The person-centred counselling approach to therapy emphasizes the relationship between the therapist and the client. It was developed by a psychologist called Carl Rogers. He had been primarily working with children before turning his attention to working with adults.
Rogers believed that everyone has the need to feel heard, listened to, understood in order to grow. Not necessarily agreed with, but thoughts, feelings, experiences validated. He found that it is in that relationship between therapist and client, that a safe space can be created where a client can experience these. He believed the client needed this space in order to grow.
The power of validation
For example, imagine breaking your leg, crying out in agony this really hurts. How can someone say no it isn’t? Or, well it shouldn’t hurt, mine doesn’t.
It’s the same with emotional distress. Saying something bothers, hurts, frightens, is distressing. Rogers found that human beings have the ability to understand, cope with uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, experiences and behaviours when they feel understood. His research and work led to a new kind of approach, where, unlike previous therapies, the client is the expert on themselves, not the therapist.
He believed the client has the capacity for self-awareness, to look for and discover meaning, purpose and direction in their lives. The ability to reach their full potential To be the best that they can be, given the right circumstances and conditions. He called it the drive to self-actualize.
A new approach
The person-centred counselling approach to therapy aims to create those conditions, by meeting and working with the person, not the problem. Unlike previous approaches, it is non-directive. The person is accepted, just as they are, where they are, how they are, who they are.
He also recognised the distress people is often the distance between the real them, and the idealized version of themselves. The real them being the warts and all version of themselves, who say, love chocolate cake, and the idealized version of themselves who mustn’t be greedy. – ‘I want to do…– but that’s not who I am’
He called them conditions of worth, ‘the conditions I must meet in order to be loved, valued, respected, accepted etc’
Now it’s not that one is good and one is bad, one is Dr Jekyll and the other Mr Hyde. They are both what they are, and it is the distance and the distress between the two that gets filled with feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, stress, fear – all those things we don’t want to feel.
We all have conditions of worth, as much as they are placed on us by others, we place them on them as well.
The six conditions needed for successful therapy
Now in his work Rogers stated that six conditions are necessary for a therapeutic relationship. These conditions can help a client explore difficulties, become more open to new ideas and experiences, and help growth.
Three of which he called core conditions which he described as both necessary, and sufficient in order to help a client in therapy.
First one is the client needing some kind of psychological connection to be able to participate freely and openly in the process.
Secondly, the client is incongruent, meaning in a state of emotional distress or discomfort. They are however aware that something needs to change, to be different. The client has a need to understand and make sense of what’s going on for them, and what they’d like to change.
Thirdly, the client has a level of self-awareness. Not only what they are thinking and feeling, but how they interact with the world around them, how they come across to others.
The Core Conditions
Rogers described the 3 core conditions of person centred counselling as both necessary and sufficient in the therapeutic process. The first of these is congruence. The therapist is genuine, in touch with themselves, they communicate openly and honestly. They are self-aware.
Second, there is unconditional positive regard for the client. The client doesn’t have to ‘earn’ anything to meet with the therapists approval. The therapist accepts the client as they are, being non-judgmental, accepting them. And again, unlike previous approaches the therapist neither directs nor advises. It helps both client and counsellor
Lastly empathy – imagining how it might feel for the client, and to reflect that back. When the therapist does this, the client feels heard, understood, listened to, validated.
These three core conditions help the client feel free to explore themselves and their situations without fear of judgment. The process helps clients become open to new experiences, perspectives. It puts the person at the centre of the therapy and the direction they wish to take.
Today, regardless of the approach therapists still employ the three core conditions to build a relationship and create a space where clients can explore change, even though other approaches and techniques from different counselling theories may be employed.
“When I accept myself as I am, I am free to begin to change.” Carl Rogers
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