What Were Carl Rogers’ Therapy Contributions?
Updated February 04, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Over the years, many psychologists have made significant contributions to the way that therapy is looked at, understood, and carried out. Some of these figures even get their name attached to their style of therapy, like Sigmund Freud and Freudian therapy, also called psychotherapy.
Another less well-known but perhaps no less significant figure is Carl Rogers. You may have heard of "Carl Rogers therapy," a kind of slang term for what professionals call "person centered therapy," "client-centered therapy," or "nondirective therapy." Person-centered therapy began to catch on around the middle of the previous century and was only one part of a popular movement at the time called "humanistic psychology."
Carl Rogers And The Humanistic Psychologists
As mentioned, humanistic psychology began to catch on as a movement around the middle of the twentieth century. Earlier in the twentieth century, there were two main branches of psychology called Freudian psychology and behavioristic psychology.
Freudian psychology was named after Sigmund Freud who founded the school. Freud and his students believed that many of our thoughts, feelings, and actions are the result of a level of consciousness that we can't easily access and is based on our experiences in early childhood.
Behavioristic psychologists, like B.F. Skinner, believed that our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings were merely biological responses to the surrounding environment.
Both of these schools and the psychologists who subscribed to them made important contributions to psychology as a whole, and many of the tenants of both of them are widely accepted by professionals in the field today. However, many psychologists working in the field at the time thought that these approaches left something to be desired. Some believed that Freudian and behavioristic psychology treated the human person as a machine or an animal merely being "activated" by external factors - a belief that philosophers call "determinism."
Humanistic psychology developed as a response to these schools to treat each patient uniquely rather than trying to apply rules to them the way that Freudian and behavioristic psychology can.
One of the most famous Humanistic Psychologists was Abraham Maslow, known best for his popular theory that humans have a "hierarchy of needs" beginning with biological needs like food and shelter, and moving up to "self-actualization." Self-actualization was the goal of therapy for all humanistic psychologists. Carl Rogers's career was almost exactly contemporary with that of Maslow, but Rogers had one major issue with the hierarchy of needs.
Rogers And Maslow
Carl Rogers was born in 1902, fairly early in the history of what we would now recognize as modern psychology, and very much during the time of Freud and Pavlov.
Since the behaviorists and Freudians saw people as merely responding to their environments, their goals of therapy were more often experimental than curative. Rogers was the first one to state that the goal of therapy should be the self-actualization of the patient. It is thus unfortunate that when most people think of self-actualization, they think of the works of Maslow rather than those of Rogers.
The works of Rogers lead to what would later be called "patient-centered therapy," and Maslow drew on the focus on the individual when he created his famous hierarchy. The hierarchy centers on the needs of the individual, but Rogers would argue that it focused on the individual sufficiently enough to remove the individual from the network in which the individual lives.
His greatest critique of the hierarchy of needs was that it did not list a supportive community as one of the needs for an individual to achieve self-actualization. Many of the steps on Maslow's hierarchy assume a community is already in place. For example, safety is required, and this can arguably only be achieved within civilization. Maslow's needs also included love and esteem. However, according to Rogers, this view of the community as a source for motivation downplayed the importance of the community actively supporting and encouraging the individual. To Maslow, the community was a reason to succeed, but to Rogers, the community should be a resource to succeed.
Rogers And Patient-Centered Therapy
Rogers didn't only focus on the individual as the goal of therapy; he focused on the patient as the method of therapy.
Other methods of therapy popular at the time involved listening to a patient and determining how their experiences deviated from some sense of normal. Rogers believed that it was more important to use the patient's account to understand better what “normal” was for that particular patient, since this can differ significantly from person to person. His goal then was not to return the patient to some sort of normal, but to help them use the way that they experienced the world to help them create their ideal place in it.
Rogers And Personality
What may be Rogers's most lasting contribution to psychology was his personality theory.
Rogers's personality theory posited that humans have two states of identity: their actual self, and their ideal self. Their ideal self was who they wanted to be, and their actual self was their real circumstances. Ideally, there is no difference between the actual self and the ideal self.
Any difference between the ideal self and the actual self is what Rogers called "incongruence." Most of us have some level of incongruence, but if a person's level of incongruence rose too high, they could become a danger most likely to themselves, but possibly to others.
Incongruence can be a natural and normal phenomenon, but there can also be other problems. A person may have an ideal self that is impossible to achieve. They may also have unhealthy experiences or inaccurate perceptions of themselves that make them experience greater incongruence by exaggerating the difference between their ideal and actual self. The latter issue is the one that Rogers worked with the most.
Rogers And The Fully Functioning Person
Rogers used his personality theory to create a list of five criteria for what he called a fully functioning person. Many people see this approach as similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but interestingly all of Rogers's criteria can be satisfied, arguably, by where the individual is within Maslow's hierarchy.
The first of Rogers's criteria was openness to experiences. To Rogers, this meant that the individual could safely process and learn from both "positive and negative" experiences and emotions.
The second was existential living. This essentially meant being able to appreciate the moment without thinking too much about how the moment would affect the future or how the moment was affected by the past.
The third was the idea of self-trust, or the ability of fully functioning individuals to trust themselves to make decisions for themselves. This includes trusting instincts, hunches, and "gut feelings." The idea has to do with Rogers's belief that only the individual can understand what it is like to be and experience life as that individual. Because no one knows what it's like to be you, no one is better qualified to make decisions that affect you, even if those decisions don't make sense to other people. The catch-all for this one is that if you live in the moment and are open to experiences, you can't make bad decisions.
The fourth criterion is creativity. This is arguably the only one of Rogers's criteria for the fully functioning person that can't exist on any one of Maslow's hierarchy levels. Maslow looked at creativity in terms of art, which was fairly high up the hierarchy. Rogers, however, looked at it as risk-taking, creative thinking, and the ability to adapt to different circumstances. Take the example of irrigation in early society; Maslow might not have seen irrigation as creativity, but Rogers might have.
The final criterion is that the individual is "fulfilled," meaning that they are satisfied with their life but are still looking for new experiences. This criterion gets at Rogers's ideas of perception and incongruence. An individual can be fulfilled without being self-actualized, provided that they are comfortable with their perceived level of incongruence. Say, for example, that your ideal self is a brain surgeon and your actual self is a med student working towards becoming a brain surgeon. You have a normal and natural level of incongruence because your ideal and actual self are not fully aligned. However, someone in this position can still be happy, healthy, and fulfilled before achieving self-actualization. In this case, Rogers would say that the individual's ideal self and their actual self were highly incongruent, but their ideal self and their self-worth were much more congruent.
Rogers's Impact On Today's Psychology
Now that we've looked at some of the most important contributions of Rogers's career, we can look at how these contributions have impacted present-day psychology.
Rogers's approach of focusing on personal experience rather than comparative experience may be the most significant change in terms of how therapy is carried out. It may also be the most immediately recognizable of Rogers's ideas and influences.
Many of Rogers's ideas, along with those of the humanistic psychologists whom he worked with, are not immediately recognizable to the average person because other movements have internalized them. For example, Rogers's idea of existential living is one of the key tenants of the mindfulness movement in full swing today.
Rogers's ideas have not only gone to use in the field of psychology. Sociologists and philosophers, as well as psychologists, use Rogers's ideas of personality and identity in discussing problems like depression and gender dysphoria.
Where BetterHelp Comes In
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