Maritha on Counseling

Maritha Pottenger

As we return to our examination of therapists, we reach a man who has led a long, active and growthful life: Carl Rogers. My view of Carl Rogers has evolved with my exposure to him. The first time I saw Carl Rogers was in Cuernevaca, Mexico—at an International Humanistic Psychology Conference. On the way to the conference, I chatted with a woman beside me on the bus. She announced breathlessly: “I’m here because I LOVE Carl Rogers!” For a few split seconds, I believed she was unveiling an illicit affair. Then I realize her love was not of the sort yearning for physical consummation. However, I think the exchange led me to pay closer attention to Carl Rogers when he spoke.

Before this, I had seen Carl Rogers in a movie on therapy. He had struck me as a sweet, little, old white-haired man. I had not been impressed by his book, Client-Centered Therapy. (I gave up on it as too boring after a chapter or two.) In Mexico, Carl Rogers was still sweet, little and white-haired. He also was clearly emotionally committed to life, growth and change. I then read his book On Becoming Partners and was charmed. Here was warmth! Here was openness and sharing! Gone was the dry pedant who had bored me in Client-Centered Therapy. Here was a caring human being: a man one could love!

I saw Carl Rogers at another psychology conference with his daughter Natalie (and her daughter). He was expanding his concepts to include feminism. Reading between the lines, I felt I could see his chagrin and embarrassment at not having from the start been fully equalitarian in terms of sex roles. Clearly the political/intellectual support of women’s rights was there. Clearly also, he and his daughter had had some heavy times working through to a space where she could discuss what it meant to her to be Carl Rogers daughter, and yet be raised with sex role scripting! (A contradiction in terms: restrictive conditioning coming from one of our age’s foremost humanistic psychologists!) Rogers hung in there, even though he appeared uncomfortable at times.

It was about this time that I realized: Carl Rogers LIVES his philosophy. He is a growing, changing individual. I have seen a little of his evolution personally and more through his books. I have tremendous admiration and appreciation for the man. I think he is one of the best human beings around. Many therapists, many astrologers, many healers are wonderful and convincing with the answers for others, but fall short in applying those answers to their own lives. Carl Rogers promotes growth and change in himself as well as others.

The central thrust of Carl Rogers’ (client-centered) approach is a respect for the potential of the individual. Self-actualization (an instinct to grow, evolve, improve) is a basic philosophical assumption. Rogers has quoted Lancelot Whyte:

“crystals, plants and animals grow without any conscious fuss, and the strangeness of our own history disappears once we assume that the same kind of natural ordering process that guides their growth, also guided the development of man and of his mind and does so still!”

Or, as Rogers himself says (on page 128 of Corsini):

“I have little sympathy with the rather prevalent concept that man is basically irrational, and that his impulses, if not controlled, will lead to destruction of others and self. Man’s behavior is exquisitely rational, moving with subtle and ordered complexity toward the goals his organism is endeavoring to achieve.”

Rogers defines self actualization as: “This is the inherent tendency of the organism to develop all its capacities in ways which serve to maintain or enhance the organism.” (p.196, Rogers, 1959)

Unfortunately, the drive for self-actualization is often hindered by one’s training and conditioning. A need for positive regard from others is also assumed to be universal in human beings. Children learn to feel lovable and acceptable under certain conditions. They tend to assimilate some of these conditions into their self-images. Thus, children learn to value experiences that enhance this self-image, even though some of these experiences may actually diminish the child. Societal training can oppose self-actualizing tendencies. Rogers says,

“Estrangement of conscious man from his directional organismic processes is not a necessary part of man’s nature. Instead, it is learned, and learned to an especially high degree in Western civilization. The satisfaction or fulfillment of the actualizing tendency has become bifurcated into incompatible behavior systems. This dissociation which exists in most of us is the pattern and basis of all psychological pathology in man.” (p. 131 Corsini)

Children, and adults, experience this conflict between learned way of being and the innate drive towards perfectibility. Often the conflict is felt on a visceral level. People can perceive things on a less than fully conscious level. Rogers calls this process subception (following the lead of McCleary and Lazarus.) People may have difficulty in translating that into awareness and action. The role of therapy, for Rogers, is for people to reclaim their self-actualization drives, their inner wisdom, their wholeness. He has called psychotherapy the “releasing of an already existing capacity in a potentially competent individual.” (p. 221, Rogers 1959)

Rogers further defines that certain conditions in the therapeutic relationship make it more likely the client will reclaim her/his self-actualizing capacity and overcome the internalized restrictions. The conditions clients need to perceive in the therapeutic relationship are: genuineness or congruence; accurate empathic understanding, and unconditional positive regard.

Genuineness is being in touch with one’s feelings, thoughts, inner experiences and not masking it with a role or facade. One’s words and emotions are in agreement. Therapists do not send mixed messages. (E.g., “I love you” in words, and “I hate you” in body language.) This does NOT mean the therapists give a running commentary on all their reactions to the client. But the therapists attempt to stay fully present, to themselves and the client. Therapists are aware of the interaction between themselves and clients. They do not burden their clients with all their feelings, but do express those which persist.

In terms of empathy, the therapist attempts to immerse her/himself in the client’s inner world. By using awareness of the self, a therapist can often deepen and carry further the words, feelings of a client.

Unconditional positive regard is a non-possessive caring, an acceptance of the individuality of the other. This follows logically from the Rogerian faith in the inner wisdom of self-actualization. Therapists believe clients can discover for themselves resources and directions to take in growing. They make a point of not advising, not directing clients. They attempt to maintain a non-judgmental stance. They do not interpret, pose probing questions, reassure or criticize clients. Transference is not a major issue with clients in Rogerian style therapy. These therapists believe that by feeding back their experience of a client, in a supportive manner, the client can grow in acceptance of him/herself, and integrate more fully her/his various sides.

Clearly, these are interdependent qualities, as Rogers says:

“In the first place, the therapist must achieve a strong accurate empathy. But such deep sensitivity to moment-to-moment ‘being’ of another person requires that the therapist first accept, and to some degree, prize the other person. That is to say, a sufficiently strong empathy can scarcely exist without a considerable degree of unconditional positive regard. However, since neither of these conditionals can possibly be meaningful in the relationship unless they are real, the therapist must be, both in these respects and in others, integrated and genuine within the therapeutic encounter. Therefore, it seems to me that genuineness or congruence is the most basic of the three conditions.” (p.126, Corsini)

Readers of this column will recognize genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard as very close to Carkhuff and Berenson’s findings that genuineness, respect, empathy and concreteness facilitate successful therapy. Rogers and Carkhuff have shared research endeavors. Carl Rogers has long been committed to empirical testing of therapy theories. He and others have completed many studies of factors in various therapeutic outcomes. Their research bears out the importance of therapist empathy, caring, and genuineness. The client-centered approach has hundreds of studies to back it up.

Rogers also recognizes the subjectivity of the world. The genuineness, empathy and positive regard of the therapist must be perceived by the client to be effective. Rogers notes:

“...all perception (and I would add, all awareness) is transactional in nature, that is, it is a construction of our past experience and a hypothesis or prognosis for the future. ... When we perceive, ‘This is a triangle,’ ‘that is a tree,’ ‘this person is my mother,’ it means that we are making a prediction that the objects from which the stimuli are received would, if checked in other ways, exhibit properties we have come to regard, from our past experience as being characteristic of triangles, trees, mother.” (p. 133, Corsini)

Rogers assumes people develop a sense of self and a self-concept. They also have an ideal self: an image of how they would most like to be. Often, people find their self-perception at odds with their ideal self, or at odds with their experience. They may feel confused and anxious. They defend by distorting the experience (to more closely fit their images and concepts). They may deny the experience, in whole or in part. They may be overly rigid or subject to what Rogers calls “intensionality.” This refers to over-generalizing, being dominated by concepts or beliefs (rather than facts), not anchored in space and time, confusing fact and evaluation, and relying on abstractions rather than testing against reality.

The therapist’s role is to aid clients towards less defensiveness, being more open to experience (including ones that do not mesh with our self image, etc.) Rogers and others feel that the therapist’s being supportive, open and non-judgmental creates an environment where clients can face anxieties and conflicts. Clients can bring up issues they feel repugnance for and feel acceptance and understanding from the therapists. This aids clients in accepting and integrating all aspects of themselves, even ones they would initially reject or deny. By allowing, the therapist helps her/his clients to allow themselves.

Or, as Buber has quoted Lao-Tze:

“To interfere with the life of things means to harm both them and one’s self. He who imposes himself has the small manifest might; he who does not impose himself has the great secret might... The perfected man does not interfere in the life of beings, he does not impose himself on them, but he helps all beings to their freedom... Through his unity, he liberates their nature and their destiny....” (p. 119, Corsini)

(One can feel, in the flavor of this, why Rogers first called his therapy “non-directive.”)

Rogers defines mature behavior as exhibited by people who perceive realistically, are not defensive; accept responsibility for being different from others; accept responsibility for their own behavior; evaluate experiences in terms of the evidence from their senses; use facts over concepts; evaluate in multiple ways; are aware of different levels of experience; are aware of a space-time anchorage to face; test their inferences and abstractions against reality; change their evaluation of experience on the basis of new evidence; accept others as unique individuals different from self; prize others; prize themselves.

A goal of therapy is to enhance maturity. Carl Rogers certainly exhibits a high level of maturity in his life and work. Here is a man who listened and learned from what he said to others. May we all do as well!


l. Meador, Betty D. and Rogers, Carl R., “Client-Centered Therapy,” IN: Corsini, Raymond, Editor of Current Psychotherapies, Itasca, Ill., F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc, 1973.

2. Rogers, Carl R., Client-Centered Therapy, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1951.

3. Rogers, Carl R., On Becoming Partners: Marriage and Its Alternatives, New York, Delacourte, 1972.

4. Whyte, Lancelot, The Unconscious Before Freud, London, Tavistock Publications, 1960.

Copyright © 1981 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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