The Therapy of Carl Rogers

Are Our "True Selves" Lurking Beneath?written by Jeffrey Thayne
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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

The Sickness

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.

The Cure

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.

Summary

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.

  1. Carl Rogers.” Wikipedia. []
  2. Carl Rogers. On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1961, p. 54 []
  3. Ibid., p. 54 []
  4. Ibid, 106 []

References

Big, Take-away Ideas

  1. The sickness: Human beings are hiding their true selves behind facades, in order to escape evaluation and judgment.
  2. The cure: An environment of unconditional positive regard. The person must feel safe from any kind of judgment or evaluation.
8
comments so far
  1. Very interesting, especially since LDS-oriented therapy is heavily influenced by Rogerian therapy. Allen Bergin, who can be considered the “granddaddy” of therapy in the Church, was more or less trained in the Rogerian school, and even worked with him (as well as Albert Bandura)for a while. In addition, the massively influential Stephen Covey (one of Bergin’s associates) was very much in the Rogers/Maslow camp. I’ve read some of your concerns about therapy in general, and I’m curious as to which school (if any) you subscribe to. Or do you believe that therapy in general is in opposition to the gospel?

  2. Wow, this has been a serendipitous experience coming across your blog. I was searching for some Rogers quotes for a reply to a LinkedIn thread.

    If you visit my blog you will see that I’m very much at variance with your outlook :) and I think that is fine. One sentence in your final paragraph really surprised me: “I’m going to show why I believe Rogerian theory and therapy is entirely at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I guess I’m curious as Terry above is, whether you think all therapy is bad or whether you particularly feel Rogerian counselling is bad and some other type is good? I feel that all therapy has some good within it, but I participially feel that Rogers approach is the best way forward for LDS therapists.

    I’m curious as to how much of Rogers work you have read and studied. Early on you say that “Rogers believed that nearly everyone was mentally ill to some degree”. I have never read that kind of thought in any of his works. Maybe I’ve missed that? If so can you please give a quote to back up your thoughts?

    Yes, he did teach that congruence is something that many people struggle with. He also taught that congruence was vital to a more fulfilled life. He taught that things are not so black and white as your article seems to imply.

    From what you have written it gives the impression that Carl is just wanting everyone to be and do as they wish and want regardless of others. If that was what he was proposing then yes I could see that as perhaps being interpreted as being at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, that is not what he taught. A superficial reading may give that impression.

    I’ve worked with members, finding the person-centred approach very appropriate. As people become more aware of their inner self, they are more able to feel the Spirit guiding them and leading them to Christ. As D & C 84: 45 – 47 – “For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is blight, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit. And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father.”

    It is not about, in your words: “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.” I feel you are putting your own spin on Rogers teachings to make them seen at odds, when they are not actually so.

    In my studies to become a person-centred counsellor I under took person-centered counselling and it has enhanced rather than detracted from my living the gospel. It has opened my mind and being to things that I would have been closed to before. So, I wait with deep interest your further posts on Rogerian counselling. Maybe we can learn from each other?

  3. Both Terry and Neil,

    If I were to subscribe to a particular school of therapy, I would call it “agency theory,” and it would be based off of self-betrayal theory, as described by Terry Warner, Terry Olson, the Arbinger Institute, and others. Unfortunately, the theory hasn’t been expanded into a full therapy yet, and so there is much work to be done articulating just how self-betrayal theory should be used with clients in therapy.

    I’ll be posting the next article in this series soon, so keep watch! =)

    Neil,

    Abraham Maslow and Sigmund Freud both describe peak human functioning as something near non-existent amongst ordinary folks. For example, from Maslow’s perspective, few, if any of us, ever actually fulfill our need for self-actualization, much less those needs that are prepotent. Maslow came right out and said that, for this reason, no human being is perfectly psychologically healthy. To that extent, every human being can be treated and helped by a good therapist.

    The point is that therapy, from Maslow’s and Freud’s perspective, is not for the outliers (the really psychotic, the mentally disturbed, the psychologically imbalanced), but for everyone. No one is at peak human functioning—and we are all lacking in just the kind of way that a therapist can help with.

    I don’t have a quote where Rogers says that. But like Maslow and Freud, Rogers also believes that few to no people are living a life completely congruent with their inner selves, and to that extent everyone is living false to their inner selves in some way. Like Freud and Maslow, Rogers also believed that therapy is for everyone—not just the outliers among us. We can all be helped by therapy. That’s what I meant by my comments in the article. Sorry if that was unclear.

    As far as client-centered therapy helping individuals to listent to the Spirit and come unto Christ—I suspect that is a spin-off of Rogers’ ideas. I don’t suspect that Rogers himself would suscribe to such an interpretation. Neither do I—I believe that to the extent that clients learn to listen to the Spirit, we are teaching them to look beyond themselves and to a higher power. We aren’t teaching them to look inward, we’re teaching them to look outward and upward. We are teaching them to listen to the still small voice of the Ultimate Other, which I believe is very different from turning inward and seeking “the self one truly is,” which is what Rogers helps clients to do. But I’ll get into that, and why I frame it that way, in much more detail later in this series.

    Now, I think there are certainly ways we can talk about Rogerian therapy that make it superficially compatible with the Gospel—and perhaps make it much more benign that Rogers’ original ideas—but I feel like doing so requires papering over foundational differences. But I’ll explore that in great detail in subsequent articles in this series. In the next post, I’ll be providing quite a bit more textual evidence to support the “spin” I put on Rogers’ ideas, and I’ll show in great detail why I interpret his writings the way I do. So far I have at least four or five more articles planned for this series, so keep coming back and adding your thoughts!

    I hope you don’t get impatient with my conceptual promissory notes. =)

  4. Jeffrey,

    You’re right that Rogers himself did not talk of helping people to become more aware of the Spirit. That is I suppose my interpretation of what I have seen occur with clients that I have counselled with. Perhaps too my take is more on what is today regarded as client or person-centred counselling, which may have a slightly different slant to that of Rogers’ initial theories. So maybe in your articles it might be worth pointing out that you are talking solely about Rogers and not the current thinking of what constitutes person-centred counselling? Or are you thinking of current trends too? Perhaps the way I work is not strictly a Rogerian way, but a personal adaptation to my own way of working and the clients I see?

    Have you read any of Brian Thorne’s books? He counts himself a person-centred therapist/counsellor and I see very much a Christian approach is his writings. There are some differences that LDS counsellors might not hold to, but in general I feel his writings are very helpful in applying and living a person-centered life.

    Over all I’m not sure I really disagree with your reply. Agency is imperative. I see person-centred counselling as a way of helping people become more aware of their agency and increasing their ability to use it wisely. I’m wondering if we will really be in agreement, and are using different ways to say and mean, in essence, the same things?

    Happy to wait until your next article gets written. It is always best to take time with such writing, rather than rush out an incomplete work.

  5. I’ll look into Brian Thorne’s books. I’m interested to see what his approach is. =)

    Have you read Terry Warner’s, “Bonds that Make Us Free”? In my mind, that’s a must-read for any LDS counselor or therapist. For a shorter read, though, “What We Are” by Terry Warner is a great summary of his ideas. You can find it from BYU Studies.

  6. I’ve heard of Terry’s book, but have not yet read it. I’ll first take a read of the shorter article.

    Here are some of Brian’s books. Have read them all apart from the last one, which has only been recently published and is a compilation of some of his previous main writings, some from books, others from lectures he has given. He co-started the http://www.norwichcentre.org/ based in Norwich, England. They provide low cost counselling, plus training for counsellors. A very brief summary of Brian’s involvement in counselling, from http://www.alisonleonard.co.uk/briant.htm

    Brian Thorne – A secular priest?
    Brian Thorne was born in 1937, the only child of a butcher’s assistant in Bristol. From 1974 until his semi-retirement in 1997 he was Director of Counselling at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he continues as director of the Centre for Counselling Studies. He co-founded the Norwich Centre, committed to the person-centred approach to therapy of Carl Rogers, and wrote a study of Rogers’ life and work. He also holds appointments in Paris and Vienna. A member of the Church of England, he has offered mediation and group facilitation to the church in conflict situations. He has recently been appointed to Lay Chairman of the Bishop’s Council in the Diocese of Norwich.

    “Good Friday 1946. I was nine…. I’m not entirely sure what was going on inside me, but what I do know is that I was completely overwhelmed, and I ran home. I just ran. Went up to my bedroom, and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I don’t know for how long. All I know is that from that day onwards I knew that I was infinitely loved.”

    “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have access to the Eucharist for any length of time. It enables me to feel that closeness to God, a kind of internalisation of God, a taking of the divine into me, that is absolutely critical. The other thing is the attempt to see in other people that which is of Christ.”

    A partial recommended (by me :) )book list:

    Mystical Power of Person-Centred Therapy: Hope Beyond Despair

    Person-Centred Therapy Today: New Frontiers in Theory and Practice

    Behold the Man: A Therapist’s Meditations on the Passions of Jesus Christ

    Counselling and Spiritual Accompaniment: Bridging Faith and Person-centred Therapy

  7. The next article in this series has been posted. I haven’t gotten into why I disagree with Rogers’ ideas yet, but I give some more details about the Rogerian approach to therapy.

  8. Two parts of this post really stick out.

    One is the description of the necessary environment free from judgment. I don’t see Rogers, or other person-centered practitioners, arguing for the complete absence of evaluative standards. In fact, most person-centered therapy I see utilizes confrontation and challenging unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. However, in order for a person to accurately unpack the cultural and personal factors influencing their choices, they really need to feel safe enough to vulnerable. Looking at our implicit beliefs can be painful and embarrassing. I see the unconditional positive regard as creating a safe space to explore those aspects of my life, not so much for creating space for me to do whatever I want. I think Rogers recognized the reality of making judgments and evaluating behavior. The goal though, was to help individuals consciously make those judgments based on their own values.

    I’m also unclear about the idea of everyone needing therapy. You explain why Humanists like Maslow would say we all do. I don’t see how that is any different than the Gospel.

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