Glimpses into the life of Carl Rogers

Written by Gabriella Philippou

Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

“We think, we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was born on 8 January 1902 in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago.  He was the fourth of six children. Rogers’ father, Walter, was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at a time when college education was not widespread.

Before the birth of Carl, he succeeded in establishing himself as a businessman in the field of engineering.  Carl’s mother, Julia, had also attended college for two years. Both of Carl’s parents came from families which crossed the Atlantic Ocean, for the first time, in the seventeenth century.

Recorded family history shows that they made an immense contribution towards the development of the community as well as towards the new country for more than three hundred years (Thorne, 1991., p.1; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 324; Monte, 1999, p. 756-760).

Rogers has been described as a “quiet revolutionary”. His message was deceptively simple, yet profound in its implications:

All individuals have within themselves the ability to guide their own lives in a manner that is both personally satisfying and socially constructive.  In a particular type of helping relationship, we free the individuals to find their inner wisdom and confidence, and they will make increasingly healthier and more constructive choices.

Placing an emphasis on a close-knit family life, Walter and Julia raised their children in a religious and ethical atmosphere which was based on a fundamentalist approach to Christianity and on the worship of the virtue of hard work. This strict environment did not encourage social life as it neither permitted dancing, nor theatre visits nor card games, nor the consumption of alcohol (Thorne, 1991, p.1; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 324; Monte, 1999, p. 756-760).

As a boy, Carl was a sickly child which was perceived by his family to be over-sensitive.  Occasionally, Carl would be teased fiercely on this frailty which would lead him to retreat into himself and into his own fantasy world.  He often spoke of himself as a lonely child who was permitted few opportunities to make friends outside the family.  This treatment drove Carl to seek consolation in books, which he is said to have read incessantly.  This habit, upon the commencement of his formal schooling, enabled Carl to possess a reading skill standard which was several years in advance of his age. However, this ability was not considered as a gift, for it distanced him further from his classmates (Thorne, 1991, pp. 2-3; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325, Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

In 1914, the family moved to a large farm thirty miles to the west of Chicago.  Carl nurtured the idea that this change in the family residence was favoured by his parents because of two reasons. The first one aimed at fulfilling Mr. Walter Rogers’ dream to own a farm as a hobby since he was now considered a prosperous and successful businessman.  The second reason was the Rogers’ desire to protect their growing adolescent children from the “temptations” of suburban city life. This geographical relocation was meant to continue Carl’s social isolation which accompanied him throughout his secondary schooling.  However, he was to benefit to the maximum from his life on the farm as it encouraged him to develop interests that were to be significant in his later professional life.  Carl became an expert on the great night-flying moths which inhabited the woods around the family farm.  Walter Rogers saw that his sons capitalised on their scientific interest by asking them to set up small independent ventures of their own.   This resulted in them learning to manage flocks of chickens and to rear many varieties of farm livestock from infancy.  Carl’s reading of the voluminous tome entitled “Feeds and Feeding” by Morison enabled him to understand what was meant by experimental and control groups (Thorne, 1991, pp. 2-3; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325; Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

Having graduated from high school, Carl became a student at the University of Wisconsin where he enrolled in the field of scientific agriculture as his ambition was to manage a farm in the most modern and scientific fashion possible.  During his first year, he became a member of a Sunday morning group of agricultural students led by Professor George Humphrey who encouraged the group to take its own decisions while, simultaneously, refusing to adopt a conventional leadership role.  Carl Rogers later described his professor’s behaviour as “an excellent example of facilitative behaviour” (in Burton, 1972:36).  This environment furnished Carl with the opportunity to develop close and intimate relationships with young people from outside the immediate family circle.  Before the end of his sophomore year, Carl Rogers was convinced that he was called to be a Christian minister.  Therefore, he changed his major from Agriculture to History, for he believed that it would provide him with a more suitable background for religious work. It is interesting to note that this change did not present Carl Rogers with any intellectual difficulties. During this period, Carl Rogers came to experience a human Jesus who offered a new intimacy and extended the possibility of a personal freedom which would have been inconceivable in the context of the evangelical fundamentalism with which Carl had grown up (Thorne, 1991, pp. 4-5, Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325; Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

While the foresaid change was taking roots, Carl Rogers was chosen as a member of a team comprising twelve students from the United States who were to attend a World Student Christian Federation conference in Beijing, China.  This tour, which lasted six months, contributed immensely to Rogers’ spiritual and intellectual development as it provided the milieu for Carl not only to develop his thinking in almost all directions but, also, brought him poignantly to face the power of national feelings and bitterness in a period only a few years after the end of World War I.  Most specifically, by experiencing the depth of group life, he came to acknowledge the fact that it was possible for sincere and honest people to hold very different religious beliefs and perceptions. His letters lead one to believe that, during this exciting period of his life, he was sustained by his new and deeply personal relationship with Christ and by the fact that he was, through letters, becoming increasingly intimate with Helen Elliot, a girl he had known since childhood and whom he now considered as his “sweetheart” (Thorne, 1991, pp. 4-5; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325; Monte, 1999, pp. 756 – 760).

Shortly after his return home, Carl was diagnosed with duodenal ulcer.  He was hospitalised for a few weeks and then returned home for further treatment and a period of convalescence.  As he was determined to maintain his newly-won autonomy, as soon as he recuperated, he took a job at a lumberyard and, also, registered for a correspondence course in Introductory Psychology.  The time of his recuperation, gave him the opportunity to cultivate further, through frequent visits, his romantic relationship with Helen who was an art student at Wisconsin.  It was not before long that she reciprocated his feelings.  Despite the urgings from the parents of both families to postpone their marriage until they were more firmly established in their respective careers, the couple got married in August 1924, only two months after Carl Rogers graduated in History from the University of Wisconsin. Shortly after, the young couple left for New York where Carl had been accepted by the Union Theological Seminary (Thorne, 1991, pp. 5-6; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325; Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

During the summer of his first year at the Union, Carl acted as the pastor of a small church in Vermont, as part of his seminary training.  Carl came to realise that he was confronted with serious problems, for his sermons were not more than a twenty-minute duration (in those days it was not uncommon to deliver forty, or even, sixty-minute sermons). Additionally, he was reluctant to impose his view on others concerning what they should do or believe.  It was not before long that Rogers and some of his fellow students considered to be the imparting of ideas ex cathedra and, therefore, they promulgated a common request to the administration, which it chose to respond favourably.  This entailed the setting up of a seminar, for credit, with no instructors, where the agenda would be composed exclusively of their own questions.  However, after completing two years of study at the Union, Carl Rogers realised that he could not remain in a field where he would be required to believe in a specific religious doctrine.  It should be noted that during his second year at the Union, Carl Rogers found an outlet to his restlessness with his Religious Studies by taking several courses in Clinical and Educational Psychology at the neighbouring Teachers’ College of Columbia University.  Thanks to Leta Hollingworth, one of his professors, Carl Rogers had his first experience of working with disturbed children (Thorne, 1991, pp. 6-7; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 325-326); Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

In 1926, upon the commencement of his degree in Clinical and Educational Psychology at Teachers’ College, Carl Rogers became a father for the first time.  At Teachers’ College, Rogers found that most of the work carried out was characterised by a rigorous scientific approach allied to an objective statistical methodology.  This appealed to the scientific part of his personality and that is probably the reason his doctoral work consisted of developing a test for measuring the personality adjustment of 9 to 13-year-old children. Having been granted a Fellowship at the Institute of Child Guidance, Carl spent the academic year 1927-8 working with children and experiencing a completely different milieu from that of Teachers’ College (Thorne, 1991, p. 8; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 325 – 326; Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

The Rochester Years

In the spring of 1928, he accepted a position with the Child Study Department of the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, even though, it was poorly paid and seemed to have little in the way of career prospects. Carl remained at Rochester until 1939. During this twelve-year period, he worked with maladjusted and, often, highly deprived children who were referred to him for diagnosis and assistance.  It was under the constant pressure of this milieu that Rogers realised that even some of the most elegant theories he had previously embraced failed to stand up to the test of reality.   As a result, he took the risk of formulating his own ideas based on the daily experience of the encounters he was having with those seeking his help. This pragmatic approach was reinforced by the enthusiasm and energy of some of the social workers working in Rogers’ department, among them being Elizabeth Davis, who was a student of the Freudian heretic, Otto Rank.   Carl was also influenced by the work of Rank’s student, Jessie Taft.  The latter, along with Frederick Allen, became a major influence in Rogers’ professional life and it was their version of Rank’s ideas and practice which gradually permeated Rogers’ own thinking and clinical behaviour. Years later, in an interview to his biographer, Howard Kirschenbaum, Rogers stated that it was at this time that he began to “realise the possibilities of the individual being self-directing” (Kirschenbaum, 1979:95; Thorne, 1991, pp. 8-9; Monte, 1999, pp. 756-760).

Having considered the different types of therapy namely:  objectivity, a respect for the individual, understanding of the self and psychological knowledge, with which he had worked at Rochester, Rogers concluded that they converged in the attributes of the therapist.  However, he came to realise that the first three of these attributes far outweighed the fourth in importance which, according to Carl, determines the therapist’s essential capacity.  It should be pointed out that Carl insisted that it was the psychologist’s duty to prevent therapy from taking off into a kind of mystical stratosphere by firmly anchoring it in the domain of scientific enquiry (Thorne, 1991, pp. 10-11).

The Ohio State Professor

In December 1939, having been offered a full professorship at Ohio State University, he and his young family set out in a blizzard for their new home.

From the outset of his time at the Ohio State University, Rogers was exceptionally active and innovative, for he lectured frequently, published numerous articles within his first year, served on numerous committees and established a practicum in counselling and psychotherapy which meant that supervised therapy was carried out on a university campus for the first time.  On 11 December 1940, he delivered a lecture entitled “Newer concepts in psychotherapy” before an invited audience at the University of Minnesota.  Years later, he came to consider this event as the birthday of Client-Centred Therapy.  Additionally, in December 1940, through the presentation of a critique-ridden paper on the traditional approaches to therapy and the practice of advice-giving, Rogers shook the foundations of the well-known counselling programme for student personnel workers at Minnesota which had been developed under the leadership of Dean E.G. Williamson, who promulgated a distinctively directive approach which included the use of psychological tests and focused advice-giving.  Within the same paper, Rogers stressed that the new approach did not aim at solving problems but rather in helping individuals to grow and develop so that they could have a more integrated response to life in general.  Other issues that the paper examined were the importance of feelings and emotions rather than cognitive aspects of a situation, the focus on the present rather than the past and the crucial experience of the therapeutic relationship itself as a major element in the growth of the client (Thorne, 1991, pp. 12-13; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325).

During his four-year stay at Ohio State, Rogers’ reputation was immensely enhanced because he became known as a person of boundless energy and a great love for students whom he not only respected, but constantly encouraged (Thorne, 1991, pp. 13).

The Chicago Years

In 1945, Rogers moved to the University of Chicago where he was summoned to establish a Counselling Centre.  At this tertiary institution, he was to remain for twelve years.  Even though, the Counselling Centre rapidly established itself as a priceless source for both the University students and for the people in the community at large, the University administration had difficulty with his refusal to “lead” the Centre in the conventional way.  Through his decline to exert his authority in the normal way, Rogers cultivated a democratic climate in which power-sharing became a daily reality.  The appearance of conflicts and disagreements were not dampened down but dealt with in a holding milieu where everyone could air one’s grievances and become vocal (Thorne, 1991, p. 14).

Back to the University of Wisconsin

In 1957, Rogers, being a man of driving ambition, announced his intention of leaving the University of Chicago in order to take up a position at his old university. In order to deal partially with the universal dismay that this move raised, Rogers took time to write a lengthy letter to the staff so as to explain his decision which was based on the fact that this new post would provide him with the opportunity to work in both the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry and, hopefully, to have these two kinds of professionals working with him in a variety of research projects (Thorne, 1991, p. 16; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 325).

However, shortly after his move to Wisconsin, Rogers realised that this vision of psychologists and psychiatrists collaborating together for the benefit of humankind would never materialise.  Additionally, there were serious conflicts between himself and his new colleagues. This situation drove Rogers to submit his resignation, even though, he continued to work with the Psychiatric Institute.  The position he held at the latter institution, offered him the means to carry out a major research project that aimed at establishing if his hypothesis about the necessary and sufficient conditions of personality change would work with seriously disturbed people.  The study results supported that high therapeutic conditions of congruence and empathy correlated with client improvement.  However, the overall findings were modest in their persuasiveness (Thorne, 1991, pp. 16 – 17).

Work in California

In 1963, Rogers submitted his resignation to the University of Wisconsin and moved to La Jolla in California for two reasons.   First, he no longer had the need of the conventional academic environment which he felt was increasingly restrictive and alienating.  The second reason was that the success of his book “On Becoming a Person” gave him such confidence to set out on a more risky path of his career. Thus, it was not before long that he found himself working at the Western Behavioural Sciences Institute (WBSI), having accepted the invitation of one of his former students, Richard Farson. This institution, which was a non-profit organisation, was mainly concerned with humanistically orientated research in inter-personal relations (Thorne, 1991, p. 18; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, p. 326).

It is worth mentioning that it was at this stage of his professional life that Carl Rogers became greatly involved in the encounter group movement.  Within a two-year period in La Jolla, Rogers was considered throughout America as an elder statesman of the encounter culture. He commenced to trust the prudence of the small group with the same confidence that he had previously shown towards individual clients.  Using the group context for his own development, he also became extremely more expressive of his own feelings and more prepared to risk being vulnerable in relationships. These changes in his own behaviour furnished him with the opportunity to apply Client-Centred principles in settings outside the therapy room (Thorne, 1991, pp. 18-19).

In 1968, the departure of Farson from WBSI brought about many changes in the administrative policy of the Institute.  Even though, Carl Rogers did not find them congenial, he decided not to fight.  Instead, he formed a team with some of his colleagues to establish the Centre for Studies of the Person.  He was to work here for another twenty years as he found the Centre environment so supportive, for it allowed each of its forty members to develop their own interests (Thorne, 1991, p. 19).

Rogers’ Interest in the Global Community

During the final period of his life, Rogers became increasingly interested in the concerns of everyday life as well as in the problems with which the global community was confronted (Thorne, 1991, p.19).  This interest acquired literacy substance through the publication of several books and papers two of which were “Becoming Partners” and “Carl Rogers on Personal Power”.  Being supported and assisted by his daughter Natalie, during this phase of his professional career, Rogers initiated a series of large group workshops where it was feasible to apply the Person-Centred Approach to groups comprising between seventy-five and eight hundred people.  Having experienced such an overwhelming response as well as positive results from the encounter groups, Rogers decided to apply his approach to issues facing the global community such as the world peace as well as the crossing of cultural and racial boundaries.  In his seventies and eighties, he continued to exhibit astonishing vitality and a great interest to make his ideas known to every corner of this planet, especially, in areas where conflict and tension reigned.  He, thus, travelled to many countries, amongst them being Northern Ireland, South Africa, Poland and Russia.   During these visits, he did not only give lectures but, also, actively participated in workshops and seminars so that people in these countries could experience, even briefly, what it might mean to respond to each other in a Person-Centred way.  Towards the end of 1985, he fulfilled his cherished ambition of bringing together influential leaders of seventeen different countries in a residential conference on the “Central American Challenge”, which was held in Austria. This conference was the most outstanding example of his utter commitment in the final years of his life to the preservation of world peace and to the avoidance of nuclear conflict.  When Rogers passed away on 4 February 1987 after a fall, he had, unbeknown to him, just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Thorne, 1991, pp. 18-20).

Carl Rogers – the Writer

During his lifetime, Carl Rogers wrote sixteen books and more than two hundred professional articles.  His books have sold in the millions.

While at Rochester, Rogers wrote his first major book, “The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child”, which was published in 1939.   Nowadays, the interest of the book lies more in the insight it provides into Rogers’ own personal and professional growth (Thorne, 1991, p. 10).

Having considered the positive and negative criticism that the delivery of his paper at Minnesota received in 1940, Rogers embarked on a second book and, in 1942, it was launched onto the market, bearing the title “Counselling and Psychotherapy:  Newer Concepts in Practice”.  This book marked the beginning of new boulevards in the field of Psychology, for it was the first time ever that the term “client” was used.  Additionally, the first complete published transcript of a course of therapy was included in the said book.  This was an admirable accomplishment because, in those days, it entailed much technological complexity as two recording machines had to be used containing 78 rpm discs which had to be changed every three minutes. Rogers believed that the professionals, who expressed negative criticism on the book, were those that found it difficult to accept that their clients might know more about their own inner psychological selves than their therapists did with all their professional experience and expertise (Thorne, 1991, p.13).

In 1951, Rogers’ third major book, “Client-Centred Therapy”, appeared. Despite the coolness of the psychological press, the boo, in many ways a review of the activities of the Counselling Centre, was welcomed by an enthusiastic readership.  It explored the application of the client-centred approach not only to individual therapy but to play therapy, group work, leadership and administrative roles as well as to teaching and training (Thorne, 1991, p. 14).

In 1954, Rogers published “Psychotherapy and Personality Change”, having Rosalind Daymond, as a co-editor.  This book comprised a number of studies which were, on the whole, supportive of client-centred hypotheses.  It is worth mentioning that, this time, the psychology journals reacted favourably (Thorne, 1991, p. 15).

In 1956, the American Psychological Association crowned Rogers for his arduous work with the presentation of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Thorne, 1919, p. 15).

In 1961, Rogers published his fifth book, “On Becoming a Person” which brought him more fame and influence that he could have ever dreamt of.  Breaking free from the professional world of psychology, the book showed that client-centred principles could be applied in almost every facet of one’s daily living.  Thousands of people of every walk of life were drawn to the book and Rogers was overwhelmed by their appreciative letters (Thorne, 1991, pp. 16-17).

In 1972, Rogers published “Becoming Partners” which was an attempt to explore the institution of marriage and its alternatives.  In 1977, he wrote “Carl Rogers on Personal Power” in which he expressed the political implications of his ideas for many aspects of life from the family to the wider arenas of education, business and national life (Thorne, 1991, pp. 19-20).

Undoubtedly, Carl Rogers had the blessing of rich and varied life experiences that gave him the thrust to keep developing as a person, a theoretician and a therapist until his very last day, leaving behind a priceless heritage for humanity.

Carl Rogers on Empathy
(c) 1974 American Personnel and Guidance Association

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