Carl Rogers was born January 8, 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, a
suburb of Chicago, the fourth of six children. His father
was a successful civil engineer and his mother was a housewife
and devout Christian. His education started
in the second grade, because he could already read before kindergarten.
When Carl was 12, his family moved to a farm about 30 miles west
of Chicago, and it was here that he was to spend his adolescence.
With a strict upbringing and many chores, Carl was to become rather
isolated, independent, and self-disciplined.
He went on the the University of Wisconsin as a agriculture major.
Later, he switched to religion to study for the ministry.
During this time, he was selected as one of ten students to go
to Beijing for the “World Student Christian Federation Conference”
for six months. He tells us that his new experiences so
broadened his thinking that he began to doubt some of his basic
After graduation, he married Helen Elliot (against his parents’
wishes), moved to New York City, and began attending the
Union Theological Seminary, a famous liberal religious institution.
While there, he took a student organized seminar called “Why am
I entering the ministry?” I might as well tell you that,
unless you want to change your career, never take a class with
such a title! He tells us that most of the participants
“thought their way right out of religious work.”
Religion’s loss was, of course, psychology’s gain: Rogers
switched to the clinical psychology program of Columbia University,
and received his Ph.D. in 1931. He had already begun his
clinical work at the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Children. At this clinic, he learned about Otto Rank’s
theory and therapy techniques, which started him on the road to
developing his own approach.
He was offered a full professorship at Ohio State in 1940.
In 1942, he wrote his first book, Counseling and Psychotherapy.
Then, in 1945, he was invited to set up a counseling center at
the University of Chicago. It was while working there that
in 1951 he published his major work, Client-Centered Therapy,
wherein he outlines his basic theory.
In 1957, he returned to teach at his alma mater, the University
of Wisconsisn. Unfortunately, it was a time of conflict
within their psychology department, and Rogers became very disillusioned
with higher education. In 1964, he was happy to accept a
research position in La Jolla, California. He provided therapy,
gave speeches, and wrote, until his death in 1987.
Roger’s theory is a clinical one, based on years of experience
dealing with his clients. He has this in common with Freud,
for example. Also in common with Freud is that his is a
particularly rich and mature theory -- well thought-out and logically
tight, with broad application.
Not in common with Freud, however, is the fact that Rogers sees
people as basically good or healthy -- or at very least, not bad
or ill. In other words, he sees mental health as the normal
progression of life, and he sees mental illness, criminality,
and other human problems, as distortions of that natural tendency.
Also not in common with Freud is the fact that Rogers’ theory
is a relatively simple one.
Also not in common with Freud is that Rogers’ theory is particularly
simple -- elegant even! The entire theory is built on a
single “force of life” he calls the actualizing tendency.
It can be defined as the built-in motivation present in every
life-form to develop its potentials to the fullest extent possible.
We’re not just talking about survival: Rogers believes that
all creatures strive to make the very best of their existence.
If they fail to do so, it is not for a lack of desire.
Rogers captures with this single great need or motive all the
other motives that other theorists talk about. He asks us,
why do we want air and water and food? Why do we seek safety,
love, and a sense of competence? Why, indeed, do we seek
to discover new medicines, invent new power sources, or create
new works of art? Because, he answers, it is in our nature
as living things to do the very best we can!
Keep in mind that, unlike Maslow’s use of the term, Rogers applies
it to all living creatures. Some of his earliest examples,
in fact, include seaweed and mushrooms! Think about it:
Doesn’t it sometimes amaze you the way weeds will grow through
the sidewalk, or saplings crack boulders, or animals survive desert
conditions or the frozen north?
He also applied the idea to ecosystems, saying that an ecosystem
such as a forest, with all its complexity, has a much greater
actualization potential than a simple ecosystem such as a corn
field. If one bug were to become extinct in a forest, there
are likely to be other creatures that will adapt to fill the gap;
On the other hand, one bout of “corn blight” or some such disaster,
and you have a dust bowl. The same for us as individuals:
If we live as we should, we will become increasingly complex,
like the forest, and thereby remain flexible in the face of life’s
little -- and big -- disasters.
People, however, in the course of actualizing their potentials,
created society and culture. In and of itself, that’s not
a problem: We are a social creature, it is our nature.
But when we created culture, it developed a life of its own.
Rather than remaining close to other aspects of our natures, culture
can become a force in its own right. And even if, in the
long run, a culture that interferes with our actualization dies
out, we, in all likelihood, will die with it.
Don’t misunderstand: Culture and society are not intrinsically
evil! It’s more along the lines of the birds of paradise
found in Papua-New Guinea. The colorful and dramatic plumage
of the males apparently distract predators from females and the
young. Natural selection has lead these birds towards more
and more elaborate tail feathers, until in some species the male
can no longer get off the ground. At that point, being colorful
doesn’t do the male -- or the species -- much good! In the
same way, our elaborate societies, complex cultures, incredible
technologies, for all that they have helped us to survive and
prosper, may at the same time serve to harm us, and possibly even
Rogers tells us that organisms know what is good for them.
Evolution has provided us with the senses, the tastes, the discriminations
we need: When we hunger, we find food -- not just any food,
but food that tastes good. Food that tastes bad is likely
to be spoiled, rotten, unhealthy. That what good and bad tastes
are -- our evolutionary lessons made clear! This is called
Among the many things that we instinctively value is positive
regard, Rogers umbrella term for things like love, affection,
attention, nurturance, and so on. It is clear that babies
need love and attention. In fact, it may well be that they die
without it. They certainly fail to thrive -- i.e. become
all they can be.
Another thing -- perhaps peculiarly human -- that we value is
positive self-regard, that is, self-esteem, self-worth,
a positive self-image. We achieve this positive self-regard
by experiencing the positive regard others show us over our years
of growing up. Without this self-regard, we feel small and
helpless, and again we fail to become all that we can be!
Like Maslow, Rogers believes that, if left to their own devices,
animals will tend to eat and drink things that are good for them,
and consume them in balanced proportions. Babies, too, seem
to want and like what they need. Somewhere along the line,
however, we have created an environment for ourselves that is
significantly different from the one in which we evolved.
In this new environment are such things as refined sugar, flour,
butter, chocolate, and so on, that our ancestors in Africa never
knew. These things have flavors that appeal to our organismic
valuing -- yet do not serve our actualization well. Over
millions of years, we may evolve to find brocolli more satisfying
than cheesecake -- but by then, it’ll be way too late for you
Our society also leads us astray with conditions of worth.
As we grow up, our parents, teachers, peers, the media, and others,
only give us what we need when we show we are “worthy,” rather
than just because we need it. We get a drink when we finish our
class, we get something sweet when we finish our vegetables, and
most importantly, we get love and affection if and only if we
Getting positive regard on “on condition” Rogers calls conditional
positive regard. Because we do indeed need positive
regard, these conditions are very powerful, and we bend ourselves
into a shape determined, not by our organismic valuing or our
actualizing tendency, but by a society that may or may not truly
have our best interests at heart. A “good little boy or
girl” may not be a healthy or happy boy or girl!
Over time, this “conditioning” leads us to have conditional
positive self-regard as well. We begin to like ourselves
only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us,
rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials.
And since these standards were created without keeping each individual
in mind, more often than not we find ourselves unable to meet
them, and therefore unable to maintain any sense of self-esteem.
The aspect of your being that is founded in the actualizing tendency,
follows organismic valuing, needs and receives positive regard
and self-regard, Rogers calls the real self. It is
the “you” that, if all goes well, you will become.
On the other hand, to the extent that our society is out of synch
with the actualizing tendency, and we are forced to live with
conditions of worth that are out of step with organismic valuing,
and receive only conditional positive regard and self-regard,
we develop instead an ideal self. By ideal, Rogers
is suggesting something not real, something that is always out
of our reach, the standard we can’t meet.
This gap between the real self and the ideal self, the “I am”
and the “I should” is called incongruity. The greater
the gap, the more incongruity. The more incongruity, the
more suffering. In fact, incongruity is essentially what
Rogers means by neurosis: Being out of synch with
your own self. If this all sounds familiar to you, it is
precisely the same point made by Karen Horney!
When you are in a situation where there is an incongruity between
your image of yourself and your immediate experience of yourself
(i.e. between the ideal and the real self), you are in a threatening
situation. For example, if you have been taught to feel
unworthy if you do not get A's on all your tests, and yet you
aren't really all that great a student, then situations such as
tests are going to bring that incongruity to light -- tests will
be very threatening.
When you are expecting a threatening situation, you will feel
anxiety. Anxiety is a signal indicating that there is
trouble ahead, that you should avoid the situation! One
way to avoid the situation, of course, is to pick yourself up
and run for the hills. Since that is not usually an option
in life, instead of running physically, we run psychologically,
by using defenses.
Rogers' idea of defenses is very similar to Freud's, except that
Rogers considers everything from a perceptual point-of-view, so
that even memories and impulses are thought of as perceptions.
Fortunately for us, he has only two defenses: denial and
Denial means very much what it does in Freud's system:
You block out the threatening situation altogether. An example
might be the person who never picks up his test or asks about
test results, so he doesn't have to face poor grades (at least
for now!). Denial for Rogers does also include what Freud
called repression: If keeping a memory or an impulse out
of your awareness -- refuse to perceive it -- you may be able
to avoid (again, for now!) a threatening situation.
Perceptual distortion is a matter of reinterpreting the
situation so that it appears less threatening. It is very
similar to Freud's rationalization. A student that is threatened
by tests and grades may, for example, blame the professor for
poor teaching, trick questions, bad attitude, or whatever.
The fact that sometimes professors are poor teachers, write trick
questions, and have bad attitudes only makes the distortion work
better: If it could be true, then maybe it really was true!
It can also be much more obviously perceptual, such as when the
person misreads his grade as better than it is.
Unfortunately for the poor neurotic (and, in fact, most of us),
every time he or she uses a defense, they put a greater distance
between the real and the ideal. They become ever more incongruous,
and find themselves in more and more threatening situations, develop
greater and greater levels of anxiety, and use more and more defenses....
It becomes a vicious cycle that the person eventually is unable
to get out of, at least on their own.
Rogers also has a partial explanation for psychosis:
Psychosis occurs when a person's defense are overwhelmed, and
their sense of self becomes "shattered" into little disconnected
pieces. His behavior likewise has little consistency to
it. We see him as having "psychotic breaks" -- episodes
of bizarre behavior. His words may make little sense.
His emotions may be inappropriate. He may lose the ability
to differentiate self and non-self, and become disoriented and
The fully-functioning person
Rogers, like Maslow, is just as interested in describing the
healthy person. His term is "fully-functioning,"
and involves the following qualities:
1. Openness to experience. This is the opposite
of defensiveness. It is the accurate perception of one's
experiences in the world, including one's feelings. It also
means being able to accept reality, again including one's feelings.
Feelings are such an important part of openness because they convey
organismic valuing. If you cannot be open to your feelings,
you cannot be open to acualization. The hard part, of course,
is distinguishing real feelings from the anxieties brought on
by conditions of worth.
2. Existential living. This is living in the
here-and-now. Rogers, as a part of getting in touch with
reality, insists that we not live in the past or the future --
the one is gone, and the other isn't anything at all, yet!
The present is the only reality we have. Mind you, that
doesn't mean we shouldn't remember and learn from our past.
Neither does it mean we shouldn't plan or even day-dream about
the future. Just recognize these things for what they are:
memories and dreams, which we are experiencing here in the present.
3. Organismic trusting. We should allow ourselves
to be guided by the organismic valuing process. We should
trust ourselves, do what feels right, what comes natural.
This, as I'm sure you realize, has become a major sticking point
in Rogers' theory. People say, sure, do what comes natural
-- if you are a sadist, hurt people; if you are a masochist, hurt
yourself; if the drugs or alcohol make you happy, go for it; if
you are depressed, kill yourself.... This certainly doesn't
sound like great advice. In fact, many of the excesses of
the sixties and seventies were blamed on this attitude.
But keep in mind that Rogers meant trust your real self, and you
can only know what your real self has to say if you are open to
experience and living existentially! In other words, organismic
trusting assumes you are in contact with the acutalizing tendency.
4. Experiential freedom. Rogers felt that
it was irrelevant whether or not people really had free will.
We feel very much as if we do. This is not to say, of course,
that we are free to do anything at all: We are surrounded
by a deterministic universe, so that, flap my arms as much as
I like, I will not fly like Superman. It means that we feel
free when choices are available to us. Rogers says that
the fully-functioning person acknowledges that feeling of freedom,
and takes responsibility for his choices.
5. Creativity. If you feel free and responsible,
you will act accordingly, and participate in the world.
A fully-functioning person, in touch with acualization, will feel
obliged by their nature to contribute to the actualization of
others, even life itself. This can be through creativity
in the arts or sciences, through social concern and parental love,
or simply by doing one's best at one's job. Creativity as
Rogers uses it is very close to Erikson's generativity.
Carl Rogers is best known for his contributions to therapy.
His therapy has gone through a couple of name changes along the
way: He originally called it non-directive, because
he felt that the therapist should not lead the client, but rather
be there for the client while the client directs the progress
of the therapy. As he became more experienced, he realized
that, as "non-directive" as he was, he still influenced his client
by his very "non-directiveness!" In other words, clients
look to therapists for guidance, and will find it even when the
therapist is trying not to guide.
So he changed the name to client-centered. He still
felt that the client was the one who should say what is wrong,
find ways of improving, and determine the conclusion of therapy
-- his therapy was still very "client-centered" even while he
acknowledged the impact of the therapist. Unfortunately,
other therapists felt that this name for his therapy was a bit
of a slap in the face for them: Aren't most therapies "client-centered?"
Nowadays, though the terms non-directive and client-centered
are still used, most people just call it Rogerian therapy.
One of the phrases that Rogers used to describe his therapy is
"supportive, not reconstructive," and he uses the analogy of learning
to ride a bicycle to explain: When you help a child to learn
to ride a bike, you can't just tell them how. They have
to try it for themselves. And you can't hold them up the
whole time either. There comes a point when you have to
let them go. If they fall, they fall, but if you hang on,
they never learn.
It's the same in therapy. If independence (autonomy, freedom
with responsibility) is what you are helping a client to achieve,
then they will not achieve it if they remain dependent on you,
the therapist. They need to try their insights on their
own, in real life beyond the therapist's office! An authoritarian
approach to therapy may seem to work marvelously at first, but
ultimately it only creates a dependent person.
There is only one technique that Rogerians are known for:
reflection. Reflection is the mirroring of emotional
communication: If the client says "I feel like shit!" the
therapist may reflect this back to the client by saying something
like "So, life's getting you down, hey?" By doing this,
the therapist is communicating to the client that he is indeed
listening and cares enough to understand.
The therapist is also letting the client know what it is the
client is communicating. Often, people in distress say things
that they don't mean because it feels good to say them.
For example, a woman once came to me and said "I hate men!"
I reflected by saying "You hate all men?" Well, she said,
maybe not all -- she didn't hate her father or her brother or,
for that matter, me. Even with those men she "hated," she
discovered that the great majority of them she didn't feel as
strongly as the word hate implies. In fact, ultimately,
she realized that she didn't trust many men, and that she
was afraid of being hurt by them the way she had been by
one particular man.
Reflection must be used carefully, however. Many beginning
therapists use it without thinking (or feeling), and just repeat
every other phrase that comes out of the client's mouth.
They sound like parrots with psychology degrees! Then they
think that the client doesn't notice, when in fact it has become
a stereotype of Rogerian therapy the same way as sex and mom have
become stereotypes of Freudian therapy. Reflection must
come from the heart -- it must be genuine, congruent.
Which brings us to Rogers' famous requirements of the therapist.
Rogers felt that a therapist, in order to be effective, must have
three very special qualities:
1. Congruence -- genuineness, honesty with the client.
2. Empathy -- the ability to feel what the client
3. Respect -- acceptance, unconditional positive
regard towards the client.
He says these qualities are "necessary and sufficient:"
If the therapist shows these three qualities, the client will
improve, even if no other special "techniques" are used.
If the therapist does not show these three qualities, the client's
improvement will be minimal, no matter how many "techniques" are
used. Now this is a lot to ask of a therapist! They're
just human, and often enough a bit more "human" (let's say unusual)
than most. Rogers does give in a little, and he adds that
the therapist must show these things in the therapy relationship.
In other words, when the therapist leaves the office, he can be
as "human" as anybody.
I happen to agree with Rogers, even though these qualities are
quite demanding. Some of the research does suggest that
techniques don't matter nearly as much as the therapist's personality,
and that, to some extent at least, therapists are "born" not "made."
Rogers was a great writer, a real pleasure to read. The
most complete statement of his theory is in Client-centered
Therapy (1951). Two collections of essays are very interesting:
On Becoming a Person (1961) and A Way of Being (1980).
Finally, there's a nice collection of his work in The Carl
Rogers Reader, edited by Kirschenbaum and Henderson (1989).
Copyright 1998 by C. George Boeree