Personal Reflection on Carl Rogers and Person Centered Therapy (PCT)
What follows is an adapted excerpt from a paper I just submitted. There was enough personal information in this that I thought it might be interesting.
Conditions for change. If there is a hallmark of Carl Rogers’s work, it is his presentation of the conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence (genuineness) as necessary for constructive personality change (Corey, 2005; Elliot & Freire, 2007; Farber & Lane, 2001; Rogers, 1961, 1957)
Rogers a good personal fit, maybe too good. I feel deeply privileged to have the opportunity we have in counselling to work with other people through some of our deepest most challenging processes and events. I am reminded daily of the humanity required of therapists and clients alike to enable the work we do together to be effective and beneficial. On an instinctive level, Rogers’s core conditions resonate with large portions of my ideal image of how a therapist should approach the other person or people involved in the therapeutic relationship and the process of constructive change. The values of openness, optimism, pragmatism, and autonomy in a context of respect for self and others guide much of my daily practice.
Rogers’s Midwestern American background contains significant parallels to my personal family history and with many of the formative family stories my mother and father shared with me as a boy. Perhaps like Rogers, my formative ethics were centered on moral imperatives, universal truths, freedom, self-sufficiency, and progress. As such, it is initially compelling and very comforting for me to take in Rogers’s self-theory and wax romantic about the innate self-actualizing tendency of all people flawed though that perspective is with assumptions of access and privilege.
Raised as I was around both strong men and women, it is effortless for me to think of an isolated client in a temporary state of “incongruence”, who only needs an ideal kind of helping relationship to become “right” again. The surge of pleasure I am able to feel imagining that I am the kind of person that can be that therapist without judgment and truly capable of Rogers’s definition of empathy is embarrassing in hubris and paternity.
As appealing as it might be to imagine, I do not view people universally with a self-actualizing drive that pulls us all toward the highest aim under the right conditions. Even from my own limited life experience, I see enough variation in my friends, family, colleagues, and clients to believe that this cannot be a universally equal or even applicable tendency. It is enough for me to accept that self-actualization may or may not be a relevant concept for working with specific clients.
With regard to Rogers’s isolated views of clients, I appreciate the stoic value of the lone, yet content individual image. I recognize, however, that there are relational aspects that permeate our experiences and that we are inseparable from our contexts. Rather than see this as a detriment to work in counselling I am thankful for the opportunity it provides for my clients to not have to “go-it-alone” and for me to not need to restrict my efforts to only one person to help create change. Furthermore, having spent quite a few years of my adult life in Japan and the deep sense of appreciation for support in this culture, I know that experience has significantly broadened any childhood notions I had of rugged individualism, as the only desirable way of being.
In relation to positive regard, I was raised in a Quaker home guided in part by a well-known statement made by George Fox that “there is that of God in every one” (Fox, 1976). This philosophy influenced my uncle’s prison sentence during the Korean War, my father’s conscientious objection/alternative service during the Vietnam War, my grandfather’s countless legal actions against the United States government for acts of violence and warfare, and my own declaration of pacifism when I registered with selective service at age 18. Most importantly, however, it influenced my interactions with friends, family, friends, colleagues, and clients. In my experience, pacifism is often misunderstood to be about peacefulness or, alternatively, cowardice. Steering clear of a long explanation of my life experience, to my way of thinking, non-violence as a way of action is more about respect and intentionality. I have countless stories of altercations avoided because of positive regard. I have spent a lifetime genuinely seeing the good in people and, predictably, find Rogers’s ideas of unconditional positive regard very natural.
Lastly, Rogers’s work and life was and still is truly inspiring. There is an earnestness to his writing, speech, and approach that makes me want to express congruence, genuine unconditional positive regard, and empathy to the best of my ability. In stark contrast however, I find it inconsistent with my reading of PCT on the whole, that Rogers (1957) described accurate empathy as allowing the therapist to “voice meanings in the client’s experience of which the client is scarcely aware.” While I am inspired by Rogers to be a better person in terms of my own congruence, this passage ascribes more authority than I am comfortable with or feel is appropriate for the therapist. This is one aspect of Rogers’s theory that as I build my own integrated practice I will omit.
Bott (2002) identified an implicit connection between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the values and practices that inform the helping professions. Certainly this doesn’t mean we need to accept oppressive modernist practices in their entirety. At the same time, if aspects of those philosophical underpinnings enable us to authentically connect with clients and strengthen the humanity of our discipline, perhaps some of them should be retained. Rogers’ ideas and their associated value play off of many of my beliefs about what it means to human, hold wide spread appeal, and are a great starting point toward truly non-oppressive postmodern therapeutic practices.
Bott, D. (2002). Comment – Carl Rogers and postmodernism: Continuing the conversation. Journal of Family Therapy, 24, 326-329. Retrieved March 10, 2009 from EBSCOhost database.
Corey, G. (2005). Theory and Practice of Counseling & Psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole – Thomson Learning.
Elliot, R., & Freire, E. (2007). Classical person-centered therapy and experiential perspectives on Rogers (1957). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44, 285-288. Retrieved March 14, 2009 from EBSCOhost database.
Farber, B. A., & Lane, J. S. (2001). Positive Regard. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38, 390-395. Retrieved March 14, 2009 from EBSCOhost database.
Fox, G. (1976). The Rufus Jones 1908 Edition of George Fox’s Journal. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press.
Rogers, C. R. (1942). Counseling and psychotherapy: Newer concepts in practice. [Electronic version]. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved March 14, 2009 from http://www.archive.org/details/counselingandpsy029048mbp.
Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 21, 95-103. Retrieved March 12, 2009 from EBSCOhost database.
Rogers, C.R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. New York: Houghton Mifflin.