Carl Rogers’ Actualizing Tendency and Person-Centered Therapy

Rogers Actualizing TendencyPsychotherapist and humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers began his career working with children.

Later, as his work shifted to include working with adults and teaching, he began articulating his therapeutic approach.

As he increased his skills and experience, a solid approach surfaced: Client-Centered Therapy (later called Person-Centered Therapy.)

In 1942, he published his first book on the subject titled, Counseling and Psychotherapy.

In true humanistic psychology fashion, Rogers welcomed his theories being adapted by others to fit their needs. It was his openness to possibilities and empathic nature that both drew people to him and encouraged criticism of his theories.

What is Humanistic Psychology?

To understand Carl Rogers’ ideas and approach to therapy, it is important to understand what he valued and believed about human nature. Dale Schunk, in Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, asserts that humanistic psychology is constructivist and based on two assumptions (2016, p. 346).

  1. Studying people must be done from a holistic perspective. This means taking into account their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and,

  2. Human choices, creativity, and self-actualization are important areas of study. Research should focus on “psychologically functioning humans” who are working to be creative and reach their full potential.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are two famous humanist psychologists. While they both viewed the study of humans from a holistic perspective, as you will read later, they defined self-actualization differently.

Within the American Psychological Association is Division 32 – the Society for Humanistic Psychology. This division aims to “be faithful to the full range of human experiences” and to develop “systematic and rigorous methods of studying human beings.” The core values of the division honor the complexity of all people, whether they be alone or in groups.

 

Two Views of Self-Actualization

From Rogers’ perspective, every person strives to be a creative, fully-functioning being who desires to reach their potential. This striving is ongoing, motivational, and innate (Rogers, 1963, as cited in Schunk, 2016). The process of pursuing one’s full potential is what he called the actualizing tendency.

The orientation of all people is “growth, autonomy, and freedom from control by external forces” (Schunk, 2016, p. 349). This might remind you of the Self-Determination Theory with its focus on autonomy, relatedness, and competence. DeRobertis and Bland (2018) explore this connection in their work titled, Tapping the humanistic potential of self-determination theory: Awakening the paradox.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places self-actualization at the apex. It is an ideal that emphasizes personal growth but is not based on a person’s sense of deprivation, as is the case for the first four needs (physiological, safety, belongingness, and self-esteem).

In fact, not everyone achieves self-actualization, and Maslow did not describe this need as innate or underpinning all other motivations. Globe, as cited in Schunk (2016, p. 347), states that about 1% of people reach self-actualization. To see where you rank, try these self-actualization tests and tools.

Conversely, Rogers believed that the actualizing tendency acted as the motivating force for all behavior. It is affected by the environment and the people surrounding the individual, near and far. The actualizing tendency is not an end goal reserved for a select few, but instead, it is how life begins. Organisms start with a longing (motivation) to reach completeness in whatever manner suits that organism.

 

What is Actualizing Tendency?

The basic idea of the actualizing tendency is straightforward. It is a desire present in all living things that pushes the organism toward growth. In the case of human organisms, we all want to express ourselves creatively and reach our full potential.

Rogers offered the analogy of a potato when explaining this tendency. Have you ever left a potato in your pantry only to discover later that it has grown sprouts? The sprouts are little white nubs taking advantage of the small amount of light available beneath and around the door frame.

Every time you open the door, some light enters, encouraging the seedling to fight for survival. If you were to take that potato and plant it in the soil in the spring, you would soon find green sprouts fighting through the surface, followed by bushy green leaves.

We can see this process – a desire to lean toward growth – in everyone, though Rogers believed it true of every organism (Goodreads, n.d.) Organisms have an innate motivation to live in accordance with their true nature. When the organism cannot do this, it experiences incongruence but continues to push toward actualizing (the white nubs) even though the environment is more complicated.

We see this when flowers shoot up between cracks in concrete, when corn stalks grow between road grates, and when a tree grows inside of the stump of another tree. We also see this when people struggle to define who they are amidst being told who they are. Often, it is this struggle that leads a person to seek out therapy.

Just like those flowers growing between the cracks, the actualizing tendency cannot be destroyed unless the organism is destroyed.

 

Self-concept and Incongruence

Self-concept is how we see ourselves. When this differs from our experience in the world, the resulting feeling is incongruence. There is a disconnect, which can be large or small, between our self-concept and our experience. This can cause discomfort.

If a person had no interaction with any other living being, then these incongruencies would not happen. It is our interaction with others via direct and indirect actions that influence our self-concept. This influence can be positive or negative. When it is in opposition to who we believe we are (our self-concept), then we experience suffering.

This is true even if the influence is positive, but in the person’s mind, unbelievable. If a person spends the majority of their young life being told they are worthless, but then someone comes along telling them they are not, then the person could experience incongruence.

Incongruencies often relate to conditions of worth. These are behaviors a person displays because they are expected to do so by others. For example, if you are female, then you should smile because it makes you look prettier and more approachable.

What if smiling is not something that interests the woman? What if her natural resting face is a frown? What if she is not concerned with her outward appearance? To have value and worth in society, the woman must smile.

Conditions of worth are pieces of paper decoupaged to your surface. They can be placed on haphazardly or in some beautiful arrangement, but regardless of how they are placed, they are not you.

They are simply layers of paper. Each paper represents some condition you are told you need to meet so that you feel worthy. They come from parents, friends, bosses, spouses, partners, religion, and media. Before long, the papers overlap, and you no longer see what is hiding beneath.

 

3 Core conditions

In 1974 Rogers facilitated a lecture highlighting the research on empathy. Some of that research showed that progress through therapy is positively correlated with the level of empathy shown by the therapist.

Here is the first video of the four-part series:

 

Before Rogers’ work and insights into the therapeutic relationship, psychoanalysis and behaviorist approaches dominated the field. The idea that the client, also a new term, could guide the process, and was an expert about themselves, was unusual. Rather than focus efforts on behaviors or past experiences that may have negatively affected the person, Rogers worked with the client in the present moment.

Rogers was clear about what he believed made a therapy session suitable for the client. To him, three elements must happen. These have come to be known as the core conditions by therapists using his approach. They are:

  1. Unconditional positive regard – Acceptance and non-judgmental behavior from the therapist allows the space the client needs throughout the exploration process.

  2. Empathy – This outlook is a way of being with the client. The therapist need not agree with the client but does need to express genuine understanding.

  3. Congruence – Authentic interactions between the client and the therapist are a normal part of the process. The therapist acts in accordance with their values and beliefs throughout the relationship. Congruence is about the therapist’s thoughts and feelings while working with the client.

 

6 Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Therapeutic Personality Change

actualising-tendencySome people entering into a therapeutic process wonder how long it will take.

Will they be involved for months or years? When will they know that they are ‘better’? In response to this, Rogers believed that the following conditions were necessary for any therapeutic relationship.

  1. Two persons are in psychological contact/relationship.
  2. The client is in a state of incongruence. They are vulnerable or anxious.
  3. The therapist is integrated into the relationship. The therapist is congruent, i.e., aware of their own experience and accepting of it.
  4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard toward the client. The therapist acts congruently.
  5. The therapist is empathetic to the client’s frame of reference and communicates this to the client. The therapist makes every effort to understand the world as seen through the eyes of their client.
  6. The therapist expresses acceptance and understanding of the client’s perspective in such a way that the client expresses feeling accepted and understood.

Rogers asserted that these conditions are all that is necessary for a client’s personality to change. Therapy is useful when these conditions are in play. The length of time it takes for a client to do this varies.

 

What is Person-Centered Therapy?

Harvard Medical School published a mental health letter in 2006. In it, they described what client-centered therapy is and is not. You might be guided by a Rogerian approach if you rarely, if ever:

  • Ask the client questions,
  • Diagnose the client,
  • Use psychological tests,
  • Interpret, evaluate, or advice,
  • Offer reassurance, praise, or blame,
  • Agree/disagree with the client,
  • Express opinions about the situation,
  • Point out contradictions,
  • Discuss unconscious motives; and,
  • Talk about the client’s feelings about the therapist.

Client-centered therapy is a non-directional form of therapy. Rogers viewed the client as an expert on themselves. As such, the client decides the direction therapy flows.

As one can imagine, it takes practice and patience to become a skilled Rogerian therapist. People interested in doing so might find mindfulness practices, particularly Loving-kindness Meditation, beneficial as part of their preparation. Practicing self-compassion and mindfulness on one’s own could help the therapist be and remain present in the moment with the client.

Because a Rogerian approach requires attention to the feelings behind what is said by a client, some training in micro expressions or general body language analysis could also prove useful.

 

Criticisms of Person-Centered Therapy

There are several concerns about this therapeutic approach beginning with a lack of suitable training. Rogers himself did not feel specific training was needed (Harvard Health Publishing, 2006).

Its principles have been extrapolated from interviews with and books by Rogers. This leaves ample form for interpretation.

Not every client is comfortable talking about themselves. This could lead to a Good Will Hunting moment in which the therapy time is spent in awkward, uncomfortable silence.

In that movie, Robin Williams’ character states that this is merely a battle of wills from two Southies. Still, the Will Hunting character did not feel comfortable with personal disclosures at the start of the relationship. This also became evident through the relationships he had with his friends and love interest.

Some therapists believe the six conditions are needed, but not sufficient. These therapists often utilize other tools and techniques to support therapy. This type of therapy is often called integrative therapy. It is no longer person-centered therapy in the true sense.

There also is little evidence-based research supporting the effectiveness of this form of therapy (Harvard Health Publishing, 2006). The central question is, “Do the conditions lead to improvement, or are they a consequence of it?

 

Client-centered Therapy Today

Many practitioners, initially attracted to Rogers’ theories, regard his contributions as invaluable to the development of therapy. While they might not follow each of the conditions, instead opting to blend them into their eclectic style, they understand the importance of appropriate self-disclosure in the relationship. They also recognize the value of respecting the client as the expert in the relationship.

Motivational Interviewing (MI), a client-centered, directive approach leans on the principles used by Rogers. Rollnick and Miller (1995), the developers of MI, outlined seven characteristics of the method. This approach is “more focused and goal-directed” than traditional client-centered therapy, but you might note its similarities to Rogers’ style. Rollnick and Miller describe these as the “spirit of motivational interviewing.”

  1. Motivation to change is elicited from the client, and not imposed from outside.
  2. It is the client’s job to articulate and resolve their ambivalence.
  3. Direct persuasion does not work.
  4. The counseling style is generally quiet and somewhat passive.
  5. The counselor is directive, but only in such a way as to help the client examine and resolve ambivalence.
  6. Readiness to change is not a client trait. It is a fluctuating product of interpersonal interaction.
  7. The therapeutic relationship is a partnership. The counselor is not an expert about the client.

MI is typically used in the early phases of the change process. See LaMorte’s (2019) Transtheoretical Model of Change for more details.

 

A Take-Home Message

Regardless of the therapeutic styles you learn during undergraduate and graduate studies, until you work with clients, your own style cannot develop. This is one reason why programs require many hours of client-therapist interaction.

Carl Rogers’ insights into the client-therapist relationship, specifically that there is a relationship, is important. Acknowledging that the interaction between the two people can, and does, affect the possible outcomes advanced future therapeutic techniques and approaches. Describing the person as a ‘client’ instead of a ‘patient’ shifted the mindsets of both parties.

Understanding and believing that all organisms have an actualizing tendency toward growth and that this tendency is ongoing, influences many positive psychology practices today. Work in the areas of mindset, resilience, flow, creativity, and strengths presuppose this.

How has the work of Carl Rogers, specifically his belief in an actualizing tendency, influenced you?

 

  • American Psychological Association (n.d.). Div. 32: Society for Humanistic Psychology. Retrieved December 8, 2019, from https://www.apadivisions.org/division-32/about/
  • DeRobertis, E. M., & Bland, A. M. (2018). Tapping the humanistic potential of self-determination theory: Awakening to paradox. The Humanistic Psychologist, 46(2), 105–128. https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000087
  • Goodreads (n.d.). Carl R. Rogers Quotes. Retrieved December 9, 2019, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6641851-whether-we-are-speaking-of-a-flower-or-an-oak
  • Harvard Health Publishing (2006, January). Client-centered therapy. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Client-centered_therapy
  • LaMorte, W.W. (2019 September 9). The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). Retrieved December 10, 2019, from http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories6.html
  • Rollnick, S., and Miller, W.R. (1995). What is Motivational Interviewing? Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(4), 325-334. https://doi.org/10.1017/S135246580001643X
  • Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Pearson.
  • Western, B. (2012, December 10). Rogers on Empathy [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idgjD5tir_w&list=PL9w3l7GkGUr1yxU4s2PiggyCbOO3XfpRf&index=2

About the Author

Kori D. Miller, MA, is a habit change aficionado, facilitator, and coach. Kori loves helping others achieve their goals one bite-size step at a time. She completed graduate-level coursework in positive psychology through the University of Missouri-Columbia and is completing a master's program in Educational Psychology with a specialization in neuropsychology.

Comments

  1. Camille Childs, LCSW

    I enjoyed reading your article. It was thoughtfully written.

    Reply
  2. Kathryn Kyeyune

    This is gold, I suppose sometimes especially when one is experiencing hard times, forget their inner strength and Carl rogers confirms this. I provide mental well-being support to a lady who always says she feels she could not to this or that and then finds herself doing the things she thinks could not do.

    Reply
  3. Wendy McPherson

    I Loved reading this article. I am currently coaching a minor who is in foster care. One of the things I said to her is the flower blossoming through the cracks in the concrete. My heart jumped for joy when I read this, it is an absolute confirmation of the resilience of this young person going through incredibly uncertainty at such a young age. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  4. Vili

    After reading through this and watching the video I didn’t realise that I was more empathetic than I realised. On a different note I’ve had this recurring image in my head of a plant/flowers growing in the most unlikely places. It reminded of Bali. How things can grow and survive. It reminded me of the human spirit that no matter what is thrown at us we do have the ability to adapt and change to reach our potential, we just need to know how to do it. Having people help goes a long way towards this.

    Reply

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