Person Centered Approach

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The typical disdainful view the general public holds of therapy is of slightly ridiculous therapists who are too touchy feely, who say things like  ‘How did that make you feel?’, who mindlessly parrot back what their clients say to them, as in:

Client: “It really hurt me when he treated me that way.”
Therapist: (with a caricatured pained look on face) “I’m hearing you say it really hurt you when he treated you that way.”

We can thank Carl Rogers and his person centered approach to therapy for all of this. Early psychoanalysts weren’t interested in being empathic at all. Just the opposite actually, their entire goal was to be as opaque as possible in order to allow for the process of transference to take place.

Rogers’ approach, which deserves praise not disdain, has been oversimplified to the point where it makes therapy seem like a joke, a fault that lies with laypeople for never taking the time to investigate how deep the philosophical underpinnings are but also with a lot of untalented therapists who rely on superficial tricks to get by. They don’t understand what they’re doing in a deeper context and can’t combine it with sophisticated psychology because they don’t know much psychology.

The public has this idea of the typical therapist but the person centered approach is just one in a huge number of modalities like psychoanalytic therapy, existential therapy, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral therapy, emotion focused therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, feminist therapy, the list goes on and on.

But all of these therapies do owe a debt of gratitude to Rogers. Pretty much everyone is in agreement now, based on mountains of incontrovertible empirical evidence, that a caring, supportive environment of unconditional positive regard where the client feels truly understood is absolutely essential for growth and positive change to take place. So regardless of the therapeutic approach, it probably does include elements of person centered therapy if it’s working.

What all of the person centered elements have in common is that they make the client feel understood, they lower that sense of existential isolation. The idea is that if you can have someone who gets you, who really sees all that’s good about you but also all that’s bad about you, who accepts your positive and negative thoughts and emotions as they arise without judgment, then your inherent striving towards growth will be unblocked and you will naturally move towards a greater integration of Self, what we would term self-actualization. When you discover it’s okay to be yourself you decide to become yourself.

That’s what the strategies that might seem superficial at first glance, strategies like parroting back a sentence, having an empathic look on the face, or asking how something made you feel, are trying to accomplish. They are trying to bridge that psychological and emotional gap so that you can experience being truly understood by someone, maybe for the first time. This sort of environment, combined with the depth psychologies, is how you come to truly understand yourself, maybe for the first time.

The whole reason Rogers was able to take on this philosophical attitude was that his view of human nature was optimistic. He believed that people, just like all other organisms, actively strive to actualize their best qualities when conditions for growth are ideal. He was seeking to set up these conditions, much the way a gardener knows that if he sets up ideal conditions in a garden the plants will grow and flourish on their own.