Indisputably, in recent years there has been an influx in people seeking therapy for a multitude of reasons relating to personal growth, marital or family conflict and work dissatisfaction to name a few. One of the recognized theories of counselling today was developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1940s and although this new approach to psychotherapy ran contrary to the theories dominant at the time, person-centred therapy is considered one of the major therapeutic approaches nowadays, whose concepts and methods have influenced and inspired the practice of many therapists.
Different types of counsellors and therapists use in an eclectic way the Rogerian approach, in order to help individuals achieve personal development and growth or come to terms with specific psychological problems. In this essay, I will initially attempt to explain the person-centred approach with its therapeutic methodologies and how they can bring positive changes in an individual’s life, as well as its fundamental concepts like self-actualisation, self-concept, conditions of worth and organismic self.
Further, I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages, the strengths and weaknesses within the person-centred therapy and eventually, I will look at the critics that have been made on Carl Rogers’s approach. Specifically, person-centred therapy is a permissive, indirect approach to counselling and psychotherapy, which focuses on the ‘here and now’ principle and encourages the individual to create a positive change for himself by exploring his thoughts, feelings and emotions.
The main goal of this approach is to create the conditions that will encourage self-actualisation and an environment that will help the client to narrow the gap between his current way of thinking and functioning and the nature of his original, real self; simply, to release him from any emotional distress, mental confusion and limiting beliefs about the world and himself and arm him with the opportunity to become stronger and more in control.
Thereafter, much of responsibility for the treatment process is placed on him, who during sessions is encouraged to use the therapeutic relationship in his way and determine the general direction of therapy by utilising free-association and free thinking, while the therapist takes a non-directive role by solely listening actively, accepting what the client says and mirroring back his feelings, without trying to provide solutions.
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The person-centred therapy takes place in a warm, confidential and supportive environment, created by a close therapeutic relationship between client and therapist, where the therapist provides therapeutic support in a non-judgmental way, that helps the client to relax and gives him the security to freely express his concerns and problems without having to worry about what the therapist thinks of him.
Therefore, having exposed his feelings and emotions in such a safe environment, the client is then more able to think clearly the issues through and become more aware of his true self; and the only way to give an individual the opportunity to get more in touch with his real self is to accept him unconditionally and offer him warm respect as a fellow struggling human being, no matter how inconvenient it may be for those around him. After the individual has gained self-awareness and personal insight, he is then able to find his own solutions and to decide what positive steps towards change to take next.
Indeed, the key to effective therapy lays purely and simply in demonstrating within the therapeutic relationship, empathetic understanding of the client’s emotions and perspective, be congruent and genuine, and offer warmth and unconditional positive regard. These are the three qualities for a successful person-centred therapy, which constitute the therapeutic methodologies of Rogerian’s approach. Specifically, empathy constitutes a major portion of the therapeutic work itself.
It is both, an activity and an attitude of a therapist who is trying to appreciate client’s situation from their point of view, see their world through their eyes, feel it with their hearts and show emotional understanding and acceptance of their feelings. It is though, imperative that the therapist will not become bound up in the client’s emotion and will be able to maintain his own perspective. Therefore, within this environment, clients feel that their view has value and they are being accepted and respected for who they are, even though they have not made the best choices in life.
A person-centred therapist is also a good listener who shows careful and perceptive attention to what the client is saying, without his own experiences or expectations blocking the way; he keeps eye contact and he employs the method of reflection which consists of paraphrasing and summarizing what the client has just said. This approach gives clients the opportunity to examine their own feelings as they hear them repeated by another person and to elaborate further on the thoughts they have just expressed.
The therapist’s openness and genuineness with the client is another core element in person-centred therapy. It is essential for the therapist to be spontaneous, real and transparent towards his client, instead of playing a role and hiding behind a professional facade. If the therapist is open and honest, then this dimension will give the client the message of respect, as if the therapist says: ‘’I respect you and value you enough to be open and real with you in a constructive way for your personal growth’’.
Unconditional positive regard for the individual constitutes the third core value in Rogerian’s approach, where the therapist creates a warm atmosphere of psychological safety within the counselling relationship, by totally accepting the client for who he is, without judging, censoring or disapproving his feelings, actions or characteristics. By offering warmth and unconditional positive regard, the therapist provides a partial antidote to the client’s previous experiences, in which most likely authority figures like his parents or teachers acted towards him as if he had no value as a person.
Thus, within this nonthreatening context, the individual feels free to explore and share painful and abnormal feelings with his therapist, without worrying about being rejected or judged by him. Demonstrating these three qualities consistently in a relationship, a therapist will offer the therapeutic context in which the client will make steady progress to self-realisation. But the fact is that it is not always feasible to offer all the three core conditions at the same time, since in some cases a therapist may faces the dilemma of being authentic and risk being judgmental or offer unconditional positive regard and risk being dishonest.
However, to me, the answer seems to lie in remembering who we are there for, and as long as we know what we really feel and are able to offer it to others when they can use it, this makes us authentic and helpful. Bottom line, authenticity is about being willing to recognise that we may hold different values and beliefs from others and accept that we cannot force our world on them. Further, referring to some fundamental concepts which constitute Carl Rogers’s approach, we notice that according to his theory, all creatures ave a built-in life force, the actualizing tendency, which functions as motivation to develop their potential as fully as possible; Abraham Maslow referred to this process in human beings as self-actualization. Thus, according to Rogers, we all have a remarkable capacity for self-healing and personal growth leading towards self-actualization, and in order to achieve our potential, we need to be self-accepting and to replace the conditions of worth with truer, organismic values.
This can be established by having at least one relationship in which we experience unconditional positive regard and where we feel totally accepted and supported regardless of what we do, think or feel. Specifically, the way significant others respond, may lead us to develop an idealised set of conditions of worth, standards that are used to judge what kinds of behaviours others would accept or not.
However, when we behave according to conditions of worth, we create incongruence between organismic self and self-concept and similarly, if the standards are unrealistically high, we create incongruence between ideal-self and self-image. This gives us the feeling that we are never good enough. Thus, the way we perceive the world and ourselves can be influenced by our self-concept which does not necessarily always fit with reality, and the way we see ourselves may differ from the way others see us; therefore this will be reflected in our self-esteem.
The closer our self-image and ideal-self are to each other, the more congruent we are, having a sense of high self-worth and self-esteem. If our self-concept is incongruent with our real feelings and experiences, we tend to defend ourselves because the truth hurts. All these feelings and experiences, either denied or accepted, constitute our organismic self which according to Rogers, the greater the gap between organismic self and self-concept, the greater the chance of confusion and maladjustment for an individual.
As every theory and method has its advantages and disadvantages, person-centred therapy has its own strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, this permissive indirect approach of therapy concentrates on the here and now experiences of the individual, encourages him to think in present time and places him at the heart of any process of change, rather than identifying him as a victim of circumstances or external factors. It helps the client to improve his self-esteem, decrease his feelings of guilt and nsecurity and learn to be open to new experiences and new ways of thinking about life, so to develop in a positive manner and become his best self. It encourages the client’s self-expression, self-awareness and self-development and enables him to have a greater understanding of his self. It recognises and values the individual as another living human entity with needs, drives, hopes and fears and offers him unconditional positive regard, empathy and genuineness.
All these elements combined can create a positive, firm foundation for a trusting therapeutic relationship between the counsellor and his client and this is one of the most important key factors in therapy in order to enable the client to feel at ease with his counsellor, open up easily to express his problems and maintain the trust he has established with him at all time.
On the other hand, if therapy has been unsuccessful, the client will not move in the direction of self-growth and self-acceptance but instead, he may continue to display behaviours that reflect self-defeating attitudes or rigid patterns of thinking. Person-centred therapy may also work less well with people who find it difficult to talk about themselves or have a mental illness that distorts their perception of reality.
The skills of the therapist may also be a factor for abnormal results as not all therapists are capable of adopting a genuine humanistic approach; and a therapist who continually fails to demonstrate unconditional positive regard, congruence or empathy cannot effectively use this type of therapy. In addition, certain clients do not feel comfortable with nondirective therapy as they get bored or frustrated with the Rogerian style of therapeutic interaction. They do not feel that they are provided with the solutions they need and they are paying for, therefore they do not work well together with the person-centred therapist.
Additionally, in this type of therapy, the therapist does not take any position of authority from where to guide the client, influence him or present him with alternative viewpoints, something that annoys certain individuals who seek psychotherapy and do actually want to be influenced by their therapist in some way. However, there are several critiques and arguments espoused periodically against person-centred theory. The vagueness of its principles, its antipathy to diagnosis and its emphasis on the client’s self-evaluation as he way to judge the outcome of therapy, are only few of them. There are critics who feel that this theory holds several limitations as it focuses too much on the counsellor being empathetic and understanding and too little on the solutions to a client’s problem; and although they admit that person-centred therapy is a positive approach in psychotherapy in that it creates good relationship between clients and therapists, they find that does not help much just by caring and listening, especially for clients who are not motivated for any changes to begin with.
The Rogerian method has been also suggested by some as an illusion or a myth, since it is unrealistic and too optimistic about human potential and people’s ability to change. Hence, many disagree with the theory which mentioned that every individual has their own inner strengths to have positive directed goals, as not all individuals know what they actually want to achieve in life or rather have the actualisation in them.
Also, the emphasis on therapists’ exhibiting congruence, respect and empathy, has led them to become much supportive of their clients’ situation, to such an extent that the clients feel no need to change. Furthermore, critics of Rogers’s theories maintain serious doubts that person-centred therapy is effective in the case of individuals with psychological disorders.
However, the fact is that person-centred therapy has been successful in treating several psychological disorders, like depression, anxiety or personality disorders for example, since it is a type of therapy that is centred on increasing self-esteem, self-awareness and self-reliance. Thus, with the help of an experienced therapist, and since everyone, according to Rogers, has the resources for personal growth and healing within themselves, individuals will be able to use the skills developed through therapy as a means to face and overcome their problems successfully.
Nevertheless, for some critics, Carl Roger’s emphasis on the harmonious relationship between counsellor and client should be appreciated as a significant insight into the therapeutic process, since it has proven to be very effective when used properly and for the treatment of appropriate conditions. After all, despite all these criticisms, the fact is that Carl Rogers’s theory of human personality and his therapeutic methodology, continue to gain adherents and has become one of the most widely influential trends in the history of psychology.
In conclusion, the Rogerian theory’s development from therapeutic practice may be both a blessing and a curse; it is practical and based in human experience, yet it leads to the extension of concepts that while appropriate to therapy may not be specific enough to apply to all people. However, although his contribution in the area of psychotherapy is substantial and his theory’s value of a great importance and should not be minimised, the clinical applicability of his method with its therapeutic methodologies, may be limited only to those individuals whose intellectual and cultural backgrounds are compatible with his theory.
Therefore, the therapeutic conditions themselves are often not sufficient enough to treat a client’s issues and not always appropriate for all individuals. One could however state that all therapists should have the fundamental elements of the three core conditions incorporated into their treatment models and be willing to fully embrace its principles to achieve a successful course of therapy.