The 'Actualising Tendency': A Directional Account — Mick Cooper Training and Consultancy (2024)

What is the ‘actualising tendency’? It’s something that is referred to throughout the person-centred and humanistic field. But what does it actually mean, does it make sense, and, perhaps most importantly, does it really ‘exist’?

Carl Rogers (1959, p. 196), in his classic monograph, defined it as the, ‘inherent tendency of the organism to develop all its capacities in ways which serve to maintain or enhance the organism.’ To be honest, I’ve studied and quoted that definition again and again over the last 30 years, but I’m still not entirely sure what it means. The problem for me is the term ‘capacities’—what actually are they? Similarly, when the Dictionary of person-centred psychology defines the actualising tendency as ‘the tendency in all forms of organic life to develop more complex organisation, the fulfilment of potential…’ (), I’m left with the question, ‘What actually is this “potential”?’ Presumably it’s something we are born with. But was I born with the potential to become a professor, or a football player, or a sociopath? And, if so, why did I actualise some potentials and not others? I guess, for me, terms like ‘capacities’ and ‘potential’ just feel too vague and non-specific, and don’t seem to give us much concrete direction about how to engage most helpfully with our clients.

So does the ‘actualising tendency’ mean something about an inherent capacity to self-heal, or ‘self-right,’ as Bohart and Tallman (1999) put it? I think that is how it is most commonly understood. That is, we each, within us, have the capacity to sort ourselves out—to find the answers to our problems. If we get cut, our bodies form scabs to heal us; or send out antibodies to help us overcome an infection. In the same way, then, deep inside of us is a tendency towards psychological healing, maintenance, and growth. We know what is right for us: an amazing, organismic wisdom that can help us overcome even the most challenging of circ*mstances. Viewed in this way, the concept of the actualising tendency becomes a revolutionary and deeply democratising challenge to those approaches—like traditional psychoanalysis and behaviour therapy—that see expert knowledge and intervention as the source of psychological healing. Here, from this humanistic standpoint, we don’t need to depend on others, or look to our ‘betters’, to sort ourselves out. Rather, it’s we, ‘the people’, who are our own authorities in our own lives.

Progressive though it is, this understanding of the actualising tendency begs an obvious question: if we’ve got such a deep tendency towards healing and growth, how is it that people can get so f*%£ed up in their lives? Why, for instance, do people end up addicted to drugs, or battering themselves psychologically or physically, or chasing after money in a way that drives them to an early grave? Fortunately, from a self-righting perspective, there’s a pretty good answer to this: because, instead of trusting our own inner wisdom, we end up being guided by the outside world. So, for instance, we come to believe that the most important thing in life is to have a Rolex watch, or thousands of Facebook ‘friends’; and we come to ignore that own inner voice that is just wanting to have fun, or be creative, or lie in bed with our partners watching the rain against the window pane. In Rogerian terms, we develop an ‘external locus of evaluation’, instead of an ‘internal’ one.

There’s evidence in support of this position. For instance, we know that people feel happier and more satisfied when they achieve ‘intrinsic’ goals, as opposed to ‘extrinsic’ ones (). However, the idea that our actualising tendency gets scuppered by the outside world is problematic in several ways (Cooper, 2013). First, it tends to position the person as a ‘victim’ of their external circ*mstances, which isn’t consistent with the person-centred idea that we are all inherently agentic. Rollo May, the founder of existential therapy in the US, criticised Rogers for this, saying it was the ‘most devastating of all judgements’: that we are all essentially ‘sheep’ following whoever is ‘the shepherd’. Second, it’s based on a very individualistic view of human being: that we come into the world as a separate entity, divorced from those around us, and with an ability to return to an independent, individual self. For a lot of contemporary ‘postmodern’ thinkers, these individualistic assumptions are more a product of western, patriarchal culture than an ‘objective’ reality; and they would argue that human beings are always, inevitably, inter-mixed with others. So, from this standpoint, it really doesn’t make sense to pitch ‘the individual’ against ‘society’. Third, and perhaps most basically, is it really true that we always know what is right—social forces or not? If I get lost, for instance, sometimes I have a deep, intuitive feeling about where I need to go, and it’s absolutely spot on. But sometimes I don’t. And sometimes my deep intuitive feeling takes me in totally and utterly the wrong direction, while Google Maps is perfect at getting me there. So surely we do learn, sometimes, some very helpful and healing things from the outside world? As the developmental psychologist Piaget argued, growth and learning comes from both ‘assimilation’ (fitting the external world to what we already know) but also ‘accommodation’ (adapting our ways of seeing the world to what we learn from outside). So to only focus on ‘inner wisdom’, and not the wisdom of others or the outside world, would seem somewhat myopic.

Given these issues, I want to propose another way of thinking about the actualising tendency which, for me, helps to make sense of some of these problems. It’s based on some thinking and research that I did for my latest book, Integrating counselling and psychotherapy: Directionality, synergy, and social change (Sage, 2019).

The book starts with the assumption, derived from existential philosophy, that human being is essentially directional. This is not entirely dissimilar from the idea of an actualising tendency—indeed, the actualising tendency has been described as directional. However, directionality isn’t defined, per se, in terms of pointing in a healing or necessarily growthful direction. Rather, it refers to the way that, as human beings, we are always ‘on-the-way-to-somewhere’: agentic and acting intelligibility (i.e., in the best ways we know how) towards different possibilities, rather than being sponge- or machine-like ‘things’. Of course, we can have many different directions; and what the framework goes on to suggest is that these directions fit together in a ‘hierarchical structure’: with our strongest, most fundamental directions at the top (for instance, for relatedness, self-worth, or meaning), and lower-order directions as the means by which we try and fulfil these higher-order desires. So, for instance, we might have a desire to find a good TV box set on Netflix (lower-order direction), so that we can spend time with our partner (higher-order direction), so that we can experience relatedness in our lives (highest-order direction).

This distinction between higher- and lower-order directions may be helpful in trying to make sense of the actualising tendency, because what I want to suggest is that, whilst our higher-order directions may be an expression of some inner, self-righting wisdom, our lower-order directions may not necessarily be. So the first part of this is that only we can know what we most fundamentally want and need in our lives: no one, for instance, can tell me that I need faith, or that the most important thing for me in my life is to be powerful and dominant. I know, deep inside, that what matters for me most is intimacy and love and social contribution. And even if I didn’t know it, it’s my right to set those highest-order directions for myself. But when it comes to lower-order directions, the means to get to where we want to be, there is maybe a lot more that we can learn from the world; and a lot more that we might get, intuitively, wrong. So, for instance, my desire to experience relatedness in my life: yup, definitely actualising. My desire to do that by watching TV with my partner: yup, probably so, although there might be better ways towards intimacy. My desire to sit through sit through six seasons of Gossip Girl … Hmm… ‘anti-actualising’ for sure, and this is where I could definitely do with some external guidance and advice.

This directional understanding of the actualising process has clear implications for how we might work with our clients. If all the wisdom is within the client, then the best thing we can do to help them is to really step back from any guidance, advice, or directions; and just allow their own self-righting force to come to the fore. In other words, classical non-directive client-centred therapy. But if we say that, at lower orders, people can get things wrong, then guidance, and directions, and specific therapeutic methods can also have a legitimate place. So, for instance, we might teach a client social skills, so that he or she can get the intimacy that they are yearning for. Or we help them to discover that the best way to overcome a phobia is by facing up to it, through exposure techniques. Here, we’re not telling the person what their highest-order directions are; but we’re helping them learn about the best ways to get there—on the assumption that that wisdom is not always inside. Of course, we can’t all offer these different methods, and the suggestion here is not that we should all become polymaths (or even integrative or eclectic) in how we think and practice. But it points towards the ‘pluralistic’ principle that we should all be as aware as possible of what we can, and cannot, offer clients; and have the knowledge and skills to refer on, as and where appropriate ().

In summary, an understanding of human beings as self-healing is a great reminder of the incredible creativity and wisdom that clients can have in finding their own answers. But, as a complete model in itself, it can also be limited and lacking in nuance. Most importantly, perhaps, it can mean we overlook times in which clients could really, genuinely, do with some external guidance, to help them towards the things that they most deeply want. From a directional perspective, human beings are still conceptualised as agentic, intelligible beings. But there’s an acknowledgement that, while we may always be striving to do our best, that’s not always the best thing we can be doing. Sometimes, with the best will and reasons in the world, we end up doing things that really mess us up. Hence, while therapists need to really, deeply listen to what it is that clients want—and how it is that they think they can get there—it may also be important to recognise that, at least for some clients, the pathways towards getting there are not always ‘inside’: there’s a place for wisdom without, as well as wisdom within.


Bohart, A. C., & Tallman, K. (1999). How Clients Make Therapy Work: The Process of Active Self-Healing. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Cooper, M. (2013). The intrinsic foundations of extrinsic motivations and goals: Towards a unified humanistic theory of wellbeing. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 53(2), 153-171. doi: 10.1177/0022167812453768

Cooper, M., & McLeod, J. (2011). Pluralistic Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.

Merry, T., & Tudor, K. (2002). Dictionary of Person-Centred Psychology. London: Whurr Publishers.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A Study of Science (Vol. 3, pp. 184-256). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing Personal Goals: Skills Enable Progress, but Not all Progress is Beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1319-1331. doi: 10.1177/01461672982412006

[An edited version of this blog post was published as ‘Cooper, M. (2019). What does the 'actualising tendency' actually mean? Therapy Today, 30(7), 42-43’.]

The concept of the 'actualising tendency' is often referred to in the person-centred and humanistic field. It was defined by Carl Rogers in his classic monograph as the "inherent tendency of the organism to develop all its capacities in ways which serve to maintain or enhance the organism" . However, the exact meaning and existence of the actualising tendency have been subject to debate and interpretation.

Rogers and other proponents of the actualising tendency argue that it represents an inherent capacity within individuals for self-healing, self-growth, and self-fulfillment. They believe that each person possesses an innate wisdom that can guide them towards psychological well-being and personal development. This perspective challenges traditional approaches, such as psychoanalysis and behavior therapy, which emphasize expert knowledge and intervention as the source of psychological healing.

However, there are questions and criticisms regarding the actualising tendency. One concern is the vagueness and non-specificity of terms like 'capacities' and 'potential'. It is unclear what these terms refer to and how they relate to individual development Additionally, the idea that individuals always know what is right for them and can overcome any challenge solely through their inner wisdom is seen as problematic. External factors, social forces, and the wisdom of others can also play a role in growth and learning.

An alternative perspective on the actualising tendency is the directional framework proposed by Mick Cooper. This framework suggests that human beings are always 'on-the-way-to-somewhere' and have multiple directions in their lives. These directions can be hierarchical, with higher-order desires guiding lower-order directions. While higher-order directions may reflect inner wisdom, lower-order directions may not necessarily do so. In this view, external guidance, advice, and specific therapeutic methods can be valuable in helping individuals fulfill their lower-order directions.

The understanding of the actualising tendency has implications for therapeutic practice. In classical non-directive client-centered therapy, the focus is on stepping back and allowing the client's self-righting force to guide the therapeutic process. However, recognizing that individuals can get things wrong at lower orders, therapists may also provide guidance and specific methods to help clients achieve their higher-order desires .

In summary, the actualising tendency is a concept that highlights the inherent capacity within individuals for self-healing, growth, and personal development. While there are debates and criticisms surrounding its meaning and existence, the concept challenges traditional approaches to therapy and emphasizes the importance of individual agency and inner wisdom. The directional framework offers an alternative perspective that acknowledges the role of external guidance and the need to balance higher-order and lower-order directions in the pursuit of well-being .

The 'Actualising Tendency': A Directional Account — Mick Cooper Training and Consultancy (2024)


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