The Client-Centred Therapy of Carl Rogers
and Historical Context
Carl R. Rogers was born in the suburbs of Chicago
Illinois in 1902. He came from a comfortable background, his father a civil engineer,
his mother a housewife and devout Christian. During his university career he switched between Agricultural Science and Theology
before completing his PhD in Clinical Psychology in Columbia
University in 1931.
The field of psychology that Rogers inherited looked broadly different from how it is today. The way that the self (either
healthy or "damaged") was understood was fractured into many movements, as it is today. We will need to examine at least three
of the central ones to understand what Rogers was reacting
against in his work. These three movements were Psychoanalysis, Behaviourism and Medical Psychiatry.
The revolutionary work done by Freud in the first decades
of the 20th Century transformed our understanding of how the self
works. His approach valued the self's conscious thought processes (ego) as well as their values (Super Ego), but above
all it placed primary importance on the self's unconscious processes (Id). The self's unconscious content was seen as the
source of conflicts and neurosis. The unconscious is by definition hidden from us, only to be revealed obliquely through such
phenomena as dreams and slips of the tongue. Hence this therapeutic approach required the process of psychoanalysis, which
was supplied by a trained expert applying the esoteric techniques and intellectual insights that they had acquired to bring
unconscious material and conflicts to conscious awareness.
The second dominant model of enquiry into the self during
Roger's development was Behaviourism. Psychologists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner followed in Pavlov's paradigm experiment
into measuring response behaviour to stimuli in an organism (in his case, Pavlov's famous dog). The excitement that accompanied
the development of Behaviourism was that here was finally a hard science applicable to human, and indeed all animal, behaviour,
free of the self-fulfilling prophecies of psychoanalysis and the speculations of the philosophers. Finally psychology could
join the ranks of the other sciences (from physics to physiology) and produce verifiable theories and reproducible findings.
The limitation in Behaviourism was that its model of the self didn’t allow for consideration of how humans process information
or emotions, except in the most simplistic matter. Similarly, the therapeutic model that began to emerge from Behaviourism
was based on instrumentally modifying the clients behaviour using reinforcement schedules. Even with the client’s participation
this approach would neglect cognitive and emotional processes, and meaning for the client. The novel Brave New World is probably
the most famous thought experiment of the results of Behaviourism taken to its logical conclusion, and its hilarious
yet chilling scenarios give us insight of what the movement missed.
The third model that we need to bear in mind when examining
Carl Roger’s original contribution to psychotherapy is the Medical Psychiatry model. This approach adopted by the mental
institutions of the time was an offshoot of medicine, and in this regard it tended to take an atomistic approach, breaking
down a case into symptoms, causes, and prognosis. Since little was understood about the physical functioning of the organ
under study (the brain), efforts were focused on classification of mental illnesses, and response to various medications.
In this approach the person as a whole was largely overlooked, becoming rather a “type” suitable for standard
interventions. Furthermore, the Client/patient was more or less a passive recipient of treatment rather than an agent of change
in their own life’s problem. Some psychiatrist used psychoanalysis to various extents in their treatment, but the bias
of their medical training was coloured towards the biological model.
With these three Movements in the height of their ascendancy
at the first half of the last century, we now turn to the theory of the self and counselling that Carl Rogers introduced.
Roger’s Theory has been said to a comprehensive
one in that it gives a broad account of human psychological functioning, both healthy and neurotic, as well as a heavily argued
basis for facilitating healing. The theory is partly a reaction to perceived shortcomings in classical psychoanalysis, and
its originality can be best understood in contrast to that approach. It has also been said that the theory makes far more
modest claims than psychoanalysis. Nevertheless it is a serious theory and has had an enormous influence on how psychotherapy
is practised today.
At the heart of the theory is the premise that humans
are naturally predisposed to seek to become more integrated and to realise their potential in life. Rogers called this the “actualising tendency”. This approach had much in common
with Abraham Maslow’s theory. According to Maslow we have a hierarchy of needs, and that as we satisfy our lower needs
(bodily demands and physical security) we in turn move on to mental needs (esteem, self-esteem), and even can in favourable
circumstances move towards fulfilling our highest values and potentiality. Interestingly, Rogers
theory is in contrast to Freud, who held that human nature is underpinned by a blind unconscious full of selfish desires,
desires which the ego is in constant labour to sublimate or civilise.
In common with Maslow again, Rogers argued that among the many things that humans naturally value and strive for is esteem
and self-esteem. He called this positive regard. No less important than positive regard is positive self regard. In looking
at the roots of mental distress, Rogers saw that many people
would only have positive self regard under certain conditions, when they saw themselves as deserving of this. He identified
that people tended to have “conditions of worth”. In some cases where a person is extremely rejecting of themselves
(having high conditions of self worth), they may be unable to in any way accept certain aspects, actions or thoughts in themselves
when they come for therapy.
This brings us to Roger’s concept of congruity
and incongruity. The word congruity comes from the Latin “congruere”, meaning “to agree”. Congruence
is basically a measure of how someone feels about the gap between how they are and how they would like to see themselves be.
The greater the gap the more the person suffers. Our levels of congruity are shifting all the time, and when we find ourselves
in a situation of high incongruity he referred to this as a “threatening situation”, which we experience as anxiety.
A high level of congruence involves a high level of self-acceptance and self-presence, in that we are not denying the truth
about ourselves to ourselves or to others. Other aspects of high congruence include openness to our feelings, to experience
and to change.
Roger’s approach to therapy involved a recognition
of the power of the proceeding points, and the inherent power of the self to bring about healing and change, under favourable
conditions. This is where the Rogerian approach is often referred to as “person-centred” or “client-centred”.
The emphasis is on creating a “helping relationship” between the client and therapist, where the therapist provides
the conditions for healing and growth that the client needs to explore for himself or herself. Rogers had a strong belief that the toxic effects of most people’s experience of
being deprived of esteem was the primary cause of mental distress. The build
up of unhelpful conditions of worth blocked a person’s ability to feel unconditional positive self regard. In response
to this diagnosis he posited the three “necessary and sufficient conditions” for a fruitful therapeutic relationship.
1. Unconditional Positive Regard. The therapist needs
to communicate to the client that he respects him intrinsically, and that he does not judge his faults to be the measure of
2. Empathy. The therapist needs to be able to identify
and validate the client’s feelings.
3. Congruence. The therapist needs to be “real”
and present in the encounter.
This approach is “client-centred” as opposed
to “theory-centred” or “technique-centred”. The client’s unique personal experience and understanding
of the world (sometimes called their “phenomenological perspective”, after the epistemological work of Edmund
Husserl) is respected above any imperialistic theories or analytical deductions on the part of the therapist. In this sense
the approach is very existential in its emphasis on the encounter between two free agents, where meaning is not decoded in
advance, but rather is explored by both participants in a safe environment.
There can be little doubt that Carl Roger’s contribution
to psychotherapeutic theory has been both revolutionary and positive. The uncomplicated nature of his message that the
client’s self esteem must be nurtured and rebuilt, and that the absence of this will leave any techniques ungrounded,
has been of much value. So to say that Rogerian principles like his three necessary conditions should be the bedrock of therapy
is easily defended. On the other hand, the question as to whether these three conditions alone can always be sufficient is
less clear. The use of techniques, be they say Psychosynthesis, Gestalt or Cognitive Behaviourism for instance, could work
well within the context of a broadly client-centred therapy, when such techniques are employed by a skilled therapist.
Another issue which requires reflection is to how the
three principle interrelate, or could come into conflict. For instance, say that the therapist is faced with a client whom
they can’t emphasise with for some reason, how does this fit with their need to strive towards congruence (genuine,
sincere). It is possible to fake emphatic behaviour, but this has problems with it. This is probably where unconditional positive
regard comes in (a “cooler” more rational respecting of the client, as opposed to feeling their feelings). How
these principles interrelate and fit together show the potential robustness of an apparently simple theory, but they need
exploration in a group discussion to be properly teased out.
Another central concept which appears to be simple, yet upon investigation turns out to be very complex, is that of “non-directive”
therapy. What exactly does that mean? Where does gentle focusing of the client end and influencing begin? As Jean Paul Sartre
pointed out in Existentialism and Humanism, to choose not to choose is still a choice. Is the point to focus the client
on their real needs and real conflicts? This is an essential question. To be “non-directive” cannot simply be
about refraining from making communicative interventions. For such refraining may say more about the therapist’s fear
of getting it wrong than the clients needs.
Some commentators have pointed out that Roger’s
approach may be less beneficial for less intellectually-inclined as well as highly extroverted, unreflective personality types.
Not everyone is equally interested in exploring their emotional make-up, and may wish a quicker, more focused approach. This
also takes in people with specific phobias and anxiety triggers, where something like Cognitive Behavioural therapy, (along
with a limited amount of the “talking cure”) could be more suitable than extended explorations of one’s
feelings and self concept. The irony here is that for an approach to be truly “person-centred” may require that
the emphasis on a given therapeutic model itself needs to be chosen to fit the
A final criticism of the Rogerian approach is inspired by
the writings of David Smail, who has been a critic of the claims of psychotherapy for the past few years. I couldn’t
try to summarise and do justice to Smail’s many concerns in an essay this size, but I will mention one point that he
makes, and that is that a psychotherapy that advertises itself as being in the business of making people more happy, adjusted,
successful and “normal” may be causing more distress than solving it. How could this be? Simply, by feeding into
a culture of narcissism (“narco” - from the Greek “narkosis”, meaning “numbed, sleeping, unconscious),
we are in denial of certain realities in the human condition, such as sadness, pain, loss, regret, age, death. This is not
to say that joy is not as real, or that dwelling on thoughts of mortality is a solution. But to be lulled into sleepiness
of these realities only makes there eventual arrival more painful. Furthermore, for those of us who are bombarded by a media
that persistently communicates that the norm is to be young, rich, healthy, beautiful, successful, etc., when we do come face
to face with one of these realities we feel somehow failures, and an exaggerated alienation from our fellow man, rather than
feeling solidarity in our common struggles and suffering. And that is why a therapy which is even perceived as being part
of a narcissistic culture can cause more distress than heal it. Roger’s emphasis on a positive human potential finds
a healthy counterbalance in Freud’s pessimism about the human condition. Existentially inclined therapies can also add
a healthy counterbalance to the overtly upbeat message in Roger’s therapeutic theory. Again, the point is that Rogers offers important insights, which can form part of an eclectic
approach to therapy.