When we talk about plants, we don’t have to debate for long to find the common census that plants are intrinsically motivated to maintain and enhance themselves at all times. Let’s take an ivy plant as an example. I am pretty sure you have seen an ivy plant growing upward a façade. They can cover and swallow an entire façade and house in only a few years. The ivy plant does not hold back from growing around, under, over or even through potential obstacles on its journey towards the light. It will find a way to keep growing, keep maintaining and enhancing as an organism.
Some of you might agree that also animals have an intrinsic motivation towards growth. In case you don’t quite agree, then I recommend watching the documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ by Pippa Ehrlich (see references below) and we talk again. Yet, when we talk about humans, it does not seem to be as straight-forward. Humans have developed a life standard in which survival, constant adjustment and responsiveness to external threats and changes is no longer of daily consideration (at least not on a conscious level). That means that we are able to get ‘comfortable’. We have the choice to live a mostly sedimentary life, watch multiple hours of TV a day and pop over to the closest fast-food chain around the corner for lunch. Nope, this outlook is not too promising when asking ourselves: Are we constantly evolving and moving towards a more powerful, ‘improved’ version of ourselves? I reckon, many of us would express their doubt and negate this hypothesis by shake their heads.
There is one issue here. By doubting our ability to evolve and enhance, we separate ourselves from all the other lifeforms (flora and fauna) and, in some ways, detach from being ‘a part of nature’. If you do think, that human mammals are no longer part of the organismic world, then this column might be a bit of a drag for you. Because, in this column, I will make the opposite point. Like plants and animals – we too, are organisms.
An intrinsic organismic tendency towards growth and authenticity
While the idea of an intrinsic organismic tendency in humans is often associated with positive psychologists Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1959), it was German psychiatrist and neurologist Kurt Goldstein (1934) who in his book Der Aufbau des Organismus (in English: The Organism) first introduced an organismic theory to personality development. Goldstein presented the concept as a theory of motivation, whereas Rogers talked about the tendency towards the 'True Self' and Maslow associated it to the human desire for personal excellence, i.e. to be the best you can be.
Like an ivy needs certain conditions (e.g. enough light, water, minerals) to grow to the top of the house, humans too, need certain qualities in their environment to fully grow towards their potential and the true self. In addition to an abundance of clean water, safe shelter, adequate food, absence of disease, loving relationships and intellectual stimulation, Rogers (1959) emphasized that such an environment would also need to provide empathy, unconditional positive regard and authenticity. A hostile environment can inhibit the individuals’ psychological and emotional development and such effects can impact the individual throughout their life (Merry 2002). This directional growth is not arbitrary or chaotic but a property of the growing organism itself.
As long as the organism (or person) is alive, the actualizing tendency is active. In other words, even when we are binge watching Netflix for hours while eating junk food, we are still moving towards our potentials. Whether it is obvious or not. We are always developing; always evolving; always in process, and never fixed. This concept of the actualizing person is at the core of humanistic psychology and is built on the Aristotelian idea of human beings to be intrinsically motivated to fulfil their potentials.
Once we acknowledge that also humans have an intrinsic, organismic tendency towards growth, then it becomes clearer that any estrangement of humans away from the true authentic self (e.g. not feeling good enough, feeling unworthy, stupid, ugly etc.) is not an organismic quality from within but instead it is learned behaviour guided by rigid externally adapted constructs and concepts (Rogers 1963). The organism is friendly towards us. It’s the external conditions that we internalize over time (sometimes over years) that can be unfriendly. The more we can become aware of them, the more we can unlearn such conditions and align with the actualizing, friendly, forward-moving tendency again.
...AND WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE?
When have you noticed your internal actualising, organismic tendency at work? Do you mostly feel like you are working with or against your intrinsic natural pull towards the true self? If so, what are the obstacles that you need to grow through to re-align with your organismic calling?
Finally, I want to share my favourite metaphorical story by Carl Rogers (1980) with you that wonderfully illustrates the organismic, actualising tendency at work.
“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 unfavourable, 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 I have been describing. They would never become plants, never mature, never fulfil 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 unfavourable 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 behaviour 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” (p. 118-119).
Ehrlich, P. (2020). My Octopus Teacher https://www.imdb.com/title/tt12888462/
Goldstein, K. (1934). Der Aufbau des Organismus: Einführung in die Biologie unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Erfahrungen am kranken Menschen, Springer Netherlands.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.
Merry, T. (2002). Learning and Being in Person-Centred Counselling: A textbook for discovering theory and developing practice. 2nd ed. PCCS Books.
Rogers, C. R. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationship, as Developed in the Client-Centered Framework. In Koch, S. (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a Science, 3, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rogers, C. R. (1963). The actualizing tendency in relation to “motives” and to consciousness. In M. R. Jones (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, 11, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Rogers, C. R. (1980). A Way of Being. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.