The Actualising Tendency
The Actualising Tendency is one of the most important theoretical components of Person-Centred Counselling. It refers to the motivational force that Rogers believed was in ALL living organisms.
The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organismCarl Rogers – Client-Centred Therapy (1951) p.487
Rogers believed that all living organisms (humans, plants, animals, vegetables etc) had one basic tendency and striving. That no matter what the conditions, the organism would try to grow, develop and enhance the experience of the organism and at the very least, maintain.
This means that we are always trying to grow and develop to the best of our ability, in whatever circumstances that we find ourselves in, taking into account, our self-concept (much more of this below).
Potentially damaged but ever-present
Rogers believed that…
The Actualising Tendency can, of course, be thwarted or warped, but it cannot be destroyed without destroying the organismCarl Rogers – A Way of Being (1980) p.118
This is to say, that of course, the actualising tendency can be impacted and thwarted by the conditions around us, but it cannot ultimately be destroyed. This means that Rogers believes the Actualising Tendency was ALWAYS present and in action as long we are alive.
I think this is clear to see all around us. I’m sure you know people who are living or have lived, in some pretty dire circumstances. And yet they survive. We can also see this in nature. Think of the trees that roots grow through concrete or the flowers that blossom in the most unexpected surroundings…
The Profound Potato!
Rogers saw the actualising tendency first hand when he was a young boy and uses this to explain what he means by the Actualising Tendency.
Carl Rogers family stored potatoes in the basement during winter to preserve them during bad weather conditions. During this time, Rogers observed that even though the basement was almost pitch black, there was a tiny ray of light coming in from the window of the basement.
What he observed here was that the potatoes would try their very best to grow, as best they could, towards the light. Even though this meant that the sprouts were weak and pale, the potatoes still did whatever they could to grow and enhance, and this is exactly what he is referring to when he speaks of the Actualising Tendency.
The sprouts were, in their bizarre, futile growth, a sort of desperate expression of the directional tendency I have been describing. They would never become plants, never mature, never fulfill their real potential. But under the most adverse circumstances, they were striving to become. Life would not give up, even if it could not flourishCarl Rogers – A Way of Being (1980) p.118
This can easily be transferred over to people. Even though we may find ourselves in the worst conditions, we will do whatever we can to enhance our experience, even if this is just to merely survive. In simple terms, we all do what we can to make the most of the many situations we find ourselves in, even if that might look odd or counter-productive to others. It is what WE believe is the best way we can make the most of any given situation.
In dealing with clients…
The Actualising Tendency was central to Rogers person-centred theory and as a result, his work with clients. He believed that the Actualising Tendency was a fundamental part of every single client that he saw and also the main reason why the person-centred approach is non-directive.
This is because, if we believe that all clients have an inbuilt tendency to move towards growth and development, then we don’t need to direct, guide or DO anything to them. Instead, Rogers believed that we just need to provide the best conditions for them to find their own way and answers.
In dealing with clients whose lives have been terribly warped, in working with men and women on the back wards of state hospitals, I often think of those potato sprouts. So unfavorable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted, scarcely human.”Carl Rogers – A Way of Being (1980) p.118-119
Similar to the potato sprouts, Rogers is talking here of how clients can appear in the same way. Their lives can seem abnormal, twisted and scarcely human, due to the unfavourable conditions that they have faced in their lives. Although people may judge the “abnormal” ways in which some people try and live their lives, maybe even just survive, this is as much a sign of the Actualising Tendency as those whose lives seem to be thriving.
Yet, the directional tendency in them can be trusted. The clue to understanding their behavior is that they are striving, in the only ways that they perceive as available to them, to move toward growth, toward becoming. To healthy persons, the results may seem bizarre and futile, but they are life’s desperate attempt to become itself. This potent constructive tendency is an underlying basis of the person-centered approach.Carl Rogers – A Way of Being (1980) p.119
Although we may struggle to understand or accept the ways in which some people live, they are doing the best that they can with the situations they are facing. We all have very different ways of dealing with situations and also very different impacts from the ways that we have grown, developed and struggled throughout our entire life, particularly in childhood.
Again, this just emphasises the importance of trust offered to the client from the Therapist. However we may judge or view clients behaviours and ways of trying to strive and survive, if we believe in the Actualising Tendency, then we can trust their direction and growth. The client is doing the best that they can, given the circumstances and their learning and experience up to this point.
Misunderstandings and Misconceptions
Person-centred Counselling is never far from misunderstanding and misinterpretation and the Actualising Tendency is no different. People can often make a lot of mistakes in their understanding and view of the Actualising Tendency. I will look at the two mains ones here.
Too Positive – What about all the bad things people do?
Although this is often used as a criticism of the Person-Centred approach in general, it is also used in regards to the Actualising Tendency and comes from a misunderstanding of the approach and the Actualising Tendency.
The main criticism tends to be something along the lines of – If the Actualising Tendency is always moving towards growth and development, then why are there so many problems in the world and people choose to do such destructive things?
The answer to this is two-fold:
1 – As Rogers said, the Actualising Tendency can be thwarted and warped. So in prime conditions (absent of all negative outside influence [which is impossible]) then it would likely to move only in positive, socially acceptable and moral good directions. However, as we know, this is not the case. People face terrible situations that change who they are as a person and so their behaviours, choices and judgements are thwarted or warped. So although it may not be the “ultimate” good for that person, it is the direction that they see best and maybe the only direction they know. This is an example of people trying to make the most of the situation they find themselves in (which is, in fact, an argument FOR the presence of the Actualising Tendency)
2 – The Actualising Tendency does not only operate within the Organismic Self (who we “truly” are), but also in line with our Self-Concept. Our Self-concept is quite simply how we view ourselves as people. This can be very varied and also changeable throughout our lives. It may be anything from ‘I am worthless and no-one likes me’ to ‘I am powerful and I can achieve anything I like.’ (and everything in between.) So as the Actualising Tendency is not only operating in line with our Organismic Self, it is operating in line with how we see ourselves. As a result, if we have a negative view of ourselves, then we will do whatever we think enhances and grows that view of ourselves. And this may result in negative or destructive behaviours. (see an example of how I relate this theory to the JOKER here)
Self-Actualisation – Not the same as Maslow
This is one of the most common misconceptions of the Actualising Tendency, and more specifically, the term self-actualisation.
As we can see from the image above, when Maslow uses the term “self-actualization” he is talking about a moral, creative, spontaneous, accepting individual (what we might associate more closely with Rogers definition of the Fully Functioning Person.
However, when Rogers talks about “self-actualization” he is referring to the actualisation of the self-concept and as I have outlined above, this could be a whole host of things – a murderer, a depressed person, a successful CEO, and self-actualisation would be the enhancement of these characteristics. This would mean become a better murdered, possibly a more depressed person or even a more powerful CEO.
Person-centred Theory is not bias or judgemental of what is “good” or “bad” in terms of peoples direction, choices and behaviours and this is no different in regards to the actualising tendency. It is merely a motivational force which enhances our experience in whichever ways we see fit, in line with however we see ourselves.
Before I go…
I hope that this has given you a good outline and understanding of the Actualiisng Tendency and the importance of its place within Person-centred Counselling.
If you learn better visually, then you can watch a video of me outlining the same theory on YouTube here.
If you have any questions or comments, then please leave them below and I will get back to you as soon as I’m able 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to read this article.