Rogers and the Modern Worldview

How does Rogerian psychology affect us today?written by Jeffrey Thayne
5Comments
recap
click here to see a recap of the series so far!

Recap of the series so far

According to Carl Rogers, we are all hiding pieces of our true self behind a facade, to protect ourselves from evaluation and scrutiny. This is psychologically unhealthy. In order to address this, Carl Rogers recommends that therapists provide clients with a safe environment by providing "unconditional positive regard." This safe environment allows the client's true self to emerge. When the client's true self emerges, he will move away from the "oughts" and expectations that have guided his life so far, and fully embrace himself as he is, rather than as others wish him to be. He will bring his life and his inner desires into congruence, and embrace his inner desires as part of his internal identity.

At this point in the series, many people might respond, “Ok, that’s all well and good—but how does this effect me? I’m not going to therapy, and so I don’t need to grapple with Rogerian ideas.” This isn’t true. We are all affected by Rogerian ideas, and most of us probably haven’t fully realized the extent to which Carl Rogers has shaped modern thought. I would dare to say that few, if any, psychologist has had greater impact in our modern worldview than Rogers. Rogerian theory has extended far beyond therapy. His theories have spawned innumerable pop-psychology and self-help books, whole movements in education and political thought, and in so doing has affected the way you and I talk about the world.

Let’s consider some examples.

Unconditional Love

An educational leader and scholar named A.S. Neill was enamored with Rogers’ ideas, and sought to apply them in an educational context. He founded a private school based on the idea that children need to be free from the impositions of moral standards and from evaluation and scrutiny. One of the founding philosophies of his school was that: “[P]arents are spoiling their children’s lives by forcing on them outdated beliefs, outdated manners, outdated morals. They are sacrificing the child to the past. This is particularly true of those parents who impose authoritative religion on their children just as it was once imposed on them.”1

In Neill’s worldview, the imposition of moral values and expectations in schools was seen as inescapably stifling to children. This is a direct extension of Rogers’ assertions that evaluations of parents teach children to hide their true selves from the world. If such is the case for parents, it is certainly true of teachers as well. Neill maintained that “the eternal imposition on children of adult conceptions and values is a great sin against childhood.”2 Furthermore, he argued that “children do not need teaching as much as they need love and understanding. They need approval and freedom to be naturally good.”3

Parents and educators, on this model, should always be vigilant to “not disapprove of their children’s misbehavior, because to children ‘disapproval means hate.’”4 The obvious implication of such a claim is that approval means love.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that, true to this implication, “The cumbersome term positive regard was eventually replaced and popularized with the more simple and commonly understood term love.  The meanings of unconditional love and unconditioned positive regard are essentially the same.”5 Ultimately, McKee argues, “The bandwagon response unconditional love received has even found its way to the pulpit and Sunday School classes.  This acceptance has added to its popular appeal a kind of religious zeal and consequently an informal theological sanction.”6

In short, the idea of “unconditional love” is largely the product of the Rogerian worldview. I do believe that authentic love—love unfeigned—means that one does not stop loving someone who misbehaves. God’s love for us is not contingent upon good behavior, and neither should our love for others. I’m simply saying that the idea that unconditional love—defined as a love that doesn’t ever judge, evaluate, rebuke, or admonish—is not an idea that originates in the scriptures, but largely in Rogerian thought.

Moral Expectations Experienced as Hate

Another consequence of Rogerian humanism is that authentic love has, in many ways in our modern world, come to be seen as incompatible with expectations, “oughts,” and moral accountability. The way we see the world affects our experience of the world. Because experience is filtered by perception, individuals with a Rogerian worldview may often experience themselves as “loved” when they are in an environment where there is no hint of moral expectations or evaluations of the individual’s actions and attitudes, and when they are freely allowed to express and act on their desires without fear of scrutiny or moral judgment from others. In addition, as a consequence of this Rogerian idea, many people have learned to experience themselves as “hated” if and when their actions are evaluated by others. In short, informing someone that they are misbehaving, or that their actions constitute sin, is often received today as an act of hate.

Here’s one example: many individuals who engage in same-sex activity may experience themselves as “hated” when they are told that God does not approve of their actions. They may experience themselves as hated when they feel evaluated by priesthood leaders, family, friends, or fellow church members because of their behavior. They may experience themselves as hated when they are expected to abide by moral standards external to themselves, particularly when those moral standards conflict with what they have been taught to conceptualize as a crucial part of their self-identity (see below). This influence of Rogerian psychology on the discourse is illustrated, for example, in a 2010 blog post titled, “Mormons Hate Gay People.”7 Google searches reveal hundreds of similar examples. Invariably, people conclude that Mormons hate gay people because LDS church leaders have taught that the law of chastity will always forbid acting on same-sex attractions. Hate is defined and conceptualized in Rogerian terms as “any act of disapproval or evaluation of someone’s life choices.”

This intrusion of Rogerian vocabulary, with its redefinition of love and hate, makes meaningful conversation on the subject of same-sex attraction difficult. It biases conversation against those who uphold and teach the law of chastity, because any moral imposition—particularly one that forbids acting on sexual attractions that we, rightly or wrongly, experience as so central to our nature—is perceived as incompatible with the kind of love and compassion we strive so diligently to express towards every child of God.

Inner Desires and Personal Identity

In our modern age, we often define our personal identity by our inner desires. This is at least in part due to Rogers’ beliefs that our true selves find expression when we are allowed to express, experience, and own the desires that we usually suppress because of the religious and moral beliefs handed to us by our families, churches, and society. Those desires are part of who we are—and to deny them is to deny our personal identity.

This idea is often reflected even in popular media. In the Disney movie Mulan, for example, Mulan feels trapped by the expectations of her parents and society. She feels asked to “play a role” (which, in ancient theater, often meant literally putting on a facade or a mask) in a play scripted by society. “Can it be,” she asks (in one of the most repeated songs of the film), “I’m not meant to play this part?” She asks this because her inner desires differ from what her parents desire for her (and from what society expects from her). If she was meant to play that role, wouldn’t she be built to desire it? Therefore, what her family wants for her isn’t her: “Now I see that if I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.” She frames her inner meditations as a search for her true self. She asks, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” In this scene, in a very Rogerian sort of way, Mulan literally wipes off a facade (made of makeup) from her face.

This Disney film represents perfectly one the assumptions of modern society (which are grounded in Rogers’ ideas): who we are inside is defined by what we desire, and those desires are part and parcel with our internal identity. Now, I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that Mulan, or anyone, should just go along with whatever her parents or society has planned for her. I’m simply suggesting that the idea that our true identity is defined by our inner desires is at least partly informed by Rogerian ideas.

Again, another salient example is found in the way we often talk about same-sex attraction. For example, if an individual desires to have sex with member of the same sex, that desires is part of who they are. In modern rhetoric, to refuse to act on that desire is to refuse to be himself, or to refuse to embrace a part of himself. He is “cutting off” part of himself, and truncating his personal identity. This idea also fuels the idea (described above) that teaching people not to act on their same-sex desires is conceptualized as a form of hate. That’s because when we tell someone they should act on their desires, from a Rogerian perspective, we’re telling them to not be themselves. We aren’t just forbidding certain behaviors, we’re forbidding them as a person.

Pathologizing Guilt

Guilt is what happens when we see that our attitudes and behavior don’t measure up to a given (usually external) standard. We feel guilty because we feel a discrepancy between what we actually do and what we ought to do. And we measure whether we’ve done right or wrong often by standards we’ve learned from our parents, from church, or from society. Rogers argued that individuals who experience unconditional positive regard move away from oughts, and stop comparing their behavior to these external standards. In this way, Rogers has pathologized guilt. Guilt, for Rogers, is a symptom of someone who hasn’t yet experienced the therapeutic transformations Rogers observes in his clients.

True to form, it seems that in our modern age, guilt is seen as always an unnecessary burden, always to be alleviated as soon as possible. We are taught that guilt should never be a motivation for our actions, and that people who make us feel guilty for what the ways we’ve acted are simply trying to manipulate us. We are taught that guilt is just one of the many “puppet strings” that others pull to make us do things that we’d rather not. It’s simply a way that we are controlled from outside of us. We never want people to feel uncomfortable with their behavior.

Again, another example comes with the issue of same-sex attraction. There are many good, faithful, Latter-day Saint individuals who experience same-sex attraction, but who live a chaste lifestyle. They don’t act on their same-sex attractions, they attend church, and they’ve found solace and hope through the atonement of Jesus Christ. What I find interesting, however, is an almost across-the-board reluctance amongst them to endorse the law of chastity as something everyone should live (despite the fact that Christ Himself has done so).

For example, I’ve heard several people say something to the extent of, “I’ve found happiness in living the law of chastity and turning to Christ. For that reason, I know it’s possible to find happiness this way.” But when they are asked, “Do you think everyone should live the law of chastity?”, they often respond, “That’s not for me to say. I’ve found happiness following this path, but I can’t say that everyone should or will. I don’t want anyone to feel judged or guilty if they make a different choice than I do.” The implication here is that righteous living is a personal lifestyle choice that we make because it works for us, but it isn’t something we should encourage everyone to do—because doing so might make them feel guilty (or judged) if they choose a different path. It seems that the common thread is that guilt is the enemy, and evaluation of someone’s behavior (of any kind) is a cruelty.

Conclusion

These are just four of many ways that Rogerian psychology has had a tremendous impact on the way we talk and think about the world today. I suspect that each and every one of us has encountered at least one of the above examples recently. None of us has escaped Rogers’ ideas in our everyday lives. It’s not something we can simply avoid—it’s something that we confront on a regular basis.

I want to be absolutely clear: I believe that Rogerian psychology stands directly at odds with Christianity. In the next article in this series, I’m going to present what I believe is the Gospel-centered alternative to the Rogerian worldview, and precisely why I think that Carl Rogers’ ideas directly conflict with revealed truth. We’re finally going to get to the juicy part of the series, so you have lots to look forward to!

  1. Trevor R. McKee, “Love Unconditional or Love Unfeigned: Justice and Mercy in Human Development.” AMCAP Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1986 []
  2. cited in McKee, 1986, p. 40 []
  3. cited in McKee, p. 40 []
  4. McKee, p. 40 []
  5. McKee, p. 41 []
  6. Ibid., p. 39 []
  7. http://blurbomat.com/2010/10/04/mormons-hate-gay-people/ []

References

5
comments so far
  1. These are some great examples of how Rogerian thought has spread into our culture, although they may also equally exemplify the ways in which our culture constrains the ways we view writing from a previous period.

    I think that there is a real difference between acting from a place of personal conviction and making the same choices based on socialization. The Gospel makes this distinction: a gift given without real intent is counted as evil. Choices are not evaluated in a vacuum, but in the context of each individual’s life. Not only is that distinction important to God, it also affects the very real qualitative experiences of individuals. Two people engaging in the same behavior – say, Home Teaching – may have very different experiences of behavior. Those who keep the commandments grudgingly are not as likely to find the same happiness as individuals whose motivation rises from a genuine testimony. So, I see the goal of person-centered therapy to be helping a person move from grudging compliance with standards to voluntary choices motivated by personally owned values symptoms.

    I like your observation that those of us with same-sex attraction who are happy living the Gospel hesitate to generalize our experiences to others. I believe that’s an accurate perception. Personally, I wasn’t very happy until I stopped living the Gospel because I was supposed to. My personal experiences of unhappiness while keeping the commandments was powerful evidence against the truthfulness of the gospel. I had to develop a personal testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That development required that I at least acknowledge that the standards I had been taught might be false. From that place I could choose for myself whether to believe.

    I know that the more I heard assertions from parents or priesthood leaders about what I should do, the more I resisted. Because, I knew that my experience contradicted what they were saying. When my LDS therapist honored my contradictory experience and encouraged me to explore my doubts, I actually discovered that I wanted to live the Gospel. Fully accepting my negative experiences and beliefs has allowed me to fully experience the good. So, I guess I believe the most helpful approach would be to emphasize my voluntary choice and shift the focus away from simple compliance. But I think that’s what the Savior did. He invited people. He didn’t just lay out the law and say follow it or else.

  2. Doesn’t look like you ever got around to part 4, eh?

    This has been interesting. I have read that Rogerian therapy was quite devastating to Catholic religious orders in the 60s and 70s. Your article helped me to understand how this likely worked in practice: They would bring a therapist into a convent or monastery and have everyone undergo therapy (or maybe it was group therapy), and I guess once everyone’s “true self” had been “liberated”, they would decide it was OK to jettison their vows and walk away in order to do as they pleased.

    Rogerianism though seems to be merely one symptom among many in modern Western culture, of something which I’m not philosophically literate enough to give a name, but which I’ll call relativism. My feeling, from piecing together things I’ve read, is that it started with the Protestant Reformation and snowballed from there: The idea that you didn’t need a church to tell you what to believe, you only needed yourself and the Bible, and your interpretation of the scriptures was as good as anyone else’s.

    And perhaps that grew out of the Calvinist idea of Total Depravity: If everyone is totally depraved, intellectually and morally, then no one’s judgment may be trusted — not the Pope’s or anyone’s — therefore no one may tell anyone else what is true and what is right.

    In time this attitude developed into the philosophy of Descartes, who “shifted the authoritative guarantor of truth from God to humanity” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Descartes#Emancipation_from_Church_doctrine). Truth is now subjective: We now no longer measure truth by comparing our ideas with the reality that exists outside ourselves, but each of us determines it for himself.

    When our own country was founded on Enlightenment principles, that idea was basically enshrined in our Constitution: The authority to govern is vested in the people. Therefore whatever the people say goes (so long as enough of them agree).

    It seems that Rogers’ ideas were the natural outgrowth of all this. Accordingly, it seems that many of the attitudes you attribute to his influence likely would have arisen anyway. What do you think?

  3. Interesting series. Would like to see the 4th installment.

  4. Agellius and Steve,

    The fourth, fifth, and sixth installment of this series started to overlap and replicate material we are putting together into a book, and so I decided to wait until the book draft is complete, so that I could write the series around it and avoid reproducing the content and language of the book. (prospective publishers sometimes want original material that hasn’t been already posted online)

    Email me privately if you want a private copy of an early draft of them, though. My email is the name of the blog at gmail.

  5. Very cool stuff, and a great series! I’m going to be picking your brain if I ever write the book I have in mind. In the mean time I’m adding this series to my study journal on lds.org. Very thought provoking. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply