Carl Rogers

More than anyone else, Carl Rogers (1902-1987) invented counseling. The vast numbers of counseling psychologists, marriage-family therapist and other mental health professionals are the product of his humanistic approach to therapy.

Like Freud, Rogers believed that actual experiences become symbolized. These symbolized experiences reflect all the characteristics of the actual experiences without all of the detail. It’s not so much what you experienced in the past as it is how you interpreted or feel about it.

In contrast to Freud’s distant, impersonal psychoanalysis, Rogers created an atmosphere of connection, warmth and acceptance. The emphasis was turned treating abnormal conditions to helping normal people with everyday problems. It went from impersonal medical terminology to less intimidating language.  Patients became clients. Analysis became therapy or counseling. Rogers made counseling accessible.

And he changed the emphasis from analyzing defense systems to focusing on the client. Originally, Rogers called his approach “nondirective” therapy. The assumption was that clients were given no direction at all; they had complete control over the sessions. But, of course, Rogers did give subtle direction, so he later changed to a more accurate description of “client centered” therapy. Therapy should focus on the needs and goals of the client, not a pre-determined goal of the therapist. Consequently, a client-centered therapist is relatively weak (doesn’t give advice or homework) but guides the client toward self discovery.

Rogers stressed the importance of client-therapist relationship. The therapist should actively develop a strong relationship with the client through active listening, clarification and paraphrasing. This friendly attitude was in direct contrast to psychoanalysis, behaviorism and most other approaches. For Rogers, setting a warm, friendly environment was key to counseling success. Relationship allows clients to open up, put down their defenses, and feel safe. In the safety of a confidential relationship, clients could, many for the first time, experience unconditional positive regard.

Rogers differentiates between conditional positive regard and unconditional positive regard (total acceptance). In conditional positive regard, love is contingent on meeting a standard. “I will love you if…” Or often, “If you loved me, you’d….” When people make love contingent on your doing something for them (meeting their needs, acting according to their standards, etc.) their love is not fully free. In unconditional positive regard, you are accepted for you are; just the way you are.

Rogers assumed that people are basically good and mentally healthy. Although there are anomalies (mental illness, criminality, etc.), the natural tendency is toward growth and normalcy. The primary tendency is to maintain, enhance and grow. Growth is not automatic or effortless but it is the most likely outcome.

The key to understanding people is to understand the individual’s phenomenological field. Each person has their own perception of reality. So reality must be interpreted on an individual basis. An event is not as important as the individual’s interpretation of it.

It’s a relatively simple theory but can be widely applied. The short version is that reality isn’t as important as experience. Or, in reverse, what you see is more important that what exists. Your view-your unique take on the world-is important to understanding who you are.

Think of phenomenology as a house surrounded by miles of land. The house has several windows, each with its own unique view. How you experience reality depends on which window you use. Your view is restricted to size and shape of the window frame. Your “frame of reference” determines what you actually see. Reality may be objective (the collection of all the possible views) but each view is a limited and subjective interpretation of that reality.

In phenomenology, the events that occur in reality are not as important as how they are perceived by an individual viewer. The emphasis is not on what the various views share but on the individuality of each person’s perception. According to this view, it doesn’t matter if people are trying to harm you. What matters is what you think people are trying to do.

For Rogers, behavior is the result of people trying to reach goals. People try to meet their needs (as they perceive them), so how you feel about your needs, your life and yourself matters. Fortunately, there is an unconscious process (the organismic valuing process) that leads us toward productive growth. Although not well defined, this growth process provides intrinsically growth-producing experiences.

It’s not clear how this valuing process works or where it comes from. Presumably is a natural, innate process that doesn’t need to be activated or controlled. It does, however, need to be protected. According to Rogers, the organismic valuing process works very well, as long as it is not incapacitated by too many external rules and social values.

Emotions play a large role in Roger’s theory. The summary is: “Emotions facilitate behavior. ” That is, we act because we feel. So if we want to change how we act, we have to experience how we feel. In therapy, clients are encouraged to get in touch with their feelings and to express them. For many Rogerians, therapy is not a success unless the client feels deeply enough to cry.

In contrast to Freud’s id, ego and superego, Rogers is a self theorist. He believes that self gradually emerges, particularly from interactions with our significant others. We learn to become ourselves by interacting with others. We learn to love by experiencing love. We learn accept ourselves by being accepted by others.

Although others may only see our perceived self, we develop our own view of who we are: our “actual self”. The actual self is what we actually do; how we act from day to day. The perceived self (as perceived by others) may be that at night we read French literature by a roaring fire. But we know that our actual self eats chips and watches TV. The more our perceived self and actual self match, the more “congruent” our sense of self. In this context, congruence is the synthesis of self. Growth is combining the ideal self (who you want to be), the actual self (how you see yourself) and the real self (what you actually do) into a congruent whole.

 Congruence also is the absence of inner tension. A congruent person is consistent and psychological well adjusted. When the perceived and real self differ, our experiences and emotions are ignored, distorted, and symbolized. This distortion process is subconscious, not unconscious. Subconscious suggests out of consciousness. In contrast, Freud’s unconscious suggests unresolved guilt and biological urges.

Parents should accept a child’s feelings, and shouldn’t threaten their self-concept. Self concept is a small but differentiated part of a person’s phenomological field. Although it comes, in part, through interacting with others, self concept is an object of perception: how we view ourselves. It is what we think our values are, which can be quite different from what our values actually are.

The disconnect between our real values and our self concept results in our experiencing anxiety. To avoid that anxiety, we often distort our view of reality (tell ourselves that society is not trying to influence us) or use denial (we are a rock that is uninfluenced by society).

Roger’s treatment for anxiety was to give unconditional positive regard. Unlike the conditioning love often given by parents (“You’re great if you do what you should do”), the therapist should give unconditional positive regard (“You’re great, no matter who you are”).

People have two basic needs: (a) positive regard by others, and (b) positive regard by self. Positive regard means being loved and accepted. Self-regard is loving yourself. For Rogers, positive self-regard is a natural consequence of receiving unconditional positive regard. To love you, someone else has to love you first.

When you have love (from others and of yourself), you have the foundation for becoming a fully functioning person. Rogers sees five aspects that characterize being “fully functioning.” First, you should be open to experience. Willing to try new things but also maximally enjoying the things you encounter. You don’t have to try every new cookie that comes your way but you should open yourself to experiencing the goodness of those you do sample.

Second, a fully functional person has experiential freedom. Instead of restricting your reactions or filtering your thoughts, you should experience live as it is. Don’t over think. Don’t restrict your emotions. Refuse to be uptight, overburdened and encumbered. Be free.

Third, live now. Live existentially. Existential living puts the focus on “here and now.” If you’re happy, be happy; don’t destroy your happiness by worrying about the way things could have been. Enjoy life as it is and as it comes.

Fourth, learn to trust yourself. This “organismic trust” unfolds over time. As you discover your competence, you learn to rely more on your judgment. No one knows your life as well as you do, so trust your instincts. Trust your real self, the inner you.

Fifth, a fully functioning person is creative. For Rogers, everyone is creative. You don’t have to draw, sculpt or paint. Creativity can be seen in your attitudes toward work, sports, politics, and virtually any activity. Being willing to look at life from different viewpoints. Try different options. Think outside the triangle (I wanted to be creative).

To help people become “fully functional,” Rogers developed a therapy that gives the client the freedom and responsibility of directing therapy. Originally entitled “nondirective therapy,” the idea is that the therapist should not impose on the growth tendencies and directionalness of the client.

Notice that it is “client,” not “patient.” Rogers believed that therapy should be as approachable as possible. Anyone and everyone should feel free to come to “counseling” because they aren’t sick (patients) but simply seeking help (clients).

For Rogers, behavior is learned, consequently symptoms (pathological behaviors) are learned. But Rogers doesn’t offer a learning theory to explain how to divert behaviors are originally learned, nor does he specify how learning new behaviors occurs. His theory operates on a higher level.

Rogers focuses on the macro aspects of education than the mirco processes of learning. The therapist-client relationship is like that of teacher-student. And therapy is a learning situation.  But the key to personal growth is emotional, not rational. Growth will automatically occur when a client feels unconditional positive regard, expresses their emotions, and clarifies their feelings. It is the clients’ responsibility to direct the progress of therapy, to reach their own conclusions, and solve their own problems. It is the responsibility of therapists to provide a warm, accepting environment, and intervene only as much as is necessary to keep the client focused on their emotions.

Here’s a lecture introducing the theory of Carl Rogers.


One Response to “Carl Rogers”

  1. Counseling Psychology : PsychNut on July 3rd, 2010 7:41 pm

    […] Alfred Beck, Aaron Ellis, Albert Frankl, Viktor Freud, Sigmund Jung, Karl Perls, Fritz Rogers, Carl Skinner, […]

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