Psychologist Carl Rogers [1902-1987] spoke about fully functioning persons. The concept is not entirely different from that of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualising persons.
Rogers tried to raise the human being above the determinism of an external destiny. No doubt, the external factors such as our upbringing, attitudes of teachers and other significant elders in our life, and other social factors constantly impinge on our personality limiting its potential in a number of ways. But Rogers was of the opinion that ultimately the forces that direct behaviour are within us. We can take charge of ourselves and rise above our environment.
Right from childhood, every individual goes through various experiences in life. These experiences go a long way in determining one’s self-concept. The unconditional love that a child gets from its parents can help develop a strong self-concept in the child. But such unconditional love is rather rare in mankind. Most parents place a lot of conditions for their love. They love their children for being well-behaved, for securing good grades at school, for winning prizes, and so on. That is conditional love. Unconditional love accepts the child for what he/she is, irrespective of whether he/she is a winner or rule-follower or whatever. Unconditional love makes the child love himself for what he is. Such a child grows up with a proper self-concept.
Conditional love, on the other hand, makes the child feel that he becomes worthy of love only when he lives up to certain expectations of the parents or others. This makes the child exclude from its self-concept those experiences which he is taught to think are unworthy, though such experiences are really valid for his growth as an individual. In Rogers’ words, the child “values an experience positively or negatively solely because of these conditions of worth which he has taken over from others, not because the experience enhances or fails to enhance his organism.”
This process leads to the development of a distorted self-concept. The tragedy of a lot of people is the inability to perceive the distortion built into their personalities by their parents and others. The distortion in the self-concept distorts the individual’s perceptions of external reality too.
Rogers is of the view that how the individual behaves depends on his self-concept rather than on the external reality. This is why the same reality evokes different feelings in different persons. If a person’s self-concept is an objective one – that is, there is no distortion in it – then the person would be able to perceive the reality quite objectively. Such a person will be fully human and fully alive.
In short, if you wish to be fully human and fully alive, get rid of the distortions that you have built into your personality with the gratuitous help of other people.
How to do that? First of all, you must learn to differentiate between a subjective image of yourself and an objective one. To start with, know that what you think or experience is not reality, but a hypothesis about reality. Every hypothesis is meant to be tested. Test your hypothesis too against the reality. Otherwise your hypothesis becomes your reality which may be a misconception about yourself or the world.
For example, the concept of god as a relentless intruder into his personal life distorted Jean-Paul Sartre’s self-concept and made him feel quite helpless as a child. When he broke himself free from that concept of god, he became a much freer person able to build up his self in a much more fulfilling way.
False concepts fed into us are responsible for much of the misery we experience in our own life as well as that we inflict on others.
When we liberate ourselves from those false concepts we can achieve what Rogers called congruence. Congruence is a harmony between our inner self and the external reality. Whatever the external reality, however intimidating, it will not bring threat or anxiety to the person who has achieved congruence.
Once you achieve the congruence, you can become a person who is fully human and fully alive.
Rogers lists three characteristics of a fully functioning person:
- Such a person has developed an increasing openness to experience. He has no need to defend against any experience. Therefore, he is able to acknowledge and express all feelings.
- Such a person exhibits increasingly existential living. There is no rigidity and no preconceptions about what he should do or be. Rather he “lives fully in each moment.”
- Such a person has an increasing trust in himself. Such people make and rely on their own decisions. They do not blindly follow the rules given by their societies, religions, organisations, etc. They have developed a sense that “doing what ‘feels right’ proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide to behaviour which is truly satisfying.”
“Life like a dome of many-coloured glass stains the white radiance of eternity,” sang the poet Shelley. The stains are within ourselves, says Rogers, put there by many people. It is up to us to wash them off if we want the white radiance of eternity to reveal itself to us.