"...In my early professionals years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?"

-- Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person


About Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) is truly the central figure in the humanistic orientation. Rogers' person-centered theory emphasized the concept of "self-actualization." This concept implies that there is an internal, biological force to develop one's capacities and talents to the fullest. The individual's central motivation is to learn and to grow. Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master then, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities, views about life. Life, therefore, is an endless process of creatively moving forward, even if only in small ways. Regarding "self-actualization," Rogers wrote:

"During a vacation weekend some months ago I was standing on a headland overlooking one of the rugged coves which dot the coastline of northern California. Several large rock outcroppings were at the mouth of the cove, and those received the full force of the great Pacific combers which, beating upon them, broke into mountains of spray before surging into the cliff-lined shore. As I watched the waves breaking over these large rocks in the distance, I noticed with surprise what appeared to be tiny palm trees on the rocks, no more than two or three feet high, taking the pounding of the breakers. Through my binoculars I saw that these were some type of seaweed, with a slender "trunk" topped off with a head of leaves. As one examined a specimen in the interval between the waves it seemed clear that this fragile, erect, top-heavy plant would be utterly crushed and broken by the next breaker. When the wave crunched upon it, the trunk bent almost flat, the leaves were whipped into a single line by the torrent of water, yet the
moment the wave had passed, here was the pant again erect, tough, resilient. It seemed incredible that it was able to take this incessant pounding hour after hour, day after night, week after week, perhaps, for all I know, year and year, and all the time nourishing itself, extending its domain, reproducing itself; in short, maintaining and enhancing itself in this position which, in our shorthand, we call growth. Here in this palmlike seaweed was the tenacity of life, the
forward thrust of life, the ability to push into an incredibly hostile environment and not only hold its own, but to adapt, develop, and become itself."

Rogers' quote speaks to his fundamental assumption that human beings, as well as all living beings, are driven to grow and to strive for optimal health, and this require resiliency in the face of adversity. There is a decided 'John Wayne' radical individualism inherent in Rogers' thought -- very American, very rugged, very tough, and, certainly, very culturally biased in this respect, not to mention gender-biased in that it tends to downplay interpersonal
interdependence. On the other hand, Rogers admits that such a resiliency necessarily develops from the nurturance of others.

For Rogers, "self-actualization" is a natural process, yet it requires the nurturance of a caregiver. This is a contradiction in Rogers' theory, which may or may not be obvious. If "self-actualization" is merely a natural process, then why must it depend on a caregiver for it to occur? In defense of Rogers, this paradox at least shows that, despite his individualistic bias, he understood deep down that people need people, that we are radically dependent on others
for our existence, and that so-called "individuation-separation" involves a more differentiated and mature relationship with others rather than a lack of interdepedence with others. In any case, Rogers felt that "unconditional positive regard" is necessary for "self-actualization." That is, human growth requires the experience of being valued for oneself regardless of the degree to which specific behaviors are approved or disapproved. On the other hand, self-actualization is thwarted by "conditional positive regard" -- when acceptance is dependent on the positive or
negative evaluation of a person's actions. "Conditional positive regard," Rogers felt, leads to "conditions of worth," which, in turn, can lead to alienation from true feelings and, thus, to anxiety and threat, which blocks self-actualization.

Roger's theory led him to practice a non-directive psychotherapy in which the client sat face-to-face with him rather than lying on the couch. In the larger scheme of things, I feel this was a radical move by Rogers. Most importantly, it sends a message to the client that they are collaborators and that the therapist is not the one who 'knows,' but is there to facilitate the client's growth (which can only come from 'within,' so to speak). Finally, Rogers held to the strict
criteria that genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard are essential on the part of the therapist if the client is to be healed and "self-actualize."

Rogers grwo up in a family with close family ties. His family was very religious and emphasized the value of hard work. Rogers was the 4th of 6 children and he was a rather quiet child who spent a lot of time reading. During Rogers' first two years of college at University of Wisconsin, he studied agriculture. However, after attending a religious conference, he decided to enter the ministry and changed his major to history, which he thought would better prepare him for a career as a minister.

 Rogers had a profound experience in his Junior year of college when he was selected to go to China for an international World Student Christian Federation Conference. He recalled that the experience forced him to broaden his mind, and he came to realize, he said, "that sincere and honest people could believe in very divergent religious doctrines." For the first time, he began to doubt his parent's strict religious worldview and realized he could not agree with them. Rogers entered the very liberal Union Theological Seminary, where he and his peers would meet regularly to conduct seminars outside of their coursework. Rogers recalled that this was personally liberating and moved him to develop his own philosophy of life. It also influenced him to choose a different career. Rogers felt that questions as to the meaning of life, and the possibility of the constructive improvement of life for individuals, would probably always interest him, but he could not work in a field where he would be required to believe in some specified religious doctrine. His beliefs had already profoundly changed, and he expected them to continue to change. He said it would have been "horrible to have to profess a set of beliefs, in order to remain in one's profession." He preferred a career which would allow him more freedom of thought.

Rogers felt himself drawn to child guidance work, and with little effort, he began to see himself as a clinical psychologist. He was granted a fellowship at the Institute for Child Guidance, sponsored by the Commonwealth Fund. There he learned a psychodynamic, Freudian orientation to therapy, which he found to be quite at odds with his former training in what he called "the rigorous, coldly objective, statistical point of view" he'd had in college.

When Rogers finished his fellowship, he landed a job as a psychologist in the Child Study Department of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in Rochester, New York, where he would spend the next 12 years of his life. Rogers came to value this experience very highly. Profound experiences with children and their parents began to test his assumptions and eventually led Rogers to the original ideas that would evolve into his person-centered approach. Rogers later got a job at Ohio State as a full professor, and over a decade later, moved to the University of Wisconsin.  Over the years he managed to compile an impressive amount of writings and research, to which we now turn.

One brief way of describing the change which had taken place in Rogers from his experience at Rochester was to say that in his early professional years he was asking the question, How can I treat, or cure, or change this person?  He later phrased the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?

Rogers felt that he could not be of help to troubled people by means of any intellectual or training procedure.  No approach which relies upon knowledge, upon training, upon the acceptance of something that is taught, was of any use.  It is possible to explain a person to himself, to prescribe steps which should lead him forward, to train him in knowledge about a more satisfying life.  But such methods, Rogers felt, are futile and inconsequential, based on his experience.  The most they can accomplish, he said, was some temporary change, which soon disappears, leaving the individual more than ever convinced of his inadequacy.

The failure of any such approach through the intellect had forced him to recognize that change appears to come about through experience in a relationship. Rogers outlined what he felt were three essential conditions for a therapeutic relationship:

 1) Genuineness

Rogers found that the more genuine he was in the relationship, the more helpful it would be.  This means that the therapist needs to be aware of his own feelings, in so far as possible, rather than presenting an outward facade of one attitude, while actually holding another attitude at a deeper or unconscious level.  Being genuine also involves the willingness to be and to express, in one's words and one's behavior, the various feelings and attitudes which exist in one's self.  Rogers found this to be true even when the attitudes he felt were not attitudes with which he was pleased, or attitudes which seemed conducive to a good relationship.  It seemed extremely important to be REAL.

 2) Acceptance

As a second condition, Rogers found that the more acceptance and liking he felt toward a client, the more he was willing to create a relationship which the client could use.  By acceptance, Rogers meant a warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth--of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings.  It means a respect and liking for him as a separate person, a willingness for him to possess his own feelings in his own way.  It means an acceptance of and regard for his attitudes of the moment, no matter how negative or positive, no matter how much they may contract other attitudes he had held in the past.  This acceptance of each fluctuating aspect of this other person makes it for him a relationship of warmth and safety, and the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.

 3) Understanding

Rogers also found that the relationship was significant to the extent that he feel a continuing desire to understand--a sensitive empathy with each of the client's feelings and communications as they seem to him at that moment.  Acceptance, Rogers felt, does not mean much until it involves understanding.  It is only as one UNDERSTANDS the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to the client, or so weak, or so sentimental, or so bizarre--it is only as one sees them as the client sees them, and accepts them and the client, that the client feels really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of his inner and often buried experience.  This FREEDOM is an important condition of the relationship.  There is implied here a freedom to explore oneself at both conscious and unconscious levels, as rapidly as one can dare to embark on this dangerous quest.  There is also a complete freedom from any type of moral or diagnostic evaluation, since all such evaluations are, Rogers believed, always threatening.

Rogers writes:
"Thus the relationship which I have found helpful is characterized by a sort of transparency on my part, in which my real feelings are evident; by an acceptance of this other person as a separate person with value in his own right; and by a deep empathic understanding which enables me to see his private world through his eyes.  When these conditions are achieved, I become a companion to my client, accompanying him in the frightening search for himself, which he now feels free to undertake." (On Becoming a Person)

Rogers felt that the individual will discover within himself the capacity to use this relationship for growth.

Rogers' experience led him to the conclusion that the individual has within himself the capacity and the tendency, latent if not evident, to move forward toward maturity.  In a suitable psychological climate this tendency is released, and becomes actual rather than potential.  It is evident in the capacity of the individual to understand those aspects of his life and of himself which are causing him pain and dissatisfaction, an understanding which probes beneath his conscious knowledge of himself into those experiences which he has hidden from himself because of their threatening nature.  It shows itself in the tendency to reorganize his personality and his relationship to life in ways which are regarded as more mature.  Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive toward self-actualization, or a forward-moving directional tendency, it is the mainspring of life, and is, in the last analysis, the tendency upon which all psychotherapy depends.

In On Becoming a Person, Rogers lists 10 Questions to Ask One's Self as a Therapist to assure that one is creating a helpiing relationship:

1) Can I BE in some way which will be perceived by the other person as trustworthy, as dependable or consistent in some deep sense?
 --Not rigidly consistent, but dependably real

2) Can I be expressive enough as a person that what I am will be communicated umabiguously?
 --Forming a helping relationship with one's self: self-acceptance

3) Can I let myself experience positive attitudes toward this other person--attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, respect, interest?
 --The issue of "professional distance"

4) Can I be strong enough as a person to be separate from the other?  Can I be a sturdy respecter of my own feelings, my own needs, as well as his?
 --Not fearing loss of self

5) Am I secure enough with myself to permit him his separateness?
--A study by Farson found that the less well adjusted and less competent counselor tends to induce conformity to himself, to have clients who model themselves after him.  On the other hand, the better adjusted and more competent counselor can interact with a client through many interviews without interfering with the freedom of the client to develop a personality quite separate from that of the therapist.

6) Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does?  Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it?

7) Can I be acceptant of each facet of this other person which he presents to me?  Can I receive him as he is?  Can I communicate this attitude?  Or can I only receive him conditionally, acceptant of some aspects of his feelings and silently or openly disapproving of other aspects?

8) Can I act with sufficient sensitivity in the relationship that my behavior will not be perceived as a threat?

9) Can I free him from the threat of external evaluation?
--the more one 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.

10) Can I meet this other individual as a person who is in process of BECOMING, or will I be bound by his past and by my past?  If, in my encounter with him, I am dealing with him as an immature child, an ignorant student, a neurotic personality, or a psychopath, each of these concepts of mine limits what he can be in the relationship.
--Martin Buber, the existentialist philosopher has a phrase: "Confirming the other."

Buber writes:
"Confirming means...accepting the whole potentiality of the other...I can recognize in him, known in him, the person he has been...CREATED to become...I confirm him in myself, and then in him, in relation to this potentiality that...can now be developed, can evolve."

If I accept the other person as something fixed, already diagnosed and classified, already shaped by his past, then I am doing my part to confirm this limited hypothesis.  If I accept him as a process of becoming, then I am doing what I can to confirm or make real his potentialities.


Carl Rogers - Where No Psychologist Went Before
Carl Rogers and Informal Education
Rogers bio
Person-Centered Therapy -- Carl Rogers
Rogers at The Stress Doctor
Carl Rogers -- His Theory
Excerpt from Carl Rogers' On Becoming a Person
"An Analysis of Carl Rogers' Theory of Personality" by Dagmar Pescitelli
"Rogerian Therapy" by Dagmar Pescitelli
"Reflections on Being a Psychotherapist" by Brent Dean Robbins
"Putting Ourselves Out of Business: Implications of Levinas for Psychology" by Brent Dean Robbins
"A Brief History of Psychoanalytic Thought" by Brent Dean Robbins
"Client-Centered Therapy" by Matthew Ryan
"Client-Centered Therapy - What Is It? What Is It Not?" by Barbara Temaner Brodley
"Understanding the Person-Centered Approach to Therapy" by Godfrey T. Barrett-Lennard
"Empathy Toward Client Perception of Therapist Intent" by Jo Cohen
"A Client-Centered Psychotherapy Practice" by Barbara Brodley
"Instructions for Beginning to Practice Client-Centered Therapy" by Barbara Brodley
"...Responding to Questions and Requests In Client-Centered Therapy" by Barbara Brodley
"...Psychoanalytically-Developed Concepts..." by Barbara Brodley
"Carl Rogers and Transpersonal Psychology" by John Keith Wood
"Actualization" by Jerold D. Bozarth & Barbara Temaner Brodley
"Client-Centered Play Therapy" by Julius Seeman
"The Person Centered Approach to Conflict Transformation" by Jere Moorman
"You Can't Feel Your Thoughts" by Ferdinand van der Veen
"Core Principles of the Person Centered Approach" by Ferdinand van der Veen
"The Person-Centered Approach and Spirituality" by S. B. Schwarz & J. Schwarz
"A Counter-Theory of Transference" by John M. Shlien
"The Person of Tomorrow" by Richard Bryant-Jefferies
"Humanism as an Instructional Paradigm" by Ralph G. Brockett
"Natalie Rogers' Person-Centered Expressive Therapy Institute" by Claire Ginther
Association for the Development of the Person Centered Approach
British Center for the Person Centred Approach
Center for the Studies of the Person
Ruth Sanford Home Page
Allan Turner's Person Centred Web Site
KBC Pastoral Care Resources

Recommended Books

The Martin Buber-Carl Rogers Dialogue : A New Transcript With Commentary
by Martin Buber, Carl R. Rogers, Rob Anderson, Kenneth N. Cissna
Our Price: $8.95

On Becoming a Person : A Therapist's View of Psychotheraphy
 by Carl R. Rogers, Peter Kramer (Introduction)
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A Way of Being
by Carl R. Rogers, Irvin D. Yalom (Introduction)
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The Psychotherapy of Carl Rogers : Cases and Commentary
by Barry A. Farber (Editor), Debora C. Brink (Editor), Patricia M. Raskin (Editor)
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Positive Regard : Carl Rogers and Other Notables He Inspired
by Melvin Suhd (Editor)
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Between Therapist and Client : The New Relationship
by Michael Kahn
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Humanistic Psychology
by John B. P. Shaffer
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