Client Centered Therapy: Why It Works

By Dylan Buckley

Updated December 03, 2019

Reviewer 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."

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 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.

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

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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.

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.

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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