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Person-Centred Psychotherapy

Founded by Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

Rogers discovered in his early clinical work that a reliance on theory could lead to a situation where the therapist attempted to fit or mould a client into a preconceived cognitive structure rather than engaging with the client’s world as she/he experienced it.  Freeing himself from the constraints of previous theories and trusting the empirical validity of his own experience, Rogers posited that the surest route to understanding a person’s behaviour is to acquire knowledge of that person’s subjective awareness of himself or herself as well as of the world in which she/he exists.  Furthermore, he emphasised the fact that the client knows more about his/her inner functioning than the therapist.

Therefore, the therapist cannot play the expert role or the authority figure as such a behaviour would engender a power imbalance and would constitute an impediment to the therapeutic process.  Rogers stated that the therapist’s function is to aid the client in the exploration and discovery of his or her own inner resources:  it is not to impose gently, external solutions, strategies, interpretations or explanations.  Overall, Rogers had an optimistic view of human nature.  In this optimism, Rogers was supported by the “progressive” educators such as John Dewey and his disciple, William Heard Kilpatrick, who believed essentially that children knew what they needed to learn and how best to acquire the necessary knowledge (Thorne, 1991, p. 26).

The Core Conditions

Having conducted numerous research studies in the field of psychotherapy, in 1959, Rogers presented his conclusions about the ingredients of the psychologically facilitative climate which promulgates therapeutic change.  These are:

  • Congruence means that the therapist is what he or she is in the therapist – client relationship without facade or any attempt to assume or hide behind a professional role. Therefore, congruence is dependent upon the therapist’s capacity to maintain a high level of self-awareness and to be constantly in touch with what is being felt at an experiential level as well as to hold these feelings, both positive and negative, clearly present in awareness so that they can be communicated to the client whenever the situation warrants. Rogers emphasised that it is not easy to achieve this condition as it requires that the therapist be open to inner experience, at all times, regardless of the threat that his/her self-concept may be confronted with.  Additionally, he insisted that the kinds of questions that a therapist should pursue should be of the “what” and “how” rather than the “why” variety as these would enable him/her to discover the nature of inner experience and to track wherever possible what was happening within and between persons;
  • Acceptance encompasses the fundamental need for positive regard. It is vital that the therapist grants not only positive regard but, also, unconditional, to the client so that s/he may feel acceptance of self.  This implies a caring by the therapist which is uncontaminated by judgements or evaluations of the thoughts, feelings or behaviour of the client, for she/he cannot accept some aspects of the client and reject others.  Rogers posited that by displaying this attitude, the therapist engenders trust and, thus, inaugurates the setting up of “boulevards” to deeper self-exploration and to the correction of false statements;
  • Empathy, according to Rogers, is one of the three conditions which is the most trainable. This entails that the therapist takes in and accepts the client’s perceptions and feelings as if they were his/her own, but without losing his/her boundary or sense of self.  Rogers stressed that no therapist can be the “confident companion” unless one is secure enough in one’s identity so as to enter the client’s world without fear of getting lost in what may turn out to be a very frightening or overwhelming experience; and
  • Quality of presence which is releasing and helpful, for when the therapist can relax and be close to the transcendental core of his/her self, s/he can touch the inner spirit of the other which allows for profound healing and growth. (Thorne, 1991, pp. 38-40;Monte, 1999, pp. 765-766).

The Therapeutic Process

Rogers posited that the presence of the core conditions commences a directional process, which is inevitable, but which does not proceed at the same pace or cover the same psychological distance for each client, for it is the clients themselves that are the judges of the goals or objectives they wish to attain.

When Carl Rogers first introduced his ideas about psychotherapy in 1942 in “Counselling and Psychotherapy”, he stated that even in a brief period of time a very definite type of clarifying help could be offered:  “We can enable the client to express his problems and feelings freely, and leave with a clearer recognition of the issues with which she/he is faced” (pp. 247 – 248).

Encounter Groups

Encounter Groups:  a group therapy technique in which people learn about their feelings and about how they relate to (or encounter) another.

Rogers demonstrated that Person-Centred Therapy could help individuals who were out of touch with their feelings and closed to life’s experiences.  Through the therapeutic process, people could develop or regain flexibility, spontaneity and openness, health and functioning to greater numbers of people, so he developed a group technique in which people could learn more about themselves and how they related to or encountered, one another.  During the 1960s and 1970s, millions of people in the United States chose to take part in encounter-group experiences.

As I am a Person-Centred Psychotherapist – Counsellor and having given you an insight of Person-Centred Psychotherapy, I would like to inform you that psychotherapeutic sessions are conducted under the rule of strict confidentiality.  Their duration varies, depending on the age of the client. Sessions with children last for 40 minutes, with teen-agers for 50 and with adults 60 minutes while, family sessions last for 1.5 hours.  Their frequency depends on the nature of the problem that the client wishes to resolve. Upon the commencement of the therapy, I usually recommend that a weekly session is held.

 The Actualising Tendency

According to Rogers, the actualising tendency constitutes the only basic human motive which is inherent and which enables the individual to both maintain itself and to move toward the constructive accomplishment of its potential. However, the environment in which the person finds himself or herself may place constraints upon this actualizing tendency.  It is to be noted that the actualising tendency begins in the womb, facilitating human growth by providing for the differentiation of organs and functions and a development towards autonomy.  This includes not only the tendency to meet physiological needs for air, food and water and the tendency to reduce tensions, but also the propensity to expand ourselves through growth, to enhance ourselves through relating and reproducing.  It also refers to expanding our effectiveness and, hence, ourselves, through the mastery of cultural tools, as well as moving from control by external forces to control from within.  Consequently, the process of actualization is sensitive to the subtle complexity of human differences and uniqueness.  It should be pointed out that if the experience of the self and the total experience of the organism are relatively harmonious, then the actualizing tendency remains unified.

Organismic Valuing Process

We are also born with an organismic valuing process that allows us to value positively those experiences perceived as maintaining or enhancing our lives and to value negatively those experiences that would negate our growth.  We are born, then, with actualising forces that motivate us and with valuing processes that regulate us; what’s more, we can trust that these basic organismic processes will serve us well.

The Experiential World

In developing his theory, Rogers weighed the impact of the experiential world, the environment or situation in which we operate daily.  This provides a frame of reference or context that influences our growth.  We are exposed to numerous sources of stimulation, some trivial and some important, some threatening and others rewarding.  The critical question he set for himself is how people perceive and react to this multifaceted world of experience.

Rogers’ reply was that the reality of our environment depends on our perception of it, which may not always coincide with reality.  We may react to an experience far differently from the way our best friend does.  Our perceptions change with time and circumstances.

Phenomenology

The notion that perception is subjective is an old one and not unique to Rogers. This idea, called phenomenology, argues that the only reality of which we can be sure of is our own subjective world of experience, our inner perception of reality.    In Roger’s view, the most important point about our world of experience is that it is private and, thus, can only be known completely to each of us.

As the Actualising Tendency in infancy leads us to grow and develop, our experiential world broadens.  Infants are exposed to more and more resources of stimulation and respond to them as they are subjectively perceived.  Our experience becomes the only basis for our judgments and behaviours. Rogers wrote: “Experience is for me, the highest authority.  The touchstone of validity is my own experience” (1961, p. 23). Higher levels of development sharpen our experiential world and ultimately lead to the formation of the self.

In relating to the world, we respond not to some “real” or “pure” reality, but rather to reality as we experience it.   Our world is our experienced or phenomenal world.  If others wish to understand our particular actions, they must try to place themselves as much as possible into our internal frame of reference and become conscious of the world as it exists within our subjective awareness.  Our reality is certainly shaped in part by the environment, but we also participate actively in the creation of our subjective world, our internal frame of reference.

The Development of the Self in Childhood

As part of our actualizing tendency, we also begin to actively differentiate – to see the difference between experiences that are part of our own personal being and functioning and those that belong to others.  The special experiences that we come to own are self-experiences.  We are able to become conscious of self-experiences by representing these experiences symbolically in language or other symbols. This representation in awareness of being alive and functioning becomes further elaborated through interaction with significant others into a Concept of self.  Our self-concept includes our perceptions of what is characteristic of “I” or “me”, our perceptions of our relationships to others and to the world, and the values attached to these perceptions.  However, if self and organismic experience are discordant then the actualising tendency will be frustrated or, even, damaged (Thorne, 1991, pp. 26-27).  From his clinical experience, Rogers concluded that due to changes and modifications in the self-concept, the self is not a fixed entity but a product of the person’s response to experience which takes the form of a “conceptual gestalt composed of perceptions of the characteristics of the “I” or “me” to others and to various aspects of life, together with the values attached to those perceptions” (Rogers, 1959:200).  In simple terms, the foresaid means that I am the self which I currently conceptualise myself as being (Thorne, 1991, pp. 28-29; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 326-328).

Conditions of Worth

During the period of infancy, Rogers sees the individual as possessing an inherent tendency towards actualising his or her organism and as perceiving his or her experience as reality.  The infant is not confronted with any problems in establishing which experiences are beneficial to the organism and which are bad.  However, the difficulty arises when the infant begins to experience himself or herself as a self different and separate from other selves. Gradually, primarily through a relationship with significant others, the infant acquires a concept of self which requires nurturing and protecting (Thorne, 1991, p. 30; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 328-329).

The Need for Positive Regard

The need for positive regard was first formulated by Standal in 1954. Standal believed it to be a learned need while Rogers added that it appears to be universal, pervasive and persistent.

Additionally, Rogers claimed that the fortunate child is the one whose need for positive regard is consistently satisfied by the significant others in his or her life and who is not constantly having to disregard organismic needs in the desperate search for positive regard.  Gradually, the need for self-regard, allied to positive regard, develops, for human beings have the need to feel good about themselves. However, if this need is not met, it is difficult to function in the world.  Rogers posited that those who had received only highly selective positive regard from significant others are hard pressed to maintain self-regard to any degree at all.  Furthermore, he stressed that in order to feel positive about themselves, humans depend upon the quality and consistency of the positive regard exhibited towards them by others.  However, as this tends to be selective, to some extent, humans are victimised by the conditions of worth as this is a process through which they receive an introjection of values by others which could turn out to be a sad process if parents or significant others are judgemental and punitive and, thus, do not meet the needs of the human organism for actualisation. Needless to say that the constant introjections of alien values results in the internalization of conditions of worth which make authentic living extremely difficult (Rogers, 1991, pp. 30-31; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 329-330).

If an individual’s need for positive regard is not experienced, then he or she will develop over time a notable discrepancy, i.e. incongruence between the self as perceived and the actual experience of the total organism.  This incongruence leads to a psychological vulnerability which will often render the person anxious and confused whenever an experience is perceived or anticipated as being incongruent with the structure of the self and the current self-concept.  Usually, this psychological vulnerability leads an individual to react against the threat, against his/her concept of self through the employment of defensive responses the most common of which are distortion or denial (Rogers, 1991, pp. 31-32; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 329—330).

Locus of Evaluation

Those persons who, in their quest for positive regard, have been forced to internalise numerous conditions of worth will have little faith in their own judgement as they will lack an internalised locus of evaluation.  As a result, they will not be in a position to trust the information supplied to them by their own senses and they will, thus, use the judgement of others so as to establish the value of an object or experience.  In other words, those people, who are raised by significant others, that are highly censorious or parsimonious in their approval, will develop self-concepts that are often negative and falsely based and, therefore, will suffer from inability to maintain and nurture the internal locus of evaluation and are unlikely to develop to autonomous persons (Thorne, 1991, pp. 32-33; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 329-330).

The Fully Functioning Person

Rogers’ view of human development and his concept of the fully functioning person both evolved from clinical practice and they, thus, belong to a developmental or process theory of human nature.  Consequently, to be “fully functioning” is not a finished state, but a direction that a person is moving in – Rogers’ term for an “ideal personality” – has been attributed a number of characteristics such as:

  • Awareness of all experience: open to positive as well as negative feelings means that no experience is distorted or denied so it all filters through the self which exhibits no defensiveness as there is no need to defend against anything and no threat against the self-concept is experienced. Fully functioning persons are able to feel intensely a wide range of feelings which includes both positive and negative;
  • Freshness of appreciation for all experiences entails that all experiences are potentially fresh and new. Therefore, they cannot be predicted or anticipated or simply observed but are participated in fully;
  • Trust in one’s own behaviour and feelings rather than being guided by the opinions of others, by a social code or by their intellectual judgments. Behaving in a way that feels right is a good guide to behaving in a way that is satisfying;
  • Freedom of choice, without inhibitions indicates that the individual is aware that his future depends on his/her actions and is not determined by present circumstances, past events or other people;
  • Creativity and spontaneity lead fully functioning persons to live constructively and adaptively as environmental conditions change. They, thus, do not require predictability, security or freedom from tension; and
  • Continual need to grow, to strive to maximise one’s potential

Rogers did not describe fully functioning persons as happy or blissful, even though, at times, they may be.  However, he described their personality to be enriching, exciting and meaningful (Thorne, 1991, pp 34-36; Schultz & Schultz, 2001, pp. 331-332).

Psychological Tests

Rogers did not use psychological tests to assess personality, nor did he develop any tests.  However, other psychologists have devised tests to measure aspects of the experiential world.  The Experience Inventory (Coan, 1972), a self-report questionnaire, attempts to assess openness or receptivity to experience, a characteristic of the fully functioning person.  People, who made the greatest improvement during therapy, revealed an increase in self-trust from before therapy to after therapy.  Those who showed little improvement during therapy showed a small or no increase in self-trust over the period.

Evaluating Person-Centred Therapy

A technique that is usually used to assess the self-image is the Q-test, in which a client sorts a large number of statements about the self-concept into categories that range from most descriptive to least descriptive.  Thus, the Q sort is a way of empirically defining the client’s self-image.

Typical Q-sort statements include the following:

  • I enjoy being alone.
  • I feel helpless.
  • I am emotionally mature.

The Q-sort can be used in several ways.  For example, after sorting the statements in terms of the perceived self, clients can be asked to sort the same statements in terms of an ideal self, that is, the person they would most like to be.

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