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“Actualizing tendency” is a term describing an inherent tendency within ourselves to grow and reach our full potential. This is an a priori theory which depicts a fundamental construct of human nature—that we are all born with the ability to do great things and develop into the best versions of ourselves.
Instead of seeing people as a tabula rasa, or “blank slates,” as many empiricist philosophers believe, this concept of actualizing tendency considers the idea that we have an innate substance that develops over time based on our experiences and ways of thinking.
The evolution of this innate substance results in changes to certain beliefs we hold and the behaviors we develop over time.
We Flourish When We Align Virtues and Actions
Aristotle discussed “eudaimonia”—a kind of human flourishing. Through the cultivation of our virtues, thoughts, and actions, Aristotle believed we were subject to a kind of existential growth, or as he termed it, flourishing.
For Aristotle, being a good and virtuous person does not mean doing the right thing according to societal rules; instead, it is acting in accordance with wisdom, a wisdom that we acquire over time and through practice. Eventually, acting in alignment with virtuous principles becomes habitual and in turn we flourish, reaching the epitome of our potential.
We Are Hardwired to Reach Toward Our Ideal Selves
The key initiator of unlocking potential and the one who coined the term “actualizing tendency” was Carl Rogers. In order to establish the theory, Rogers looked to two base assumptions of person-based therapy.
First is formative tendency, which is a basic acknowledgment that all living things evolve into more complex forms over time. The second assumption is a weaker version of actualizing tendency: that we can develop into our ideal selves over time with the right thoughts and actions.
Rogers believed that all creatures strive to make the very best of their existence to develop into their full potential. In order to achieve this, there is a movement away from resistance to change and towards a desire for self-actualization. The theory is existential and bound to the concepts of time, acknowledgment, and positive growth.
Rogers believed society and culture to be naturally occurring byproducts of actualizing tendency, which came into being from this intrinsic motivation to realize potential inherent in all humankind.
Actualize Your Potential by Discovering Your Passions
Finding something you are truly passionate about will uncover attributes you didn’t know you had, leading you to find genuine joy in your pursuits. However, it can hard to discover what we are passionate about. So how can we overcome this paradigm?
To actualize, action is arguably the key to discovery. Trying a variety of different activities or pursuits can help you to realize what you enjoy and what you don’t. Even if you don’t discover your passion, experiencing a wide variety of activities will, in itself, enable growth and further you on your path of refinement and self-discovery.
This process of experimental action and self-development will bring you joy by enabling you to incorporate your new found passions into your life. Over time this can help develop agency over your life by creating the tendency of doing, and thereby feeling, what you want.
You don’t have to do things you dislike, as this will only cause boredom and stagnation; instead, acting upon what you love will bring about happiness and positive change.
Find Growth in Conflict and Negative Patterns
Beck’s theory of cognitive distortion states that depression does not stem from a dark past but from our current misconceptions. Our perception of our current state of affairs tends to contribute to the emotions we experience; hence if we resolve these underlying distortions and expand their limitations, we can move forward, growing in the process.
Learning to deal with conflict and how to resolve it is one of the keys to self-actualization and, fortunately, tends to be unavoidable in human life. Conflict is a hidden gift and we should embrace it, cherishing the lessons that it teaches us.
The assumption that things will never get better, that negative patterns are everywhere and unsurmountable will keep you in a rut, and if you do not actively seek to change your circumstances you are likely to end up sabotaging your opportunities for growth and development.
Change Thought Patterns with Psychotherapy
The thoughts you have create how you feel, and thus if you change your thought systems you can create a new way of feeling.
Psychotherapy methods can bring about change, as they cause us to reevaluate our thought styles, behavioral patterns, and methods of coping. When we reflect upon these ways of being, we are able to put into place new techniques that positively impact our perceptions and feelings.
When engaging with this process we can access the potential that is locked within us, consequently opening up opportunities for self-actualization. But what about those who don’t change?
It’s Never Too Late to Progress
Some individuals seem only to regress, not progress, in society.
It could be argued that certain traumatic events, upbringings, and socio-economic circumstances can have a strong negative effect on these individuals and in turn cause self-sabotaging behaviors that oppress the possibility of reaching one’s full potential.
This is true because the individual, due to extraneous circumstances, is stuck in a particular fixed mindset. However, if adopting the viewpoint of actualizing tendency, an individual can be seen to have this potential throughout their life, and it is merely a matter of unlocking it.
There is always the opportunity for self-development, progress, and positive change, and based on the assumptions stated by Rogers, there is even intrinsic motivation to do so.
All we have to do is start breaking old habits.
The Psychology of Evil: A TED Talk
If you are interested in seeing actualizing tendency in action in the life of a one-time criminal, then watch this TED talk by Philip Zimbardo.
Beck, A. (1963). Thinking and Depression: Idiosyncratic Content and Cognitive Distortions, Arch Gen Psychiatry.
Dupré, B. (2013). 50 Ethics Ideas You Really Need To Know. Quercus.
Moneta G. B. (2013). Positive Psychology: A Critical Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sheldon, K. M. (2009). Actualizing Tendency. The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology. DOI 10.1111/b.9781405161251.2009.x. Retrieved from http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405161251_chunk_g97814051612513_ss1-3.