Clinical psychologist Carl Rogers (1920-1987) was the founder of the person-centered approach to counselling and therapy.  The person-centered approach offered a new outlook on understanding personality and human relations.  Like Freud his theory is clinical based and based on years of experience treating his own clients.  The emergence of this approach was part of an american movement in 1950 to create an alternate theory to the already existing theories that were currently dominating the the field, psychoanalysis and behaviourism.  This movement became known as Humanistic Psychology.  Not only is it one of the most widely used outlooks to counselling and therapy, it has also supplied ideas and concepts that have been implemented into other approaches.

Rogers believes that all living beings strive for self actualisation (the actualizing tendancy) which in essence is the innate motivation in every life form to develop its potential to the fullest extent.  From physiological needs like food and water right up to attachment based needs like friendship and intimacy, we as one of many organisms seek to attain these goals and push ourselves to become ‘our ideal self’.  Rogers came up with the concept of  ‘self theory’ in which he proposed we first have our ‘real self’ which is influenced primarily by actualization.  Leading on from actualisation, our ‘real self’ is made up of organismic valuing (our evolutionary learnings of what we need/what is good for us , leading to positive regard (the things we instinctively value such as love, affection etc) which in turn positive self regard follows (our self-esteem, self-worth; this is achieved by receiving positive regard shown from others. These are the components that make up our ‘real self’. 

Running parallel to our ‘real self’ is the make-up of our ‘ideal self’ which consists of similar stages which interact with the corresponding stage of our ‘real self’ to help us understand who we are.  Our ‘ideal self’ is primarily influenced by society.  Society goes on to teach us about ‘conditions of worth’, we only get what we need if we show we are worthy of it rather than just for the reason that we need it (e.g. receiving praise and encouragement for finishing homework).  This interacts and conflicts with our ‘real self”s notion of organismic valuing.  Following on from our ‘conditions of worth’ is ‘conditional positive regard’ where we will work to extreme lengths to receive positive regard from the conditions that society sets us rather than it being determined by self actualizing or organismic valuing. This also interacts/conflicts with our ‘real self’s’ concept of positive regard.  Lastly leading on from conditional positive regard is conditional positive self-regard.  We only start liking ourselves and gaining self esteem and self worth if our self image fits in with the norms directed and influenced by society rather than trying to realise our own potential.  Because we are all individuals, this is often a hard goal to ascertain.

When there becomes a gap between our ‘real self’ and our ‘ideal self’ this is known as incongruence. This is seen as a threatening situation which causes you to feel anxiety.  In an attempt to avoid the incongruent situation, we build up psychological defences such as denial (to block out/repress the situation altogether) or perceptual distortion (reinterpreting/rationalizing the situation so it appears less threatening).  However each time a defence is put up, this makes the gap between the ‘real self’ and the ‘ideal self’ even larger which can lead to even more threatening situations, more anxiety and thus more defences being put up.  Rogers states that psychosis occurs when the individual’s defences are overwhelmed and their ‘sense of self’ becomes shattered into many, little disconnected pieces.  This can lead to bizzare behaviour where the individual loses the ability to differentiate between the real self and ideal self and as a result can be disoriented and passive.

Rogers uses the term ‘fully functioning’ to describe a healthy person and lists the following qualities:

1. Openness to Experience (Being able to accept reality and include one’s feelings)

2. Existential Living (living in the here and now, getting in touch with reality)

3. Orangismic Trusting (We should trust in our organismic valuing instinct and do what comes natural)

4. Experential Freedom (acknowledge the power of freedom and take responsibility for our choices)

5. Creativity (in touch with actualization and able to contribute to the actualization of others)

The person-centred approach focuses on behaviour that occurs in the present, the ‘here and now’ rather than the origins of client childhood experiences (psychoanalysis) or aiming to achieve new patterns of behaviour in the future (behaviourism).  Originally in this approach, Rogers suggests that the therapist could be most of help in allowing the clients to find their own solutions to their problems.  In this sense it is the client that is the expert of their own facilitation whereas the counsellor acts as someone who helps the client reflect on their  problems whilst offering encouragement which makes the approach ‘non directive’.

Although as he became more experienced, even though he saw himself as non directive, his techniques still acted as a ‘non directive’ influence on the client.  Thus he changed the name from ‘non directive’ to ‘client-centred’.  He still felt it vital that the client should be the one express their problems and find ways to improve whilst the therapist provides minimal support and guidance rather than trying to be reconstructive or having the client fully depend on them.

One of the key aspects of the person-centred approach is reflection.  The therapist will aim to mirror the emotional communication carried out by the client to show that they are listening and understanding but at the same time prompting the client to continue to speak about their problems. Although reflection must be used sparingly and in a genuine manner so as to not look like the therapist is merely repeating/mirroring everything the client says.  Rogers in fact came up with 3 necessary requirements/qualities that therapists must possess to be truly effective in their sessions.

1. Congruancy (genuineness, honesty, authenticity)

2. Empathy (able to feel what the client feels)

3. Acceptance (cherishing/valuing, unconditional positive regard towards client)

If the therapist possesses these 3 qualities then the client will improve even if no other special ‘techniques’ are used, however if the therapist does not possess these 3 qualities then there will be minimal improvement no matter how many ‘techniques’ are used.