carlrogers.jpgCarl Rogers was a founder of humanistic psychology whose contributions to psychology and psychotherapy continue to resonate throughout the field. His theory and practice shifted the authoritarian paradigm of therapist-led psychotherapy toward a client-centered practice, which gave primacy to the client’s self-knowledge and impulses toward healing one’s own problems. In addition to radically changing therapeutic practices, Rogers applied his person-centered psychological theory to other fields including education, couples counseling, and group work within industry and governments.


The Life of Carl Rogers

It is impossible to grasp the profundity of Rogers’s contributions to the field without an overview of his formative years and his academic and professional pursuits, as his journey through life greatly influenced the scope and direction of both his theory and practice.

Born January 8, 1902 into a strict Protestant family living in Oak Park, Illinois, Rogers was an isolated loner who sought solace in academia. His family was prosperous and moved to a farm away from the “‘temptations’ of suburban life” when Rogers was twelve (Rogers, 1989, p. 8). There he developed a keen interest in science through the observation of the natural world around him and the cultivation of his family’s farmland. These experiences led him to the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture.

During his junior year of college, Rogers traveled to China as part of a youth ministry conference. While abroad, some of the rigid fundamentalism impressed upon him during his formative years diminished. Reminiscing about what he learned on his journey, in hindsight Rogers viewed this period as a time of personal growth.

It was 1922, four years after the close of World War I. I saw how bitterly the French and Germans still hated each other, even though as individuals they seemed very likable. I was forced to stretch my thinking, to realize that sincere and honest people could believe in very divergent religious doctrines. In major ways I for the first time emancipated myself from the religious thinking of my parents, and realized that I could no longer go along with them” (Rogers, 1989, p. 9).

Upon his return and the completion of his undergraduate degree, Rogers married and moved to New York City to study for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary. Ultimately, however, Rogers decided against the life of a preacher and completed a degree in clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. It was during this phase of his education that he was exposed to “the dynamic Freudian views” of the clinicians supervising his internship which starkly contrasted the “rigorous, scientific, coldly objective, statistical point of view” presented at school (Rogers, 1989, p. 10). Rogers’s evolution toward a humanistic approach to psychotherapy was clearly influenced by this clinical training and inspired him to pursue an independent, unorthodox professional career.

He moved to Rochester, New York directly after graduation from Teachers College to work in a children’s counseling center. While there, he discovered that the directive therapeutic approach in vogue at this time was not effective in the counseling room. His first book, The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939) was developed out of this early clinical work and led to an appointment to full professorship at Ohio State University. There he wrote Counseling and Psychotherapy (1942). Subsequently, in 1945, he moved to the University of Chicago, where he opened a clinic based upon his primary theoretical paradigms, which evolved into a psychotherapeutic approach called client-centered therapy, and later renamed person-centered therapy. The 1951 book, Client-Centered Therapy outlined Rogers’s distinctive therapeutic philosophy and style: the client should be free to determine her/his own therapeutic path rather than being led by a clinician toward self-awareness. This paradigm was expanded further, based upon Rogers’s many years of clinical experience in his 1961 book On Becoming a Person, published during his tenure at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Simultaneous with his work in psychotherapy, Rogers was also an educator and applied the person-centered approach to theories about education. Rogers believed strongly that graduate students learn best when engaged in learning what they are truly interested in and that institutions that are too proscriptive are doing disservice to the creative aspects of the fields of education and science-views he expressed and expanded upon in the book Freedom to Learn (1969) and later updated in Freedom to Learn for the 80s (1983).

However, Rogers chose to leave the elite world of academia in 1963, moving to California and working at the Western Behavioral Science Institute. In 1968 he helped found the Center for Studies of the Person, an organization of person-centered professionals conducting workshops, research, and activist initiatives. The mandate of the center is to:

. . . explore the richness of the Person: to help individuals discover and experience more fully in their own lives and relationships even in their organizations – the wealth of what it means to be personal. Of what it means, for example, to be private as well as to be open, of what it means to yield to others and what it means to be self-controlling.

. . . . This Center intends to experience anew and in its own life the meaning of democracy and of community. In its scientific aims, it intends to go beyond the narrow limits of existing social science methodologies. It intends to invent and submit to the public methods of study suited to the dignity and depth of its subject, being human. It will use means of knowing designed to expand a person’s hope for him- or herself. This is a center for persons. (Center for Studies of the Person, 2005).

Rogers remained active with the Center for the rest of his life, traveling internationally and facilitating groups on person-centered approaches. Through the Center, Rogers was instrumental in the development of the use of encounter groups and applied his person-centered approach to improving group dynamics in corporate, government, and international diplomatic arenas. The political implications of the person-centered approach are outlined in Rogers’s 1978 book, Carl Rogers on Personal Power. While working with the center, Rogers continued to write, both personal reflections and professional observations, until his death at age 85 in 1987.

Major Concepts of Carl Rogers

The main crux of Rogerian theory is that the human experience is unique to each individual and, if given appropriate conditions for self-exploration and inquiry, people will shed defenses (“masks” or “false selves” as Rogers called them) and gravitate toward psychological health. This core belief developed into a theory-coined Becoming a Person-which grew out of experience gained through thousands of hours in clinical practice. Thus, Rogers was an applied psychologist, following in the footsteps of Freud and Jung in his own work, using what he learned while practicing psychotherapy to develop theories about the human condition and human relationships, including the relationship of client and therapist.

Rogers wrote extensively on Becoming a Person. Primary to this theoretical construct is the belief that human beings are not static constructions or unchanging personalities, but are dynamic, ever-changing entities: the person (or self) is a process. In addition, Rogers believed in the inherent positive potentialities of all living things. Such capacity is “evident in all organic and human life-to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism, to the extent that such activation enhances the organism or the self” (1961, p. 35).

These central ideas were supported by several suppositions about the nature of the human being. First, human beings are motivated toward self-actualization, as stated above. Human beings also have personal power, or “vast resources for self-understanding, for altering self-concept, his attitudes, and his self-directed behavior” (Rogers, 1978, p. 7). Problems arise for people for whom this personal power is diminished or restricted due to domination from others, either overt (such as martial law) or covert (such as finding one’s self in a manipulative relationship). The implication for placing so much power squarely upon the individual is great; including the potential for personal, social, and political change if all persons are granted the innate ability to move toward self-actualization. As noted above, Rogers applied this theory both within the psychotherapeutic container, and in the fields of education, business, and government. Nonetheless, the primacy of the power of the individual and how that power can be realized and enhanced through the psychotherapeutic relationship is fundamental to all of the ways in which person-centered approaches have been applied.

In addition to the problems that arise when personal power is diminished, discrepancies between a perceived Ideal Self and a Real Self may lead to psychological distress. The Ideal Self is a self-concept held by an individual that may or may not accurately reflect reality. If one’s Ideal Self and Real Self are in alignment, psychological congruence is present. If the Ideal Self is out of alignment with the Real Self, incongruence occurs and is generally expressed through psychological distress.

If the individual dimly perceives such an incongruence in himself, then a tension state occurs which is known as anxiety. The incongruence need not be sharply perceived. It is enough that it is subceived-that is, discriminated as threatening to the self without any awareness of the content of the threat. Such anxiety is often seen in therapy as the individual approaches awareness of some element of his experience which is in sharp contradiction to his self-concept. (Rogers, 1989, p. 223)

Applications of Theory

Since Rogers believed that the human experience is a process rather than a product, the evolution of the self is ever-evolving and thus the unlimited human potential present in all people is ever-present. Rogers also believed that the unmasking of the incongruence between the selves was most effectively achieved in relationship. If this inherent strength can be nurtured through a relationship such as in psychotherapy, it would lead toward healing for those involved. Rogers elucidated six necessary conditions that must occur over a sustained period of time to achieve personality change.

1. Two persons are in psychological contact.

2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable and anxious.

3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.

4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.

5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.

6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved. (Rogers, 1989, p. 221)

Through this therapeutic relationship, Rogers posited that the client becomes more “integrated, more effective . . . . He changes his perception of himself, becoming more realistic in his views of self. He becomes more like the person he wishes to be. He values himself more highly. He is more self-confident and self-directing” Rogers, 1961, p. 36). This is what is meant by Becoming a Person (1961).

Rogers developed four criteria through which one could discern when one Becomes a Person:

1. Openness to Experience: his own and that around him. “It is the opposite of defensiveness” (Rogers, 1961, p. 115). This openness includes the ability to see variation of truths rather than monolithic patterns which may have caused discordance and misunderstanding (incongruence) in the past. As Rogers noted, it enables a client to “tolerate ambiguity” (Rogers, 1961, p. 115).

2. Trust in One’s Organism: “There is a gradual growth of trust in and even affection for the complex, rich, varied assortment of feelings and tendencies which exist in him at the organic level” (Rogers, 1961, p. 119). This trust leads to greater self-acceptance and reliance on one’s inner wisdom. “Consciousness, instead of being the watchman over a dangerous and unpredictable lot of impulses, of which few can be permitted to see the light of day, becomes the comfortable inhabitant of a society of impulses and feelings and thoughts, which are discovered to be very satisfactorily self-governing when not fearfully guarded” (Rogers, 1961, p. 119).

3. An Internal Locus of Evaluation: Authority lies within the self rather than in society or another person. The central question shifts from trying to live up to or please others to: “Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?” (Rogers, 1961, p119).

4. Willingness to be a Process: As stated earlier, Rogers believed the human experience is process rather than product. Thus, there needs to be recognition by the client that therapy does not end in the result of a fixed state in which problems are solved. Rather, it is the enabling of the person-as-process to be able to handle situations as they arise in each present moment and remain congruent and true to one’s self. This is the essence of “a process of becoming” (Rogers, 1961, p.122).

The Role and Quality of the Therapist

As the six criteria that facilitate psychological change listed above suggest, the relationship between therapist and client is of profound importance. Rogers was very clear in his writing to stress that within the relationship techniques and methods are less critical to successful psychotherapy than the attitudes and qualities developed by and consciously held by the therapist (Rogers, 1951). Rogers stressed that “unconditional positive regard” for the individual is tantamount among the qualities necessary for successful therapy to occur (1961, p. 239). Through this he meant that it is necessary for therapists to develop “an orientation which stresses the significance and worth of each person” as an individual capable of operating from a place of inner wisdom (Rogers, 1951, p. 21). Thus, the process of therapy should be non-directive. The core of the role of the therapist in client-centered therapy is related to the quality of the psychotherapeutic relationship:

How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth? . . . . If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur. (Rogers, 1961, pp. 32-33)

Rogers often pointed out the folly of using techniques or methods without the therapist maintaining proper attention to unconditional positive regard for the client and personal self-awareness.

The client is apt to be quick to discern when the counselor is using a “method,” an intellectually chosen tool which he has selected for a purpose. On the other hand, the counselor is always implementing, both in conscious and nonconscious ways, the attitudes which he holds toward the client . . . Thus a counselor who basically does not hold the hypothesis that the person has significant capacity for integrating himself may think that he has used nondirective “methods” and “techniques,” and proved to his own satisfaction that these techniques are unsuccessful. (Rogers, 1951, pp. 25-26)

He suggested that an effective tool a therapist may use to develop and hone her/his therapeutic process is voice recording and transcription of actual sessions. Through detailed observation, the therapist may uncover times when the therapeutic process may be derailed by unconscious personal agenda or bias, or breaks in the empathic relationship. The role of the therapist in client-centered therapy is to affirm and acknowledge the experience and feelings of the client without being directive. Rogers asserted often that if this attitudinal stance can be maintained by the therapist, change would occur for the client.

Applications Beyond Therapy

“I realize that whatever I have learned is applicable to all of my human relationships, not just working with clients with problems” (Rogers, 1961, p. 32).

Client-centered therapy and the evolution of humanistic psychology have radically altered the field of psychotherapy. But Rogers believed that much of the use of unconditional positive regard was not limited to the psychotherapeutic container. As noted above, person-centered approaches continue to be applied in a variety of settings. Most notably in the last decade of Rogers’s life, he devoted much of his time to traveling throughout the world, including Brazil, Japan, the former Soviet Union, and South Africa facilitating the training of helping professionals and organizational leaderships in person-centered approaches. The same principles applied in client-centered therapy that Rogers had found so affective proved to have direct and profound applications for regional and international conflicts.

One example of Rogers’s work on an international level was the 1985 Rust Workshop, a four-day gathering of international leaders and notable people from various fields including authors, professors, and peace activists, brought together to discuss the tensions at the time in Central America. Attended by fifty influential people from seventeen nations, the workshop utilized the processes Rogers and his staff from the Center for Studies of the Person had developed over two decades for use in encounter groups, professional training sessions, and conflict resolution settings: no set agenda for the workshop and the staff facilitated each session holding an attitude of unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1989). This work, as well as his other international peace projects, including work in Northern Ireland and South Africa led to Rogers being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize days before he passed away in February, 1987.

The legacy left by Carl Rogers continues on in multiple arenas. In honor of the remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rogers, Kirschenbaum (2004) made note of the continuing influence Rogers’s theory and practice has on the counseling and helping professions:

Moreover, Rogers’s work continues to serve as a foundation for the counseling profession (Capuzzi & Gross, 2001; Gibson & Mitchell, 1999; Gladding, 2000; Nugent, 2000). It also plays a major part in the practice of the vast number of counselors, clinical psychologists, and psychotherapists who describe their practice as “eclectic” or “integrative,” including the client-centered approach as a major component in their repertoire (Aspy, Aspy, Russel, & Wedel, 2000; Bergin & Garfield, 1994; Sharf, 2000). And it continues to exert a significant influence on numerous helping professions from social work to pastoral counseling to the health professions. (p. 123)

But Rogers’s influence extends beyond the field of psychology, just as the career of the man did during his lifetime. While some of Rogers’s critics felt that his theory was superficial (DeMott 1979), overly optimistic, and underestimated the capacity for human evil (May, 1982), the simplicity of his message and his unyielding belief in the strength and power of human potential is carried on in humanistic and transpersonal fields today (Sharf, 2000; Cowley, 1993). Rogers did not simply practice psychotherapy differently than other psychologists of his day. He instead developed an entire way of being-a lived expression of positivity and reverence for others-that changed the face of the helping professions in many ways. From this perspective, Rogers envisioned a new world, a place of peace and harmony that he did not see come to complete fruition in his lifetime, but one in which he was able to capture glimpses in the successes in counseling rooms, encounter groups, and peace initiatives. His vision began, and continued to be founded on the central principle of the strength of the individual.

This new world will be more human and humane. It will explore and develop the richness and capacities of the human mind and spirit. It will produce individuals who are more integrated and whole. It will be a world that prizes the individual person-the greatest of our resources. (Rogers, 1980, p. 356)


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