According to humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, human beings have an innate drive to grow as individuals and to achieve their full potential. He referred to this desire as the actualizing tendency.
Self-Actualization and the Actualizing Tendency
Rogers believed that the underlying motive that all people share is a need to become self-actualized. The self-actualized person is essentially an individual who has reached their highest potential.
Definition: Self-actualization is the fulfillment of one’s potential. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is the highest level of psychological development. Rogers believed that the actualizing tendency was an innate capacity to make choices that helped individuals achieve this self-fulfillment.
This actualizing potential motivates people to do good things, explore who they are as people, and get the most out of life.
In order to successfully grow as a person, Rogers believed that a few key things were necessary.
- Unconditional positive regard: People need to experience unconditional positive regard from other people. In other words, they need to be completely accepted for who they are with no conditions or judgments.
- Openness: Achieving one’s full potential also requires an individual to be open to new experiences.
- Self-acceptance: In addition to being accepted by others, it is also essential for people to accept themselves.
- Emotional understanding: Growth also requires the ability to express, manage, and understand emotions.
The actualizing tendency has a number of important characteristics. These include:
- Individual and universal: The tendency is individual because it is influenced by each person’s unique genetics. Because it is inherently biological, it is also universal. Genetics and environmental factors play a role, as well as the interaction between the forces of nature and nurture.
- Holistic: The actualizing tendency affects all aspects of each person and their development and growth throughout life.
- Constant: This process is not constrained to a specific period of development. It exerts an ongoing influence throughout all points of life.
- Directional: The actualizing tendency drives people to maximize their potential, but it also motivates them to maintain an equilibrium.
- Tension: This driving force can act to reduce tension when needed, but it also relies on a certain amount of tension to help motivate people to take action.
- Autonomy: As people develop, they are increasingly motivated to pursue things that maximize their autonomy and self-determination.
- Self-actualization: The actualizing tendency continues to drive people to achieve their potential, which may change or adapt as people continue to grow.
The actualizing tendency also plays an important role in Rogers’s approach to psychotherapy, known as client-centered therapy or person-centered therapy. In this type of therapy, the actualizing tendency serves a primary role to motivate the client to overcome his or her current problems and achieve mental well-being.
One thing that helps guide the actualizing tendency is what Rogers termed the organismic valuing process. This process involves evaluating subjective experiences in terms of their potential for helping the individual improve as a person in both the short-term and long term.
If the actualizing tendency leads to self-actualization, the individual can become what Rogers referred to as a fully-functioning person.
Observations About the Actualizing Tendency
“The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism.” (Rogers, 1951)
“Actualizing tendency refers to an innate growth drive or impulse that is said to exist within all human beings. Proponents of the concept make the optimistic assumption that people have an inherent tendency to become more elaborated, integrated, and internally coordinated over time – that is, to grow and develop as personalities.
Although not everyone grows throughout the lifespan, the potential remains throughout. The challenge for teachers, therapists, and service providers, then, is to help people “unlock” these sometimes-hidden capacities.” (Sheldon, 2009)
“The motivation underlying the desire for self-improvement is the actualizing tendency. The actualizing tendency motivates a person to develop personal attributes (e.g., social, spiritual, and intellectual) and capabilities (e.g., physical and mental) in a direction of increasing autonomy through self-awareness.” (Carducci, 2009)
Brodley B. The actualizing tendency concept in client-centered therapy. The Person-Centered Journal. 1999;6(2).
Rogers C. Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable; 1951.
Sheldon KM. Actualizing tendency. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology. John Wiley & Sons; 2009.