maslow was really talking about was reaching your highest potential as a person, regardless of your background. This is about becoming your best self.

Some might think that the journey of self-actualization requires a lot of free time and energy. Really what Maslow was talking about was about learning to be more present — bringing yourself fully into every moment. No matter what you’re doing and how busy you are. Treating people with kindness, making the best decisions for yourself, holding yourself up to the highest standards. All of us can do that at any time.

The most interesting thing to me is Maslow’s connection between self-actualization and service to others. It seems that people who are self-actualized don’t just work towards the improvement of themselves. There instead is a tendency towards wanting to improve the lives of others. So, really, what he’s saying is that at your full potential, you are using your skills maximally to make others’ lives better.

As physicians, we’re really lucky. Our job allows us to satisfy a lot of our needs inherently. We’re well-paid, which allows us to enjoy the basic comforts of life, we’re well educated, respected, and yes, we do get to help others in life. But does this mean we’re all self-actualized?

Think about your life. How empathetic are you? How do you treat others? How open are you to new ideas? How fully are you bringing yourself to the present moment? Do you look at the world with awe and amazement? Can you do better?

What are the things you can improve on in your own life to become a fuller, more self-actualized person? Are you working towards that?

Navpreet Sahsi is an emergency physician who blogs at Physician, Heal Thyself.

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