The Goal of Rogerian Therapy

What does a Rogerian therapist envision for his clients?written by Jeffrey Thayne
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recap
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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.

It would actually be unfair to say that Rogerian therapy has a “goal,” except to help individuals live fully functional lives. What a fully-functioning lifestyle looks like is not prescribed by the therapist; that is chosen by the individual. To impose an external vision or goal on clients would interfere with the process of discovering the client’s true, inner self (the self one is, in the absence of externally-imposed values). In Rogers’ world, a therapist should never have a preconceived idea of how the client should approach their lives. According to Rogers, the therapist’s only job is to provide the safe environment of unconditional positive regard, which then helps unlock the client’s “true self,” whatever that true self may be.

However, Rogers observed “trends” in his clients, and described these trends in great detail. He was careful to say that these trends are not prescriptive (meaning, these trends do not prescribe or recommend a course of action), but descriptive (these trends are simply observations of what clients most often do). But while these trends that Rogers describes are not explicitly prescriptive, they are implicitly so. They therefore constitute an implicit “gold standard” for healthy therapeutic change. It’s clear that Rogers anticipates that clients will follow these paths if they experience unconditional positive regard, which he considers the cure for the ever-present incongruence between the public self and the real self.

Rogers divides these trends into movements away from and movements towards. That is, clients in a helpful therapeutic environment move ”away from” some things and “towards” other things.

Movements “Away From”

Moving away from facades, “oughts,” and expectations

Rogers believes that clients who experience unconditional positive regard will begin to abandon their facades. The client “learns how much of his behavior, even how much of the feeling he experiences, is not real, is not something which flows from the genuine reactions of his organism, but is a façade, a front, behind which he has been hiding.”1 Rogers says, “I observe first that characteristically the client shows a tendency to move away, hesitantly and fearfully, from a self that he is not.”2 When that happens, the true self emerges. Rogers continued, “It is my experience that the [client] uses [the safe environment] to become more and more himself. He begins to drop the false fronts, or the masks, or the roles, with which he has faced life.”3

Rogers also believes that clients who experience unconditional positive regard will also move away from the “oughts” that have previously governed their actions and their lives. He said, “Another tendency of this sort seems evident in the client’s moving away from the compelling image of what he ‘ought to be.’”4 As a client experiences an environment free of any and all evaluation, he will begin to discover just “how much of his life is guided by what he thinks he should be, not by what he is.”5 That is, he will discover that he thinks, feels, and behaves very differently in those moments than he normally did before. He will discover that his typical behavior has usually been governed much more by what he feels he ought to do than what he genuinely is. In those moments of discovery, clients no longer experience the “wish to be what they ‘ought’ to be, whether that imperative is set by parents, or by the culture.”6 This is very difficult for some clients. Rogers explains, “Some individuals have absorbed so deeply from their parents the concept ‘I ought to be good’ or ‘I have to be good’ that it is only with the greatest of inward struggle that they find themselves moving away from this goal”4

One of Rogers’ clients had made herself into a compliant and submissive woman in order to meet the expectations of her father. However, she didn’t want “to be that kind of person.”4 She continued, “I find it’s not a good way to be, but yet I think I’ve had a sort of belief that that’s the way you have to be if you intend to be thought a lot of and loved.”4 She was making herself something she was not, in order to meet the expectations of others in her lives. She believed that she had to mold herself to her father’s expectations in order to be loved by him. This is one of the consequences of externally applied expectations, norms, and “oughts.” According to Rogers, they make people feel like they have to change themselves to be loved. Naturally, the first thing that clients do in an environment of unconditional positive regard is move away from these “oughts” and expectations. Another one of Rogers’s clients said that, after therapy, “I finally felt that I simply had to begin doing what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do, and regardless of what other people feel I should do.”6

Similarly, said Rogers, “Many individuals have formed themselves by trying to please others, but again, when they are free, they move away from being this person.”6 In an environment of unconditional positive regard, clients realize that the social and moral expectations of others have only served to keep them from being true to themselves and their ownmost desires. Societal organizations such as school, church, and family, create expectations of how individuals are to believe and feel and behave. Rogers explains, “Over against these pressures for conformity, I find that when clients are free to be any way they wish, they tend to resent and to question the tendency of the organization, the college, or the culture to mould them to any given form.”7 To clarify, the true self—that person whom we really are, but are hiding from the world—is not the same person we see and berate in the mirror. The version of ourselves we see in our mind’s eye is not the “true self” Rogers is describing—because at our core, we are not the horrible things we often think of ourselves. It is the imposition of external values that make us think of our true, hidden selves as horrible.

In short, Carl Rogers believed that clients who experience unconditional positive regard will most often find themselves abandoning façades, liberated from external expectations and oppressive “oughts,” and thereby more willing to live in ways that are true to their inner wishes and desires. Rogers clearly considers these positive changes in an individual.

Movements “Towards”

Moving towards autonomy, openness to experience, and acceptance

Rogers believed that clients who experience the safe haven of Rogerian therapy will also move towards greater autonomy in their lives. By this, Rogers means that clients will begin to choose their own goals, rather than simply accepting goals imposed on him by family, church, or society. He will no longer steer his life based on external instruction, but based on his own internal compass. In this way, the client “becomes responsible for himself.”8 He doesn’t do what he feels he ought to do if his personal desires conflict with those “oughts.” This is because internal conflicts between one’s desires and ones “oughts” are usually the consequence of an externally-imposed conscience, rather than one’s internal compass.

In the end, Rogers explains, “Less and less does [the client] look to others for approval or disapproval; for standards to live by; for decisions and choices.”9 The client “decides what activities and ways of behaving have meaning for him, and what do not,”8 rather than letting external institutions inform those meanings. In Rogers’ view, the client comes to create for himself his own values, desires, and goals, and learn to eschew the attempts of others to define such goals and values for him. As clients become “fully-functioning persons,” according to Rogers, they discover that they and they alone are the determiner of value in their own life-spaces. This is what it means to move towards autonomy. Rogers wrote:

I have come to feel that the more I can keep a relationship free of judgment and evaluation, the more this will permit the other person to reach the point where he recognizes that the locus of evaluation, the center of responsibility, lies within himself. The meaning and value of his experience is in the last analysis something which is up to him, and no amount of external judgment can alter this. So I should like to work toward a relationship in which I am not, even in my own feelings, evaluating him. This I believe can set him free to be a self-responsible person.10

In addition, because fully-functioning persons no longer measure their conduct, their attitudes, or their beliefs against external standards, they “move toward more openly being a process, a fluidity, a changing. They are not disturbed to find that they are not the same from day to day, that they do not always hold the same feelings toward a given experience or person, that they are not always consistent”8 Clients who undergo this therapeutic transformation will embrace changes in perspective, opinion, and attitude. They do not commit themselves to particular position, except only tentatively. They come to discover that their personal identity can be a moving target, but they come to terms with that.

Further, rather than rooting out and repairing the internal contradictions in their character, clients begin to embrace themselves and all of their internal contradictions. Rogers explains, “One of the most evident trends in clients is to move toward becoming all of the complexity of one’s changing self in each significant moment.”11 In addition, clients begin to feel as if they can openly embrace all of their experiences—even those experiences that are frowned upon by the social, religious, or cultural context in which they happen to find themselves. For Rogers, only as the client “experiences such a hitherto denied aspect of himself in an acceptant climate can he tentatively accept it as a part of himself.”12  Through this process, clients can come to realize, for example, that urges and desires that they’ve been trained to ignore, control, or hide are in fact deeply important parts of their personal identities.

Finally, the client learns to openly accept those around him—that is, he begins to engage in the same kind of empathic relationships with others that the therapist has engaged in with him. “As a client moves toward being able to accept his own experience,” Rogers said, “he also moves toward the acceptance of the experience of others. He values and appreciates both his own experience and that of others for what it is.”13 The fully-functioning person, then, is one who ceases to evaluate the choices, actions, attitudes, and experiences of others, and instead begins to embrace others in the same kind of warm, empathic, and accepting manner demonstrated by the Rogerian therapist in the first place. As we experience unconditional positive regard, we stop judging, evaluating, critiquing the choices of those around us.

In short, Carl Rogers believed that clients who experience unconditional positive regard will become more autonomous—that is, they will see themselves as the determiner of right and wrong in their own lives. In addition, they will be more open to changes in their personality and belief systems, and more accepting of the choices of others around them.

Summary

In summary, Rogers argued that providing a safe and accepting atmosphere of unconditional positive regard frees individuals from the fear of scrutiny and evaluation, allowing the their true self to emerge. Rogers writes:

Let me see if I can state more concisely what is involved in this pattern of movement which I see in clients, the elements of which I have been trying to describe.  It seems to mean that the individual moves toward being, knowingly and acceptingly, the process which he inwardly and actually is.  He moves away from being what he is not, from being a facade. … He is increasingly listening to the deepest recesses of his physiological and emotional being, and finds himself increasingly willing to be, with greater accuracy and depth, that self which he most truly is.14

During this process, individuals abandon their facades and move away from external “oughts” that have previously governed their lives. In addition, they become more morally autonomous—they do not let others dictate right and wrong for them. They become more accepting of the choices of others. They begin to create an environment of unconditional positive regard for the others in their lives. In short, individuals are enabled to transform themselves in ways that are often quite contrary to who they’ve been prior to therapy, or who their parents or others wish them to be.

In the next article, I’m going to explore some ways in which Rogers’ ideas have filtered into our modes worldview, and even into the way Latter-day Saints think of their own doctrine and religious practices. In the article following, I’m going contrast Rogers’ ideas with revealed truth (at least, as I understand it), and show why I believe that Rogerian psychology is at odds with the restored Gospel.

  1. Carl Rogers. On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy.New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1961, p. 110 []
  2. p. 167 []
  3. p. 109 []
  4. p. 168 [] [] [] []
  5. p. 110 []
  6. p. 170 [] [] []
  7. p. 169 []
  8. p. 171 [] [] []
  9. p. 119 []
  10. p. 55 []
  11. p. 172 []
  12. p. 173 []
  13. p. 174 []
  14. p. 175 []

References

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comments so far
  1. Since it is Carl’s birthday as I happenstance across this post- a quote: “This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
    –Carl Rogers

  2. Wow, Jeffery. I can’t believe it’s been four years since our last discussion. A lot changes in that time, you know?

    Anyway, I’ve loved this series and I’m looking forward to the next installment. While I appreciate that Rogers himself would not have conceptualized his process as described by Neil, most of the Person-Centered Therapy that I have observed (by “secular” therapists) still tends to have the same result. The “true self” isn’t the natural man, some id-like passion driven entity. Instead, what seems to be at hand is the agentive essence of the person.

    While the first step may include rejecting the external “oughts” that have been adopted by an individual, the individual is then asked to actively engage in the process of choosing which values they accept and which voices they listen to. This process, rather than encouraging the rejection of values or judgments, actually emphasizes the conscious act of agency.

    I do believe that ultimately our experience of the Spiritual is internal. The Gospel is filled with references to the Spirit being in us, including the Light of Christ, which I think is a more accurate description for the “true self” Rogers was seeking.

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