What is person-centered therapy?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated January 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Within psychotherapy, which is also known as talk therapy, there is a range of approaches. Developed by psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1940s, person-centered therapy (formerly known as client-centered therapy) has been one of the most widely used approaches to psychoanalysis in history.

In the person-centered approach, therapeutic personality change is the goal, while empathic understanding, the therapist's unconditional positive regard, and clear boundaries are the vehicles.

Person-focused methodology

Carl Rogers discouraged his patients from viewing themselves only through the lens of a diagnosis. He wanted each patient to know that he regarded them as a person, hence the name of his approach. With client-centered or person-centered counseling, the focus is on the individual, and the person-centered therapist is a sounding board as well as an analyst. This approach is consistent with humanistic psychology with its emphasis on the individual as a whole. Findings of psychotherapy research suggest it has proved beneficial for people across age groups.

Psychologists who practice person-centered therapy usually emphasize reassuring the client that they are in a safe,non-judgmental environment during sessions. Clients who do not feel negatively judged often feel more comfortable expressing themselves and, as a result, may gain more insight into their problems while developing a greater ability to resolve them. The most important part of the client-centered theory is its reliance on the therapeutic relationship between the clients and the therapists.This therapist-client relationship is part of what makes this approach effective within clinical psychology and supported by scientific research.

The core expectations of a client-centered therapist are: 

  • Respect for the patient

  • Recognize the client's point of view

  • Provide coordination of care with other professionals, if necessary, for instance, teaming with a psychiatrist if a patient needs medication to manage their symptoms

  • Provide information and education to the patient about their treatment

  • Act as a source of comfort for the patient

  • Provide emotional support to the patient

  • Involve the patient’s family and friends in treatment if necessary and beneficial

  • Offer continuity of care

  • Encourage self-awareness and coping skills that go beyond short-term crisis intervention

Client-focused therapy benefits

Client-centered or person-centered therapy is often effective for people experiencing symptoms of depression or working through issues related to personality disorders. This type of therapy significantly benefits people with emotional health problems without an identifiable cause. Additionally, people who are struggling to maintain a healthy level of self-esteem may benefit from the therapist-and-patient relationship that results from the Rogerian approach. 

To be effective, person-centered therapy requires the patient to have a reliable and consistent understanding of reality. This means that people with some of the most serious mental health problems may not benefit from it initially but may eventually use it along the path to healing. Nondirective counseling works to support positive growth in the individual in such a way that it emphasizes self-direction. By recognizing the individual's ability to help themselves, this approach may facilitate the process of achieving positive results while learning important skills in ways of coping.

Links to Maslow's hierarchy of needs 

The person-centered theory introduced by Carl Rogers draws upon Maslow's hierarchy of needs for health promotion and personality development ideas. According to the hierarchy of needs model, individuals seek self-actualization – the state where they achieve recognition and comfort with who they are. 

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. The second-tier needs revolve around safety and include having adequate housing and clothing. The third tier of belonging needs represents having an intact family or social support system. The fourth and final tier before achieving a level of self-actualization is that of self-esteem and self-worth that are tied to one's sense of well-being.

Rogers believed that individuals would be in crisis if they did not have their basic needs met. However, if higher-tier needs like belonging were met even though lower-tier needs were not, recovery was possible through the person-centered approach.

How client-centered therapy works

The needs of the patient lead to person-centered therapy. For instance, if they need to discuss the past, the therapist will listen and respond in an empathic manner, using a client-centered approach. This method assumes that, based on the patient’s direction, the past issue impedes the individual's ability to deal with the present.

Person-centered therapy recognizes that for a person to cope with and overcome current obstacles effectively, they should be given a forum to express past pains. When exploring negative past events that cause discomfort, it can sometimes be easier to talk to someone who is not a family or a friend. It's not always easy to speak openly with those who know us best because they may not be able to listen with an open mind as a therapist can.

Active listening is a crucial part of person-centered therapy. With this approach, patients who have sought help before are sometimes surprised when the therapist does not ask questions unless they're seeking clarification or mirroring what the client has stated. In letting the client explain their issues with minimal interruption, client-centered therapists use facilitative psychological attitudes to help them develop a stronger self-concept and become more self-aware. 

The person-centered therapist doesn't coerce the client on how to proceed with treatment. Instead, the therapist encourages the client to form their insights and make their own decisions based on them. The practitioner of Rogerian psychotherapy may employ the use of particular techniques, such as active listening, in their clinical practice. This approach takes into account human nature, noting that individuals are more than their set of symptoms, and respects the whole person—physical, emotional, and spiritual—in the process of facilitating positive change and the person's overall well-being.

Want to learn more about client-centered therapy?

Elements of success in person-centered therapy 

For person-centered therapy to be successful, it must establish the following: 

Unconditional positive regard

The therapist must be non-judgmental during sessions and ensure the patient understands they are heard in a trusting and safe environment. This encourages them to establish confidence and feel valued and empowered to make better choices that may lead to positive outcomes.

A sense of empathic understanding

The therapist will maintain an environment of empathetic understanding and acceptance to better understand the patient’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences to help reconstruct them with a better perspective.

A genuine, congruent relationship

In person-centered therapy, the therapist does not establish an authoritarian role that conveys an air of superiority to the patient. Instead, they present themselves as a relatable, reachable, and transparent person, and not just mental health professionals. Nondirective therapy also recognizes that two people—the therapist and the patient—are in psychological contact, forming the basis of a relationship. 

When the method is successful, the patient feels validated and better understood during treatment, often leading to self-confidence in other areas of their lives. Part of the therapeutic treatment includes the beneficial relationship itself between the client and the therapist.

For this humanistic therapy to be effective, the therapist must remain calm and impartial during sessions, even if the patient verbally attacks them. The purpose of person-centered therapy is to allow the client to vocalize their feelings, including those of negativity or frustration with the therapist. This allows the professional to assist the patient in exploring their feelings and gleaning insight from the interaction. 

Ethical adherence

A client-centered therapist may also support clients by offering an ethical approach. Therapists and counselors can follow the ethical guidelines from the American Psychological Association (APA) and American Counseling Association (ACA). When setting up essential documents like a policy or consent form, these ethics should be considered to maintain person-centered care and reduce the chances of an ethical violation. 


Client-centered online therapy

If you're seeking person-centered therapy, psychotherapy services, or other therapies, 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 discreet and convenient.

With online therapy services from a platform like BetterHelp, you can communicate with a qualified therapist via email, chat, or video from the comfort of your area or any place you have an internet connection in the country. BetterHelp can also connect you with a wide range of therapists specializing in person-centered therapy and other similar approaches.

Online therapy is effective, too.  One study showed that online therapy might be more effective than in-person treatment for treating depression in the medium term. In the study, 57% of patients treated online were free of symptoms of depression three months after treatment compared to 42% of those treated with conventional therapy. If you want to learn more, get started with BetterHelp.


Person-centered family was developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s. Instead of requiring a therapist to diagnose and treat a client, this form of talk therapy focuses on the client's ability to form insights and make decisions through a healthy client-therapist relationship. If you would like to learn more about how therapy may help you, BetterHelp is available.
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