Carl Rogers on Growth

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, scarcely human. 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

Image used under Creative Commons license from merwing✿little dear’s Flickr photostream.

Carl Rogers on Writing

Yet there is, I believe, a much more important reason for my writing. It seems to me that I am still — inside — the shy boy who found communication very difficult in interpersonal situations: who wrote love letters which were more eloquent than his direct expressions of love; who expressed himself freely in high school themes, but felt himself too “odd” to say the same things in class. That boy is still very much a part of me. Writing is my way of communicating with a world to which, in a very real sense, I feel I do not quite belong. I wish very much to be understood, but I don’t expect to be. Writing is the message I seal in the bottle and cast into the sea. My astonishment is that people on an enormous number of beaches — psychological and geographical — have found the bottles and discovered that the messages speak to them. So I continue to write.

Carl Rogers, A Way of Being

Image used under Creative Commons license from jamesmorton’s Flickr photostream.

Of Pickle Jars and Carl Rogers

I was an only child, bright, and as the bright often are, quirky, so much so that I never really fit in with my classmates at my Catholic elementary school. During recess, I often checked out a basketball and spent the time alone, dribbling around the schoolyard. At home, I spent a lot of time alone in my room reading and fantasizing about being in the woods with only a trusty canine companion for company, or riding the Pony Express, just me, my horse, and a mochila full of letters.

female Io moth

Although I was a city girl, I was as much of an amateur naturalist as our postage-stamp backyard and occasional camping trips with my Girl Scout troop allowed me to be. The Goldenrain tree next to our house was a favorite food of Io moth caterpillars, prickly and bright green with red and white racing stripes down the length of their bodies, so I captured and raised them on my dresser in pickle jars with perforated lids. I gave them Mexican names: Juanita, Pedro. When they emerged from their cocoons sporting wings with owlish eyespots, I left the jar open on the back porch and set them free.

My solitary endeavors didn’t seem to have bothered me much, but as I grew older, they certainly bothered my father, who often criticized my lack of social skills. He told me teachers had commented to him that I hung around them a lot but didn’t seem to have any friends my own age. No doubt their intentions in telling him were noble, and their words never meant to be passed along to me, but delivered by my father, this was just something else about me that was deeply flawed and needed fixing. Because even those who tried to have me as a friend were viewed by my father as flawed, I never felt comfortable spending more time around them and deepening these relationships.

As I got older, I learned to interact comfortably with other people, so much so that old coworkers jokingly began calling me a social butterfly despite my protestations that I was, and would always be, fundamentally an introvert. I made dear friends, often lovably quirky and bookish. Still, in new situations with new people, especially when I am being formally evaluated, the old insecurities return. Now that I am presenting myself as a candidate for graduate programs in counselling, these old voices are particularly vicious. Who am I, who have never been particularly socially adept or popular, to want to make a career of working so intimately with people?

As is often the case when I am feeling low, I began reading. I started one long-neglected work, On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered therapy, and learned that in his childhood, he, too, had raised moths. Watching old videos of Carl Rogers and reading his books always makes me feel good because he is the embodiment of warmth and acceptance — indeed his theoretical approach is founded on these — and this detail shared between us made me smile even more.

But when I picked up a copy of another of his books, A Way of Being, at a used bookstore, I was stunned to find that Carl Rogers had similarly inauspicious beginnings.

Let me begin with my childhood. In a narrowly fundamentalist religious home, I introjected the value attitudes towards others that were held by my parents. . . To the best of my recollection this unconsciously arrogant separateness characterized my behavior through elementary school. I certainly had no close friends. There were a group of boys and girls my age who rode bicycles together on the street behind our house. But I never went to their homes, nor did they come to mine. . . during the important years of adolescence I had no close friend and only superficial personal contact. I did express some feelings in my English themes during the two terms when I had reasonably understanding teachers. At home I felt increasingly close to my next younger brother, but an age difference of five years cut down on any deep sharing. I was now more consciously a complete outsider, an onlooker in anything involving personal relationships. I believe my intense scientific interest in collecting and rearing the great night-flying moths was without doubt a partial compensation for the lack of intimate sharing. I realized by now that I was peculiar, a loner, with very little place or opportunity for a place in the world of persons. I was socially incompetent in any but superficial contacts. My fantasies during this period were definitely bizarre, and probably would be classed as schizoid by a diagnostician, but fortunately I never came in contact with a psychologist.

If this is the stuff young Carl Rogers was made of, then surely there is a chance for me too. For all of us.

Thanks to Jason Michalko for pointing out that today would have been Carl Rogers’ 110th birthday, which prompted me to sit down and finish this post. Be sure to check out his post on Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy: Unconditional Positive Regard: It’s Not Just for the Dogs

Image of a female Io moth used under Creative Commons license from Anita Gould’s Flickr feed