I have however come to believe that in spite of this bewildering horizontal multiplicity, and the layer upon layer of vertical complexity, there is perhaps only one problem. (...) It seems to me that at bottom each person is asking, "Who am I, really? How can I get in touch with this real self, underlying all my surface behavior? How can I become myself? (Rogers, 2004, p.108).
In this article, this fascinating question asked by Rogers will be answered following the therapeutic approach proposed by the founder of person-centred psychotherapy. A brief definition of therapy will be offered along with the basic regulatory mechanism underlying many human experiences.
Carl Rogers (1902 - 1987) was an American psychologist, born and raised in a hardworking and Christian family. After majoring in Psychology, one of his experiences with mainstream psychotherapy was a feeling of alienation, not being able to reconcile what some theories proposed and his actual encounters with clients. This led him to conceive and develop a new psychotherapy framework, the person-centred approach, also known as the Rogerian approach after its founder and considered to be the best example of humanistic psychology (Cloninger, 2018). The basic tenet of this approach is that every human being contains within the capacity to grow and become the best version of himself. As Rogers himself would say:
For the client, this optimal therapy would mean an exploration of increasingly strange and unknown and dangerous feelings in himself, the exploration probing possible only because he is gradually realizing that he is accepted unconditionally. (...) And as he lives these widely varied feelings, in all their degrees of intensity, he discovers that he has experienced himself, that he is all these feelings. He finds his behavior changing in constructive fashion in accordance with his newly experienced self. He approaches the realization that he no longer needs to fear what experience may hold, but can welcome it freely as a part of his changing and developing self (Rogers, 2004, p.185).
Therapy is a group of activities undertaken to improve aspects of one’s current existence. When life gets challenging, individuals face the challenge with their resources and skills. Sometimes they are successful, other times they are not. But when the amount of challenge and difficulty of one’s life is unbearable, the individual looks for help outside of this inner circle of resources. The bottom line is that sometimes reality challenges an individual’s existential compass, that element which always points to the best way to conduct one’s life. This compass is influenced by all the experiences lived by a person: all of them have left a mark, sometimes for the better, other times, not.
The challenge arises when this compass does not know where to point. In other words, there is no available explanation and interpretation of the challenging experiences. In many cases, what therapy does is help to make sense of those experiences. It provides a new framework of reference, a new perspective which differs substantially or in crucial aspects from our current perspective. People navigate the world with mental representations of it, but the world is complex and people's ability to consider all the variables in the world is limited. When the mental representations within do not cohere with the world outside, the world will find a way to make that clear. Sometimes in a rather painful way.
People who have been in love can relate to this experience easily. In the famous TV show: How I Met Your Mother, the protagonist —Ted Mosby— realizes that he is in love with Robin. However, things were not easy between them and many times Ted was rejected by the beautiful woman. The consequences were devastating for Ted, for sure, but from a psychological perspective what happened was that Ted had one mental representation of the world: the one in which he can be with the woman he loved from the first moment they met. Reality suddenly made him realize that there was something wrong with his conceptualization and, therefore, in order to lead a good life, Ted had to make some changes to that conceptualization (How I Met Your Mother, 2005). Although one can think about Ted as an adult person, capable of dealing with this experience, unfortunate as it may be, there are other challenging experiences and other “incomplete” mental frameworks that do not allow this easy transition from one place to the other. It is not an easy job to be in one place one day and, all of a sudden, to be in a completely different one.
From an outsider's perspective, one could say that this realization, however hurtful, is good. It is not a good idea, however, to jump so easily to this conclusion. This is not a simple matter. The mechanism: incorrect framework, then new experience, then readjusting of framework, and then happy life, is not a correct conceptualization of how it happens. Emotions and motivations should not be ignored, and they will be decisive in the process (Panksepp, 1998).
The issue with the readjustment of one’s framework is that many times it can be a self-defeating readjustment. If a child is living with ambivalent parents, meaning that they are loving and amorous sometimes, and distant and cold other times but with no precise pattern, the child is bound to be lost in the relationship with their parents. They would not know if the love, or the lack of love, they are the recipients of is the product of their actions or inactions. They will be lost about one of the most important topics in developmental psychology (Petersen et al., 2014).
In this case, an adult with all their capacities would not face many problems: they have enough cognitive and emotional resources to face this experience. This is not the case with a child. The scarcity of their resources and the incipiency of their existential compass will lead them to be disoriented and to arrive at conclusions that may stay with them for the rest of their lives. Indeed, the relationships that a child develops with their parents, unless challenged otherwise, are crucial because they would work as a blueprint for the relationships the child, and eventually the adult, will develop in their future (Xia et al., 2018). This is not, of course, an undeniable law, but it does have a certain influence.
In the face of such an undesirable situation, when the existential compass has lost its north, many people look for help in therapy: conversations between two people in which both of them promise each other to be sincerely devoted to the calibration of their existential compasses. In fact, there cannot be a therapeutic relationship in which the patient is the only one that changes.
This therapeutic process, however, is not a fixed template because the schools of thought in psychotherapy are numerous (Otte et al., 2016). A discussion of which of them is the best is outside the scope of this article, and, though many of them have shown some level of success, the following paragraphs will present some of the main aspects of the client-centered therapy, also called the Rogerian perspective, after its creator Carl R. Rogers.
When Rogers started to offer therapeutic services, he realized many times that people did not fit into the narrative of the psychological theories available at that moment. One of his cases was a pyromaniac young man, and Rogers offered a Freudian interpretation for his unhealthy tendency towards fireworks. As time went by, Rogers kept realizing that the patient's condition did not improve. Disappointed but with a true desire to help this patient, Rogers decided that the best approach was to really be there for the person, without theories and excessive interpretations. Instead, Rogers decided to really listen, to pay attention to everything and to give the best possible advice. Soon, the realization was that, the more attention given to theoretical interpretations, the less attention the patient received. This outcome could not be good (Cloninger, 2018).
This repeated experience led Roger to establish a different kind of therapy, one orbiting always around the client. This was the beginning of the client-centered therapy, and though its name is quite self-explanatory, there are a few features that make the therapy richer and deserve further explanation. According to the Rogerian approach, two people need to be in psychological contact; one of them (the client) should be in a vulnerable state; the other (the therapist) must be congruent during the whole relationship; the therapist should experience unconditional positive regard for the client; and, as a result of this, the therapist’s positive regard leads to an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame and to be sure that the client becomes aware of it (Cloninger, 2018).
One of the quotes from Rogers that best describes the unconditional positive regard is the following:
People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds (Rogers, 1995).
To unconditionally accept a person does not mean to approve all the person has done or does. Whereas approval reflects a more definitory state of existence, acceptance allows some room for change. In the pyromaniac's case, to approve would imply to say that the behavior did not need change; to accept, instead, would imply that the behavior was part of the client experience, no more no less. Another quote by Rogers clarifies the nature of acceptance:
I shall assume that the client experiences himself as being fully received. By this I mean that whatever his feelings—fear, despair, insecurity, anger, whatever his mode of expression—silence, gestures, tears or words; whatever he finds himself being in the moment, he senses that he is psychologically received, just as he is, by the therapist. (Rogers, 2004, p. 130).
Together with the unconditional positive regard, the therapist should manifest congruence in actions and words. The patient has to perceive that everything the therapist says comes from the same place. This means that the therapist should be coherent. What is expressed in speech should be confirmed in behavior, and even in facial expressions. Rogers said:
When I am experiencing an attitude of annoyance toward another person but am unaware of it, then my communication contains contradictory messages. My words are giving one message, but I am also in subtle ways communicating the annoyance I feel and this confuses the other person and makes him distrustful, though he too may be unaware of what is causing the difficulty. When as a parent or a therapist or a teacher or an administrator I fail to listen to what is going on in me, fail because of my own defensiveness to sense my own feelings, then this kind of failure seems to result. It has made it seem to me that the most basic learning for anyone who hopes to establish any kind of helping relationship is that it is safe to be transparently real. (Rogers, 2004, p. 51).
If in a given relationship I am reasonably congruent, if no feelings relevant to the relationship are hidden either to me or the other person, then I can be almost sure that the relationship will be a helpful one. (Rogers, 2004, p. 51).
These two aspects of the therapeutic process will lead the client to understand aspects that have been previously repressed, to integrate better these elements, to become more like the ideal version of the person, to become more self-directing and self-confident, to become more unique and self-expressive, more understanding and acceptant of others, and to cope better with the problems of life (Rogers, 2004, p. 38).
The Rogerian approach to therapeutic change relies on two basic human processes: acceptance and congruence. In other words, love and truth. This approach has influenced most of our current speech about self-esteem and self-acceptance. The way it has permeated our society is one proof of its validity. Human beings need a basic degree of acceptance of their experience. In some cases, even the most fundamental needs become secondary to this need for acceptance. This is the case, for example, of the Harlow experiment, in which two different monkey mother dolls were placed in separate cages with one real baby monkey each. One of the mother dolls was made of wood and wire whereas the other was made of foam rubber and soft terry cloth. It turned out that the monkey with the wood and wire mother showed more anxious behavior than the monkey with the foam rubber and soft terry cloth mother. This shows that the manifestation of affection is not something we can dispense with, but a fundamental animal/human experience (Harlow et al., 1965).
Rogers summarized the quid of his therapeutic approach with Kierkegaard’s dictum: “to be that self which one truly is”. This exploration of one’s true nature is not restricted to the psychotherapeutic setting but is encouraged to be extended further, to other aspects of human experience.
“It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. Yet the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming.” (Rogers, 2004, p. 196).
The more the client gets acquainted with their true self, the more they appreciate it and accept it. The Rogerian approach is a reminder that every experience has some value and everyone wants to understand this value. The task is to discover it with the help of a supportive and truthful relationship.
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