Carl Rogers was born in 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois. Originally planning to enter the ministry, he eventually changed his major to psychology.
Rogers began his career as a psychologist at Rochester, New York. From Rochester he moved to Ohio State University and then to the University of Chicago, where he founded its first Counseling Center. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1945.
From Chicago Rogers moved to the University of Wisconsin, and finally La Jolla, California, where he founded what later became the Center for Studies of the Person. He originally called his theory nondirective counseling, changing it later to client-centered therapy and eventually to person-centered theory.
Rogers was one of the first psychologists to study psychotherapy scientifically. Beginning in the 1940s, he and his colleagues recorded, transcribed, and empirically analyzed hundreds of hours of therapy sessions. Throughout his life his aim was to describe the subjective aspects of psychological growth and functioning while studying them objectively and scientifically.
Carl Rogers died in 1987 in La Jolla, California.
One of the founders of humanistic psychology (along with Abraham Maslow), Rogers proposed that human nature is innately positive, forward-moving, and trustworthy. As infants and as adults, he argued, each of us possesses an organismic valuing process that integrates our impulses, memories, thoughts, and values, moment by moment, into a guide for choosing what is best. When we are open to experience, we can depend on this inner guide (compare with the still, small voice of Eugene Gendlin, the Over-Soul of Ralph Waldo Emerson, or the Self of Carl Jung).
Trusting the ever-changing flow of life, we will find that our decisions and behaviors are directed by an inborn actualizing tendency that seeks to move us in positive, psychologically healthy directions (compare with the self-actualizing tendency of Abraham Maslow). We will discover that “doing what 'feels right' proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide to behavior” (Rogers, 1961, p. 189).
The idea of doing what “feels right” disturbs many because they believe that human nature harbors a dangerous beast, what Freud called the id (see Sigmund Freud). Rogers commented that in the intimacy of psychotherapy he found that “there is no beast in man. There is only man in man” (Rogers, 1961, p. 105).
When a person is able to fully accept and hear himself, he finds that his potentially destructive impulses, such as anger, co-exist alongside others, such as fear, love, or loneliness, that soften them. “When man is less than fully man”—expressing only a part of himself—he is dangerous (Rogers, 1961, p. 105). But when he is able to be his full, complex self, with awareness, he finds that his organism safely regulates itself.
Consciousness, instead of being the watchman over a dangerous and unpredictable lot of impulses, of which few can be permitted to see the light of day, becomes the comfortable inhabitant of a society of impulses and feelings and thoughts, which are discovered to be very satisfactorily self-governing when not fearfully guarded. (Rogers, 1961, p. 119)
Why is it, asks Rogers, that a person would become less than fully human? Why would he fail to regulate himself? As he developed his own theoretical language to answer this, Rogers came to call the true person that each of us is, with all of our feelings and thoughts and values, as the organism. Experience, or experiencing (with the ing meant to stress change), is the ever-flowing process of activities going on within the organism that are potentially capable of being brought to awareness.
Using this language, the question of being less than fully human can be rephrased this way: Why would a person turn a blind eye to the experience of the organism? Rogers answers this by saying that such a person has become attached to a self-concept, a picture of who he thinks he is. Attached to this self-concept, he permits it to rule his life rather than his own experience. The less-than-full human is afraid (consciously or unconsciously) to be open to experience because if he does so it may challenge the picture of himself that he clings to (a dilemma explored in Last Wednesday I Walked on the Beach and Skinless).
Why would a person come to value his picture of himself more than he values his own experience? Because when he needed unconditional positive regard—nonpossessive, unjudging love—from others, he instead received conditional positive regard. Rather than telling him “I will love you no matter what are your choices in life,” his parents, friends, and others communicated, “I will love you only if you make the choices I approve of.”
Rogers argued that at critical moments in our lives each of us has chosen the connectedness of love rather than the isolation of self-honesty. We have become trapped by our own self-pictures. Once the self-concept is formed, it seeks to perpetuate itself, guided by its own self-actualizing tendency. The less than fully human life consists of a struggle between the organism's actualizing tendency and the self-concept's self-actualizing tendency. We do what we must in order to persuade ourselves that we are lovable, at the cost of being true to experience.
The key to psychological growth, Rogers concluded, is to restore openness to experience, to bring a person into contact with his actualizing tendency. This will demand that he give up the rigidity and safety of his self-concept. A person wanting to be helpful cannot facilitate this by advice, commands, or questions. These prevent a person from discovering his personal inner guide, the organismic valuing process, with its own internal locus of evaluation (compare with the self-reliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson).
By the 1960s, Rogers proposed that his research had confirmed that three qualities—the therapeutic triad—facilitate growth, both in therapy and in everyday relationships.
First, to be helpful a person must provide unconditional positive regard (compare with the I-Thou love of Martin Buber). Where others have given judgment and conditional love, a helper gives unwavering acceptance and unconditional love (contrast this with the conditional but unending punishment illustrated in Oh Divine Lobotomy).
Second, the helpful person must provide congruence, a state in which he is genuine and open, clothing himself in neither role nor pretense.
Third, the helpful person must provide empathic understanding. He listens to a person talk about his experience and then in words reflects his feelings back to him (compare with the B-cognition of Abraham Maslow). The helpful therapist, parent, spouse, lover, or friend must become an unconditionally caring, honest mirror to another's secret feelings, unspoken thoughts, and unacknowledged values.
As with the I-Thou encounter of Martin Buber, Rogers proposed that when the therapeutic triad is present, especially in the context of empathy, there is a vanishing of ego boundaries. As a client of Rogers phrased it, “We were mostly me working together on my situation as I found it. We were me” (Rogers, 1951, p. 38). Or, as Rogers worded it, “the two selves have somehow become one while remaining two” (Rogers, 1951, p. 38).
Without this merging, a person may feel like Ellen West, a client of Rogers: “I am isolated, I sit in a glass ball, I see people through a glass wall. I scream, but they do not hear me” (Rogers, 1961, May, p. 165). With this merging, therapeutic healing takes place—
I find that when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful. There is nothing I can do to force this experience, but when I can relax and be close to the transcendental core of me, then I may behave in strange and impulsive ways in the relationship, ways which I cannot justify rationally, which have nothing to do with my thought processes. But these strange behaviors turn out to be right, in some odd way. At those moments it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. (Rogers, 1986, p. 137)
As a person receives the therapeutic triad, Rogers argued, he comes to find parts of himself that are new and disturbing. These discoveries jolt the self-concept. Over time his picture of who he is changes, moving from fixed and false to fluid and honest. At peak moments of experiencing, the self-concept simply withers away. The person lives life rather than watches it. Rogers refers to such a person as a fully functioning person, one learning to experience the good life.
The good life, Rogers says, is not one of happiness, or contentment, or virtue. It is one in which a person moves “toward a friendly openness to what is going on within him.” Learning to “listen sensitively to himself,... [h]e moves toward acceptance of the 'is-ness' of himself” (Rogers, 1961, p. 181).
Living the good life, the fully functioning person comes to value his own experience more than the evaluations of others. He discovers that he can trust his experience—
The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person's ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my own experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me.
Neither the Bible, nor the prophets—neither Freud nor research—neither the revelations of God nor man—can take precedence over my own direct experience. (Rogers, 1961, pp. 23-24)
From Carl Rogers I learned to trust myself.
Rogers, C. R. (1961, May). Ellen West—and loneliness. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 1(2), 94-101. From H. Kirschenbaum & V. L. Henderson, Eds. (1989), The Carl Rogers reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, C. R. (1986). A client-centered/person-centered approach to therapy. In I. Kutash & A. Wolf (Eds.), Psychotherapist's casebook (Pp. 197-208). New York: Jossey-Bass. From H. Kirschenbaum & V. L. Henderson, Eds. (1989), The Carl Rogers reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kirschenbaum, H. (1979). On becoming Carl Rogers. New York: Delacorte Press.
Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.