Recently, I have become more aware of the use of the term self-actualization in relation to person-centred theory, and more specifically, it’s common misunderstanding and misuse in a wide variety of sources, causing confusion and disregard for the Person-centred Approach. This was most recently apparent in Mick Coopers article in Therapy Today (1)
The Actualising Tendency
The Actualising Tendency is one of the central components of the Person-centred Approach, and more importantly, its foundation in the belief and approach of the Person-centred Therapist.
“This potent constructive tendency is an underlying basis of the person-centered approach.” (p.119) (2)
Rogers (3) believed that all living organisms possess a motivational force which aims
“to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (p.487)
This is what we understand as the Actualising Tendency.
He goes on to say,
“The Actualising Tendency can, of course, be thwarted or warped, but it cannot be destroyed without destroying the organism.” (p.119) (2).
That is to say that, of course, the Actualising Tendency can be negatively impacted (as a result of our conditions and environment), but it cannot ultimately be destroyed without the organism itself being destroyed. Meaning, as long as the organism is alive, the Actualising Tendency will be present and active in some form or other.
The Actualising Tendency is affected by the conditions we receive around us, for example Conditions of Worth and Introjections. Because our need for love and acceptance is often our greatest motivation (especially in our formative years), then we may move away from the Actualising Tendencies presence and directional desires in relation to our Organismic Valuing Process. Instead, the Actualising Tendency will be weighted towards developing our concept of self, how we see ourselves and how or who we feel we should be in relation to the conditions we have received around us. This leads me on to the often misunderstood and misused term “Self-actualization”
Most commonly, self-actualization seems to be understood as developing our ‘true potential.’ Now, this term is immediately problematic in person-centred terms, because how do we distinguish our true potential? Does it begin to speak of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, a true self and a not-true self? Also, how do we explain the common misdemeanours and “negative” behaviours that people carry out on a regular basis?
This is where I believe that a true understanding of the term “self-actualization” in person-centred terms, is useful and essential in explaining and understanding these apparent problems in relation to the Actualising Tendency.
“As the self-develops into a recognisable entity, it too has a tendency to actualize – to maintain and enhance itself (known as self-actualization) but because the self may contain material introjected directly from the evaluations of others, the self may actualize in a different direction from that of the organism.” (p.11) (4)
I believe this quote from Pete Sanders immediately clears up the term “self-actualization” and also helps to explain some of the directions that people move in and behaviours that may seem counter to the presence of an Actualising Tendency.
This is where the true meaning of the term self-actualisation, in relation to person-centred theory, is important. Self-Actualization is a process of actualising our self-concept. As we know, our self-concept is often made up of conditions of worth and introjections from those around us, so this could mean that Self-Actualisation is in fact moving further away from our Organismic Valuing Process and our Organismic Self.
If someone sees themselves as a criminal that would never get a “proper” job and is even celebrated for the crimes that they commit, this would form their self-concept. As a result, the Actualising Tendency could drive this self-concept, resulting in this person become a better criminal, carrying out larger crimes and ultimately, enhancing their experience of being a criminal – this would be defined, in person-centred terms, as self-actualisation.
In its misunderstanding, the Actualising Tendency can often be seen as a romantic and overly-positive concept that does not explain the negative actions and behaviour of others. However, in Pete Sanders passage above, we can see that the Actualising Tendency can in fact, be just as much a motivational force in our self-concept, as it can be in relation to our Organismic Valuing Process.
Maslow’s Self-Actualization – A common (inappropriate) bed fellow!
I believe that the common way that self-actualisation is (mis)understood is actually more fitting with Rogers view of the Fully-Functioning Person, which is also complimentary of Maslow’s use of the term “self-actualization”. When Maslow speaks of self-actualisation, he is speaking of a desire and ability
“to become everything one is capable of becoming” (p.64) (5)
It is a very positive view and would likely result in an individual who is morally sound, pro-social, “positive” and often paired with experiences of joy or euphoria.
As I mention above, this would fit quite well with Rogers view of the Fully-Functioning person (which I hasten to add is an ideal, a process, rather than attainable). Rogers witnessed in his clients that when there was an absence of external conditions and the person could find their own way and be more in touch with their Organismic Valuing Process, then this did tend to lead to a more social, moral, relational being. However, it is clear to see that this is not always the case in our clients and those around us. The reason for this, is what we now correctly understand as “Self-Actualization.”
Self-Actualization does not need to be “positive”, morally acceptable or pro-social. It is merely an enhancement of our self-concept and this can be a whole variety of personas, actions and behaviours. This clearly answers the apparent dilemma that Cooper (1) refers to, and many others cite, as a difficulty with the Actualising Tendency.
Clearing things up
I believe that understanding this true definition of self-actualization, in person-centred terms, clears up the common arguments against the presence of the actualising tendency and also the misunderstanding and misuse of the term self-actualization.
If we accept and understand that the Actualising Tendency can be a motivational force in both our Organismic Valuing Process AND our Self-Concept then we can see and accept the variety of behaviours and directional tendencies in those around us, without having to disregard the Actualising Tendency itself.
I believe that it is important to have a correct understanding and use of these essential terms in theory. The person-centred approach and its theory is so often misunderstood and miscommunicated, which results in the approach often being dismissed or devalued and I believe that this is a huge disservice to the power and theoretical robustness of the Person-Centred Approach.
1) Cooper, M. (2019). What does the ‘actualising tendency’ actually mean? Therapy Today, 30(7), 42-43
2) Rogers, C. R. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mills; 1980
3) Rogers, C. R. Client-Centred Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. Contable; 1965
4) Sanders, P. Introduction to the Theory of Person-Centred Therapy, In: Cooper M, O’Hara M, Schmid P.F., Wyatt G (eds.) The Handbook of Person-centred psychotherapy and counselling. New York: Palgrave McMillan; 2007. P. 9-1
5) Maslow, A. H. Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). Delhi, India: Pearson Education; 1987