The 7 Characteristics of the Fully-Functioning Person

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One of my biggest influences in the realm of personal growth has been the work of Carl Rogers, the creator of person-centred therapy. I came across his work through the Psychology Book Club and explored it further while doing a year’s person-centred counselling training several years ago.There are many things I appreciate about his approach to and perspectives on personal growth (especially compared to some of the other prominent figures in the psychology world), but the number one thing that draws me to his approach is his humanity and compassion. He is deeply respectful of our uniqueness, focuses on potential rather than pathology and leaves a lot of room within his ideas and frameworks for people to be individuals and live the ideas in accordance with who they are.One of these frameworks, and the one I want to share this week, is the seven characteristics of the fully-functioning person, which he writes about in his excellent book On Becoming a Person. These characteristics aren’t a state of being we arrive at, but rather a constant process we are working towards (Rogers calls this “the good life”—an apt description!). As you’ll see, these characteristics are more rooted in philosophy than practical life advice and many of them are connected. Together, they are all about fulfilling our human potential and provide a useful overview of things to pay attention to as we reflect on our daily experiences.

The 7 Characteristics

1. A growing openness to experience

Having a growing openness to experience is about moving away from defensiveness. John Gottman describes defensiveness as: “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” When we perceive ourselves to be under emotional attack or criticism, defensiveness usually involves turning the blame back on the other person or people. With this characteristic, we are more open to what happens, as it happens, and are less likely to react in an unconscious, knee-jerk way.

2. An increasingly existential lifestyle

We tend to filter our experiences through the lens of what we already believe about ourselves and the world, usually in a way that confirms these beliefs. When we adopt what Rogers calls “an increasingly existential lifestyle,” however, we flip this, allowing our personality and self-concept to develop based on what we are experiencing (rather than the other way around).So what does this look like in practice?Let’s say someone compliments us on a job well done. If we filter that compliment through our current belief system (which happens to be that we’re not very good at what we’re doing), we might internally dismiss their comment as them “just being nice” or even throw the compliment back with a response like “Oh it was nothing…” But if we allow our experience to inform our self-concept, we can accept this compliment for what it is. One of my favourite responses in this kind of situation comes from Sarah Von Bargen, who suggests responding with “Thanks! I worked hard at it.” (You can find more suggestions for responding to compliments with grace and gratitude here.)Like the previous characteristic, this requires us to develop a degree of mindfulness and live each moment fully. What I love about this characteristic is it comes with a degree of exciting uncertainty. If we open ourselves up to our moment-by-moment experience, who knows what’s possible?!

3. Increasing organismic trust

Basically, self-trust. This is about trusting our judgement and our ability to behave appropriately in any given situation. At its core, it’s about developing our sense of values and our own moral compass (rather than unquestioningly adopting those of the people around us).Which leads to…

4. Freedom of choice

When we trust our internal process and our external behaviour, we develop a greater freedom of choice. We are aware of the difference between “have to” and “choose to,” and, because we know we can choose how we respond in situations, we take responsibility for our decisions and behaviour. While “control” is a loaded word, it’s fair to say we have agency over our decisions and behaviour that leaves us free to be who we are and act in accordance with our values and own sense of right and wrong.Which leads to…

5. Creativity

With the freedom to be ourselves and the self-trust that underpins this freedom, we are able to be more creative. As Rogers points out, we can also be more creative in the way we adapt to our circumstances without feeling a need to conform to norms and values that conflict with our own.

6. Reliability and constructiveness

To me, this suggestion is about balancing our inner and outer worlds. Rogers describes this as being open to all our needs and able to maintain a balance between them. His belief is that when people have a congruent view of themselves (i.e. one in which their self-worth, self-image and ideal self overlap rather than exist as separate entities), even aggressive needs are matched by an intrinsic goodness within the person.

7. A rich full life

Rogers suggests the “fully-functioning” individual experiences joy and pain, love and heartbreak, fear and courage more intensely.This reminds me of what Brené Brown writes about how we can’t selectively cut ourselves off from certain experiences: when we numb so-called negative emotions, we numb everything. Opening ourselves up to a rich, full life means receiving the full gamut of human experience—the good, the “bad” and the challenging.And this isn’t easy. As Rogers writes in On Becoming a Person: “This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”Over to you: what do you think about these characteristics? Do you have any thoughts about how they show up in your life? Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash