Person-centered therapy was developed by the psychologist Carl Rogers. He argued, as the name of the therapy suggests, that it is the client who should be at the center of the therapy. This is a highly subjectivistic, phenomenological approach to psychotherapy, quite opposed to the mechanistic, rationalistic and deterministic psychologies of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Admirable though these aims may be, Stanton L. Jones notes that this form of therapy has contributed to the “me”-centered narcissism of the contemporary world.
Instead of an “atomistic” view of the human person that breaks us down into our component parts, Rogerian therapy is holistic. Humans are studied as unique Gestalts who are not reducible to our parts. Emphasis is likewise laid on how the individual interprets or experiences their world rather than what can be uncovered from the unconscious. Intuition and empathy become the most valuable tools of the clinician in the hands of Carl Rogers. Indeed, “Knowing something about the aspirations, dreams, goals and values of others tells us far more than does a comparable amount of knowledge about the biological, environmental or historical determinants of their behavior.” Humans are seen as free and responsible for their own decisions rather than being merely reactive to external events.
One of the core elements of this personality theory is that the central human impulse is that toward self-actualization or realization of one’s potential. According to Rogers, the fully actualized person responds spontaneously towards others with charity and love rather than selfishness. Narcissism is the result of a failure towards self-actualization. The engine of this movement towards self-actualization is “the organismic valuing process” which is defined as “an inherent capacity to choose that which will enhance us and reject that which does not. The actualization drive creates in us an urge for fulfillment, and the organismic valuing process tells us what will provide that fulfillment. The organismic valuing process is presumed to be an infallible and instinctive compass or guide for choice and action.”
This organismic valuing process, Rogers believed, was nourished by unconditional positive regard towards the child. The child defines himself, as he grows, by his self-experience, which is an awareness of natural urges and awareness. The child eventually comes to define himself, which is known as the self-concept. This happens in accord with his experience of himself. Then there is the ideal self, which is his perception of what he should be. The ideal self-concept is that which is in accord with his own experience of himself rather than in terms of how others see or expect him. So Jones:
“The healthy person…is one who has an intact and functioning organismic valuing process and who completely trusts the valuing process. That person is fully aware, honest, personally satisfied and spontaneous. Health reflects trust of self, openness to experiencing and existential living in the present. Ideally, person-centered therapy posits, this will lead to a new kind of freedom whereby the person chooses to direct his or her life from within rather than by the dictates of the external world. Such “centeredness” (in the sense of balance, not self-centeredness) will release enormous potential to further oneself even more. There will be no need to deny or distort the information that is received perceptually since a strong sense of self has emerged that is consistent with deeply internalized conditions of worth. The chief Rogerian virtues are to be fully alive to the moment, completely self-accepting and strongly committed to an ongoing process of personal growth.”
There is a clear contradiction to the Christian worldview already. Imposing a Christian worldview or set of instructions upon the child would, according to Rogers, upset the child’s self-directedness. This is because Christian instruction imposes a set of standards upon the child which is sure to contradict how he sees himself or wants to develop. Some habits or behaviors are simply objectively wrong from the Christian worldview, and the child must learn to live in terms of expectations of the parents (to a large degree, at least).
“The child is confronted with the need to deny certain aspects of hie experience and act according to rules or judgments of authority figures (“God wants me to honor my parents; I guess I’m not really angry at Daddy”). He then develops an ideal self, dictated by parental wishes, which does not fit who he really is (“Good boys love their parents and don’t get angry with them”) and develops a self-concept that is formed in part by what the child genuinely experiences of himself and partly of what the child feels he must be (“I’m a good boy who doesn’t get angry at Mom and Dad”). The distorted self-concept quickly warps the organismic valuing process, resulting in impaired perceptions of himself and his world and of the choices he can make.”
Indeed, for Rogers, pathology arises from incongruence between different elements of the self. This happens when a human becomes more externally than internally oriented, attempting to produce behavior or feelings that to others insist we exhibit rather than who we are spontaneously. This results in psychic pain and self-concept distortions, which warp the actualization of the organismic valuing process. Pathological symptoms are perceived as symbols or signs of ways in which we hinder threatening experiences “fro becoming more accurately represented in our conscious and subjective awareness. As the symptoms become more pronounced, our informational and perceptual processes become increasingly inadequate and rigid. In short, psychopathology is a split or incongruence between self and experience.”
Thus, Rogers sees the origin of pathology as resulting from external conditions of worth which distort the self. This is cured, he says, by positive self-regard, such that there is congruence between self-concept and the individual’s experience. This itself results from being encouraged by the therapist to relate to the individual with empathy and unconditional positive regard.
As a result of this, the individual becomes more fully able to trust the organismic valuing process, inching towards greater self-actualization. This is accomplished when the therapist provides an atmosphere of trust and safety, helping the clients reintegrate self-valuing and self-actualizalising trajectories. “The therapist accomplishes this through encouraging the psychotherapeutic conditions…of accurate e mpathic understanding, congruence or genuineness and unconditional positive regard, which are seen as the necessary and sufficient conditions for effective counseling.”
1) Empathy – The ability of the therapist to experience how the client experiences and interprets his own world.
2) Congruence/genuineness – The therapist’s ability to accurately perceive his own inner experiencing in response to the patient, allowing this inner experience to enhance the counseling relationship. this allows oneself to fully relate to the client.
3) Unconditional positive regard – Acceptance of the client’s own experience and the actualization of their organismic valuing process.
Rogers sees these skills as rooted in the therapist’s own personhood. The therapist, says rogers, should not give interpretations, manipulate the patient, or shame or give advice. These can hinder the development of the patient’s autonomy.