Essay On Carl Rogers For My Psychotherapy Course21 September 2012
##Discuss the basic qualities of empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence, showing your understanding of them and exploring the ease and/or difficulty you have in adopting each of them.
Unconditional positive regard (UPR), empathy and congruence, also known as the core conditions, are the central concepts of Carl Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy. They describe the basic requirements that, when sufficiently present in the therapist, allow the healing process of talking therapy to occur. To give a brief orientation with the words of Rogers himself;
When the therapist is experiencing a warm, positive and accepting attitude toward what is in the client […] It means that he prizes the client in a total rather than conditional way. (Rogers 2004 p62)
When the therapist is sensing the feelings and personal meanings which the client is experiencing in each moment, when he can perceive these from “inside”, as they seem to the client, and when he can successfully communicate something of that understanding to his client (Rogers 2004 p62)
By this we mean that the feelings that the therapist is experiencing are available to him, available to his awareness and he is able to live these feelings, be them, and able to communicate them if appropriate. (Rogers 2004 p61)
To begin it is worth noting the broader context of the therapeutic landscape within which Rogers initially advocated these three conditions. Rogers is considered one of the founders of person-centered psychotherapy, the underlying philosophy of which inherits from post-modernism. Post-modernism is in turn a reaction against modernist, grand narratives such as religion and science that aim to offer single, all-encompassing and self-contained worldviews. Arguably Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psychotherapy itself, was a modernist, his theories being based in a reductionism that attributed a quality of neurosis to even the most apparently rational and successful people (McLeod, J. 2009 p26-7). Rogers however builds more on the ideas of Carl Jung, the primary successor to Freud, who advocated a less reductionistic approach to psychological health. Person-centered thinking suggests that rather than there being a single, overarching narrative within which we can order our lives, there are many; in fact as many narratives as there are people.
The core conditions are the specialised tools of the person-centered therapist. They are purposefully designed to encourage the therapist to remain focused on the inherent intelligence and integrity of the client and not on the constructed theory of a particular science of neurosis, nor on the personal beliefs of the therapist. The core conditions are merely facilitators for the client’s innate ability to grow and overcome difficulties. A metaphor that I personally find useful is that of the gardener. For all the control that humans have over nature, as demonstrated by the beautiful gardens found across the world, gardeners do not actually grow plants, rather they provide the optimal conditions in which plants can carry out their natural photosynthetic abilities. A gardener can expend back-breaking effort in tilling, weeding, planting and watering, but that is no guarantee that anything will grow. The same can be said for the core conditions, just because the three principles have been followed to the letter does not assure the catharsis of the client. Besides, none of the core conditions prescribe anything akin to; make the client happier. Instead, it is trusted that the client already wants to be happier; rather, how can we be of service in providing the most fertile circumstances in which such a desire for contentment can blossom?
Another way of describing the person-centered approach is non-directive (McLeod, J. 2009 p170). It is not preoccupied with leading the client to any particular concept of mental or emotional health. We can observe that the core conditions serve and honour this; UPR prizes the end goals of the client regardless of how they coincide with prevailing social norms; congruence reminds the therapist that they cannot hide any ulterior motives, they should be willing to have their own narrative intertwine with that of the client. However, it is also acknowledged that pure, agenda-less therapy is an ideal, that the therapist inevitably brings preferences to the relationship. In fact it would be detrimental if the therapist believed they didn’t (McLeod, J. 2009 p190-191). For me there’s a recognition here of the sober reality of helping someone in emotional need; when we are faced with the immediacy of suffering in an other, theoretically-based interventions can seem like the most insensitive and crass gestures we can make. Ultimately raw, uncontrived, genuine and warm love is the bedrock of the healing relationship.
Putting the core conditions into practice is not a matter of following a set of rules, as though they were a series of instructions. In fact I’ve personally found most attempts to intellectually comprehend them problematic. For instance, attempting to exercise one of the three conditions in any given moment always feels cumbersome. For example, consciously trying to be empathic when the person, to whom I am listening, is expressing a poignant grief over separating from their long-term partner. Empathy in this case, as in all cases, is usefully supported by the complimentary presence of UPR and congruence. The core conditions always work together as one, with one feature occasionally coming to the fore. The conditions are inextricably connected, seamlessly weaving themselves into a single therapeutic attitude.
Even though these guiding conditions go to form an indivisible whole they do not always interact harmoniously. Consider the situation where a therapist feels judgmental over a client’s apparently immoral behaviour. Congruence encourages the therapist to refrain from hiding or distorting this fact, however, in doing so one might feel that UPR is being somewhat diluted. Such tensions are not uncommon and should not be seen as shortcomings of Rogers’ guiding principles. The therapeutic relationship is, by its very nature and intention, fraught with difficulties that should, if it is to be of any success, challenge the very character of the therapist. With all the professional training a person can accumulate, the frontline will finally demand that a therapist rely on their own inner-most guiding intuition. The core conditions can only help so much.
A client takes a significant risk in offering their vulnerability in the intimacy of therapy and so the therapist has a huge responsibility to honour and reciprocate. Such pressure will naturally trigger emotional material within the therapist. Here we meet perhaps the most important recipient of the core conditions, the therapist themselves. How can I have empathy for myself? How can I raise the courage to meet my most uncomfortable feelings authentically and sustainably? Can I continually generate the positive intention towards my role in the therapeutic relationship, despite the doubts I have that I am of no use? Can I be honest with myself about how I feel? Can I humbly accept the cold reality that I am simply out of my depth? The core conditions will only ever be of use to a client insomuch as they have been of use to ourselves. I would even argue that empathy, UPR and congruence are not to be aimed at the client at all, but instead they should reach the client via the embodied character of their therapist. If I have sincerely taken to heart and valued the underlying intent of Rogers’ principles then I will naturally find myself negotiating the terrain of the client’s inner world with confidence, sensitivity and humility. The core conditions become self-expressing and therefore self-evident, not because I am intellectually convinced of their merit but because they inform the very fabric of my day-to-day life.
In my own practice of formal therapeutic listening, I have found I’m rarely aware of explicitly adopting a specific core condition. The live moment of one-to-one listening makes me very focussed on the immediacy of the client’s concerns. In this state my analytical mind is quietened, not completely, but to the extent that the core conditions become more of a felt sense guiding me to respond. It is more in hindsight that I find myself considering the application of the individual conditions. UPR has so far been the least challenging. I suspect this is because I have not had the opportunity to listen to someone to whom I have not been able to naturally generate sincere good wishes. However, I do reflect on it regarding the informal relationships in my life and find it an interesting perspective to meditate upon. We are all in the same boat, so to speak, everyone knows the bite of suffering and the caress of peace, just like me. With those others that I disagree and struggle with I can see my tendency, often unconscious, to not wish them the best. I might outwardly appear perfectly civil, but the ill will I harbour nevertheless manages to manifest in subtle, yet detrimental ways. UPR serves to remind me of the universality of the other, that a client’s longing for the good in life is precisely the same as my own, which demonstrates how, “It is possible to accept the client as a person of worth while still not liking some of the things he does” (Mearns, D. & Thorne B. 2007 p96).
UPR and empathy have a lot in common, I find they both concern entering into the world of the other in a way that is sensitive to the authenticity of their experience. Personally, I consider empathy to be operating in the direction against technique, it is something I find myself doing, as if without volition, rather than something I consciously exercise. That is not to say that on the occasions that I have found it difficult to be empathic I have sat back and done nothing, far from it. As Mearns and Thorne explain, “empathy is not a ‘technique’ of responding to the client, but a way-of-being-in-relation to the client” (Mearns, D. & Thorne B. 2007 p96). It feels important that one of the core conditions is segregated from the domain of practice, to signify that which is beyond both the client and the therapist. Empathy for me represents concepts such as love, destiny and faith. These are qualities that possess something of the sublime and inexplicable. What exactly is it about the simple and unadorned presence of another human being that puts us at ease? How can we ever explain the transformative power of a smile, or the reassurance of an attentive gaze? In the moments I experience empathy I feel an intimate connection with the other, that seems to heal myself as much as is does them. In the moments I do not feel it, I simply try and be patient and try my very best not to feign it, even though the temptation can be strong when the other person is clearly suffering. In these cases it is wiser to be congruent.
There is a distinct flavour of humanism to congruence. The encouragement to actively assess one’s thoughts and feelings and to skillfully bring them into relationship, makes it difficult for the counsellor or therapist to hide behind walls of theory. Mearns and Thorne explain this aspect as follows; “congruence dissolves the mysteriousness of the counsellor. Mystery evokes the illusion of power; transparency dissolves it”. Power dynamics are significant forces in intimate one-to-one relationships that can be easily abused and misinterpreted. If the client sees that the therapist is willing to ‘get their hands dirty’, then the client is more likely to trust and open up. However, I wonder to what extent congruence itself can be abused? Can it just be used as an excuse to avoid the weight of patiently holding the discomfort of passing emotions by unburdening them onto the client? I think there can be a danger of it. I know in my own practice that when the going is tough, I want to slow things down and to seek reassurance from the client that I’m being helpful. Yet at the same time I feel a responsibility to put my anxieties to one side and graciously contain them until they pass. However, the central point that congruence is steering toward is the demonstration of the rewards of risking honesty. Quite aside from therapeutic theory I have found some of the most challenging times in my life to be expressing my feelings, yet when I have, those moments have also been some of the most rewarding. I find it an almost paradoxical theme to reflect that an integral part of a balanced and healthy relationship is the ability to express and receive that which is uncomfortable and challenging. The fantasy that the perfect relationship is only ever an exchange of positive sentiments is hard to overcome. Yet, if the negative can be expressed with confidence that makes the expression of the positives of empathy and UPR all the more powerful.
As much as I would like to secure a set of discrete and infallible rules, individually beholding each core condition is problematic, as ultimately the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, what has most struck me about Carl Rogers’ core conditions is firstly, the conciseness with which such a small number of succinct principles address the essential nature of the therapeutic process and secondly their applicability to my life as a whole. In some ways Rogers’ is elucidating factors which I, and perhaps most others, already know of. This is astute and helpful as they provide just the right amount of guidance without being so esoteric as to burden the delicate balance of live therapy.
- McLeod, J. (2009) An Introduction to Counselling Maidenhead, Open University Press (first published 1993)
- Mearns, D. & Thorne B. (2007) Person-Centred Counselling in Action London, Sage Publications (first published 1988)
- Rogers, C. (2004) On Becoming A Person London, Constable & Robinson (first published 1961)