What My Cutie Mark is Telling Me: Cutie Marks and Self-Actualization

Self Actualization

Cutie Marks have long been an important concept in the world of Friendship is Magic. They are little butt symbols that all ponies get when they discover their special talents. But are they also possibly a manifestation of the idea of “self-actualization”?


Before we can talk about self-actualization, we need to briefly discuss the larger theory it is a part of. I’m sure that many of you are familiar with Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” in some form of another. For those of you who aren’t, however, here’s the basic rundown.

The “hierarchy of needs” was originally proposed by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. He proposed that human motivations are based upon a hierarchical level of needs. His original model only had five, but many modern models include several other stages. We’ll just focus on the basic 5-stage model for this discussion. These stages are usually represented in a pyramid shape like this:

Hierarchy of Needs

The hierarchical nature of these needs means that in order to move up the pyramid, the lower level needs have to be mastered. Before you can successfully deal with friends and family, for example, you have to be fed, financially stable, and, you know, not basically fighting for survival. Maslow himself though did admit that the actual progression may differ from person to person based on their individual needs and that the higher needs, such as esteem and love – often called “Social Needs”, which is what I’ll be using – are highly connected. More modern theories also state  that it is possible to be self-actualized even when the lower stages, such as the physiological or safety needs, aren’t met.

While we could talk about all these stages, the stage that we are most interested in talking about is the highest one; self-actualization. To describe what self-actualization is, here’s Maslow himself:

“It refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions”.

For Maslow, this was not a drive but a natural desire by humans to improve ourselves and try and reach our full potential. This means that self-actualized people have, in a sense, figured out their unique nature and seek to expand and improve themselves in this capacity.

Wait. Discovering one’s unique potential? Where have we heard this before…

Cutie Marks and Self-Actualization

By now we should all be pretty familiar with cutie marks, that lovely little symbol that pops up on a pony’s flank when they discover their special talent. And all our Cutie Mark Crusader-centered episodes reinforce that one can’t force them to happen or try and take “shortcuts”, such as Heart’s Desire, to get them. It also seems that in order to get their cutie mark, a pony has to have some level of realization about what it is that they are good at. Miss Cheerilee probably sums it up the best in “Call of the Cutie” when she says:

“A cutie mark appears on a pony’s flank when he or she finds that certain something that makes them different from every other pony. Discovering what makes you unique isn’t something that happens overnight, and no amount of hoping, wishing, or begging, would make a cutie mark appear before its time.”

To me, this sounds a lot like the concept of self-actualization; in fact, it could be argued that getting one’s cutie mark is, in a sense, a manifestation of a pony becoming self-actualized.

Consider this. Like self-actualization at the top of the hierarchy, one can’t simply jump straight into getting one’s cutie mark. One does have to be patient, work hard, explore and discover, have a sense of mastery and self-esteem in one’s achievements, etc. In short, getting a cutie mark does seem to require one to fulfill the needs represented by the stages. Just to demonstrate, using “Cutie Mark Chronicles”, I think I can figure out a rough idea of what needs the Mane 6 fulfilled in their stories before they got their cutie mark:

  • Fluttershy: Social Need. Fluttershy obviously doesn’t seem to fit in well with pegasi culture. She’s not a good flyer, she doesn’t seem to be interested in weather or racing, and is teased quite a bit by other pegasi. It is only when she finds herself on the ground, surrounded by the wonders of animals, she seemed to find a place that she truly belonged. She then proceeded to sing a musical number about how much she loved it. With this sense of belonging and finding a place that would accept her, she got her cutie mark.
  • Applejack: Social Need as well. Applejack’s leaving home was inspired by her feeling that she did not want to live on the farm and instead she wanted try out the city life. It was upon realizing that she truly belonged with her family on the Apple Farm, however, that she got her cutie mark.
  • Twilight Sparkle: Esteem Need, possibly a bit of Social Need as well. Twilight obviously knew what she wanted to do when she saw Celestia; she wanted to study magic. That was not, however, what caused her to get her cutie mark. It was getting Celestia’s personal approval and acceptance as her personal student that Twilight got her cutie mark. Since Celestia was her idol, being made her apprentice could be viewed as receiving the prestige and achievement that makes up the Esteem Need. Episodes like “Lesson Zero” seem to reinforce this point as Twilight freaks out big time when she believes she will disappoint Celestia. This is a rather interesting situation though since it is only Celestia, and later her friend’s, disapproval that she fears losing. This is why it may also be a Social Needs issue for her as well *shrug*.
  • Rainbow Dash: Esteem Need. Rainbow Dash wants to be seen as the fastest flyer in all of Equestria. While she has plenty of self-respect, unless one wants to argue her bravado is covering up for some internal lack of self-respect, she also desires the respect from others. Performing a Sonic Rainboom obviously fit the bill.
  • Pinkie Pie: I might actually say that the issue for Pinkie Pie may have been a Social Needs one. The lack of laughter and joy on the rock farm probably didn’t do wonders for Pinkie Pie feeling loved by her family. Bringing joy into their lives with her parties probably helped bring the family closer together to fulfill this need and allowed her to have a loving and healthy relationship with those around her.
  • Rarity: This one was probably the toughest, but I’m going to argue that for Rarity it was an Esteem Issue. Rarity’s goal, of course, is to be a famous fashionita and to fit in with the upper-crust of Equestrian society. She wants the respect and recognition of others, something that seemed to be missing prior to getting her cutie mark. Her frustrations over the imperfections may have been some kind of sense of inferiority; finding those gems and making the excellent costumes for the play that everyone admired helped her to overcome that and help her recognize her true talents. Note that in some modified versions of the hierarchy there is also an “Aesthetic Need”, which probably may have been involved in this situation as well. After all, her talent seems to be in fulfilling this need by seeking out the beauty in everything.

So what does this mean for the Cutie Mark Crusaders? Not exactly sure. My gut says possibly it might be an Esteem Issue (Social Need is probably met by them forming the CMC club). I don’t really have much to support this, but the fact they seem to keep ignoring their “obvious” talents from the viewer’s perspective might be an issue of just not having confidence in their abilities. Or they are just that oblivious *shrug*.

Why So Many Self-Actualized Ponies?

Here’s where things get a little odd though. In Maslow’s theory, the amount of people who become self-actualized is small; he guesses it at about 1% of the population. More modern theories probably widen the scope enough to include more, but still probably not the 100% rate that seems to exist in Equestria. Part of that is probably due to the setting; Equestria seems to be a stable enough world that the basic physiological and safety needs are met for almost everyone. That still leaves the question of how to fulfill the social and esteem needs, which modern theories tend to suggests are the most important in achieving self-actualization.

Well, too find out, we’re going to look at Maslow’s theory again. Through case studies, he developed a list of characteristics and behaviors shared by those he considered “self-actualized”. While there more traits and behaviors than we really have time to discuss, a look at two of them is probably worthwhile when discussing this concept in Equestria.

1) Experiencing life like a child, with full absorption and concentration.
2) Trying new things instead of sticking to safe paths

We know of course that number one is quite easily to accomplish in Equestria; cutie marks are gotten during childhood after all. Nothing beats experiencing life like a child than being, well, a child.

Number two also seems to be an easier thing to accomplish in Equestrian society than in reality. Foals in Equestria are encouraged to explore and try new things, and it seems that Equestrian society is well adapted to allow for them to do so. Applejack, for example, seemed to have no troubles in just packing up and leaving home to go live with the Orange family for a time as part of her own journey of self-discover. And this makes sense for society to have developed in this manner considering how important the cutie mark seems to be to ponies. So with being given the freedom and support to explore themselves, it should be no surprise then that ponies can have a much higher success rate than humans in self-actualization.

But What About the Antagonists?

The problem of this argument, of course, is why do antagonists have cutie marks? After all, many of the villains in Friendship is Magic could be argued to have one of their needs not being met correctly, causing them to lash out in some form. It could be argued that The Great and Powerful Trixie has a severe Esteem Need issue due to her constant seeking out of the approval of others, or that Discord had a Social Need issue due to never having a friend prior to Fluttershy. Nightmare Moon, of course, probably had both; no appreciation for her talents and she felt alone and isolated from others. So, obviously, they would not seem to be in a good position to be self-actualized. Yet, in the case of pony antagonists, they still have cutie marks. How could this be?

Developing a response to that is a little tough for me as I’m not a total expert in humanistic psychology (the field that Maslow pioneered), but I’ll take a shot. Remember, as I said most modern theories of this hierarchy do tend to agree that it is possible to not completely master a stage yet still attain a sense of self-actualization. Self-actualization is, after all, not a state but more of a sense of ambition and drive to improve one’s self own unique potential. Since the exact needs one must meet is different for each individual, self-actualization is also unique and may depend on these different needs. So, using Trixie again, her drive to be the best showmare in all of Equestria may in part be her way of ensuring her need for Esteem is met. Granted, this may not be a perfect self-actualization, and a sign that she may have some ways to go, it’s a pretty good step forward. The important thing is that the person is honest with themselves about who they are and that they are continually striving to improve and grow.

Getting one’s cutie mark, in this sense then, is simply the first step in a lifetime process. There will be trips and stumbles, but it is how one reacts to those that matter. Antagonists may have hit upon the initial revelation, and are truly sincere at wanting to be good at what they do, but they still have a ways to go to really getting a grasp on things.

This does make me wonder than how alicorns fit in this whole scheme…but that might be for another day. And another theory possibly…

There’s also the question of how “Magical Mystery Cure” fits into all of this. While I can’t really offer any insights into the mechanics of what exactly happened, I can use self-actualization to possibly explain why what happened was such a big deal. For Maslow and humanistic psychologists, failing to meet one’s needs and living a life that does not fit one’s potential is a major source of stress, discomfort, and all around a bad psychological state. This, of course, fits exactly with what was going on in “MMC”; with their cutie marks switched around, everypony was living a life that they thought was their true potential but was in fact not. Some of their actual potential seemed to have leaked out, such as how Rarity was arranging weather patterns to fit her aesthetic needs instead of trying to be fast like Rainbow Dash, but basically they were trying to live their lives in a manner that simply wasn’t them. Twilight’s actions of nudging them back into rediscovering their real talents and potential fixed them. This is all I got on the subject though as I’m still trying to figure out my own ideas for “MMC” and how it fits within some of the larger themes and narratives that I have gotten out of Friendship is Magic.

Final Thoughts

While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been changed, modified, and criticized ever since its formation, it is still a rather useful tool for analyzing. Furthermore, the philosophy behind humanistic psychology in general, with its achieving one’s full potential, has been an influence in popular thought. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic seems to be pretty good at serving at least as an example piece even if it may not have purposefully drawn from it. Nothing seems to represent this idea more than the concept of Cutie Marks, a physical manifestation of one’s unique talents and skills that appears when one realizes what they are. With an entire society built around these butt pictures, it’s no surprise then that the ponies of Equestria seem more confident about who they are and their place in the world.

For more on Maslow, self-actualization, and the hierarchy of needs, here are some pages:






Filed under Series Analysis

2 responses to “What My Cutie Mark is Telling Me: Cutie Marks and Self-Actualization

  1. Pingback: Is Starlight Glimmer a Communist? | Analysis is Magic

  2. Pingback: Is Starlight Glimmer a Communist? Not Really… | Pony Palace

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