Self-Actualisation, Conditions of Worth, and Self-Structure
Three of the key concepts within person-centred counselling theory, which are from a humanistic philosophy, are self-actualisation, conditions of worth, andself-structure.
Self-Actualisation is the belief that all humans will pursue what is best for them, as introduced by Maslow (1943) in his famous hierarchy of needs, where he referred to the meeting of this goal as ‘self-actualisation.’ This is the “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow, 1943: 383).
Maslow proposed that self-actualisation was the final level of psychological development, which could only be achieved once all other basic needs were met, allowing the individual to focus on reaching their full potential. In terms of person-centred counselling, Rogers proposed that self-actualisation was “the curative force in psychotherapy” (Rogers, 1961: 350).
Research does support the notion of the self-actualising tendency (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 2001; Sheldon, Arndt, & Houser-Marko, 2003), and I can also recognise it in myself. In fact, recognition of my self-actualising tendency has helped me understand some of my self-destructive behaviours, which were introduced by my younger self in order to survive – as children, the self-actualising tendency might be ill-informed, especially where conditions of worth have been imposed, as discussed next.
Conditions of Worth are the conditions that an individual perceives are put upon them externally by those around them and which they believe have to be in place for them to be seen as worthy. It is these conditions of worth that Rogers believed could explain much of the distress (incongruence) experienced by clients (Rogers, 1959). The theory is that individuals self-actualise in a way that is congruent with their conditions of worth, meaning that they ignore or distort messages and experiences that don’t support these conditions of worth or the self-concept these conditions have contributed to. Therefore, the aim of counselling is to assist clients in utilising their innate actualising tendency rather than the actualising tendency influenced by external conditions of worth (Wilkins, 2003).
One area where conditions of worth can have a devastating impact is in the case of child sexual abuse (CSA) (Power, 2012). Indeed, it is only through learning person-centred theory that I have been able to recognise why my experience of CSA has impacted me as much as it has and why I still struggle to come to terms with it. To me, the ‘how’ it has impacted me has been obvious, but the ‘why’ has often been a tool to beat myself up. However, as Power (2012) describes, children can develop many different conditions of worth when trying to process the trauma of abuse. By understanding that these conditions of worth need to be untangled in counselling, I have gained insight into my own therapeutic journey, which I anticipate will help me to be more patient with myself as well as assist me as a counsellor in understanding clients who have experienced CSA.
Self-Structure: Rogers (1951) believed that conditions of worth had a large influence on the self-structure and how a person sees themselves. I can relate to this due to my own sense of worthlessness and of never being ‘good enough.’ I also experience a lot of guilt when I behave in ways that are natural for humans, such as feeling anger or happiness, or even feeling hungry. This sense of guilt comes from my self-structure being that I don’t deserve these needs, as when I was younger expressing these needs produced negative reactions. The consequence has been the use of food and weight as an emotional coping mechanism, a consequence reported in the literature on person-centred counselling for eating disorders (Bryant-Jeffreys, 2006). It is the fragile self-structure of people with eating disorders that make it important for counsellors to demonstrate a deep level of empathy as opposed to a symptom-orientated approach (Douglas, 2012). Sutton and Stewart (2008) support this, proposing that empathy is an essential quality for a counsellor, which I agree with. Such an approach provides a climate whereby external markers of worth can be gradually replaced with the clients own internal locus of evaluation, which can help them achieve a healthier self-structure, gain trust in others, and hopefully stop being so reliant on food. The more I have learnt about this, the more confident I am that a huge step within my recovery will be to trust in my own internal locus of evaluation.
Bryant-Jeffreys, R. (2006) Counselling for eating disorders in women: Person-centred dialogues. Oxon: Radcliffe Publishing.
Douglas, B. (2012) Working with clients who have eating problems, in Tolan, J. & Wilkins, P. Client issues in counselling and psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Maslow, A.H. (1943) A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), pp. 370-96.
Power, J. (2012) Person-centred therapy with adults sexually abused as children, in Tolan, J. & Wilkins, P. Client issues in counselling and psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Rogers, C.R. (1959) A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships, as developed in the client-centred framework, in S. Koch (Ed.) Psychology: A study of a science: Vol. 3. Formulations of the person and the social context (pp.184–256). New York and Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Rogers, C.R. (1961) On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable.
Sheldon, K. M. & Kasser, T. (2001) Goals, congruence, and positive wellbeing: New empirical support for humanistic theories. Journal ofHumanistic Psychology, 41 (1), pp. 30-50.
Sheldon, K. M., Arndt, J., & Houser-Marko, L. (2003) In search of the organismic valuing process: The human tendency to move toward beneficial goal choices. Journal of Personality, 71, pp. 835-886.
Sutton, J. & Stewart, W. (2008) Learning to Counsel, 3rd edn., Oxon: How To Books Ltd.
Tolan, J. & Wilkins, P. (2012) Client issues in counselling and psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Wilkins, P. (2003) Person-centred therapy in focus. London: SAGE Publications.