Carl Rogers and Self-Actualization: Living “The Good Life”

Friday, September 20, 2019
Nick Williams

“lt has been my experience that persons have a basically positive direction.  Life, at its best, is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed. In my clients and in myself I find that when life is richest and most rewarding it is a flowing process. To experience this is both fascinating and a little frightening. I find I am at my best when I can let the flow of my experience carry me, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward goals of which I am but dimly aware.”

Carl Rogers, “On Becoming a Person”

Life is a constantly shifting web of interactions and stimuli. As humans, it can be complicated figuring out how to put forward the best versions of ourselves. 

Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of human-centered therapy and humanistic psychology, believed the only way to achieve positive forward momentum was through the pursuit of self-actualization—the process of realizing and expressing one’s inherent capabilities and creativity. 

Although many of Rogers' ideas and terms were conceptualized to be used by practicing psychologists, they can also play a substantial role in helping us to find a positive, fulfilling place for ourselves in the world. 

The OG Mr. Rogers

According to the American Psychologists Association, Rogers is the 6th most important psychologist of the 20th century. 

Rogers’ initial work led him to study ‘problem children’ in Rochester, New York—where he wrote his first book, The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child. At the time, child therapy was not considered part of mainstream psychology, yet Rogers’ book was considered so influential that it landed him a job as a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ohio. Over the years, Rogers subsequently moved from university to university, writing books, working in therapy centers, and teaching.  

Throughout his career, Rogers released various seminal texts including Client-centered Therapy in 1951, which served to establish the groundwork and procedures for his psychology practice. His subsequent books moved into more theoretical examinations of his perspectives on human relationships and existence, which culminated in his book, A Way of Being in 1980. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, also the year of his death. 

Despite his successes, the road that Rogers took to become one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century was long and rocky. 

Originally pursuing a career as a theologist, Rogers switched disciplines (becoming an atheist) after taking psychology courses at Columbia University. Before Rogers hit the scene in the early 20th century, psychology was an almost purely academic discipline and largely prescriptive—a master-pupil-relationship of sorts.  

Before Rogers, most psychotherapists believed in biological determination; we are born the way that we are, determined by a combination of our genetics and our early relationships. This meant that the main concern in psychotherapy was to ‘fix’ problematic individuals.  

Rogers moved away from this type of ‘directive’ therapy, opting instead to encourage the patient to look inward to solve their issues. In the 1940s, Rogers coined his new approach “non-directive therapy,” which he later renamed “client-centered therapy.” 

The idea behind client-centered therapy is that a patient can’t be ‘fixed,’ they can only be guided towards taking actions of self-improvement to better their own lives and realign their personal perspectives. He believed all humans are fundamentally good—any illness or deviance are simply the products of a person temporarily straying away from the path towards fulfillment.

Many of the established thinkers of the time criticized Rogers for his forward-thinking.  They accused Rogers of using ‘psychobabble’ to emphasize his ideas; introducing terms that were too flighty and unscientific for the stuffy old men that dominated the field.

They also criticized Rogers’ assertions about the purity and goodness of the human self.  Leonard Geller, one of Rogers’ biggest critics, articulates his concerns:

“...the fundamental characteristics of Rogers’s touchstone of authenticity and self-actualization are mysterious and inexplicable, something to be accepted on faith rather than on rational grounds...Far from being the standard of guidance and direction, the self is precisely that in need and in search of standards by which to live.  Far from finding direction from within, we can only find it from without.” 

The criticisms that were levied in Rogers’ early professional career may have driven him away from a career solely based on psychology. Instead, Rogers chose to pursue a career teaching in the Department of Sociology at the University of Rochester, where he further developed a more personal and humanistic perspective in his work.  

Although Rogers faced heavy criticism and scrutiny throughout his career (and still does), he never lost sight of his primary goal: understanding and helping people in need.

The man in the mirror

"The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism”

Carl Rogers, 1951 

As a humanist, Carl Rogers believed that all humans are connected by one major commonality—a motivation to achieve the highest level of being, or in other words, to “self-actualize.” To do so, Rogers claims we must strive to achieve a happy balance between our “ideal self” and our true self. 

Me vs. me

Our ideal self is that perfect representation of who we are, the one we all have floating around in our brains somewhere: that rich, successful, beautiful, ageless, talented, accomplished person that, if everything went our way, we would one day ultimately become. It is the version of ourselves that we often fixate on projecting to the world. 

But here’s the thing—our ideal self isn’t real. It’s a fantasy, and the more fixated we are on that fantastical version of ourselves, the more miserable we end up being.

Our real self, on the other hand, is the person that we actually become through the influence of factors like our journey towards self-actualization, our upbringing, and our social and cultural environment. 

Think of it in terms of social media—you probably aren’t going to post those accidental selfies, the ones where one of your eyes is half-closed or your multiple chins exposed. You’re probably more likely to curate and post the photos where you look attractive, fun, engaged. In doing so, you are attempting to bridge the gap between your real and ideal selves.

That space that exists between your ‘true’ self and your ‘ideal’ self leads to what Rogers calls incongruence.  

Incongruence occurs when our ‘real’ self is out of sync from our ‘ideal’ self, and ultimately leads to afflictions like depression and anxiety. 

On the other hand, congruency can be defined as an acceptance of the self, of who we are; both positive and negative, and is an important step towards self-actualization. 

Published near the end of his career, Rogers posits in his book A Way of Being that we should strive for a congruent self-image if we want to achieve an accurate perception of ourselves:  

“In place of the term 'realness',  I have sometimes used the word 'congruence.' By this, I mean that when my experiencing of this moment is present in my awareness and when what is present in my awareness is present in my communication, then each of these three levels matches or is congruent. At such moments I am integrated or whole, I am completely in one piece.”

One method to facilitate congruence is to recognize the value of experience. In order to be happy, we need to extract the most amount of satisfaction and pleasure that we can from our day-to-day lives, rather than constantly thinking about what’s next. For Rogers, the idiom “stop and smell the roses” is far from cliché.

Another method for achieving a healthy level of congruence lies in the pursuit of rewarding and loving interactions with other people. By building and embracing our relationships, we can help to foster an environment that encourages our introspection and personal growth. 

To help illustrate his idea of a nurturing interpersonal relationship Rogers coined the term unconditional positive regard. 

Love is all you need

“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.’ I don't try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”

-Carl Rogers, A Way of Being 

Unconditional positive regard is an open-minded empathy and appreciation for others, regardless of their perspective or station in life.  It can also be more simply described as “unconditional love.”

Rogers asserted that to facilitate self-actualization, it helps to live in an encouraging and giving environment, with people who accept us for who we are. He believed it is in our best interests to provide that environment for the people around us as well. 

If we feel a constant pressure to work for others’ love and empathy, our self-worth becomes conditional and the more we believe we need to act a certain way or follow a certain path to be accepted, the more we inhibit unearthing our true selves.

For example, if your parents raised you and put you through school, while constantly harping on the fact that they wanted you to become a lawyer or doctor, and you ended up being, oh, I dunno, a freelance writer, chances are you’ve experienced a bout or two of self-doubt throughout your life.

Subsequently, by accepting others for who they are without judgment, we can help both ourselves and others to work towards becoming our ‘real’ selves.   

Two bricks in a pyramid

Rogers wasn’t the only psychologist interested in exploring the idea of self-actualization. His contemporary, American psychologist Abraham Maslow—best known for his pyramid hierarchy of needs—also placed our highest level of ‘being’ in self-actualization, the process in which we achieve our full potential. 

Although both men believed in the inherent potential of fulfillment, Maslow’s theory was more introspective and individual, believing self-actualization is the sole driving motivator in the sub-conscious of the human being.  

Whereas Maslow had a fairly rigid interpretation of the steps leading up to self-actualization, Rogers was more fluid, emphasizing the ever-changing ‘flow’ of human existence.

By embracing the natural ebb and flow of life and confidently riding the current, Rogers believes we can live what he calls the “good life.” 

Living the “good life”

“In my relationships with people I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not.” 

- Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

It’s tough, but it’s in our best psychological interests to be straight up with our emotions and feelings, even if they aren’t always nice and fuzzy. In essence, we should strive to be who we are—or, as Rogers articulates, we should aim to ‘live the good life.’

Being who we are sounds simple, but it’s actually exceedingly difficult and takes a lot of hard personal and emotional development. 

So how can we know if we are indeed living the good life? Remember, just posting a bunch of pictures of you and your family chilling at a resort in Barbados doesn’t necessarily count as ‘living the good life.’ Plenty of people sip frozen margaritas while hating themselves and everything around them.  

Fortunately,  Rogers provides a checklist of principles that can be observed to lead a happier, more satisfying and higher functioning lifestyle:

  1. A person is open to experiencing new things—to being pushed outside of the comfort zone of their daily routine. 

  2. A person lives in the moment, existentially, rather than attempting to “distort the moment to fit personality or self-concept.”

  3. Self-trust: the person believes in their own decision-making abilities and judgment, rather than always deferring to others.

  4. The person believes in the power of their own free will to make choices, and therefore, feels a personal responsibility for their own behaviors.

  5. The person is creative and uses their own perspective and voice to navigate social and cultural situations without feeling anxious about how others will perceive them.

  6. The person will always, in the end, act in a way that is constructive. They are reliable because they are constantly moving in a positive direction towards self-actualization.

  7. They are emotionally resonant—they experience things more intensely than most because they are more in tune with themselves and their surroundings.

Although these are the hallmarks of a fully-functioning person, they are not prescriptive.  

We can’t just wake up one morning and be like, “Hey, I’m going to decide to be existential today.”  

Achieving a healthy self-image means creating a world for ourselves where we can trust our friends, family, and peers, and where we can believe in ourselves as valuable and positive human beings. 

Go for a direction, not a destination

“It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets—neither Freud nor research—neither the revelations of God nor man—can take precede over my own direct experience.” 

-Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

Rogers’ theories place a great deal of faith in the potential of the human individual and in the value of trusting one’s own judgments and perspectives. Despite any criticisms, perhaps it is the languor and simplicity of his theories which make them so timeless—do good unto others, and do good unto yourself; principles to apply within just about any context imaginable.