Carl Rogers on Therapy & Reconciling Internal Conflict

In 1957, Carl R. Rogers suggested six conditions were necessary for the resolution of personal conflict and restoration of effective…

Image of psychotherapist Carl R. Rogers in black and white retrieved from ThoughtCo website

Carl R. Rogers, Psychotherapist. Image retrieved from ThoughtCo

Seminal Works In Psychology

In 1957, Carl R. Rogers suggested six therapeutic conditions were necessary for the resolution of personal conflict and restoration of effective living outlined in this influential paper.

Carl R. Rogers, American psychologist was one of the founders of the Person-Centered Therapeutic Approach in psychology and a founding father of Humanistic Psychotherapy.

Rogers was aligned with Maslow’s concept of the self-actualising person and added to the humanistic approach by suggesting that for a person to grow, they required an environment of genuineness, acceptance and empathy.

He sought to redefine the relationship between therapist/patient and proposed a theory arguing that to bring about positive personality change, it must be built on mutual trust and respect.

Only then will the environment be conducive to the client bringing about change in themselves.

This point is critical to Rogers’ thinking because he saw the therapist as a facilitator, rather than someone with the responsibility to make change happen.

Positive change was always within the capacity of the client.

Rogers claimed that change comes about phenomenologically, in the perceived reality of the client, and therefore could not be taught or coerced. This was counter to the Freudian movement, which he claimed objectified the client.

“The paradigm of Western culture is that the essence of persons is dangerous; thus, they must be taught, guided and controlled by those with superior authority”

- Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being

The Seeking of Congruence

Rogers held that human beings seek congruence, or balance in the self, across three areas of our lives, which is achieved through the highest state of being, or self-actualisation.

Self-actualisation is possible to the degree to which our idea of self-worth, self-image, and ideal self overlap. Here we achieve congruence, and it is the role of the therapist to facilitate the alignment of these aspects of the self in the client.

Carl Rogers suggested where self-worth, self-image and ideal self overlap there is congruence

Carl Rogers: Where self-worth, self-image and ideal self overlap there is a congruence and a move towards self-actualisation.

Self-worth: Rogers believed that feelings of self-worth (what we think about ourselves) develop in early in our childhood and are formed through our interaction with parents and home life.

Self-image: How we see ourselves in relationship with our peer groups, workplace colleagues, our place within the family and other social groups to which we belong, and society in general.

Ideal self: The concept of ourselves as we wish it to be in the future. This takes into account our goals, wishes and desires for ourselves and often changes throughout life.

According to Rogers, these three aspects of the self can be formed independently, and until the client succeeds in self-actualisation, difficulties and imbalance exist in how the client relates to their world.

Rogers also insisted that our personalities are unique, and the “cookie-cutter” idea of personality was inaccurate and unhelpful to therapeutic work. He insisted on a person-centric approach.

In other words, he believed in the validity of the individual experience.

The Validity of The Unique Self

It is this belief in the validity of the individual experience and the necessity for one-to-one intervention, that draws me to the work of humanist psychologists such as Rogers and Maslow.

The generalisation of conditions and experience that the science of psychology seeks to establish is valuable to an extent. It teaches us something about human beings as a group, but it falls short in bringing about change on an individual level.

This is why, on its own, a book on this or that subject, a course, or some other generalised account of how you and I may find success in something, falls short.

It’s why we never really get to the core of our issue.

We can never truly realise ourselves because we are immersed in someone else’s world of things.

We are focused outside ourselves.

Real transformation happens when we go deep inside in an exploration of the inner-self, and often we are too caught up in our self-identity to find a breakthrough.

“Once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively, like any other clear reality”

- Carl R. Rogers

The Necessary Conditions For Change

Image of the cover of A Way of Being by Carl Rogers

Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being

Published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology in 1957, Rogers’ paper titled, The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change, formed part of his broader psychological theory of personality and sought to outline the psychological conditions that bring about constructive personality change in sufferers.

The Question

Rogers asked specifically if it were possible to state in clear definable terms, the psychological conditions which are necessary and sufficient to bring about constructive personality change in people suffering internal conflict.

He wanted to establish a consensus amongst his fellow clinicians of what it meant for patients to transform internal conflict, achieve greater integration and obtain access to energy levels suitable for effective living.

He subsequently outlined six conditions which, persisting over a period of time, were essential to bringing about such change.

  1. The patient and therapist are in psychological contact

  2. The patient is in a state of incongruence, vulnerable, anxious and in conflict.

  3. The therapist is congruent and integrated.

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

  5. The therapist has empathy for the client’s experience and attempts to communicate this experience.

  6. The communication of the therapist’s empathy and positive regard are achieved.

What This Means

Rogers says that the relationship is key to recovery and a story a friend shared with me recently illustrates this well I think.

An older friend of mine, let’s call him Joe, about 30 years ago went through a very difficult period. He was addicted to alcohol, and his marriage was falling apart. His business was suffering badly too.

He was in a difficult place.

He had hit rock bottom and was left with little choice but to seek help.

In the treatment centre, Joe was referred to a psychiatrist who he regarded as not much help whatsoever.

In councilling sessions, he felt that he was treated in a very transactional way, as an object to be dealt with rather than a human being. The therapist would pay more attention to his watch rather than to what Joe was saying.

As such, he obtained little benefit from the exchange.

In contrast, after he entered alcoholics anonymous and began working with other men who had been where he was, who understood him and had genuine empathy for his experience, things changed.

It was difficult for him, and it took time, but eventually, something shifted.

Joe has since been sober.

1. The Client-Therapist Relationship

Rogers says that a minimal relationship must exist and that significant positive personality change does not occur without it. The following conditions from 2 to 6 are features of the relationship that define the characteristics of each person.

The client may be perhaps catatonic or in some other way, unable to sense consciously, a difference in their experience due to the presence of the therapist. However, Rogers suggests that at an organic level, they do experience a subtle difference.

It would seem that for there to be progress, the client must expect there to be a safe place in the relationship, and the therapist must be open to them.

Rogers says, the first condition is such a simple one that perhaps it should be labelled an assumption. However, without it, the remaining five conditions would have no meaning.

2. The Client’s State of Mind

Rogers says that the client must be in a state of incongruence, anxious and vulnerable. He goes on to suggest that incongruence refers to a discrepancy between the actual experience of the organism and the self-picture of the individual.

Rogers offers the following example;

“A student may experience, at a total or organismic level, a fear of the university and of examinations which are given on the third floor of a certain building, since these may demonstrate a fundamental inadequacy in him. Since such a fear of his inadequacy is decidedly at odds with his concept of himself, this experience is represented (distortedly) in his awareness as an unreasonable fear of climbing stairs in this building, or any building, and soon an unreasonable fear of crossing the open campus. Thus there is a fundamental discrepancy between the experienced meaning of the situation as it registers in his organism and the symbolic representation of that experience in awareness in such a way that it does not conflict with the picture he has of himself”.

A person may have no awareness of the existence of incongruence, and as such be merely vulnerable to anxiety. They may also be dimly aware of some incongruence but cannot associate it with specific conditions.

In therapy, as the person approaches awareness of some element of their experience in sharp contrast to their self-concept, anxious states may arise.

3. The Therapist’s State of Mind

The third condition requires the therapist to be completely and wholly themselves. They must be congruent, integrated and “deeply himself” as Rogers states.

It not necessary that the therapist is the epitome of enlightenment across all areas of their life. Rather, for that hour, in that place of trust, the therapist must be completely themselves.

It’s as though the therapist must learn how to switch off their everyday facade, their surface-level personality, so they can be completely open to the client.

From reading Rogers on this aspect, it seems that he suggests that the therapist even switch off their self-concept as therapist in the relationship and simply be human.

All preconceived notions of how the relationship should be, need to be dropped it seems.

4. Unconditional Positive Regard

The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard where there is a complete acceptance of the client’s expressions of negativity, pain, fear, defence and abnormal behaviour.

The same applies to expressions of that which would be considered good, positive, mature, and confident on the part of the client. The therapist must allow these conditions to exist without internal or external judgement.

In this, Rogers proposes, the client is allowed to begin owning their experience, to feel their feelings and accept themselves. There must be no approval or disapproval.

5. Empathy

To adequately feel empathetic towards the client, the therapist must be able to sense the client’s world as if it were their own, but without losing the “as if” quality.

Rogers says this is essential to therapy, and explains it as follows;

“To sense the client’s anger, fear, or confusion as if it were your own yet without your own anger, fear or confusion getting bound up in it is the condition we are endeavouring to describe. When the client’s world is this clear to the therapist, and he moves about it freely, then he can both communicate his understanding of what is clearly known to the client and can also voice meanings in the client’s experience of which the client is scarcely aware”.

Empathy, it seems to me, is often a misunderstood quality of mind.

Often times when I hear people speak of empathy, they are expressing an adoption of, and absorption of, and internalisation of the other person's emotional state.

This is not good, I would suggest, for a therapist.

6. The Client’s Perception of The Therapist

The final condition that Rogers suggests is necessary, is the client’s perception, to a minimal degree at least, of the acceptance and empathy, that the therapist has for them.

The therapist’s behaviour and words are received by the client either consciously or subconsciously. The environment too has an impact, the room and furnishings will influence the exchange, although Rogers doesn’t mention these things.

My understanding is that if the client does not experience a sense of “openness” in the therapist, then little progress will be made until such conditions exist.

Some Final Comments

Rogers hypothesised that; if these six conditions, as operationally defined, exist, then constructive personality change, as defined, will occur in the client. If one of these conditions is not present, constructive personality change will not occur.

I have only recently, for this article, read the paper; The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change, and although I am lacking clinical experience, it seems that there is a significant validity in Rogers’ assertions.

Personality change, or a shift towards a more congruent self, is possible I believe without therapy. Although, therapy is perhaps a quicker route to resolution.

Who truly knows. There’s no determining a one-size-fits-all solution to personal conflict.

We all need to find a route that works for us individually.

What’s true, however, is that the psychic life of the person, the world within the dome of the skull is complex, and sometimes we need help to unravel it.

In doing so, the humanistic approach presented by Rogers and Maslow is particularly valid I believe.

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