The psychotherapist Carl Rogers had huge faith in the human ability to grow ‘towards the light’ in even the most difficult of circumstances. He recognized that while some people are lucky enough to have the love and support that allows them to grow up easily, others grow in an environment that tests them at every turn. They learn to do whatever it takes to survive. Later on, it may be that the very things that helped them survive (from telling ‘white lies’ to creating entire ‘public’ selves or dissociating from themselves) are the things that come to cause them pain and suffering as an adult. The brilliantly creative tools they initially invented to survive, that served them so well, may still be operating when they are no longer needed and now be causing disruption, confusion and pain. This is not wrong – it is simply the human condition. We keep using things that work, often long after they have stopped working.
Therapy is one way of exploring the tools we have used to survive and see if there are others that could now be used to find greater happiness. To find a way of seeing the difference between then and now, so that ‘now’ can be approached differently. To access new information that we missed then and are still missing now, which we need to make sense of life and live it to the full. To stop living with the ‘spectacles’ of the past and become more open to the present – to everyone and everything around us today, with greater clarity and hope. It’s a way of changing expectations about what things ‘mean’ and ‘what’s going to happen next’. Of finding out that sometimes we’re wrong – and that that’s a good thing (because it’s what we’re not seeing, and don’t know, that contains all the possibility and light). It’s a way of renegotiating the world, and finding it’s not quite what we thought (but quite a bit better). It’s one way of finding a new direction and a different path.
Even if our pasts make us blind to some of the people and things around us – especially real opportunities and genuine love – we can find a way to take off the blindfold and see differently. And we can dare to be the people that we truly are. Rogers called this ‘the actualizing tendency’ and this is how he expressed his faith in every human being:
“The actualizing tendency can, of course, be thwarted or warped, but it cannot be destroyed without destroying the organism. 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 unfavorable, 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 fulfill 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 unfavorable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted… yet, the directional tendency in them can be trusted. The clue to understanding their behavior 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.”
Carl Rogers, “A Way of Being” (1980)
All of life is growth. Each of us is a work in progress. And may 2015 be a year of joyful growth for everyone.