Carl Rodgers was born in Illinois, Chicago On January 8th 1902. The fourth of six children he was educated in a strict religious environment. His early career choices included agriculture, history and religion, giving serious thought into joining the Ministry until the age of 20 when he began to re-evaluate his life and beliefs and went into teaching. Whilst earning his MA and latterly a PhD he embarked on the field of child study, especially that of cruelty to children and trying to help with prevention of cruelty to children. In later life while a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago he set up a counselling centre in which he carried out research and went onto put into practice and develop some of his theories which led to him publishing ‘Client centred therapy’(1951)
In order to evaluate the claim that Person Centred Therapy offers the therapist all that he/she will need to treat clients, I intend to first discuss and explain what PCT (Person-Centred Therapy) means at its most basic level, what the requirements or ‘Core Conditions’ that Carl Rodgers (1902-1987) stated were fundamental to the practice and success of this approach, and to offer a balanced opinion based on my view of both the positives and, importantly, some of the possible negative reactions or outcomes that could be experienced by both therapist and/or client when using PCT as the sole method of therapy.
Rodgers believed that every client who came to him, or in fact all people, had the answers or the solutions to their presenting problem within themselves. He said “the client knows what hurts, what direction to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been buried” (Rodgers 1961) By this he meant that the client has within their own minds all the knowledge that is needed to deal with whatever the presenting issue might be. With this assumption he believed that by providing the client with a safe non-judgemental environment, where he or she felt comfortable enough to reveal their true inner feelings, feelings that have been repressed or hidden for the majority of their lives, that it would enable them to begin to unravel any confliction between who they really are and who they may have tried to be in an effort to discover their true selves which in turn will help towards the client becoming happier about themselves or having a stronger self-image which is necessary when one is working towards self-actualisation (which I shall mention in more detail later in the text). Now that the client has been able to express their true feelings the therapist can help by encouraging positive helpful feelings and reinforcing then. Obviously as well as positive feelings, negativity will become more apparent to the client thereby enabling him or her to work through these problems objectively in a way previously not accessible.
So what does the therapist need to offer the client in order that they can provide them with the best possible environment in which to feel comfortable enough so that they can gain the most benefit from PCT? Rodgers felt that adhering to what he called the core conditions; empathy, congruence and warmth were all that was needed for effective therapy to take place. Now, on the face of it, those three core conditions could seem rather obvious to offer, in fact could maybe considered by some to be the bare minimum a therapist should offer to their clients, but is it that simple?
To look at that question, let us first look at the meaning of each core condition as set out by Rodgers.
Empathy – Could be described as being able to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to think what they think, to see things the way they themselves do. Simply by listening and saying ‘I understand’ can make the client feel that they are not alone or that somebody finally understands what they are going through. The client is then able to explore fully their true selves without the feeling they need to earn ‘positive regard’ from the therapist.
Congruence – Basically means the state of agreeing. With regards to a client therapist relationship Rodgers would say that being honest and genuine with your client is paramount in achieving positive therapeutic results. The client must feel that the person in front of them is being totally open and transparent with no hidden agenda.
Warmth – In this instance Rodgers means providing the client with ‘unconditional positive regard’, no matter what the client may say or feel, no matter what their likes dislikes are or what actions they may have carried out. The client must be made to feel that they too can be open and honest without the fear of condemnation of any sort no matter what they may say. They must be made to feel that you will not judge them and accept them as they truly are. Rodgers said – “Unconditional positive regard means that when the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely. It involves the therapist’s willingness for the client to be whatever feeling is going on at that moment – confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love or pride…The therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way.”
So the above show us what Rodgers meant by his core conditions but are they all suitable in practice? By simply sticking to these core values does the therapist indeed have “all that he/she needs to treat clients” Do they all work together in harmony to provide the perfect therapy solution, or are there areas that require much more thought, a fixed strategy or even an approach that goes against most of what Rodgers said.
As I said above most therapists would feel that in some ways these core conditions should be offered to at least a certain extent in every client therapist relationship, empathy, honesty, surely these core conditions should be offered by every therapist, but is it possible? How many of us can truly say that they could offer unconditional positive regard to a murderer or child abuser, a racist or rapist, in fact any number of things that he or she would usually find abhorrent and totally detached from acceptable behaviour? A very tricky question but certainly worthy of consideration in the question we are attempting to answer. In my view in these severe circumstances I just mentioned, the likelihood is some therapists will be able to handle the situation better than others, pointing to PCT being more about the skill of the therapist than anything else. Also at the other end of the scale, surely it seems reasonable for people’s or in this case therapist’s and client’s personalities to clash, certain habits the client may possess that the therapist could find offensive or just plain annoying, in fact any number of things where by in the therapists attempts to be completely congruent and non-judgemental they are having to go against what they truly believe within themselves. In other words the therapist is unable to offer their true ‘self’ which I feel is the fundamental aspect of what the therapist brings to the therapeutic relationship when practising PCT. If a therapist cannot show genuine ‘unconditional positive regard’ then, too me, this is a major flaw in Rodgers’ theory.
Continuing with criticisms, the more I thought and read about the practice and history of PCT it appeared to me that there were far more cons than pros. Below are a few of my main criticisms.
Lack of techniques – It appears to rely greatly on the skill of the therapist and their own self rather than any fixed strategies which are prevalent in most other forms of therapy.
Does not offer intervention – It seems reasonable for some clients to expect more from their therapist than merely being someone who just seems to mirror what they say and feel, without offering any actual advice or direct answers to questions they may think or ask about themselves. I am unsure to what extent this is the case in practice but certainly feel a large proportion of people coming to therapy may expect answers and or direct guidance from their therapist and may even feel cheated when not receiving them.
Unsuitable for some presentations – There seems to me to be a large number of problems which people use therapy for that require more structure, such as alcohol or drug addiction therapy, bereavement counselling or the client who has suffered severe trauma that needs to be taught strategies of coping which obviously require direct input from the therapist. Person-Centred Therapy does not appear to me to offer much to the client where direct change is needed, by this I mean that the client may not have the answers within themselves to solve the problems, or the ability intelligence or understanding of those problems they present with. Therefore it seems unlikely that clients in this category would gain much if any help from PCT. Furthermore, if the therapist has managed to provide an environment where a client has been able to come out of themselves to some extent, one in which they have indeed become aware of previously hidden feelings or emotions, even traumas, it appears to me that more damage than good could be done, especially if the therapist is without the necessary skills used in other forms of therapy in which to work through those problems to a satisfactory and healthy conclusion.
Alongside these criticisms is the fact Rodgers believed that all human beings are basically good and will strive to be good and the best they can be given the right environment. This idea has been and will continue to be debated by psychologists and alike for many years past and many more to come. I could go on for hours listing studies and universities and names of some of the most eminent minds in the field of therapy that have debated this question. However, I feel, as do most experts in the field, that the simple fact is that the notion that basically all people are born good is completely improvable and without a firm foundation thereby leaving a great gap in the theories put forward by Rodgers and the overall use and effectiveness of PCT.
In his extensively read and reviewed book ‘Against Therapy’ (1992), Jeffery Masson, himself a PhD in Sanskrit from Harvard who went on to a professorship at Toronto University during which time he trained as a Freudian analyst graduating as a full member of the International psycho-Analytical Association and becoming Project Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives,( he was later removed from this position and had his membership of the International psycho-Analytical Association revoked due to his research and findings bringing him into conflict with traditional analytical circles) said –
“Nobody could ever in ‘real life’ do the things Rodgers prescribes that the therapist should do. If the therapist manages to do so in a session, if he appears to be all-accepting and all-understanding, this is merely artifice; it is not reality”.
Admittedly a very strong statement but one which I believe to make a lot of sense depending on your viewpoint of the ‘self’ or how important the ‘self’ is when carrying out therapy. Even if the therapist is able to offer the core conditions on the surface, does this alone tell us is if the therapists ‘self’ is suitable, or if it has the relevant experiences or background to offer the therapy in its intended form.
Of course there are also many cases where PCT would appear to be an excellent solution. For instance the client who really wants to explore his or her true selves or deepest feelings would surely gain a greater incite, assuming of course that the therapist is indeed skilled at their job and is able to mirror and reflect back that clients true feelings as required.
In conjunction with his theory Rodgers believed in order to grow, to become self aware, and to eventually achieve self-actualisation the client must ‘own’ their own behaviour, meaning being responsible for their own actions and accepting these as part of their inners selves. Obviously in order to do this one must be able to see clearly who they are, good, bad or indifferent, and to accept it, which Rodgers believed can only be achieved when practising what he thought to be key to complete psychological health, honesty and personal responsibility and eventually ‘owning.’
I have mentioned self-actualisation a number of times in the above text and as such it is necessary to explain what it means or at least what the theory behind it is. The term self-actualisation was first theorised by Abraham Maslow and forms part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In it he says that all humans are constantly motivated by the urge to satisfy their needs in a specific order from physiological (food, warmth), safety needs (security, no imminent danger) social needs (relationships etc) self esteem (self worth, respect from others) and finally self actualisation, or in other words a state of achieving ones full potential or of being the best one can be. Although Maslow believed that only a very small percentage of the population had it within them to become self actualised this is what Rodgers believed to be possible for many more people when offered his core conditions in the exacting manner he describes.
In conclusion, and answer to the claim that ‘PCT offers the therapist all that he/she will need to treat clients’ and with everything taken into account as I understand it, I would say that though the core conditions are obviously preferable in any therapeutic relationship, they alone, cannot be enough in every circumstance to offer the client what he/she requires, needs or deserves from that relationship.