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Difference Between Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem

Self-actualization and self-esteem are two concepts used mainly in humanistic psychology especially in the study of human personality and development. The meaning and usage of these two terms have both evolved over time from how they were first coined and defined. Along with this evolution is the introduction of other terms and concepts that are confused with each other. The most popular definition of both words would that be of Abraham Maslow who used both of these terms in his theory of motivation under the hierarchy of needs.

These two terms may start with the same word, but they are very different. Self-actualization, even in its evolution, is seen as a drive, an end goal or the process itself. Self-esteem on the other hand, outside of Maslow’s theory, is more of a personality trait or state. More of this difference, as well as others, are discussed further in the following.


What is Self-Actualization?

In the modern and popular concept, self-actualization as humanistic psychologists define it, is the tendency to fulfill one’s potential. Carl Rogers calls it a basic motive while Abraham Maslow considers it not just a higher order but the highest order need, achievable only when the lower needs have been met or at least satisfied to a degree. Rogers calls the person who has achieved his potential as a fully functioning individual while Maslow calls that person a self-actualized individual. Whatever the case, they list characteristics of said individual and common to both are creativity, strong interpersonal relationships, and a positive world-view.

Self-actualization was first coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein in his book, The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man published in 1939. Goldstein described self-actualization as the ultimate goal of any organism, not just humans. All other behaviors and drives that are observed in an organism are just manifestations of self-actualization. Goldstein also suggested that self-actualization can occur at any point in an organism’s lifespan. As the concept evolved, self-actualization has been used interchangeably with the term self-realization, although these two terms have differences.


What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is widely defined in psychology as an individual’s overall subjective sense of his or her own value. This includes attitudes, beliefs, and feelings toward the self. Most psychologists agree that self-esteem may either be an enduring personality trait or a transitory state. Most psychologists also agree that self-esteem develops over time, starting with childhood and is affected by an individual’s interactions with other people, especially the parents. Carl Rogers also calls it self-worth and suggests that it is a result of a congruence of one’s self-image and ideal self. Abraham Maslow names self-esteem as one of the esteem needs, the fourth level of needs just below the need for self-actualization. People with a high level of self-esteem are said to believe in themselves, proud of what they do and also sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

The term itself was first coined by William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, in his multi-volume work entitled, The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. In the book, James defined self-esteem as the ratio of an individual’s successes to his or her pretensions, the term James used for a person’s aspirations or expectations. In James’s conceptualization, self-esteem can be increased either by increasing success or lowering aspirations.


Difference between Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem


Self-actualization is the tendency to fulfill one’s potential. Self-esteem is the overall subjective evaluation of one’s value.

First use of the term

Self-actualization was coined by Kurt Goldstein in 1939, while self-esteem was first used by William James in 1890.

Original concept

Self-actualization was originally conceptualized by Kurt Goldstein as the overall end goal of each organism to actualize its capacities. Self-esteem was first conceptualized by William James as the ratio of successes over pretensions.

Modern concept

Self-actualization is defined today as the tendency to achieve the full potential in humans. Self-esteem is now defined as the overall feeling of self-worth.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Self-actualization is the highest order need in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs while self-esteem is one of the esteem needs which is the fourth level in the hierarchy, just below self-actualization.

Characteristics in a person

Self-actualized individuals are said to be creative, have strong interpersonal relationships and a positive world-view, while people with high self-esteem are said to have belief in themselves, proud of what they do, and are sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

Other terms

Self-actualization is sometimes used interchangeably and confused with self-realization while self-worth and self-regard are used as synonyms for self-esteem.

Self-Actualization vs Self-Esteem


Summary of Self-Actualization vs Self-Esteem

  • Self-actualization is the need to fulfill one’s potentials and self-esteem is the overall subjective evaluation of one’s self
  • The meaning and usage of self-actualization and self-esteem have evolved and changed from how they were first conceptualized.
  • The term self-actualization was coined by Kurt Goldstein to refer to any organism’s goal to actualize its capacities. Today, self-actualization refers to the need of humans to fulfill one’s potential.
  • Self-esteem was first used by William James to refer to the ratio of one’s successes over one’s pretensions or aspirations and expectations.
  • Self-actualized individuals are creative, have strong relationships, and have a positive world-view. Individuals with high self-esteem believe in themselves, are proud of what they do, and are sensitive to the feelings and needs of others.


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References :

[0]Image credit: https://pixabay.com/de/illustrations/identit%C3%A4t-selbst-authentische-795295/

[1]Image credit: https://pixabay.com/de/illustrations/ich-selbstachtung-selbstbefreiung-741498/

[2]Formica, Michael J. "Self Esteem Doesn't Make Better People Of Us." Psychology Today. May 17, 2008. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/enlightened-living/200805/self-esteem-doesnt-make-better-people-us (accessed September 11, 2019).

[3]McLeod, Saul. "Carl Rogers." SimplyPsychology. February 5, 2014. https://www.simplypsychology.org/carl-rogers.html#self (accessed September 11, 2019).

[4]Sullivan, Erin. "Self-actualization." Encyclopedia Britannica. July 13, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/science/self-actualization (accessed September 11, 2019).

[5]Sze, David. "Maslow: The 12 Characteristics of a Self-Actualized Person." Huffpost. December 7, 2011. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/maslow-the-12-characteris_b_7836836?guccounter=1 (accessed September 11, 2019).

[6]Wozniak, Robert H. Classics in Psychology, 1855-1914: Historical Essays. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, 1999. Print.

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