One of my favorite analogies that I utilize when talking with clients is Carl Rogers’ potato story. Rogers, a profoundly influential psychotherapist of the twentieth century, approached his work through a humanistic lens, positing that people, at their core, inherently strive to be the best versions of themselves, utilizing the tools available to them. To some, it’s a bit of a radical concept considering we so often see people engaging in behaviors that actively harm themselves (e.g., drug misuse, self-harm, etc.). How in the world could such actions lead to the best version of themselves that someone strives for? This is where the potatoes come in.

Before he became a psychotherapist, Rogers grew up on a farm in Illinois. In his house, there was a root cellar where he recalls they kept a sack of potatoes. The root cellar was dark, with the only light available coming from one small window near the ceiling. As anyone who has accidentally neglected a bag of potatoes knows, they inevitably sprout spindly growths and take on an oddly contorted appearance. The same thing happened to Rogers’ potatoes in the root cellar, with all the spindles reaching for the meager light offered by that one small window. You don’t have to be a farmer to understand that a potato’s ideal growing condition doesn’t involve confinement in a dim basement or being left in an ignored spot on your kitchen counter. In Rogers’ (1980) own words, “[the potatoes] 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.”

Rogers extended this potato analogy to people’s growth and self-actualization. Just as these potatoes struggled to grow in the darkness of the root cellar, individuals often find themselves in less-than-ideal conditions for personal growth. They develop metaphorical spindles, reaching out for the metaphorical light but are hindered by their surroundings. These spindles aren’t indicative of any inherent flaw or pathology in the individual. Instead, they reflect a lack of nurturing in their environment. For instance, think of a child who grows up in an emotionally and physically abusive household. The pain this individual had to endure at such a young age is not something the human brain is equipped to handle. To cope, the child may turn to dissociation and distraction as a means of self-preservation, which may later evolve into drug misuse to numb their pain. It’s important to understand that this isn’t a conscious choice to make life worse; it’s an attempt to stay alive amidst overwhelming suffering.

The potato parable often comes to mind when I hear clients being hard on themselves for engaging in maladaptive coping strategies. Regardless of the strategy, they express a desire to stop these behaviors without fully comprehending why they persist. They often demonize these spindle-y parts of themselves, wishing to exorcise them. In these moments, I always remind them that these parts have been working diligently to keep them alive and protect them. You can’t simply remove the part of you that’s been fighting so hard to ensure your survival. So, what’s the alternative? Well, we start by taking the metaphorical potatoes out of the basement and giving them the love and care they should have had to begin with. Through that self-kindness, new strategies can be discovered and emerge so that the old spindle-y ones can retire and take a back seat in their journey towards personal growth and self-discovery.

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