Review of the Person-centred Approach to Counselling

1. Introduction

The person-centred approach has been widely used in counselling, educational field and organizational culture over the past 60 years. Carl Rogers had a major influence on the growth and development of the counseling profession in the United States and in some European countries. Abraham Maslow’s theory of ‘hierarchy of needs’, which suggests that once the basic, biological needs for survival are met, the individual will be motivated by higher order needs such as love needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs, contributed significantly to understanding the life(Trahar, 1999: 8).

The first part of the essay will review the philosophy of the person-centred approach. The theory of this approach will be analyzed in the second part from several perspectives such as the goals of counseling, the relationship between counselors and clients and requirement of counselors. The method of the person-centred counseling process will be introduced briefly in the third part. The author will also present her own opinion of the strengths and weaknesses of this model in detail.

2. The philosophy of the person-centred approach

Person-centred counselling was originally developed in the 1940s by Carl Rogers(1902-1987) as a reaction against psychoanalytic therapy. ‘It has its roots in humanistic psychology and the primarily European concepts of phenomenology and existentialism’(Trahar, 1999: 8). Rogers and other person-centred theorists attempt to pursue phenomenological approach to knowledge, which is a method of philosophical inquiry and widely employed in existential philosophy. According to Mcleod(2003), the aim of phenomenology is to depict the nature and quality of personal experience. It focuses on the human awareness of finiteness of life, conceiving people as always being in process of ‘becoming’. As a result, the person-centred approach acts as a general pointer towards potentially important areas of experience instead of making any assumptions about the actual content of that experience(Mearns and Thorne, 2000).

Rogers was raised in the Christian faith and was a humanist with a fervent valuing of the human being in all shapes and guises. His religious faith gave strong strength to the development of his theoretical approach(Mearns and Thorne, 2000). Person-centred therapists particularly buttress their counseling process with optimism about human beings and about the society of which we are members. Although the theory has to face some inevitable failures in the real society, person-centred therapists are not discouraged and maintain the spirit of adventure(Mearns and Thorne, 2000).

In humanistic psychology, the person acts as to fulfill two primary needs, including self-actualization (fulfill one’s potential) and being loved and valued by others, which are independent of biological survival needs. The relationship between people providing acceptance and valuing will help people grow and self-actualize, so that people can get satisfaction and meaning to life(Trahar, 1999).

3.      The theory of person-centred approach

3.1   The goals of counselling

3.1.1 ‘Congruence’

Person-centred counselling aims to help dissolve conditions of worth and return the person to a state of congruence. In that state feelings can be fully felt, accepted and expressed appropriately, combined with a trust and acceptance of the organismic valuing process(Wilkins, 2003). The idea of ‘congruence’ has a central place in person-centred theory. ‘Congruence is the accurate symbolization and integration of self-experience into awareness. It is the accurate expression of this integrated experience in behavior’(Mearns and Thorne, 2000:204). Therefore, people should be encouraged to put their inner sense or feeling such as happiness, anger and vulnerability accurately into words instead of expressing the feeling or impulse in a distorted or inappropriate way (Mcleod, 2003).

According to Rogers(1942), ‘congruence’ is shaped in childhood by parents’ influence. If children get love or approval coming from parents unconditionally, they can exhibit their potential and accept inner feelings. Otherwise, they define themselves in accordance with parental beliefs, attitudes and values, ‘conditions of worth’ and behave in a certain way. When they grow up, they are likely to have difficulty in making decisions or in knowing what they think or feel. They may rely on external authorities for guidance or make a desperate attempt to please everyone which often results in unpredictable, inconsistent and incongruent behaviors.

3.1.2        ‘Self-concept’

Person-centred counselling is a sensitive exploration of a person’s inner world. A general outcome of successful counseling is a shift away from dependence on the judgement of others, towards a greater trust and belief in the validity of internal judgement (Wilkins, 2003). The main features of the fully functioning person were described by Rogers (1963:22) in the following terms: ‘He is able to experience all of his feelings, and is afraid of none of his feelings. He is a fully functioning organism and because of the awareness of himself which flows freely through his experience, he is a fully functioning person.’

Sometimes, people are likely to look outside themselves for judgements and evaluations. They have no faith or trust in themselves, and they are unlikely to hold themselves in high regard. They need to win approval or avoid disapproval by others and behave in ways which are sure to be acceptable to others. According to the person-centred theory, it is unfair for people to become victims of the ‘conditions of worth’ which others imposed upon them(Stillwell, 1998). The person-centred approach places high value on the experience of the individual human being and on the importance of his or her subjective reality. Dave Mearns described that when he properly enters the ‘Existential Self’ of the client, he finds himself simply admiring the tenacity and the beauty of the human’s survival. So he believed that he must stop being a representative of even the subtle ‘social control’ forces within our society (Mearns and Thorne, 2000: 57).

3.1.3        ‘Self-actualization’

The goal of the Person-centred counselling is best described in process terms -movement towards actualization(Wilkins,2003). Person-centred counselling assumes that all human beings want to and are capable of realizing their potential. It assumes that this is a universal human goal that is not culture bound or culture dependent.

The self-actualization theory in the person-centred approach suggests that the person possesses not only a concept of self ‘as I am now’, but also a sense of self ‘as I would ideally like to be’. The ‘ideal self’ comes from Rogers’ belief of human’s capacity to strive for fulfillment and greater integration. So it is grounded in this positive view of humanity which sees the person as innately striving toward becoming fully functioning. He believed that people can move in the direction of their self-defined ideals (Mearns and Thorne, 1999).

The person-centered counsellor believes that each individual has the potential to become a unique and beautiful creation, but that none of us can do this alone and unaided (Thorne B. 1991). The counselling is concerned to remove obstacles to the organismic valuing process.

3.2  The relationship in the person-centred approach

There is an egalitarian relationship between clients and counsellors. The counsellor who experiences unconditional positive regard for the client is congruent in the relationship. The counsellor’s empathic understanding is communicated to the client through dialogue(Mcleod, 2003). The distrust of experts runs deep among person-centred practitioners. The counsellors’ task is to enable the client to contact with his own inner resources rather than to guide or give advice. It is the client who knows how to move forward in the final analysis. As a result, the counselor should help clients be aware of their feelings and have the capacity to live in the present. They assist clients to trust their own wisdom in decision-making. It also challenges each person to accept responsibility for his or her own life and to trust in their inner resources (Mearns and Thorne, 1999).

Person-centred therapy gives much importance to the realness, authenticity and willingness of the counsellors. It may be concluded as congruence. ‘the more the therapist is able to listen acceptantly to what is going on within himself , and the more he is able to be the complexity of his feelings, without fear, the higher the degree of his congruence’(Rogers, 1961:61). Congruence of counsellors can develop the mutual trust in the relationship. If the speech, tone and gesture are consistent, the communication is clearer and more understandable. If the counselor expresses and accepts his or her own feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty, then it becomes easier for the client to accept their own(Mcleod, 2003).

3.3 About counselors

Counselors working with the person-centred approach should have excellent personalities. An excellent person-centred practitioner is capable of deep self-acceptance, of a compassionate, empathic responsiveness to self and of a determined openness to inner experience (Mearns and Thorne, 2000).  ‘Being in deep empathy requires a therapist to be committed to her own inner journey and experiential self-awareness. Empathy emerges from relationship between us and our own unwilling spirits’ (Stillwell, 1998: 30). Eileen Gillibrand gave us a very convincing example in her class. A girl just lost her mother. She is so depressed that she refuses to talk about this with anyone else. As a therapist, if you have not experienced this kind of sense of sadness, how can you help the girl open her mind and reveal her oppressed strong feelings? So it is necessary for the counsellor to assume that if s/he herself/himself would have this kind of experience, what s/he would feel and how s/he would cope with this feeling. The counsellor herself/himself should reduce the blind self and private self and increase the public self instead, so that he can ‘entering the world of the other person, setting aside the boundaries, soul touching soul, being one with the other person’ (Stillwell, 1998: 30).

According to Rogers, there are three core conditions for counselors to help their clients grow towards the constructive personality and the fulfillment of their unique identities. The first element focuses on the congruence of counselors in the relationship. If the counsellor is genuine, it is easier for the clients to develop in a positive and constructive manner. The second requirement is that counsellors should offer unconditional positive regard and total acceptance toward clients. Therefore, clients may feel safe to explore their true feelings and sense the feeling of self-acceptance. The third element is that the counsellor experiences a deep empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference. This sensitive and acceptant understanding restores to the lonely and alienated individual a sense of belonging to the human race (Mearns and Thorne, 1999).  The core conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence imply an open, transparent counsellor with a deep personal belief in the positive nature of people and the self-confidence to engage transparently as a person in the counselling relationship (Wilkins, 2003).

4.  The method of person-centred approach

The process in the client is facilitated by the empathy, congruence and acceptance of the counselor. Person-centred theory stresses the client/counsellor relationship and so there are few techniques. Techniques are secondary to the counselor’s attitude. Active listening, reflection of feelings and clarification are useful approaches to show that the client is heard carefully and fully understood(Trahar, 2004)

5.  The strengths and limitations of person-centred approach

5.1 Strengths

5.1.1 Belief in self-actualization

The belief in self-actualization in the person-centred counselling approach encourages people to fulfill their potential. Every one should be responsible for his life. It is his right for an individual to realize his ambition. Impelled by this kind of spirit, many people are brave to challenge themselves to overcome the difficulties and achieve goals at last. For example, this theory can be used to explain the social phenomena that an increasing number of Chinese young people gave up an easy life in their mother country, going abroad every year to pursue career success and self-actualization. Therefore, we may draw a conclusion that this core concept of Rogers is one that we can all recognize, given the right conditions. It is the person-centred counsellor’ s responsibility to help more people realize it and take advantage of unused opportunities and potential, which may bring significant benefits both for the individual and for the society, because ‘unused human potential constitutes a more serious social problem than emotional disorders, since it is more widespread’ (Egan, 1998:131).

5.1.2 Developing harmonious interpersonal relationships

According to Roger’s theory, every one wants to be loved and valued by others. It is possible to construct intimate interpersonal relationships which may facilitate the development of personality and fulfillment of potential.

It is the strong foundation of friendship in human world. For instance, when I was a teacher in China, I praise my students even when they make a little progress in their study. I try to be open-minded and encourage them to challenge my ideas. Every student’s view on learning gets recognition in my class. Their suggestions about how to teach and how to organize class activities are adopted as much as possible. I try my best to treat all students equally without discrimination. Therefore they enjoy and engage much deeper in learning and a friendly relationship has been established between the teacher and students. Even now, I have already left them I often receive passionate e-mail from my students.

In modern society, people who possess high ability of cooperation and team work are more likely to achieve success. As a result, people concentrate more and more attention on the influence of interpersonal relationship on individuals and teams’ progress. Some leaders also introduce this idea into their enterprise culture and cooperative spirit has become an essential requirement in enterprise recruitment. McCann and Radford (1993) indicated that teachers involved in collaboration with their colleagues reported considerable personal benefits from collaboration. Collaboration improved their communication skills, gave them a sharper focus in their work, increased the amount of time they spent reflecting on their work, enhanced their self-esteem and confidence in their teaching ability, and motivated them to take more risks by attempting new teaching strategies.

5.1.3 Advocating congruence

Being in a state of congruence helps people live in a simpler, healthier, happier and more confident life. Actually, there are some cultural differences for this concept. In China, people live in a culture which favors incongruence. People do not want to express their true feelings in many cases. They pay more attention to others’ ideas. For example, in classroom, lecturers are seldom interrupted by students’ questions because students are too shy to say what they did not understand. In many families, parents never express their satisfaction when they receive sons or daughters’ gifts on their birthdays or some other special festivals. Every time they are critical that their children spent money inappropriately, although they are quite happy deep in their heart. The aim of their attitude may be one of helping young people to save money, or express that they are unwilling to spend money on themselves. However, young people feel frustrated because of parents’ reaction. In some families, mistakes arise from that kind of standing on ceremony. The gap between two generations is impossible to be bridged when it rests on totally different ways of thinking.

5.1.4 Encouraging individual diversity

The person-centred counseling encourages people to accept and act on their own personal, internal evaluations and depends on the assumption that each person can carry a universal morality. This theory may be used to explain why people can struggle to maintain their internal worth by resisting temptations of money and advantages. For example, some of my colleagues gave up comfortable life and high salary jobs in modern big cities and went to remote poor rural areas to support local education. The ideal of those volunteers is to develop ‘Chinese Hope Project’ and make their country more powerful in the future. People never give up looking for the home of their heart even though the exploration is quite hard. There are innumerable philosophers who have sought for truth in their lifetime in all ages. Their works are precious spiritual treasure of the mankind. People try their best to fulfill their dreams without dread, oscillation and loneliness. For instance, Polish astronomer Copernicus who was persecuted by the politically powerful churchmen advanced the theory that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, disrupting the Ptolemaic system of astronomy and going against the philosophical and religious belief that had been held during the medieval times. People are most willing to pursue great love by sacrificing their own life which is the eternal theme of mankind. The story of Romeo and Juliette are widely known all over the world and go round from one generation to the other. People have some fixed noble characters such as honesty, genuineness, allegiance, affection and so on which is widely recognized, although they live in a world which is always changing. All of those examples prove the relevance of the Person- centred theory in different social contexts.

The tendency to construct reality or perceive the world in an individualist way produces a great deal of diversity among individuals(Egan, 1998).This point of view can help to inspire creativity and develop individual’s unique interests and personality. Different academic ideas can be put forward freely in the universities. Literature and art flourish in this kind of society.

In the medical field, the ideal situation is to make out an individual programme of treatment for everybody instead of the same tablets for all people with similar kinds of diseases. For example, for oppressed groups, the experience of being treated as a unique person, rather than being thoughtlessly grouped with others on the assumption of shared characteristics or traits, is to be welcomed(Chantler, 2004).

5.2  Limitations

In the person-centred approach, the national, racial and cultural differences come to seem unimportant as the person is discovered. Nevertheless, the same emotion expressed by different groups is given a different meaning depending on existing patterns of subordination and domination(Chantler, 2004:119-121). Chantler argue that the danger of such individualization combined with the central notion of personal responsibility in person-centred theory is that abuse, violence and other effects linked to racism or sexism can be ignored (Chantler, 2004:120). ‘Many person-centred counsellors fail to grasp that in the context of unequal power relationships, some people may have more responsibility than others for a particular life event (Waterhouse, 1993:65)’. The positive and optimistic view of human beings unfortunately ignores the dark side concealed deeply in human spirit. The real world is imbued with lies and deceit to some extent. Violence and homicide exist in society. Therefore, we need law and treaty to punish criminal, control power, and maintain order. People in the real world are not allowed to live according on their own internal evaluations but must follow the social guide lines.

This point of view undoubtedly encourages people to challenge themselves and be more confident in fulfilling their ambitions. Nevertheless, I think Rogers should pay more attention to people’s own specific individual genius and real conditions instead of their ideals. I remember that there was a song: I want to be the President or a scientist when I was a child. But when I grow up, I realize that there is only one president and there are not so many scientists. Not everybody can achieve goals in his or her life, especially the ambitions which exceed his or her ability. For example, people who have constitutional limitation of timbre. can never become a musician, no matter how hard they work. Even some genius such as Van Gogh and Mozart died in poverty and chill in the cruel society which they lived in. In a word, career success needs many conditions not only including their own aspiration, endeavor and hard work but also talent and good luck. Just as Wilkins argued, there is a necessary and productive tension between the actualizing tendency and the force of social mediation(Wilkins, 2003). A psychological ‘homeostasis’ develops where the balance is under ‘dual control’, with the drive of the actualizing tendency and the restraint of the social imperative both able to exercise power(Mearns, 2000). So we need to draw attention to these different ways of experiencing the world and different explanations for phenomena such as the self (Wilkins, 2003 ) .

6. Conclusion

The Person-centred counseling is informed by phenomenological thinking and emphasizes the self-concept of the person and the capacity for growth and fulfillment. Therapeutic change depends on the existence of a therapeutic relationship characterized by sufficient levels of acceptance, congruence and empathy(core conditions). The therapeutic process in the person-centred counseling proceeds through a series of stages of deepening experiential awareness and acceptance of self(Mcleod, 2003).

Although this theory has some limitations, it is undoubted that the person-centred counseling has brought significant benefits for human being. If we take advantage of it carefully, its potential may be fully explored and this theory may be more valuable for individuals and society as well.


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