In 1957 a groundbreaking paper entitled ‘The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change’ was published in the United States. The author of the paper was the founding father of the person-centred model in counselling, Carl Rogers. Rogers had joined the University of Chicago in 1945 and it was there that he developed his theory. It grew out of Abraham Maslow’s humanistic approach to counselling and developed speed because of the number of new patients needing counselling after World War II.
Rogers’ paper included six ‘core conditions’ which he felt were vital for a successful therapeutic relationship. These were later narrowed down to three conditions: congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy. During the course of this essay I will briefly examine what is meant by each three of these elements and then I will explore how they can help me to understand and change my life for the better.
Congruence is the single most distinctive aspect of the person-centred approach. In being congruent, the therapist aims at all times to be a real person with the client, to ‘throw away the white coat’. Rogers believed that successful therapeutic relationships should be based along similar lines to successful personal relationships. A congruent therapist seeks to maintain awareness of his/her own thoughts and feelings during the counselling sessions and, when appropriate, brings these into the open. In other words it is about being a ‘real’ person working with your client on an equal footing.
It is actually quite a scary idea. Hiding behind a professional faï¿½ade is an easy thing to do. I wonder how many people could claim to be congruent during their day-to-day life. At present I would say I am congruent at certain periods but at others I certainly hide myself away, presenting an image I feel people will be more comfortable with. Often I would say I am not even congruent with myself.
The idea of being ‘real’ all the time is a very odd thought indeed. I believe in the last year I have made large steps towards greater congruence. When I suffered from depression I felt it was very important to hide my feelings and ‘put on a happy face’. I certainly feel very differently now. I am far more together, as if my internal and outer selves are becoming one. I am finding it easier to be honest about my thoughts and feelings and also learning when to share these with others.
Part of the problem I believe is that to be completely congruent you must accept yourself for who you are. There is nowhere to hide. It is a wonderful aim. I am perfectly willing to accept others as they are and not ask them to change, why should I not allow the same kindness to be shown towards myself? I have learnt that people are often much harder on themselves than they are on others.
So in an effort to overcome depression I believe I have become far more congruent. I hope the process will continue, as it seems to be a positive road to travel. Trusting your own inner voices, believing in your abilities to help yourself and others, being a ‘real’ person with yourself and others, not just a mask to hide the inner self. If I could achieve these things it would be wonderful. But as with all things in life I believe in taking one small step at a time. I have come a long way from where I started.
The second core condition that Carl Rogers spoke about was empathy. Rogers described empathy as an ability, “to sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality”. Empathy begins with sensitive listening and acceptance of the internal reference for the client.
In some sense, the aim of empathy is to provide the counsellor with an understanding of the client’s feelings and true meanings. It enables the client to feel the counsellor is really listening to them as feedback ‘fits in’ to the client’s mood. It helps further strengthen the positive relationship between client and counsellor thus helping the process for the client.
It is strange to think of a world where empathy is practised on a continual basis. Would people be more forgiving of others’ mistakes? Would I? I think I would find empathising all the time quite a difficult thing to do, not just in my personal life but also towards society as a whole. How can I empathise with people who do things beyond my comprehension?
In some ways I believe it is easier not to empathise with some people. Walking past a beggar in the street is far easier to do when you blame the person for their predicament rather than empathising with them about it.
In the past year I have attempted to empathise more with the people around me. If someone in my life loses their temper, I do often try to understand that their attack is not actually aimed at me, at least not always (!) Normally they are stressed or have simply had a bad day and at that moment are seeing the world in a particularly negative manner. This thought process has considerably reduced the number of arguments I have in my personal life.
In some ways it has also helped me to grow (or maybe grow up?). Understanding that my parents are ‘real’ people with their own thoughts and feelings, fallible people capable of making mistakes and deserving the right to have these mistakes understood for what they were and to be forgiven for them. In some way, trying to understand their world, the way they were brought up, their money worries and living conditions, the things that led them to the decisions they made.
So in a sense I feel it is not about losing my opinions or experiences of certain times but about understanding that others have differing experiences and a myriad reasons for the choices that they make. This has led me to become a far more forgiving person both to others and to myself. It is often strange that once we begin to understand others in a more forgiving and less judgemental way that these qualities can then be turned inwards and I can allow myself to feel some of the positive power these ideas have.
Carl Rogers third condition is unconditional positive regard. Possibly the easiest idea to understand intellectually but I believe the most difficult to practise in reality. The idea is basic; the counsellor is non-possessive, non-judgemental and non-conditional. They accept the client however they may be, wholly as they are. It is almost comparable to a parent’s love of their newborn child. You expect nothing in return for the unconditional ‘love’ you show.
This idea sounds simple, but what if the person in front of you has committed murder, or child molestation? Within this model the counsellor is expected to separate the act from the person. It was a very bad thing to do but that does not make the client a very ‘bad’ person.
Rogerian theory believes that all people are basically ‘good’. We are all capable of learning, growth and self-improvement. If the counsellor brings unconditional positive regard to the sessions, the belief is that this will eventually change the client’s view of themselves and others around them.
Personally, I feel this is the hardest core condition to meet. We judge people every day by their every action. How they say ‘hello’, how much interest they take in us, what they say behind our back (if we get to hear of it). If someone hurts us, how can we stay unconditionally positive towards him or her? I realise that in a therapeutic setting the dynamic is quite different from the outside world. But then again the question is how will it change my life, right now?
I suppose the major factor is the separation of action from person. If someone does hurt me, do I say he/she is bad or do I get angry at the action which has done the damage? I think I would find being so objective one hundred percent of the time an extremely hard thing to do. When speaking with a client, their past actions would have been involving someone else, thus I am not part of the actual event, surely this makes it easier to be unconditionally positive towards him or her.
In real life however, the action may have been aimed directly at you. How can you be unconditionally positive towards someone who hurt you or a member of your social circle? I think I would find this extremely hard to do. Not quite so hard in a therapeutic setting, but in everyday life, which is, I suppose, the most important place to try it!
Carl Rogers’ core conditions theory and his creation of person-centred counselling changed the face of therapy worldwide. The aims and conditions have helped many thousands of people during the last fifty years.
I believe each of the three conditions would be difficult but worthwhile to achieve personally. Their inclusion into my way of viewing the world has helped to make it a more positive and less ‘scary’ place. I do attempt to see good in all people, which makes dealing with people a much easier event than when I feared most people.
Showing more understanding towards those closest to me has led to a more peaceful existence. The numbers of arguments I now have in my life are far fewer than previously. It has led to my finding less destructive ways of sorting out issues, which may come up in my personal life. This enables me to have more energy for the positive things that I want to do.
So overall including these core conditions into my life, as best I can, has been a very positive move. I believe I have only just started out on the right road and hopefully, in the years to come, I can include them more fully and continue to grow in the positive direction that I currently am.
On Becoming A Counsellor – The Basic Guide for Non-Professional Counsellors (1977): Eugene Kennedy & Sara C. Charles
An Introduction To Counselling (1993): John McLeod
Teach Yourself Counselling (1999): Aileen Milne