Abraham Maslow on The Resolution of The Creative Dichotomy

Creativity plays a significant role in the lives of self-actualising people, but its apparent opposing aspects must first be resolved

Image of a man wearing a woolly hat for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Jaden Barton on Unsplash

Creativity plays a significant role in the lives of self-actualising people, but its apparent opposing aspects must first be resolved

Abraham Maslow, the renowned humanist psychologist and psychotherapist, is perhaps best known for his Theory of Human Motivation, (1943) (PDF) [1], where he outlined his concept of needs-based human behaviour. Today, his hierarchy of human needs is a popular framework for assessing human motivation with self-actualisation representing the height of human achievement.

Unlike Maslow’s original concept where he suggested human beings moved progressively through the needs levels, therapists today consider these needs to overlap. In other words, a person’s needs may occupy many levels at once, experiencing growth in one area of life, and decline or stagnation in others.

Maslow’s scholarly contribution was then the result of twelve years of psychotherapeutic work and over twenty years of study into the nature of personality. The burning question in all of his work was, he says, what makes people neurotic?

His answer, in brief, was;

“…neurosis seemed at its core, and in its beginning, to be a deficiency disease; that it was born out of being deprived of certain satisfactions which I called needs in the same sense that water and amino acids and calcium are needs, namely that their absence produces illness. Most neurosis involved, along with other complex determinants, ungratified wishes for safety, for belongingness, and identification, for close love relationships, and for respect and prestige”.

In his search for answers, Maslow began exploring creativity in self-actualised people. In doing so, he realised his need to drop certain misconceptions. For example, he says; “I had to give up my stereotyped notion that health, genius, talent and productivity were synonymous” [2]. Many of his subjects, he says, although healthy and creative in a special sense, were not ordinarily productive and did not have great talent or genius.

He also suggests that many of the world’s great talents, such as Van Gough and Wagner, were not psychologically healthy. Therefore, he had to accept that creative talent or genius was mostly independent of psychological wellbeing. He suggested that health and unique talent were separate variables, with perhaps only slight correlations.

Maslow also needed to come to terms with the fact that creativity was not limited to real-world products and works of art. Unconsciously he had also assumed that creativity was to be found only in certain professions. The people Maslow studied and treated were to break up these misconceptions and assist him in forming a new idea of creativity. He subsequently conceptualised creativity in two forms; “special talent creativity” that which we find in the arts for example, and “self-actualising (SA) creativity” that which can be found in everyday life.

“All of my subjects were relatively more spontaneous and expressive than average people. They were more “natural” and less controlled and inhibited in their behaviour which seemed to flow out more easily and freely and with less blocking and self-criticism. This ability to express ideas and impulses without strangulation and without fear of ridicule turned out to be an essential aspect of self-actualised creativity” — Abraham Maslow

As I continued to digest Maslow’s concept of creativity, his ideas began to fit my own like a hand in a glove. It has long been my view that creativity is an inherent aspect of life and not reserved for the gilded few. I have come to believe that everyone is creative or has the capacity for creativity, and it is merely how we exercise that creative ability that differs.

For example, I have a choice, albeit bounded by my personal life experience, in the work I decide to do. I can work for myself or someone else. I can express myself as an independent artist, or I can follow other people’s rules and become a bureaucrat — either way, I create.

Maslow seems to agree.

He says; “…this all sounds as if we are dealing with a fundamental characteristic inherent in human nature, a potentiality given to all or most human beings at birth, which most often is lost or buried or inhibited as the person gets enculturated.”

In Toward a Psychology of Being [2], Maslow discusses the inherently creative nature of ordinary people engaged in regular everyday tasks. He describes in the self-actualised person, the ability to resolve apparent dichotomies which the average person cannot.

He offers the example of the uneducated, full-time mother and housewife who did not by any stretch of the imagination fall into conventional ideas of creativity. Yet, with little money, her home was always beautiful and well kept. He says her meals were banquets and her tastes were impeccable. She was original, novel, ingenious, inventive and unexpected, and he had little choice but to call her creative.

Another of his subjects was a psychiatrist whom he called a “pure” clinician. He never produced research or proposed theories but immersed himself in the everyday practice of helping people create themselves. He approached his work without jargon or expectation, with naivete and yet great wisdom like a Tao master. Every client was a unique human being with diverse needs and problems which needed to be understood — his success with challenging cases demonstrated and validated for Maslow, this psychiatrist’s unique creative ability.

Maslow recognised that distinguishing “special talent creativity” from “self-actualised creativity” allowed him to see that the latter came from the personality. This form of creativeness could be expressed in everyday activity such as housework or teaching, and he compares it to Carl Rogers’ personality concept, “openness to experience” [3]. He says such people possess a particular childlike quality despite their age and have the ability to resolve the dichotomous nature of creative experience.

“I learned from her and others like her that a first-rate soup is more creative than a second rate painting” — Abraham Maslow

Maslow’s self-actualised subjects appeared to resolve and live perfectly with dualistic aspects of life. They were more natural and less controlled than average people. They seemed to be capable of working favourably with conditions that ordinarily would restrict or inhibit most others. Challenging conditions appeared to be an opportunity for creative expression rather than one for criticism and withdrawal. Ideas could be expressed without fear of ridicule, blocking or self-criticism, all of which turned out, he says, to be essential aspects of the self-actualised creative person.

For instance, there is a risk when we discuss the apparent dualistic nature of selfishness/unselfishness, to fall on either one side or the other. That is to say, the more selfishness we observe on one side of the divide, the less unselfishness there is on the other. Popular concepts suggest our behaviour cannot be both.

Maslow highlights he needed by sheer force of pressure of the fact to give up his preconceived logic. His subjects continually showed, on the one hand, their selfishness yet on the other, their unselfishness. They had fused both aspects of being in a sensible and dynamic unity, Maslow explains, as described by Erich Fromm in Man for Himself, 1947 [4].

Other dichotomous aspects of being were also resolved, such as masculine versus feminine, heart versus head, and work versus play. Distinctions became indeterminate and shadowy. He says that ones with the strongest egos were also the ones who could be most egoless, self-transcending and problem-solving.

“But this is precisely what the great artist does. He is able to bring together clashing colours, forms that fight each other, dissonances of all kinds, into a unity. And this is also what the great theorist does when he puts puzzling and inconsistent facts together so that we can see that they really belong together. And so also for the great statesman, the great therapist, the great philosopher, the great parent, the great inventor. They are all integrators, able to bring separates and even opposites together into unity.” — Abraham Maslow

Human creativity for Maslow seemed to appear in two dichotomous stages that need resolution in the individual. First, there is the aspect of creativity that comes from the depths of the self, the inspiration, the feminine, the peak-experience. Secondly, there is the hard work, the conscious application of critique, shaping and forming according to the rules of the domain of work. In this second stage, there is the judgement, comparison and evaluation and rejection. The secondary processes of the masculine take over from the primary female creative aspects, and the work can be completed.

The finalisation of Maslow’s observations is a move towards ultimate integration of the self in unity, consistency and wholeness. This move towards wholeness is a healing of the split in the self. It is, he says, a cessation of the civil war in the self. In the psychologically unhealthy person, there is no resolution until the split can be healed.

I can relate to Maslow’s theory. His words are poetic and meaningful to me. They resonate at a deep part of me, reflecting my own personal experience in daily work, writing and art. His findings are derived from clinical experience and therefore carry more weight for me than theories of creativity formed through empirical study. Creativity is a very personal expression of the self, therefore I don’t believe a catch-all definition is practical or even possible.

Make of it what you will, the fact remains for me that in all human expression there is the opportunity for fulfilment and happiness. But that can only happen now, not in an imagined future and certainly not in the past. Our only option, therefore, is to get into the work for its own inherent sake.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Maslow.

“Self-actualised creativeness is “emitted” like radioactivity, and hits all of life, regardless of the problems, just as a cheerful person “emits” cheerfulness without purpose or design or even consciousness. It is emitted like sunshine; it spreads all over the place; it makes some things grow (which are growable) and is wasted on rocks and other ungrowable things.

How To Know You’re In Flow: Maslow’s 16 Aspects of Peak-Experience
In our obsession with material pursuits, are we denying ourselves the one thing that could provide a route to…medium.com


  1. Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. doi: 10.1037/h0054346

  2. Maslow, A. (2018). Toward a Psychology of Being (1st ed.). New York: Wilder Publications.

  3. Rogers, C. (2011). On Becoming a Person. London: Constable & Robinson.

  4. Fromm, E. (1947). Man for himself. New York: Rinehart Co.

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