As I walked through Leytonstone on this chilly morning I noticed this small group of plants pushing their way up through the tarmac on the pavement and getting ready to flower. I thought to myself about how tough this must have been for them to force their way through this sturdy barrier, and their natural inclination to push towards the light, despite the odds.
It reminded me of one of my favourite passages from Carl Rogers, the founder of Person Centred Therapy. In his book, A Way of Being, he explains the actualizing tendency as follows;
“I remember that in my boyhood, the bin in which we stored our winter’s supply of potatoes was in the basement, several feet below a small window. The conditions were unfavorable, but the potatoes would begin to sprout — pale, white sprouts, so unlike the healthy green shoots they sent up when planted in the soil in the spring. But these sad, spindly sprouts would grow 2 or 3 feet in length as they reached toward the distant light of the window. The sprouts were, in their bizarre, futile growth, a sort of desperate expression of the directional tendency […] 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 flourish. 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. 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.”
Rogers believed that when provided with the right conditions, people are able to self-actualize, realize their own potential and autonomously flourish. He argued that like tiny shoots reaching towards the sunlight, we can grow in ways that are authentic and beneficial to our unique selves, rather than to the many impositions that are placed on us.
In therapy, part of the aim is to provide these conditions that enable us, as individuals, to explore who we are, and the ways in which we have changed ourselves to fit around the desires and limitations of others that have been placed upon us, so that like the little sprouts I saw today, we can start to grow.