Recap of the series so far
In this series, I would like to discuss the contributions of Carl Rogers to our modern-day worldview. As far as therapists are concerned, Carl Rogers is second only to Freud in terms of fame and influence. What does this mean? It means that you and I have probably been deeply affected by Rogers’ ideas, even if we have no clue what they are. The writings of famous scholars often find their way into the public discourse and everyday “common sense” without us consciously knowing their origins.
In this article, I’m going to explain who Carl Rogers was, and the basics of his theory about human beings. I hope that by doing so, I can lay the conceptual foundations we need to launch a critique of his ideas and how they are applied in our lives. I want to emphasize that I don’t believe this, I just want to explain how the world looks through Rogers’ eyes.
Who was Carl Rogers?
Carl Rogers was born 1902, and for the first part of his career, he was a younger contemporary of Freud. However, in contrast to the work of B.F. Skinner
and other behaviorists, he rejected deterministic models of human behavior. People were people, he insisted, and formulated what he called a “person-centered approach” to therapy. Therapy was successful, he argued, to the extent that therapists recognize the genuine personhood of their clients. Clients were not stimulus-response organisms, nor were they the product of behavioral conditioning. Among his accomplishments, he became the president of the American Psychological Association, was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, and popularized the humanistic school of psychological thought.1
Like Freud and Maslow, Rogers believed that nearly everyone was mentally ill to some degree. Freud, Maslow, and Rogers believed that illness is not something you compare to a norm—rather, normality itself is a potential symptom of mental illness. Freud believed that nobody was completely free of potentially troubling psychological defense mechanisms. Maslow believed that few, if anyone, had their needs satisfied and were self-actualized individuals. Likewise, Rogers believed that human experience, for most ordinary people, was lacking in some significant way. None of us are living at “peak” functioning.
What is the problem that ordinary human beings experience? According to Rogers, it is because none of us are truly being ourselves. This is the crux of the matter: virtually every single person on earth is putting on a facade of some kind. We are all pretending to be something we are not. We’re all fakes, to some degree, being disingenuous with the world about who we really are. And to the extent that we do this, we can never be truly happy, or truly experience life freely.
Why do we do this? Because of scrutiny. We are scrutinized by others on a daily, hourly basis. We are threatened by external judgments from those around us. Rogers explains:
In almost every phase of our lives—at home, at school, at work—we find ourselves under the rewards and punishments of external judgments. “That’s good”; “That’s naughty.” “That’s worth an A”; “That’s a failure.” “That’s good counseling”; “That’s poor counseling.” Such judgments are a part of our lives from infancy to old age.2
We’re constantly being evaluated, and that hurts us. And it’s not just negative evaluations that threaten us, either. We are threatened by both good and bad evaluations. Rogers explains, “Curiously enough, a positive evaluation is as threatening in the long run as a negative one, since to inform someone that he is good implies that you also have the right to tell him he is bad.”3
So what do we do? We hide. We cover up who we really are and put on a facade. That way, our facade carries the brunt of all the evaluations and scrutiny, while our real self hides safely undiscovered by the world (and likely even ourselves). The facade acts as a shield. And according to Rogers, this is psychologically unhealthy—and to the extent that we all do this, we are all psychologically “under the weather.”
Part of the “true selves” which we hide behind a facade includes any and all inner desires that we might ignore, suppress, or hide for fear of external evaluation or judgment. In short, we all behave in “socially acceptable” ways, despite the fact that our true selves might want or wish to do differently. We are suppressing our true desires (and therefore our true selves) in the service of societal expectations.
I want to reiterate the main point here: According to Rogers, each and every one of us has a true self lurking beneath the person we present to the world, and this true self includes whatever forbidden, hidden desires we are currently ignoring or pretending aren’t there. And for this reason, we are being false with ourselves and with the world and living an incomplete life.
According to Rogers, client-centered therapy can help. The therapy experience can be a small safe haven, of sorts. He explains, “When a person comes to me, troubled by his unique combination of difficulties, I have found it most worthwhile to try to create a relationship in which he is safe and free.”4 Safe and free from what? Any and all scrutiny and evaluation. The client must feel absolutely no evaluation from the therapist. Rogers called this “unconditional positive regard.”
This doesn’t mean that there are constant positive evaluations from the therapist, such as, “You’re great!” or, “You’re behavior is perfectly fine.” This would imply that the therapist had a right to provide negative evaluations, and this means the client must still remain vigilant. Constant positive evaluations would imply that the therapist’s response depends on good behavior. Rather, the therapist must convince the client that he has no right to evaluate in either direction, nor will he do so, and that he will simply be there for the client no matter what. The positive regard is unconditional and unqualified—entirely independent of the client’s thoughts, desires, or behavior.
In this environment (and only in this environment), according to Rogers, clients can slowly emerge from their facade and reveal their true selves to the therapist. The therapist and the client will discover and explore the client’s true self together, as a team. As the client discovers his true self, he will begin to live more freely (at least in the context of the therapy session). He will begin to discover who he really is. The theory is that the experience will begin to bleed into the rest of the client’s life. Slowly but surely, his public self and his true self will begin to merge and become congruent. Slowly he’ll set down the facade and begin to live as he truly is.
In summary, according to Rogers, human beings are hiding behind facades, presenting a socially acceptable version of themselves while smothering and hiding their true selves. Because this is caused by constant external scrutiny and evaluation, the cure is to provide individuals an environment of unconditional positive regard—a safe haven for them to explore who they really are.
In the next post, I’m going to delve a little bit more into the process of Rogerian therapy and how clients learn to “embrace their true selves.” Then in the following post, I’m going to show how Rogerian theory has pervaded everyday thinking in ways that may surprise many people. Finally, I’m going to show why I believe Rogerian theory and therapy is entirely at odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That may be a strange claim, but I hope to present plenty of evidence to support it. For now, I just want to set the stage by explaining what Rogerian therapy is.
Big, Take-away Ideas
- The sickness: Human beings are hiding their true selves behind facades, in order to escape evaluation and judgment.
- The cure: An environment of unconditional positive regard. The person must feel safe from any kind of judgment or evaluation.