While roughly in agreement in many areas, existential and person-centred approaches to counselling each reveal weaknesses in the other as well as offering straightforward ways to augment therapeutic practice.
Locus of Evaluation, Authenticity and the Fully-Functioning Person
The existential analogue of the person-centred notion of being fully-functioning is authenticity, and both approaches place significant emphasis on the internalization of the individual’s locus of evaluation in achieving authenticity7 (although existential thought does not use the actual term ‘locus of evaluation’). As van Deurzen (2002a, p. xi) suggests, “the fundamental objective of the approach is to enable people to rediscover their own values, beliefs and their life’s purpose”. She reinforces this emphasis on the client’s own direction-setting:
It is crucial for the therapist to remember that nobody can determine what another person’s commitment ought to be. Two people in similar circumstances might feel moved in opposite directions. Suggesting positive action to a client will be likely to forestall her own exploration of her present situation and it will thus set her back rather than move her on. (van Deurzen 2002a, 185)
This emphasis on keeping the client at the centre of the counselling task and on promoting the development of what the person-centred approach calls the client’s own internal locus of evaluation permeates existential thinking. The locus of evaluation is just as directly connected with authenticity for the existential approach as it is for the person centred-approach: “This is what authentic living is all about: becoming increasingly capable of following the direction that one’s conscience indicates as the right direction and thus becoming the author of one’s own destiny” (van Deurzen 2002a, p. 43).8
While the two approaches’ views of authentic living are also broadly in keeping with one another, the most notable difference centres on time. Although Rogers refers to the client’s “increasing use of all his organic equipment to sense, as accurately as possible, the existential situation within and without” (Rogers 1961, p. 191), there is little explicitly temporal about his view of full functioning. Emphasizing the importance of experience in the moment, the temporal context characteristic of the existential approach — a context of continual change and transformation and ultimate death — makes no appearance in Rogers’s explication of full functioning. To be sure, Rogers is very clear that the fully-functioning person is in a state of change, but that state is deliberately stripped of temporal context: “he lives more completely in this moment, but learns that this is the soundest living for all time” (Rogers 1961, p. 192).
This focus on the ‘moment-within-change’ is akin to taking the first derivative of a function, like noting the instantaneous velocity of a moving object. It reflects the state-dominated view of cognitive functioning and of computation shared by Rogers’s contemporaries in the cognitive sciences, a view partly displaced from cognitive science in subsequent decades by the reintegration of dynamical systems theory. (See Mulhauser 1998, pp. 109-117 for a treatment of this topic specifically with regard to the notion of ‘mental states’.) In my view, this now largely outmoded absence of temporal context marks a significant weakness of the person-centred approach.
The Actualizing Tendency
The question of the fundamental nature of human beings carries deep significance, whatever theoretical approach one considers. Van Deurzen’s description captures one facet of the distinction between the two approaches very nicely:
Humanistic approaches perceive human beings as basically positive creatures who develop constructively, given the right conditions. The existential position is that people may evolve in any direction, good or bad, and that only reflection on what constitutes good and bad makes it possible to exercise one’s choice in the matter. (van Deurzen 2002a, pp. 50-51)
Superficially appealing analogies about potatoes9 or even about biological systems in general have unfortunately served to stifle rather than to stimulate serious engagement with Rogers’s view of the actualizing tendency, captured but understated in van Deurzen’s first sentence above. The problem with potato analogies is that potatoes don’t have minds. It is one thing to extrapolate from the tendency of potatoes to fulfil their biological and physiological potential to the tendency of mammals and even human beings to fulfil their biological and physiological potential.10 But it is an altogether different matter to extrapolate from the biological and physiological tendencies of potatoes to the psychological tendencies of human beings. Psychological disturbance is entirely consistent with the fulfilment of physiological potential; in other words, it is entirely conceivable that a human being could fulfil physiological potential even while undergoing deleterious psychological change.
Indeed, to the extent that biological analogies derive their ultimate authority from evolutionary theory, it is even worse than this: not only is there scant evidence to suggest that selective pressures for ontogenetic psychological fulfilment exist at all, but there are good prima facie reasons for believing selective pressures will have favoured the deployment of a range of psychological defence mechanisms which promote immediate functioning even while compromising longer term psychological health! Rogers himself acknowledges (Rogers 1959) that mechanisms such as denial and distortion may serve a specific (beneficial) purpose. Evolution cares only whether an organism is expediently-served now, not whether expedient functioning now is going to lead to negative psychological consequences later.
But perhaps most interesting of all is a very simple observation which this discussion prompts. Namely, one may read Rogers’s view as implying that if one is making bad, self-defeating choices, then this is a sign of disturbance (or, at the least, a sign that the actualizing tendency is not being expressed). Again, the existential approach does not support this implication, allowing that one may be functioning relatively well from the standpoint of psychological health yet still be making bad choices. One obvious alternative interpretation of Rogers is simply that the actualizing tendency does not necessarily carry a positive psychological bias, only a bias toward the full expression of biological potential. Neither horn of this apparent dilemma seems immediately palatable to the person-centred theorist: either Rogers views inexpert living as tantamount to psychopathology, or the actualizing tendency does not carry anything like the positive psychological bias his followers so often attribute to it.
It is a pity to me that the subtle shades of meaning surrounding Rogers’s notion of the actualizing tendency receive comparatively little attention within the person-centred literature. Either this bit of “theory” is central to one’s actual practice of counselling, or it is not. If it is central, then it deserves careful attention and exploration. If it is not central, then I wonder what is?
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