Carl Rogers was very committed to improving the benefits of therapy — how can a therapist best help a client? His decision to move away from the idea that the therapist was the ‘expert’ made person-centred therapy an extremely radical approach for its time (1940s-1960s).
The person-centred approach instead proposes that each person is essentially the expert on her or himself. We all have a built-in tendency to ‘self-actualise’– to search for, and become, the most authentic and empowered version of yourself.
The therapist’s role becomes to create a relationship where you feel safe and free. Free to drop the false fronts and roles you play in life, and free to begin to explore what waits behind the masks you present to the world.
Psychological research shows that most of the time, we don’t actually see what’s in front of us. Instead, we see what we’re looking for in a situation.
In a famous experiment, researchers asked participants to count how many times players wearing white pass a basketball. Shockingly, over half of the participants in the study failed to notice a person in a gorilla suit walking into the middle of the scene and thumping its chest.
Experiments like this demonstrate that our past conditioning can shape what we see in the present. And if your past experiences have been particularly negative? This can give you a distorted and irrational point of view, which can affect your relationships and ability to progress in life.
Therapy helps you let go of your negative past experiences, so you can start to see the world through a more accurate, rational and empowering lens. You become more open to both experiences and opportunities.
Do you trust your own intuition, or are you led by what others around you are thinking and doing?
The psychological phenomenon of ‘group think’ suggests that the environments around us guide many of the decisions we make.
We evolved in tribes, where we had to look to those around us to guide our decisions to survive. It enabled the group to react quickly and efficiently to opportunities and threats in the environment.
Rogers pointed out that this phenomenon is not helpful for the self-actualisation process. But he noticed that therapy helped clients to ‘unplug’ from group-think and make more rational decisions. He noted that his successful clients developed an increased ability to think for themselves. They had greater self-trust in their own decision-making skills.
Instead of letting others dictate your behaviour and thinking, therapy helps you learn to balance your feelings, impulsesand desires with the demands of your social environment. This helps you make decisions that see you meet both your own goals and the needs of your social groups.
A Growing Internal Locus of Validation
Do you look to others for approval or disapproval, or do you use your own opinion to determine if you are doing the right thing?
In the modern world, the judgements of others can dictate much of what we do. Or rather, how we think others will judge us.
For example, when we upload a status to Facebook, it’s very easy to feel great if we get a lot of likes but allow ourselves to feel terrible if we don’t. This is a symptom of a wider problem – we’re looking to other people to validate our thinking and behaviour.
Carl Rogers noticed clients increasingly developed their own internal ‘locus of validation’. They stopped looking to sources outside themselves for approval. He said that the most important question for an individual to ask is, “Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?”
Therapy helps you to not get carried away by the praise or criticisms of other people, because you know how to live from your own personal values.
Willingness to be a process
Are you able to be flexible, or do you often find changeand growth hard?
The final characteristic Rogers noted in individuals who had successfully undergone therapy was that they had a ‘process’ mindset rather than a fixed one.
This means you view yourself as fluid and in constant motion, rather than a fixed thing.
It’s normal when we start therapyto have an idea that we are going to achieve a ‘fixed state’ – a point in the future where all our problems are solved.
Not only is this unrealistic, it’s not a helpful way to live our lives.
If we become too fixated on exact outcomes, life, being life, will disappoint us, and we will often feel miserable.
Rogers found a good client-therapist relationship meant his clients began to accept that the goal was not to achieve a fixed state where everything was ‘ok’, but rather to accept themselves as a ‘work in progress’. They became more forgiving of themselves, and more willing to accept and address their shortcomings.
Therapy helps you have less of a rigid identity, and to be more adaptable to change. You can drop the limiting beliefs and behaviours that no longer serve where you want to go in life.
Carl Rogers’ key insight was that most of us wear masks and play social roles to fit into the society around us. To a certain extent, this serves its purpose and keeps things running smoothly.
But sooner or later, instead of using these roles, these roles start to use us. They become part of a rigid identity that we hide behind. Over time, we feel cut off from who we really are – from our deepest instincts and desires as human beings. This leaves us feeling alienated and inauthentic.
Person-centred therapy provides a relationship which allows you to see yourself as separate from the masks you are wearing, and to supports you to get back in touch with the deeper parts of yourself.