Client Centered Therapy: Why It Works

By: Dylan Buckley

Updated August 03, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC

As you might have guessed, client-centered therapy, also known as person-centered therapy, emphasizes helping people. That's why it's been one of the most widely-used approaches to therapy for decades. In this article, we'll talk about client-centered therapy, how it has changed the way that people receive treatment, and how it could benefit you.

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An Overview of Client-Centered Therapy: What Makes It Different?

Client-centered therapy (CCT) emerged in the 1930s at a time when the neo-Freudians were expanding psychoanalysis.

In its previous form, psychoanalysis was a form of therapy that placed the patient in the center, but not always in a positive manner. Many patients who experienced the Freudian method of therapy found it to be too suggestive, meaning patients left therapy with diagnosis and little else [4].

Carl Rogers initially developed the CCT method, so it has been called a Rogerian technique. In the beginning, Rogers called his method "client-centered therapy," but he later changed the name to "person-centered therapy."

Who Uses Client-Centered Therapy?

Client-centered therapy is most effective for individuals who are experiencing situational stressors, depression, and anxiety or who are working through issues related to personality disorders [1]. However, Rogers didn't want his clients to view themselves as patients or as a diagnosis. He wanted each client to know that he regarded them as a person, hence the name of his approach.

With client- or person-centered therapy, the focus is on the individual, and the therapist is a sounding board. The basic tenets of CCT are:

  • Unconditional positive regard - accepting the client where and how he or she is
  • Congruence - the ability of the therapist to relate to the client by dropping the professional facade and being human
  • Empathy - the ability to recognize and respond to emotions expressed by the client

In order for therapy to work, no matter the style of the therapist, the client can't feel like they're being judged [4]. If an individual didn't have problems, then he or she would not feel the need to seek therapy. Therefore, it's not the job of a therapist to form judgments or even opinions outside the realm of professionalism.

Clients who do not feel judged are generally more comfortable expressing themselves and tend to gain more insight into their own problems while developing a greater ability to resolve them. That's part of what makes this approach effective.


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Why Client-Centered Therapy Works

Client-centered therapy works because it focuses on what the client needs [3]. If a client needs to discuss the past, the therapist will listen and respond in an empathic manner. This approach assumes that the past issue is impeding the individual's ability to deal with the present.

Unlike the cliché therapist who blames a client's parents or childhood experiences, the client-centered therapist recognizes that past hurts can play an important role in the ability to work through current issues; however, in order for a person to effectively cope with and overcome current obstacles, they must be given a forum in which to express past pains.

When expressing past hurts, it can be particularly helpful to talk to someone who is not a family member, a friend, or even a member of the clergy. It's not always easy to talk openly with those who know us best, and they may not be able to listen to past pain with an open mind like a therapist can.

Listening is a crucial part of client-centered therapy. With this approach, clients who have sought therapy before are often surprised and maybe even be a bit put off by the fact that the therapist does not ask questions unless they're seeking clarification or mirroring what the client has stated [5].

The client-centered therapist doesn't instruct or suggest either. Instead, the client-centered therapist believes that the power of therapy stems from the client forming his or her own insights and making his or her own decisions based on those insights [4]. With this in mind, the goal of client-centered therapy might remind you of the old adage about teaching someone to fish instead of giving them fish.

Drawing from Theory

Client-centered therapy draws upon Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

According to Maslow, individuals are constantly seeking self-actualization - a state where an individual achieves recognition of and comfort with who he or she is.

This does not mean achieving all that can be achieved; instead, the self-actualized individual has arrived at a point where he or she can do great work and contribute to family, friends, society, education, and/or science at the highest possible level.

In order for a person to achieve self-actualization, Maslow theorized that lower-tier needs had to be met first. First tier needs include physical needs, such as nutrition, sleep, and biological needs. Second tier needs revolve around safety and include having adequate housing, clothing, and comfort. The third tier of belonging needs represents having an intact family and/or social support system, and the fourth and final tier before achieving a level of self-actualization is that of esteem and self-worth.

Rogers believed that an individual would find themselves in crisis if they did not have the basic needs met. However, if higher tier needs like belonging were met even though lower tier needs were not, recovery was possible.

Want To Learn More About Client-Centered Therapy?
Learn Why It Works. Speak With A Board-Certified Therapist Online Now.

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Who Can Benefit from Client-Centered Therapy?

Client-centered therapy works best for clients who have the ability to communicate, to remain in the present, and to put the past into perspective.

Individuals who experience hallucinations, delusions, or other breaks with reality are usually not good candidates for client-centered therapy [3]. This is not because the therapy itself won't work, but because the client needs to be in touch with reality to reap the benefits of this approach.

Unfortunately, there are few therapists who advertise that they practice client-centered therapy, so it's up to the client to speak with their therapist in advance and express an interest in this particular method.

Six Key Elements to Look for in a Therapist's Advertisement or First Session

  1. Therapist-Client Psychological Contact: The therapist must indicate that they value knowing the client and establishing a client-therapist relationship based upon authenticity.
  2. Client Incongruence or Vulnerability: The therapist recognizes the incongruence between self-image and the present reality, responding with empathy instead of judgment.
  3. Therapist Congruence or Genuineness: The therapist is genuine and empathic. He or she does not allow professionalism to cloud the ability to demonstrate authentic feelings while still maintaining an ethical demeanor.
  4. Therapist Unconditional Positive Regard: The therapist accepts the client for who and where he or she is, recognizing that growth is a process.
  5. Therapist Empathy: The therapist can remain detached, while still expressing empathy and understanding toward the client and his or her experiences.
  6. Client Perception: The client recognizes that, even though he or she is uncomfortable with his or her present state, the therapist accepts and respects who he or she is and what he or she is experiencing.

What To Expect From Therapy

The purpose of going to therapy is not always about getting better. Sometimes, it's about accepting who and where we are in life [3]. At times, family or societal expectations shape our view of ourselves and the world, but in order to achieve self-actualization, it's important to accept ourselves as we really are. There's no point in feeling guilt over past mistakes [1].

Once a person has recognized a wrong and taken steps to make amends, it's time to move forward. Depending upon others to accept an apology or to recognize an act of contrition is futile. However, many individuals still want acknowledgment. In the absence of this, it's often difficult for the individual to move forward in the healing process.

With client-centered therapy, there is no judgment, leaving the individual free to express guilt, anger, sadness, fear, and any other emotion relevant to his or her circumstances [6].

Most people find this is a helpful release because it's often hard to get this kind of space or acknowledgement in personal relationships as people have a tendency to make it all about themselves when someone else voices a feeling, complaint, or recommendation.


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Relationships are not always easy because the people involved all have their own agendas. These agendas can get in the way of communication. With client centered-therapy, there are no agendas except for those set by the client, so it can be a very healing process.

Seeking Help

If you're seeking counseling services, there are a variety of avenues that you can pursue. Choices range from asking for a referral from your primary care physician to searching for a therapist in your insurance network. In addition, there are online therapy options that are not only affordable (with prices similar to insurance co-pays), but also private and convenient.

With online therapy services from a platform like BetterHelp, you can able communicate with a qualified therapist by email, chat, or video from the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection.

In addition to offering a service that is convenient and cost-effective, BetterHelp can also connect you with a wide range of counselors who specialize in client-centered therapy and many other approaches. Check out the reviews below to see what others thought about working with a BetterHelp counselor.

Counselor Reviews

"I'm not sure I have the adequate words to express how much Dr. Drew has helped me. She is supportive, and has given me so many different outlets and tools to work through our therapy together. I have had therapists who have tunnel vision in where they'd like to direct the conversation, and it was a relief to not have that with Dr. Drew. She lets me organically go where I need to in the session. She also has been able to connect with my personality and direct therapy in a fashion that is conducive to my learning. I couldn't recommend her enough."

"Aaron is a fantastic counsellor. He listens, appreciates and understands and every advice and task he gives me to do is very personal and specific to me and my needs. He makes me feel comfortable and relaxed and I feel completely comfortable opening up to him."

Conclusion

When seeking a therapist, it's important to recognize that he or she is not an authority on what is best for you. Instead, a therapist is a guide to help you achieve a level of self-discovery. The therapist is not and should not ever be in a position of power; think of them as a tool for empowerment. Then and only then can a client feel comfortable enough to reveal authentic feelings and thoughts.

Client-centered therapy works because it's about what works for the client. The goal of therapy is not always being cured; sometimes it's simply about acceptance. A life full of acceptance, appreciation, and respect is possible--all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the main goal of person centered therapy?

The main goal of person centered therapy is to help the individual to achieve contentment through “self-actualization.” Self-actualization is the theory in humanistic psychology that we experience “negative emotions” - emotional health issues – when some obstacle prevents us from reaching our potential.

These obstacles could be obstacles in the real world, but they may also be misdirected behaviors, or unhealthy thoughts and attitudes held by the individual.

What are the techniques of person centered therapy?

Person centered therapy can include medication if a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse is also being treated. However, for most people, person centered therapy means psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy may sound scary but it’s just what you probably think of when you think of therapy – the patient or client tells the counselor or therapist about their feelings. Then, the therapist or counselor provides the patient or client with resources for self-understanding.

In this way, the therapist and client work together to determine the attitudes and self-directed behaviors that the client can foster outside of therapy to lead a more fulfilling life.

What are the three main components of person centered therapy?

The three main components of the person centered approach are “unconditional positive regard,” “Congruence,” and “Empathy.”

“Unconditional positive regard” directs the therapist or counselor to view the patient or client as a healthy person facing challenges rather than a broken thing that needs to be fixed or a sick person that needs to be healed.

“Congruence” directs the therapist or counselor to relate to the patient or client as a fellow human person, rather than from a position of power or superiority.

“Empathy” directs the therapist or counselor to try to relate to the experiences of the patient or client rather than viewing their thoughts and emotions as “data.”

What is Carl Rogers person Centred theory?

“Rogerian Psychotherapy” is the idea that the therapist or counselor shouldn’t act like a doctor diagnosing and treating a condition. Instead, the therapist or counselor should be a therapeutic relationship dedicated to the personal growth and development of the person.

What are the weaknesses of person centered therapy?

The weaknesses of person centered therapy are that it requires that individual to have a reliable and consistent understanding of reality. This means that people with some of the most serious mental health problems can’t benefit from it.

Why is person centered therapy effective?

Person centered therapy is effective because for many people difficult emotions aren’t the result of a diagnosable and treatable condition – they're the result of unmet personal and societal needs.

What type of therapy is person centered therapy?

Person centered therapy is a subset of psychotherapy, both are commonly referred to as “talk therapy.” These therapies promote personal growth through positive interactions between the individual and their therapist or counselor.

Who benefits person centered therapy?

Person centered therapy is of the greatest benefit to people who experience emotional health problems but without an identifiable cause like physical health problems or a recent difficult life experience.

While some care providers would be content to give people in this situation an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, the person centered approach prioritizes determining why the person feels that way rather than trying to eliminate the feeling itself.

What are the 7 core values of a person Centred approach?

The core conditions of the person centered approach are Respect for the patient, coordination of care if necessary, providing information and education, comfort, emotional support, involvement of family and friends, and continuity. An eight value is “access to care.”

What are the main principles of person centered approach?

The main principles of the person centered approach is the idea that difficult emotions arise because of barriers to an individuals acceptance of themselves. This can be overcome by fostering personal growth through the vast resources that can be provided by a knowledgeable and considerate therapist or counselor.

What are the goals and techniques of the person centered approach?

The goals of the patient centered approach are to help the client or patient come to a greater acceptance and appreciation of themselves. The primary technique employed is person centered therapy, a kind of psychotherapy that encourages the client to explore their own thoughts and feelings with guidance and feedback from a therapist or counselor.

What is Person Centred approach?

The person centered approach holds that the issues that an individual is experiencing cannot be isolated from who that person is. In other words, one cannot treat depression, or anxiety, etc., one must treat the person.

Once provided in a therapy session, these resources can be tapped by the patient or client in their daily lives to help them be more accepting.

Text References

[1] Bowles, T. (2012). Developing Adaptive Change Capabilities Through Client-Centred Therapy. Behaviour Change; Bowen Hills, 29(4), 258-271.

[2] Gonçalves, M. M., Mendes, I., Cruz, G., Ribeiro, A. P., Sousa, I., Angus, L., & Greenberg, L. S. (2012). Innovative moments and change in client-centered therapy. Psychotherapy Research: Journal Of The Society For Psychotherapy Research, 22(4), 389-401.

[3] Grant, B. (2010). Getting the Point: Empathic Understanding in Nondirective Client-Centered Therapy. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 9(3), 220-235.

[4] Kahn, E. (2012). On being "up to other things": The nondirective attitude and therapist-frame responses in client-centered therapy and contemporary psychoanalysis. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 11(3), 240-254.

[5] Seehausen, M., Kazzer, P., Bajbouj, M., &Prehn, K. (2012). Effects of Empathic Paraphrasing - Extrinsic Emotion Regulation in Social Conflict. Frontiers in Psychology, 3.

[6] Strawbridge, S. (2001, 04). Carl rogers. Psychologist, 14, 185. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/211837881?accountid=458


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