Review: Carl Rogers’s “On Becoming a Person”

by Miles Raymer


When I decided to pursue a career in counseling, a mentor recommended Carl Rogers as one of the key historical figures in the development of modern psychotherapy. On Becoming a Person is a collection of essays originally published between 1951 and 1961, each presenting a portion of Rogers’s insights from over thirty years of counseling and psychological research. The book is excellent and not nearly as dated as one might expect, given the significant amount of progress that has occurred in psychology over the last 50+ years.

Rogers was the original founder of client-centered therapy, which posits the counselor-client relationship as a means of helping the client discover and learn to authentically express their “true self.” Rogers’s concept of the self is process-based, emphasizing the fluid, dynamic, and adaptive qualities that healthy and well-adjusted people tend to exhibit:

Life, at its best, is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed. In my clients and in myself I find that when life is richest and most rewarding it is a flowing process. To experience this is both fascinating and a little frightening. I find I am at my best when I can let the flow of my experience carry me, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward goals of which I am but dimly aware. In thus floating with the complex stream of my experiencing, and in trying to understand its ever-changing complexity, it should be evident that there are no fixed points. When I am thus able to be in process, it is clear that there can be no closed system of beliefs, no unchanging set of principles which I hold. Life is guided by a changing understanding of and interpretation of my experience. It is always a process of becoming. (27, emphasis his)

In order for this “process of becoming” to be fully realized, the counselor must cultivate and communicate three essential qualities: congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding. Congruence requires the counselor to be “exactly what he is––not a facade, a role, or a pretense” (282, emphasis his). An effective therapist’s actions, words, and body language will be “unified, or integrated” in a fashion that clients feel is authentic (282).

Unconditional positive regard is more or less exactly what it seems. Here’s Rogers’s definition:

It involves the therapist’s genuine willingness for the client to be whatever feeling is going on in him at that moment,––fear, confusion, pain, pride, anger, hatred, love, courage, or awe. It means that the therapist cares for the client, in a non-possessive way. It means that he prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way. By this I mean that he does not simply accept the client when he is behaving in certain ways, and disapprove of him when he behaves in other ways. It means an outgoing positive feeling without reservations, without evaluations. (62)

Empathic understanding means that the counselor makes every effort to see things from a client’s internal, experience-based perspective, rather than from an external, judgment-based point of view. A counselor must learn to “sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing that ‘as if’ quality…without your own anger, fear, or confusion getting bound up in it” (283). This could be understood as one version of “tactical empathy,” to use a modern term from negotiation specialist Chris Voss. The goal here, it seems to me, is not to feel everything precisely the same way a client feels it (which would be too upsetting and painful in most circumstances), but to model and inquire about a client’s feelings in a way that prioritizes how they experience things based on their personal history, perceptions, and values. In short, the counselor needs to help the client feel like they are fully understood on their own terms, not on some other terms that the counselor dictates.

Rogers asserts that it’s not enough for a counselor to feel that they are congruent and expressing unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. Critically, clients must perceive these attitudes in the counselor in order for them to be effective. Clients must also recognize a personal problem or problems they want to address in therapy––usually some form of incongruence that is making their lives difficult. Rogers makes it clear that the therapeutic relationship is always an imperfect work in progress, but in ideal circumstances client-centered therapy produces the following results with relative consistency:

(a) The client becomes more realistic in his self-perceptions; (b) more confident and self-directing; (c) more positively valued by himself; (d) less likely to repress elements of his experience; (e) more mature, socialized and adaptive in his behavior; (f) less upset by stress and quicker to recover from it; (g) more like the healthy, integrated, well-functioning person in his personality structure. These changes do not occur in a control group, and appear to be definitely associated with the client’s being in a therapeutic relationship. (375)

Another fascinating component of Rogers’s outlook is his somewhat-counterintuitive theory of personal growth. In contrast to the “let’s identify a problem, figure out its cause(s), and make an action plan to solve it” method that many people expect from therapy, Rogers claims that clients unlock their innate capacity for self-directed change when embedded in a fully-acceptant and nurturing psychosocial environment. “The motivation for learning and change springs from the self-actualizing tendency of life itself,” he writes, demonstrating his belief that the potential for positive development comes ready-made within each individual, requiring no outside imposition (285). The role of the counselor, therefore, is not to “treat, or cure, or change” a client, but rather to “provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth” (32). Since counselors are people (and often clients), too, they must always be learning and open to changing their views and methods: “The degree to which I can create relationships which facilitate the growth of others as separate persons is a measure of the growth I have achieved in myself.” (56)

Given my paucity of practical experience, I am somewhat reluctant to take issue with any of Rogers’s positions. Still, there are a few exploratory critiques I’d like to present. The first is that I believe there is limited value to the notion of a “true self,” and also that freeing a client’s “true self” is perhaps not the right way to conceptualize the ultimate goal of therapy. Humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman takes this up in his recent book, Transcend

Carl Rogers noted that while the problems people present during psychotherapy “run the gamut of life’s experiences”––troubles with school, or spouse, or employer, or with one’s own uncontrollable or bizarre behavior, or with one’s frightening feelings––”there is perhaps only one problem.” Rogers observes that below the level of the complaint, each person is really asking, “Who am I really? How can I get in touch with this real self, underlying all my surface behavior? How can I become myself?”

In my view, this is the wrong question. All the aspects of your mind are part of you. It’s rather difficult to think of any intentional behavior that does not reflect some genuine part of your psychological makeup, whether it’s your dispositions, attitudes, values, or goals. We each contain multitudes. For personal growth, I believe a better question you should ask yourself is: “Which potentialities within me do I most wish to spend my limited time cultivating, developing, and actualizing in this world?” (258)

This relates to a second hangup I had with Rogers’s model of the self, which is that he seems to equate increased fluidity and unpredictability of character with increased autonomy and freedom. For Rogers, all forms of personal and habitual rigidity seem to be undesirable impediments. To his credit, he acknowledges that “some people do not value fluidity” the same way he does, so perhaps I am one of those folks (155). In my personal experience, people who strike a strategic balance between rigidity and fluidity seem to live the healthiest and most meaningful lives. Sometimes stubbornness and commitment to consistency are bedrocks of stability and security, allowing for more fluid adaptation at other levels of experience. Some of the most “unfree” people I’ve met are also some of the most fluid––unable to create and maintain healthy habits.

To make my own bias clear, I say this as someone who loves routine. I benefit immensely from treasured habits, but there’s no doubt that my native rigidity can also hinder necessary adaptation and flexibility. I wouldn’t conclude, however, that I (or others like me) should therefore seek to become more fluid in all aspects of life, but rather should selectively increase fluidity in some areas and maintain rigidity in others. This is why I ultimately think that both of these features of human psychology can produce positive or negative results, depending on the person and context.

Another question I have concerns an apparent conflict between congruence and the other two qualities that a counselor is supposed to cultivate. I imagine there may be circumstances in which a counselor’s authentic reaction to a client will not serve the therapeutic relationship. For example, if a counselor genuinely finds a client’s behavior upsetting or potentially dangerous, I wonder how that could be expressed in a way that doesn’t detract from unconditional positive regard. Also, if a counselor proves unable to adequately model a client’s internal perspective despite their best efforts, being forthright about that may compromise empathic understanding. It’s very possible that getting some real experience as a therapist will reveal resolutions to these hypothetical worries, or it may turn out that these troubles are part of the nature of therapy and indicative of incompatibility between a particular counselor and client. Time will tell, but for now Rogers has provided an excellent platform for imaginative exploration of the challenges I will soon face as I strive to become capable of providing clients with therapeutic care.

As a last word, I’d like to point out that Rogers’s work has a lot to offer, even for readers uninterested in therapy. Rogers was an accomplished philosopher in his own right, and his thoughts on the inherent tension between subjectivity and objectivity––between experience and science––are especially keen. This passage about the “great paradox of the behavioral sciences” is one of the best examinations of determinism that I’ve encountered:

If we choose to utilize our scientific knowledge to free men, then it will demand that we live openly and frankly with the great paradox of the behavioral sciences. We will recognize that behavior, when examined scientifically, is surely best understood as determined by prior causation. This is the great fact of science. But responsible personal choice, which is the most essential element in being a person, which is the core experience in psychotherapy, which exists prior to any scientific endeavor, is an equally prominent fact in our lives. We will have to live with the realization that to deny the reality of the experience of responsible personal choice is as stultifying, as closed-minded, as to deny the possibility of a behavioral science. That these two important elements of our experience appear to be in contradiction has perhaps the same significance as the contradiction between the wave theory and the corpuscular theory of light, both of which can be shown to be true, even though incompatible. We cannot profitably deny our subjective life, any more than we can profitably deny the objective description of that life. (400)

I couldn’t agree more. While I am sure that Rogers’s approach is just one of many worthy ways to help people seeking therapy, I hope and sense that his influence on my personal journey will persist as I move through my formal education in this field.

Rating: 9/10