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Abraham Maslow is mostly known for his Hierarchy of Needs, something that we all learn about in one health class or another. This is only just a small part of his bigger theory of self-actualization. Friedman and Shustack described self-actualization as one’s “…innate process by which [he or she] tends to grow spiritually and realize [his or her] potential (2012, p. 307).” Maslow’s theories fall under the category of humanistic and existential psychology, mainly humanistic, because it addresses the fact that as human beings, we are more than just our biological needs and that we have certain aspects that make us “human.” Humanistic psychology does acknowledge that we have these basic needs in order to survive, but rather than focus solely on those needs as the driving force that creates “us,” like the many of the previous psychologists did i.e. Freud and his belief that sex was the driving force behind everyone’s actions, humanistic psychology encompasses the entire human experience. Friedman and Shustack point out that based on the concept of humanist psychology and self-actualization, it is acknowledged that “[being] deprived of companionship, or being deprived of meaning for one’s life can be just as terrifying, and deadly, as being deprived of food (2012, p. 307).”
Abraham Mallow’s theory of self-actualization is based on the notion that humans have a drive to to figure out “who we are” by reflecting inwards. The term organismic is often used to express theories that are based on this form of inward reflection, emphasising an organisms natural tendency to follow its natural course (Friedman & Schustack, 2012, p. 310). Maslow believed that in order to advance along the path to self-actualization, we have certain needs that must be met in order to progress. On the bottom are out baser, biological needs such as food, water, and shelter. The next step is the need to feel safe and secure in our surroundings, then after that is met, the need to feel love and to belong in a group, this is then followed by the need to have self-esteem. After all of these lower needs are met, then we can progress onto our self-actualization since we are no longer worrying about more immediate needs (Friedman & Schustack, 2012, pp. 311-312). Maslow also talks about peak experiences, these are “powerful, meaningful experiences in which people seem to transcend the self, be at one with the world and feel completely self-fulfilled… (Friedman & Schustack, 2012, p. 308).” This can also be described as déjà vu, serendipity, or epiphany. Although these experiences are not classified as “mystical” or “religious,” they are described as being “…fleeting, and truth-illuminating spiritual happenings” by psychologist and philosopher William James (Friedman & Schustack, 2012, p. 308). I am sure that we can all relate to the concept of the Hierarchy of Needs, since there has probably been a time when all of us tried to study but found it difficult due to being exhausted or we heard our parents fighting in the next room for the third time that week. I know that I have had my moments when I was wondering if I made the right decisions and found myself finding confirmation through a peak experience. I chose Maslow’s theory of self-actualization to apply to my personality development because of the hierarchy of needs and the idea of peak experiences.
I lived the first nine years of my life in a fairly small town in Utah where everyone knew everyone, and everyone else’s business. I knew where I fit in and what was expected of me. I was very outgoing, independent, and adventurous. At the beginning of my third grade year, my dad received a promotion that required us to move out of state. We had the choice between two locations, Pocatello, ID or Boise, ID. We decided on Boise because there had been two kidnappings that year in Pocatello and my mom was not happy about the idea of living there if she was going to worry about the safety of my brother and I. I was scared about moving to a place I had never been, I did not know a single person, and that seemed so far away from my friends. It was really disorienting for me and I felt out of place when I went to my new school. The others in my class seemed nice enough, but I still could not get past the feeling of being “new.” My independence and sense of adventure were gone. I was no longer the outgoing little girl I had been, I had become withdrawn and unsure of who I was because I did not know what these new people expected of me. Although I slowly began to regain my sense of identity, I was never as outgoing as I was prior to moving. I did gain back my full sense of independence, in fact it was stronger than it was before. However, a lingering problem that I did have was a sense of anxiety that would flare up every once in awhile, especially at the thought of spending the night at a friend’s house. The worst instance was when I was in the sixth grade and we went on a field four day, three night camping trip. I was so homesick the entire time that I had to call my mom in tears everyday to beg her to come and get me. She always convinced me that I should stay and see how I felt the next day with the promise that if I was still unhappy, she would come and get me. Although it was the worst I had ever been homesick, it helped me to start gaining back the feeling of security I needed to branch out more and take more risks because I knew that no matter what, my mom was always going to be there for me. This was an example of how my need for security was standing in the way of my ability to reach true self-actualization, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Once I was able to establish that sense of security, I was able to start working more on my self esteem.
I have had several peak experiences in my life that I felt let me know that I was on the right path. The first one that really stands out in my mind is a time when I was eight or so and was on a bike ride with my brother. We had gone on a meandering ride with no real set destination. We decided to take a short break near a bridge that went over a fairly narrow creek that was surrounded by trees. While we were sitting in the shade and enjoying our snack, my brother noticed something hidden among the trees. It was a rusted out old car for the 40’s or 50’s that someone had probably dumped there years ago. There was also a pile of bones nearby, most likely from a deer that had died the previous winter, but being kids, we made up stories of a long ago car accident, a Bonnie and Clyde style shoot out, or even a suicide that went unnoticed for years. What I remember most distinctly was the relationship that developed in my mind of car rusting away slowly to nothing next to the bones of some animal that used to be alive. It was at that moment that I realized we are all going to die and rot away. This should have been a terrifying thought for me, but because that car was there, it was not scary. Instead I saw a kind of beauty in how we slowly break down and become something else. It was comforting just as much as it was scary, we are going to die and become part of the world around us. Another peak experience was around the time I decided to switch my major from health science to psychology and child development. I was feeling as if I had made a mistake by taking on something that was going to be much more time consuming, more difficult, and potentially painful based on the type of children I want to work with. My husband and I got on the elevator to head up to our apartment after we had just been at the school campus going through the process of changing everything around. A man and his daughter, she was maybe 16 months old, got onto the elevator behind us. She was still working on getting her legs to cooperate as she was tottering around the elevator. She looked up at me with the biggest smile and walked towards me with her arms outstretched. Not knowing what else to do, I picked her up and she just began to jabber at me and point at the various shiny things on the elevator. My husband looked kind of perplexed and the father of the little girl was shocked that she seemed to be so comfortable around a complete stranger when usually she was pretty shy around new people. My only response was, “I guess I am a magnet for kids and animals.” Everyone had a good laugh and I handed her over to her father when they reached their floor. I just had the overwhelming sense that “fate” was telling me I had made the right decision. I do have several more examples of peak experiences, but I figure you do not want my entire life story.
Although I strongly agree with the concepts behind Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization, particularlly his ideas of peak experiences and his Hierarchy of Needs, there are some limitations to his theory. The biggest limitations, which are shared with all humanistic-existential psychology theories, is the lack of solid scientific method and quantification, “ambiguous or inconsistent” theory, and at times, “insufficiently concerned with reason or logic (Friedman & Schustack, 2012, p. 321).” One drawback of Maslow’s theory, as pointed out by C.G. Boeree is that when working on this theory, Malsow had already developed his conclusions prior to really delving into the study, and even then he chose only a small sample to test his theory on. This sample consisted of people he felt had achieved self-actualization, which he felt only a small percentage of people could do, and used mostly the findings that fit his theory (Boeree, 2006). Another limitation is with the Hierarchy of Needs and the requirement that each level be satisfied before being able to move on to the next before reaching full self-actualization. There are many examples throughout history of starving artists and inventors, who expressed their level of genius, but were sometimes (many times) unable to meet even the very base needs in the Hierarchy. So these would be examples of people who worked outside of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, showing us that it is not a rigorous or set in stone truth. It is in fact possible to be homeless, unable to get food, or go without sleep and still achieve a level of self-actualization (Boeree, 2006). In Buddhism, before reaching his enlightenment, the Buddha, mediated and fasted for days, months, years, and was still able to achieve ultimate self-actualization. Even thought Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization has its share of short comings, he still offers up a more positive and alternative view of how we become us, and I became me.
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