Carl Ransom Rogers developed a robust humanistic psychological theory and therapy that established him as a preeminent exponent of and eloquent spokesperson for psychology’s third force (humanism). In doing so he transformed the ways in which the counseling process is conceptualized and conducted. He embarked upon an ambitious experimental campaign to subject his theoretical and therapeutic ideas to empirical scrutiny and testing. He also sought to apply his humanistic philosophy to other substantive areas of inquiry (e.g., education and international relations). Most contemporary counseling psychologists acknowledge the central importance of the core conditions in therapeutic change. Many of Rogers’s ideas about the counseling process, once considered revolutionary, now influence or have been integrated into today’s practice of counseling throughout the world. His seminal ideas have vastly enriched and expanded our vision about personality functioning and change and will continue to fruitfully influence and affect counselors and clients for countless generations to come.
Education and Career
Rogers obtained his B.A. in 1924 from the University of Wisconsin, and his M.A. in 1928 and Ph.D. in 1931 from Columbia University. He served as a psychologist at the Rochester Guidance Center (1928-1939), professor of psychology at the Ohio State University (1940-1945), professor of psychology and Executive Secretary of the Counseling Center of the University of Chicago (1945-1957), and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin (1957-1963). He concluded his career with appointments at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute from 1964 to 1968 and the Center for the Studies of the Person from 1968 to 1987. He received a Distinguished Scientific Award in 1956 and Distinguished Professional Contribution Award in 1972 from the American Psychological Association.
Rogers’s most enduring contribution to counseling was his client-centered (also referred to as person-centered) approach. To best understand his system, three areas require attention: (1) the client-centered view of disturbance, (2) the therapeutic conditions of personality change, and (3) the process of therapeutic change.
The Client-Centered View of Disturbance
Clients who come for counseling experience some type of disequilibrium. This is the product of conflict, tension, and distress, which result from dishonesty with self. At its most fundamental level, Rogers viewed disturbance as originating in an individual’s losing trust in his or her “self.” As this occurs, individuals begin to distort, deny, or inauthenticate their own experience of the world, and over time to separate increasingly from that fully, freshly felt experiencing of self and the world. Rogers used the term incongruence to capture this idea of the discrepancy between one’s self and one’s experience. As incongruities emerge, increase further in magnitude, and become incorporated into everyday functioning, the individual operates more on a basis of “what I should be” or “who I must be” than on a basis of “who I am.”
Rogers’s belief in humanity was eminently positive, optimistic, and proactive. He believed that each person possesses an inherent tendency to fully develop his or her capacities, a process Rogers termed self-actualization. Though life experiences can derail this tendency, this “great upward striving” still calls to us. Clients may express this in myriad ways: “Something doesn’t feel right,” “I don’t believe that I’m being true to myself,” “I really think I’m selling myself short,” “I don’t like it when I do that.” Clients experience that something is wrong (e.g., conflict, tension, or distress), they sense that this involves a compromise of self (e.g., incongruity, discrepancy, or dishonesty), and they wish for a better adjustment (actualization). The antidote for these disturbances lies in reconnecting clients with their authentic selves; reestablishing the process of their listening to, valuing, and trusting their innermost selves; and setting them on the path to becoming fully functioning individuals.
The Therapeutic Conditions of Personality Change
For Rogers, the key question in the therapeutic relationship was: How can the counselor provide a relationship that the client can use for personal growth? That question expressed Rogers’s heartfelt conviction that the counselor provides a helping, facilitative relationship that has the potential to liberate clients from their incongruous, unactualizing way of being. When that helping, facilitative relationship is provided, clients will use it to help themselves grow. Clients are capable of personal growth in a counseling relationship characterized by three core conditions: empathic understanding, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness.
Empathic understanding is often defined by the phrase “walk a mile in my shoes.” Rogers advocated that counselors (metaphorically) crawl into the skin of their clients, to see as they see, to think as they think, and to feel as they feel. By profoundly understanding their clients, communicating that understanding, and facilitating further and deeper exploration, counselors open the way for clients to begin listening to and understanding themselves. For Rogers, being empathic was the core facilitative condition that freed clients to use the counseling relationship to grow.
Unconditional positive regard (also referred to as nonpossessive warmth, respect, liking, acceptance, and prizing) is an appreciation of clients for who they are. It also involves a positive respect for and acceptance of the client’s immediate experiencing. In the words of Thomas Harris’s popular 1969 book, I’m OK—You’re OK, positive regard involves genuinely feeling and communicating to clients that they are “OK.”
Genuineness (also referred to as realness, congruence, and transparency) entails honestly being yourself in the counseling relationship. The counselor puts up no front or faqade. Genuineness involves honesty, expressed with sensitivity, compassion, and appropriateness. Although genuineness is difficult to define concretely, when present in a counseling interview, its salience is incontrovertible, its presence palpable, and its power miraculous.
The Process of Therapeutic Change
Rogers’s conception of the therapeutic change process has been likened to peeling an onion—taking off one layer at a time. The therapeutic change process cannot be rushed. Therapeutic change takes time. Each client’s needs must be considered and respected, and a program of change must be charted accordingly. Clients should be allowed to proceed at the pace that promotes optimal growth and learning. Generally, personal growth involves the development of the self from more general and undifferentiated to more specific and differentiated; from blocked to unblocked; from less open to more open; from more distant to more immediate; from less responsible to more responsible; and from compromised function to full function.
Rogers conceived of the therapeutic process as involving seven stages. Clients in the first stage refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists and are unwilling to talk about anything other than external generalities. This is typical of involuntary clients. In stage two, clients perceive problems to be of external origin and fail to recognize their own personal contribution. A limited acceptance of their feelings and some freer self-expression occurs in stage three. In the next stage clients become more present focused, further accept and own their feelings, and begin to evidence some self-responsibility; self-acceptance and self-responsibility are further enhanced in stage five. The clients’ internal communications are clear, their perceptions of their experiences are sharp, and their focus is pre-sent oriented in the penultimate stage. The final stage of counseling is characterized by the highest levels of immediacy and openness to experience, and by the emergence of self-acceptance and self-responsibility.
- Rogers, C. R. (1942). Counseling and psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-103.
- Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of science: Vol. 3. Formulations of the person and the social context (pp. 184-256). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Rogers, C. R. (1970). Carl Rogers on encounter groups. New York: Harper & Row.
- Rogers, C. R. (1972). Becoming partners: Marriage and its alternatives. New York: Delacorte Press.
- Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.