Difference Between Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem

Self-actualization and self-esteem are two critical concepts in psychology that relate to human motivation and behavior. While both these concepts are essential for individuals to achieve personal growth and success, they are different in many ways.

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?

Self-actualization is a term coined by Abraham Maslow to describe the process of achieving one's full potential. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is the highest level of human needs and represents the desire to become everything one is capable of becoming. Self-actualization involves fulfilling one's innate potential, seeking personal growth and development, and living a life that is fulfilling and meaningful. It is about exploring one's creativity, discovering one's purpose in life, and reaching a state of satisfaction with one's achievements.

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 refers to an individual's subjective evaluation of their own worth and value. It is the degree to which an individual regards themselves as competent, significant, and worthy. Self-esteem plays a crucial role in shaping a person's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. High self-esteem individuals tend to be confident, assertive, and resilient, whereas low self-esteem individuals tend to be insecure, anxious, and vulnerable to negative feedback.

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.

Differences: Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem

The fundamental difference between self-actualization and self-esteem lies in their focus. Self-actualization is about achieving one's full potential, regardless of external factors, whereas self-esteem is about how one perceives oneself in relation to others. Self-actualization is an internal process that requires self-awareness, self-reflection, and a sense of purpose, while self-esteem is often influenced by external factors such as social comparison, feedback from others, and past experiences.

Another difference between self-actualization and self-esteem is their relationship with happiness. Self-actualization is often associated with long-term happiness and fulfillment, while self-esteem is often associated with short-term happiness and satisfaction. Self-actualization involves pursuing meaningful goals and values, which can lead to a sense of purpose and fulfillment, whereas self-esteem often involves seeking validation and approval from others, which can be fleeting and unreliable.

The following table highlights the major differences 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.

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.

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.

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.

Self-worth and self-regard are used as synonyms for self-esteem.


In conclusion, self-actualization and self-esteem are two critical concepts in psychology that play a significant role in human development and behavior. While both these concepts are important for individuals to achieve personal growth and success, they are different in many ways.

Self-actualization is about achieving one's full potential, pursuing meaningful goals, and reaching a state of fulfillment, while self-esteem is about how one perceives oneself in relation to others.

By understanding these differences, individuals can better understand their own needs and motivations, and work towards achieving their goals and aspirations.

Updated on: 26-Apr-2023


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