According to the psychotherapist Carl Rogers, all human beings are motivated by what he termed as a “self-actualizing tendency,” or an innate drive to fulfill our highest human drives, such as creativity, achievement, and love, throughout one’s lifetime. However, this self-actualizing tendency is not immediately apparent in the earliest stages of a person’s life. When we are born, our primary instinct is to survive, and so most of our psychic energy is invested in ensuring that we meet the primary needs of food, safety, and security. This makes absolute sense; after all, a person cannot achieve spirituality, charitable works, or great intellectual achievements without first ensuring one’s survival (Wachtel, 2007). Thus, in Rogers’ therapeutic framework, the average human being goes through several psychological stages on the road to self-actualization. Two of these stages are the formative and the actualizing stages, which both have associated tendencies that will be explained, and place self-actualization within the context of the human life cycle.
To break down the concepts of a formative tendency and an actualizing tendency, I will offer the following summary. “Formative” tendencies, in this framework, are those that are most commonly seen at the early stages of life. An example of a formative tendency would be a young person’s earliest attempts to bond with their mother, as this is part of the natural survival instinct. One of the reasons that people often end up in psychotherapy is that they get “stuck” in the formative stages somewhere in childhood, often as the result of trauma or abuse, and thus do not move on to the “actualizing” stages (Goldfried, 2007). An actualizing tendency would be one of the “higher” pursuits that come about when a person feels secure and safe in the world, and thus feels that they can move beyond meeting their basic survival needs, and pursue intellectual development, creative endeavors, and spiritual growth.

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  • Goldfried, M.R. (2007). “What has psychotherapy inherited from Carl Rogers?” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 44 (3), 279-284.
  • Wachtel, P.L. (2007). “Carl Rogers and the larger context of therapeutic thought.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 44 (3), 279-284.