One of the key traits of being a counsellor is the ability to be reflective. So what happens when you turn your gaze on the counselling theories you have been taught?
One of the central tenets in humanistic psychology is something known as self-actualisation.
This idea is originally attributed to Kurt Goldstein, which he described as a "driving force" to reach one's full potential.
This idea was also adopted by Abraham Maslow, in his "A Theory of Human Motivation" where he refines self-actualisation as "What a man can be, he must be."
Self-actualisation has a strange hard to define nature, although perhaps like me, you will have a very definite sense of what this thing is. Rogers himself spends 2 pages reflecting on this vagueness in Proposition IV. He decides that while we may struggle, like a child learning to walk, there is a very definite direction in which we are heading. Even if self-actualisation is not readily apparent then we can be certain that it is indeed present.
Even in my own Humanistic Gestalt model, self-actualisation is a fundamental concept. 
This drive to reach our potential has some interesting properties,
The reason I want to have a closer look at my relationship with this piece of theory is because it didn't always quite fit with what I was experiencing in the therapy room, leading me to wonder if it wasn't quite as universal and innate as I was led to believe.
Is self-actualisation innate?
Whenever I want to understand a theory, I am most interested in looking at what it can't explain.
And there are some things that are not easily explained by self-actualisation. Take self-sacrifice. Given the right circumstances human beings will risk their own health and even their lives in order to protect others. How do we explain this?
One possible way of understanding this is that rather than self-actualisation being a property of individuals, it's something that arises when humans gather together in social groups. It's a property belonging to the group as a whole. People risk themselves so that the social group they belong to can self-actualise.
Even more troubling is suicide. If self-actualisation is universal, how is suicide even possible?  If we understand suicide to be despair, in the form of loss of all hope, then we might argue that hope is a key sign of the presence of self-actualisation.
We are then left with the conclusion that if hope can be temporarily absent, then self-actualisation can also be temporarily absent. And if it can be temporarily absent then we have to consider that it can not be innate, and it can not be universal.
It raises a rather startling possibility ~ that self-actualisation properly belongs to the therapist and not the client.
It's purpose is to enable the therapist to remain hopeful that therapy is possible even when that hope is absent in the client. It sustained Rogers working on those back wards of state hospitals to continue to see the humanity in people who were otherwise, "abnormal, twisted, scarcely human."
Does self-actualisation have a direction?
Self-actualisation is described singularly, as though there is only one direction. It's said to be a directional force.
You can see this in the metaphors used to describe it. Rogers potato story, only talks about the spindly shoots reaching out toward the light. The roots reaching into the ground barely get a mention. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs uses the metaphor of a pyramid, which is built layer up on layer, pointing towards the pinnacle at the top.
However it's not unusual for people to describe what appear to be 2 actualising tendencies pulling in opposite directions - such as a desire to withdraw, rest and recouperate pulling against a desire to reach out and seek growth.
When I first encountered this, my initial reaction was to try and work out which one was the path of self-actualisation, and so which to follow. Stuckness followed until I realised that both were self-actualising paths - I had to recognise and accept that both sides were vital life-giving processes.
This bi-directional tendency observed in the counselling room mirrors how all organic processes work. Our body systems are made of antagonistic pairs pulling against each other. For instance the Autonomic Nervous System is a paired system of sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. It is the balance between the two which determines whether we are in a resting or energetic phase.
When it comes to human psychology things get even more complex. Here you can see multi-directional tendencies emerging.
Sometimes the people I see can find it difficult to recognise and name emotions they are experiencing, and so I have a pack of cards with names of emotions on them to act as a trigger. When they look through the cards, three piles build up -no, maybe, and yes.
One of the curious features is that nobody chooses just one or two emotions, they typically choose between 3 and 7.
Emotions create a directional energy - if I am angry then I will direct my energy toward a perceived threat, even if that is myself. If anxious, my energy is directed towards escape, withdrawal or protection. If I am feeling guilty, then I will be driven to make restitution or amends.
And I can have all 3 going on at the same time! I may oscillate between each one, or even have blended emotions such as angry-guilty, anxious-angry, anxious-guilty, each leading in a different direction, which are different again than one energised by a single emotion.
What the card experiment reveals is a complex multi-directional picture. The directional energy of the person is ultimately determined by the interaction between differing emotional energies.
Our directional energy ebbs, flows, and frequently changes direction. There is never a single directional force.
Do we really grow?
The idea that self-actualisation has a direction, also gives rise to the idea that we are growing in a particular direction.
The thing is though we can never directly experience growth, rather it is a meaning we apply after the fact. The perception of growth is always backward looking.
Take Rogers potato story, he describes the behaviour of the spindly shoots as growth. Except Rogers could never see those shoots growing. When Rogers went down into his cellar, and observed those potatoes, they never grew, they stubbornly remained unmoving and the same length as when he entered.
His perception of growth comes from seeing them many weeks later, and comparing them to his earlier experience.
Pushing this idea of growth further, the notion of direction is also a meaning we apply after the fact.
What makes a plant grow towards the light, is the production of a hormone called auxin. This hormone is produced as a reaction to light striking the growing tip. This hormone is transported down through the plant cells where it regulates plant growth.
The cells in the plant's tip do not know how to grow toward the light, they are simply responding to energy striking their surface. Their reaction to the increase in energy is to manufacture more of this protein.
Our own human stories of growth and direction are similar. When I look back over starting private practice, I can chart my direction. However at each moment, each decision was based, like the plant tip, on responding to what was happening around me. Like the plant tip I had no way of knowing that I would grow towards the light.
Growth is in truth a decision. Over the past 2 years a myriad of events and responses to events have happened. My choice of which ones to tell to create this story of growth are almost endless. And I can create other stories.
I could from the very same events and responses choose to tell a story of decay. That story is possible too. I just choose not to tell it, or at least not as often as I tell the story of growth, purpose and meaning.
Is self-actualisation optimal?
When it comes to talking therapies we know that they work. We also have a pretty good idea of what kind of therapist qualities it takes to achieve a good outcome.
What we don't know is how talking therapy works. What we have is a situation where there are lots of competing models explaining the how. Trouble is all these differing models are roughly about as good as one another - the so called Dodo Bird Verdict, which gets its name from Alice in Wonderland, where the Dodo decides that everybody has won and should all get prizes. #footnote 1
Looking into this melting pot of theories from the outside, you can also see why claims that your model is optimal is a good strategy, because you are in competition with lots of other theories. They are also claiming to have 'found the answer' to human misery and suffering.
Belief in my model thus helps me to maintain faith in myself in the light of lots of other competing models. In truth my model matters more to me than it does to my client.
Because let's be really honest here, when I first encountered my own Gestalt Humanistic model, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and the answer to all my problems.
It of course turned out to be neither of these things. However, this belief helped me stick with the learning, although my wife wasn't so convinced. She would sometimes describe my new way of being in somewhat non-optimal terms!
The point is this.
When there is so much uncertainty over how therapy works, claims that your way of understanding is optimal, is just that. A claim.
Your claim is perhaps better understood to be a way of maintaining hope. It's about you and how you practice. Even though it is meant to be describing the client's experience, it's really about you and your experience.
Finding your own path
When I was a child I gained the ability to never take things at face value, no matter who or where it came from. I am still thankful to my Mother for creating an environment where this was possible.
To be able to question, to evaluate, to decide for ourselves whether something has value, is something I really cherish.
In that moment of encounter, that moment of discovery, the thrill of the new, the appearance of a never before seen vista, is just one of the many moments when I feel truly alive.
Perhaps that is why I have spent several hours playing around with a piece of 'dry' theory. This article is me, finding my own path. I wonder where yours will take you?
main image by skeeze via pixabay.com
Footnote #1 The Dodo Controversy
 What is Self-Actualization? via What is the Meaning & Purpose of Life?
 A Theory of Human Motivation via Classics in the History of Psychology
 Rogers, C. (1951) Client Centered Therapy, p 487-491
 Clarkson, P. (2004), Gestalt Counselling in Action. p 4-5
 A True Understanding of Self for Self-Actualization via The Fountain
 How do plants grow toward the light? via Science Daily