The Actualising Tendency and Non-Directivity in Person-Centred Therapy
As I come to the end of my first year of training to be a psychotherapist, here are some of my thoughts on two of the central philosophical tenets of Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy (PCEP).
The philosophy one holds is a theory or even a set of values that acts as a guiding principle for one’s actions. Notably, Carl Rogers (the founding father of the person-centred modality) was a proponent of holding philosophy and values at the core of theory formulation (Rogers, 1961). Tudor and Worrall (2006) define philosophy as ‘the underlying principles on which or out of which a person builds a life and chooses how to behave’. I would expand this definition by adding that my own life philosophies have remained malleable and changing, dependent on my life’s experiences and understandings over time.
The Actualising Tendency
In the words of T.D. Jakes, ‘when you know who you are, then you know who you are not.’ Therefore, to scaffold in Vygotskian terms and nurture my own sense of self, I chose to train in the person-centred and experiential orientation in order to align with my own intrinsic values which run counter to the deficiency model. I perceive the PCEP underpinning philosophical assumptions of the actualising tendency, along with the right to autonomy and self-determination, as challenging the notions that human beings are somehow inherently flawed and as such mental health interventions becoming an extension of state control. (Here we could cite the example of the pathologizing of women through the label of ‘hysteria’ in Freud and Breuer’s “Studies on Hysteria” (1895), or the neoliberal market forces driving the proliferation of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme).
The foundation of Carl Rogers’ theory of person-centred therapy is the belief in an individual’s innate drive to develop and enhance. Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a desire for greater meaning and joy in this short life, undertaking the PCEP training is a feature of my own self-actualisation journey. The actualising tendency can be defined as the inherent or even evolutionary propensity towards the development of self through ‘greater order, greater complexity, greater interrelatedness’ (Rogers, 1980). The construct of the self-actualising tendency is rooted in evolutionary biology and the concept of a living organism innately flourishing when provided with the right conditions. Thus, Rogers (1959) defines the actualising tendency as the ‘inherent tendency of the organism to develop all its capacities which serve to maintain or enhance the organism.’
Bozarth (1998) argues how the actualising tendency is the philosophy which underpins respect towards others. It acts as the rationale for person-centred therapy through the recognition of how by attempting to create the optimal climate through the therapeutic relationship, the client is given the opportunity for ‘growth, development and fulfilment of potentialities.’ Linked to the actualising tendency is the philosophical notion of psychological freedom. Rogers (1961) conceptualises psychological freedom as the experience of a ‘fully functioning person’. Bozarth underlines that the ethical assumption here is that trust and respect conveyed through the therapeutic relationship can ‘free the person’s capacities for health and growth’ thus fostering the client’s actualising tendency through the interpersonal.
However, the notion of the actualising tendency is not free from critiques, often stemming from the flawed assumption that person-centred approaches promote the attainment of an ideal state, characterised by an end point to growth. Critics claim that self-actualisation cannot hold generalisability as by definition it is a subjective and therefore non-empirical concept (e.g. Geller 1984). In contrast, Wilkins (2016) argues that it is erroneous to view self-actualisation as an objective and static peak state attained through the meeting of needs akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Rather, self-actualisation in the context of person-centred philosophy ought to be perceived as a client-defined process not as a final destination.
Photo by my daughter.
Indeed, Rogers (1961) defined a fully functioning state as being ‘marked by changingness, fluidity, richly differentiated reactions.’ It is this experiencing of personal feelings that promotes self-actualisation as a subjective experience and therefore applying ‘objective’ measures to it would be reductionist. Here the assumption is that the organism has the self-awareness and agency required to lead one’s own self-actualisation process and a further critique is that self-actualisation theory downplays the impact of the socio-economic context on our capacity to fulfil our potential (e.g. Kensit, 2010). However, as a rebuttal to this view, Copper (2013) argues that it is not consistent with the person-centred philosophy to position the client as a ‘victim’ of their external circumstance as to do so is disempowering and fails to recognise the wisdom that clients have in finding their own answers.
Whilst not formalised within Rogers’ body of work, the principle of non-directivity nonetheless underpins the person-centred philosophy and approach. In brief, it denotes a recognition of a client’s autonomy and self-determination (Grant, 2002) through the therapist conveying an attitude whereby the clients’ meanings (not the therapist’s own) act as the basis for understanding (Merry & Brodley, 2002). Non-directivity is at times erroneously viewed as passivity on the part of the therapist (Wilkins, 2010), rather it is connected to self-actualisation, whereby it is a means of facilitating growth, founded on the value of respect (Grant, 2002).
There is some tension in the literature as to the extent non-directivity precludes therapist frame of reference responses within the therapeutic encounter i.e. whether it should involve the complete self-abnegation of the therapist. On the one hand, Brodley (2006) argues that whilst therapist frame responses can have an important impact on clients, they should be avoided as directive counselling risks disempowering the client. On the other hand, Kahn (2012) contests this premise, and acknowledges the utility for the client of the therapist directing a therapeutic session. He also concludes that the overemphasis on empathic understanding as part of non-directivity in the client-centered approach can limit the creativity and utilisation of the therapist’s skills. Yet, Brodley argues that Kahn predominantly applies a psychoanalytical lens to his critiques of non-directivity rendering them irrelevant to the person-centred approach. However, it is apt to cite Rogers (in Evans, 1975) here who clearly acknowledges that the therapist may share their views, but part of their non-directive attitude is understanding how those views may impact the client:
‘My whole philosophy and whole approach is to strengthen him in that way of being, that he’s in charge of his own life and nothing I say is intended to take that capacity or opportunity away from him.’
Despite being somewhat ground down by the current pandemic context, I do often reflect on how I am recognising my own value in pursuing psychotherapy training especially now. It is part of what I consider my own self-actualising journey, towards a life even better lived, where I gain greater skill and tools in aligning my work and practice with my values.
My key learning, which stems from an amalgamation of the pandemic context with undertaking my psychotherapy training, is to recognise a richness of the elements with come together holistically as ‘me’. I am also acutely aware at how several of those have fallen by the wayside both over the decade I have been a mother (though so many have been enhanced!), but also now during the pandemic where the range of fulfilling activities that we can engage in externally has drastically reduced. I am therefore recognising how the process of psychotherapy training can help me to enhance my own internal world — how I can reflect back in my thoughts and action the unconditional positive regard underpinned by the ethos of the recognition of the capacity for human development of person-centred and experiential approaches. Examples of where I have been applying this lie in practicing kindness in how I think about myself and how much I have achieved in simply keeping my family healthy and happy during the pandemic.
Finally, I have been learning about how to recognise value in who I am beyond the spheres of the home and work, though I am aware that this is a journey of unlearning previous habits which have at times been necessary for survival, in order to make space for a more complete self to develop. Recognising that this is an on-going and at times fluctuating process, I shall be bringing it into year two of training with greater resolve and taking several tangible steps to create this necessarily space for my self care. This is in line with Rogers (in Lipkin, 1948) highlighting that one of the client-defined outcomes of non-directive psychotherapy is a reorganisation of attitudes towards the self. It is the experience of the non-directive attitude in the observed practice and supervisory debrief sessions which are part of our training, the training sessions as a whole, and more notably of my own psychotherapy as client, that have acted as a springboard towards my own journey towards self-actualisation. Crucially, over the first year of training, I have learned that this journey, directed towards self-actualisation, may not always be a comfortable one.