This year marks 50 years since I first began to counsel clients as a supervised psychotherapist in training. That was at DePaul University Graduate School in the Counseling Psychology Master’s Degree program on Jackson Street in Chicago. It was the academic year of 1968-69. Our program focused on the work of Dr. Carl Rogers and his school of Client Centered Therapy. Dr. Rogers is considered one of the founders of Humanistic Psychotherapy and one of the pioneers of psychology in America. I owe much of my foundational skills of working with my clients in psychotherapy to Dr. Rogers and his ideas. Now, 50 years later, I find myself always coming back to these basic values on how to relate to my clients, that I learned in my first years of graduate training.
I would like to present some of his core insights on human nature and how people change. I hope Roger’s positive view of mental health will resonate with your own inner experience.
In his day, Carl Rogers learned that psychotherapy involved having the practitioner solve the problems of his/her patients by figuring out the hidden problems and then giving advice to fix their thinking and behavior. Rogers believed, however, that the key to healing and change was the depth of understanding and connection between the therapist and the patient. The goal of therapy was not to “fix”, but to “listen” effectively (Butler-Bowden, 2007, p. 240). He felt that the therapist must listen with acceptance and compassion to what patients were saying, even if it seemed wrong, stupid or annoying. By carefully following what a patient is saying about their feelings and listening for what meaning it had for them, the therapist helps patients to begin to understand themselves and to trust their experience of life. He believed when people have the freedom to explore and be who they really are deep inside, they will move toward healthy choices and loving relationships.
Dr. Rogers was influenced by the existential philosopher, Martin Buber, who taught we should relate to life in “I-Thou” equality versus “I-It” superiority and manipulation. Buber taught that healthy relating was sacred and that respect and caring was the key to healing ourselves and our world. Rogers believed that if patients felt valued, cared for and respected, they would begin to grapple with their problems and make changes that led to them becoming more fully who they felt they really were. They would become empowered to take more responsibility for their feelings and their lives.
On Becoming A Person
First published in 1961, On Becoming A Person was Dr Carl Rogers’ first book on his emerging theory of psychotherapy. In it, he presented the characteristics of a therapy relationship that promote growth and healing, the subjective process of becoming a healthier person, and the stages and directions taken in a successful therapy process.
The role of the therapist, or any caring person trying to help listen effectively to another person, includes several key supportive ingredients: 1. To work at being perceived as trustworthy, dependable and consistent; 2. To be congruent, real, “present”, and honest while communicating non-defensively; 3. To experience and communicate positive feelings and attitudes toward the other person, that are warm, caring, respectful, and interested; 4. To be strong enough not to lose oneself in the other person’s experiences of fear and anger; 5. To be secure enough to allow the other person to be themselves, with freedom to be different from me; 6. To be able to enter into the world of the other person’s feelings and personal meanings and see them as they do (empathetic understanding); 7. To offer unconditional acceptance of what the other person feels, so they can be safe to explore this part of themselves; 8. To avoid creating threat, evaluations, or judgments that would scare off the person from being willing to look at their conflicts and self doubts.
The subjective process of becoming a healthier person involves getting behind one’s masks, to more honesty faster. An important part of that is becoming more open to one’s feeling experience. Our feelings give us organismic feedback about how we are experiencing people and events around us and within us. To be safe, we often block our feelings because they are too scary, but by listening to our feelings we can grow and live in a healthier way in our lives. Dr. Rogers says that healthy people have an internal locus of evaluation. They pay attention to their feelings and inner evaluate feedback to make good decisions.
The direction of successful therapy includes persons moving from a remote relationship to their feelings and inner conflicts to a greater willingness to feel their uncomfortable feelings. As people grow in emotional freedom and confidence, they express their feelings more freely, increase ownership of their feelings, and live more in the present moment rather than past fears and hurts or future fears and anxieties. They are more willing to be vulnerable to the full experience of being themselves in life and trust they can handle life’s difficult moments.
In my experience of 50 years of helping people face and solve their problems, this process of self acceptance and trusting your feelings to ultimately lead you in the right direction is a vital foundation for peace of mind. Learning to be honest with yourself and others is important to maturity and character. And compassion and understanding for yourself leads to increased freedom to resolve troubles with others, and to create loving relationships.
Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) New York, NY, Charles Scribner’s Sons. (Original work published 1923).
Rogers, C. R. (1989). On becoming A person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.