Carl Rogers is among the small group of enlightened, visionary individuals that stand as giants in the field of psychology. Due to the theories that Rogers developed not only in psychology but in theories of education, he is considered, as Constance Holden
writes, "…one of the grand old men of American psychology and a leading figure in the postwar development of humanistic psychology" (Holden, 1997, p. 31). This paper reviews his theory of personality, his approach to therapy and the contributions he made to the field of psychology as a whole.
Rogers' Theory of Personality
Rogers' theory of personality was actually a theory that embraces providing the client with a "…roadway toward self-actualization… as an unfolding process of self-discovery and self-awareness," according to Jeffrey S. Nevid (Nevid, 2011, p. 403). Rogers believed that personality is expressed through "…conscious experience of directing ourselves toward fulfilling our unique potentials" as humans (Nevid, 403). The self is the center of the human experience, Rogers posited, and while that does not seem very original or unique as an idea, the psychologist went on to explain that "self is the executive part of your personality" (Nevid, 403). That is, the executive part of the personality -- like the executive in a corporation -- organizes things. In this case the executive part sifts out how the person relates to the world as "I" or "me" -- that individual that looks back at you in the mirror (Nevid, 403).
The self determines one's likes, dislikes, values, needs, and it includes the "…impressions you have of yourself, impressions that constitute your self-concept," Nevid continues in explaining Rogers theory of personality.
He was adamant in his assertion that a primary function of the self is to develop self-esteem, or at least "a degree of liking for ourselves"; it should not always mirror how others value us, or don't value us, he explained, hence it is "crucial for parents to bestow "unconditional positive regard" on their children no matter if the child's behavior isn't pleasing (Nevid, 403).
The problem that many individuals encounter later in life is a lack of self-respect or self-esteem, Nevid continues (404), and Rogers tried to intervene prior to children becoming adults by pointing out that too many parents only show "conditional positive regard" towards their offspring. That is, when the child behaves according to the parents' dictates, the child is given positive feedback, but only when they are behaving in "socially" and parental approved ways. Later in life the individual that has only received conditional positive regard may find his self-esteem becoming pretty "shaky," Nevid goes on (404).
And hence, in order to maintain some semblance of self-esteem later in life the individual may deny feelings and desires or even learn to wear a mask and put on "social facades to please others" (Nevid, 404). Rogers, ever the optimist, believed in the "essential worth and goodness of human nature" and he believed that people become "hurtful toward each other" only during those times when "…their own pathways toward self-actualization are blocked or stymied by obstacles" (Nevid, 404).
Rogers' Approach to Therapy
Constance Holden introduces readers to Rogers by pointing out what happened at the American Psychological Association convention in San Francisco in October, 1977, a convention that was arranged to honor Rogers on his 75th birthday. Rogers was there with his psychologist daughter Natalie, and instead of sitting behind a table on the stage, Rogers and his daughter, typical of his easy-going approach to scholarship and people, had their chairs moved down on the floor next to the audience of 800 or so people. Instead of presenting the research papers they had planned to share, they announced they were just going to talk, mainly about a "person-centered" workshop they recently gave.
Rogers believes in "communities, not conventions -- and not institutions," according to Holden's piece in the journal Science (Holden, 31). Institutions use "frozen...
Freud viewed the psyche as "a battleground of conflicting drives, including infantile and aggressive ones," Holden explains (31). Those conflicting drives needed to be "…sublimated for a maturely functioning ego," Freud believed, and he went on to assert that the psychotherapist must "dig into the [patient's] past" through analysis and the psychotherapist must fully understand the "repressed urges" before the patient can become well again (31).
Rogers, on the other hand, was far more interested in the patient's feelings and turned things around from what Freud believed; if anyone is truly the "analyst" in the therapy session, it's the patient, not the therapist, because "…only the client possesses the wisdom for his or her own growth," Holden.
As for Skinner's approach to therapy -- known as "behaviorism" -- he is quoted saying that "…Rogers wants to change things inside people, and I want to change the world in which people live" (Holden, 31). Skinner believed his theory was the "all-embracing one" Holden continues; Skinner said that "People don't act because of states they feel," but rather, he insisted, people act "…from conditions that produce those states" (31). To Holden, Skinner's approach is that the patient's behavior must be changed in order for the patient to heal, and once the behavior is changed, it will lead to a "permanent positive" transformation (31).
On the other hand, comparing Rogers' approach to therapy is to "…concentrate on supplying an empathetic environment" and in that environment the client will be "…free to express his feelings" (Holden, 31). The assumption in this genre is that the patient will change his own behavior due to the "…increased self-acceptance and self-knowledge" that the empathic environment has allowed and fostered for the patient (Holden, 31).
Moreover, the patient will benefit from three conditions the therapist fashions within the context of the therapy session. The first is "the ability to listen" -- and he is talking about "empathic listening" which entails getting "inside the world of the client" to see things as they appear to the client (Holden, 31). The second condition, "authenticity," means the therapist (or facilitator) must fully behave as "a person" with the client -- and not as a professional with all the answers -- and this allows the therapist to get deeply involved with the client's feelings as well as the client's intellect (Holden, 31). The third condition is "unconditional positive regard," which is what it sounds like: the facilitator is "non-judgmental" and makes sure the client knows that "he is accepted" which Rogers believed is the only way the client will "…begin to accept himself" (Holden, 31).
Rogers and Empathy
Meanwhile Geoff Goodman
writes in the Journal of Religion and Health that Rogers' initial approach to empathy (on or about 1959) was quite different from his later approach. His early approach entailed (Goodman quotes Rogers here) "…perceiving the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy," and in the process being certain to use the "emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person" (Goodman, 1991, p. 192). In other words, at that time in Rogers' career, to him empathy related to understanding all the client's thoughts and emotions from the client's perspective while "…at the same time keeping in close contact with one's own perspective" (Goodman, 192).
Rogers also emphasized at that time the value of maintaining an "as if" approach: the facilitating therapist sees the client's problem and identifies with it "as if" he, the therapist, were the one hurt or confused or otherwise in need of treatment. This approach though came with some risk, Goodman explains, and it was with some reservation that Rogers would allow himself to "flow in and out of the worlds of therapist and client" (192). However, by the year 1980 Rogers no longer feared becoming identified with the client's weird or otherwise confused psychological condition. His 1980 definition for empathy became more along the lines of this passage (quoted from Rogers by Goodman): Only those therapists that are "secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other" should embrace this strategy (192).
Moreover, only those therapists who can be sure of comfortably returning "…to their own world when they wish" could expect to "empathize with their clients anyway" (Goodman, 192). By 1980 Rogers' definition had three other salient aspects, Goodman continues: a) Rogers no longer held the belief that empathy is a "static state in which therapist and client exist"; rather, he believed empathy was "…a constantly changing process -- a way of being -- in a particular moment"; b) Rogers adjusted his approach, believing in his revised approach that the therapist should not only move into the client's world…
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