Carl Rogers And His Contributions To Therapy

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are several names that are inextricably entwined with psychology and mental health. While Sigmund Freud remains one of the most visible figures in the history of modern psychology and psychiatric theory, there are a robust number of figures regarded as “fathers” of modern psychological practice. Wilhelm Wundt, often considered the father of modern psychology, and American psychologist Carl Rogers are two such influential figures.

Carl Rogers was credited with the development of humanistic theory, or humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology is an approach to mental health treatment that focuses on the individual as a single unit (called client-centered therapy) and experiential discovery in order to help the client achieve self-actualization.

In the context of modern psychological practice, self-actualization refers to the realization or fulfillment of an individual’s potential and goals. Rogers (an early founder of humanistic theory) advocated for the person centered approach in counseling and psychotherapy. The goal of psychology, as envisioned by Rogers and his contemporaries, was to help individuals experience personal growth and unlock their full potential.

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The Humanistic Psychologists

Humanistic psychology enjoyed its greatest heyday from the 1940s to the 1970s and is attached to significant names such as Abraham Maslow and Rollo May. Carl Rogers is most well-noted for his contributions to the field of humanistic theory because he introduced the concept of unconditional regard, or a relationship between therapists and their clients in which therapists offer a positive, encouraging, and considerate atmosphere in which to conduct sessions.

The fourth of six children, Carl Ransom Rogers was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1902. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1924, Rogers spent several years studying theology at the Union Theological Seminary until he began questioning his faith. In 1926, Rogers transferred to the Teachers College of Columbia University to pursue a master’s degree, followed by a doctorate in clinical psychology in 1931.

After completing his PhD, Rogers embarked on his clinical work in academia, holding faculty positions at The Ohio State University, The University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin Madison. It was during this academic tenure that Rogers developed his groundbreaking therapy contributions, initially known as "non directive therapy" and later evolving into the "client-centered therapy" we recognize today. Rogers also completed clinical work at the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 

Eventually, Rogers settled at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla where he further expanded his influence in the field. In 1947 Rogers was elected president of the American Psychological Association. In his later years, Rogers focused on applying his person centered approach workshops to situations of political oppression and national social conflict, such as Northern Ireland.

Rogers believed that all people possess the inherent need and ability to grow and achieve their full potential. He also suggested that for a person to achieve this kind of self-actualization through therapy, it was critical that the therapist provide unconditional positive regard to the them—i.e., that the therapist accept and respect the person fully and completely as they are, which in turns allows the client to navigate positive and negative feelings without fear of judgement or reproach. Roger’s daughter, Natalie Rogers, said that his father was “a model for compassion and democratic ideals in his own life, and in his work as an educator, writer, and therapist." Carl Rogers therapy contributions go beyond the aspect of therapy. Using unconditional positive regard in the way we treat ourselves and others can create acceptance and hope, while conditional positive regard can shrink confidence and negatively impact self-image.

The advent of humanistic psychology was valuable because it provided a more holistic approach to mental healthcare than its predecessors, Freudian psychology and behavioral psychology. Neither of these approaches focused as much on client-centered care, but instead delved into a client’s background and unconscious in order to explain and diagnose behaviors and thought processes. A humanistic approach treated clients far less like objects to be picked apart and far more like people to be spoken to and collaborated with, focusing on the whole person.  

Humanistic Psychology And Its Predecessors

The history of psychology is positively steeped in Freud’s contributions, and his legacy is firmly intact to this day. Although he was a pioneer in the field, engineering entirely new approaches to human health and investigation, much of his early work has been disproven or at the very least challenged, and those who came after have taken his approach to health and have expounded upon and moved away from the rigidity and conclusions of much of his work.

Apart from Freud, early psychological theory relied upon behavioristic theory, or behaviorism, which focused on learned behavior and asserted that learned behavior was responsible almost entirely for the outcome of an individual’s psyche, nature, and habits. Behavioristic theory was perhaps less rigid than Freud’s work but continued to approach psychology in a highly principled manner, utilizing only what could be readily observed and recorded during a session. Humanistic psychology relieves the sole burden of observation and evaluation from the psychologist and instead encourages the client to have equal weight in the discovery and evaluation of psychological concepts.

The current study of psychology would be lost without the contributions of these early researchers and psychologists, who delved into the depths of the human mind and behaviors. Each laid the groundwork for the researchers and scientists who would come after and led to additional approaches to teasing out and further evaluating the inner workings of the mind and corresponding behavior. Psychologists like Maslow and Rogers moved away from treating patients like machines that have been programmed to elicit a certain response and more like individuals with a series of nuanced and complex backgrounds, desires, and needs.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow is one of the most prominent “fathers” of humanistic psychology. Perhaps best known for his contribution to the field in the form of his hierarchy of needs, Maslow has been recognized for decades as an important contributor to not only humanistic theory but also the field of psychology as a whole.

Maslow’s foray into psychology was marked by his movement away from behavioristic views of patients and his belief that patients must first meet a series of criteria for basic shelter, safety, and health, before moving on to the development of self-actualization. This was an important concept to introduce into the study of psychology, as it treated humans as complex creatures with diverse needs, rather than following a simple, prescriptive approach to human development that focused on a rigid understanding of childhood conditions and what is now recognized as childhood trauma.

Maslow was recognized for his work in the development of humanistic psychology and was a contemporary of another important contributor to humanistic theory: Carl Rogers.

Carl Rogers 

Carl Rogers accepted many of the same basic tenets espoused by Maslow, but his focus differed. While Maslow often focused on the basics of human needs and how those needs interacted with and influenced mental health, Rogers suggested a more practical application of humanistic theory through his adherence to client-centered therapy and unconditional positive regard. Rogers’s contributions to psychology were invaluable in part because of his use of humanistic theory and in part because he was a pioneer in the manner in which the relationship between psychologists and their clients was regarded.

Humanistic Theory In Practice

Where psychology practices once focused on a strict patient-psychologist relationship that treated a patient more as an experimental subject, humanistic theory turned that on its head and developed a new relationship between therapists and their charges—one created based on collaboration and client-focused care. In practice, humanistic theory continues to evaluate and treat mental health but does so in a way that is designed to support the self-actualization and goals of the individual in question, rather than turning over a host of childhood concerns and developing behavioral changes.

Rather than evaluating a person in order to determine what is “abnormal” or “wrong” with them, the therapist’s view in humanistic psychology focuses on evaluating a person in order to determine what that their baseline for normal (i.e., what being a “fully functioning person” looks like for each individual) is. The therapist can then develop a treatment plan to re-establish that baseline. With a humanistic approach, treatment plans will vary widely from person to person and may involve different types of therapy in order to best suit each individual’s needs. 

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The Lasting Legacy of Humanistic Theory And Carl Rogers

Humanistic theory is, arguably, one of the most enduring approaches to psychology currently in use. Although most of the focus of early psychoanalysis was on unhealthy individuals in order to determine what did and did not constitute health, humanistic theory deviated away from this attention on ill health and instead evaluated individuals based on their own unique “experiential field,” or the different events, thought processes, and desires that made up who they were and what they needed.

This approach to therapy is the most commonly seen approach in modern psychology. Humanistic psychology’s endurance may be largely due to its individuality; while other early forms of psychoanalysis tended to be unyielding in their approach and declared that a patient’s childhood or environment was to blame and needed to be fixed, humanistic theory offered a gentler avenue into psychoanalysis and posited that there was hope in the development of human health and personal evolution.

From Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Rogers’s fully-functioning person or ideal-self, humanistic theory has continued to progress and be developed by mental health professionals. These perspectives of mental health have allowed psychologists to not only evaluate an individual’s needs but also prescribe individualized therapies to suit those needs. Where psychoanalysts sometimes regarded patients as damaged individuals in need of being fixed, humanistic psychology tends to view clients as people able to fuse their ideal selves and real selves in order to achieve self-actualization.

The field of psychology in its current iteration is built primarily on humanistic psychology. Therapists, whether those working in an office or those working online, are likely to rely on the tenets of humanistic psychology to evaluate and subsequently treat their patients. 

Humanistic Psychology And Modern Therapy

The talk-and-listen model of current therapy, coupled with common therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), demonstrate the value of the humanistic model in current therapy practices. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides the groundwork for developing a sound self-concept, self-confidence, independence, and goal-reaching while also promoting personality change. Rogers’s client-centered approach to therapy is the foremost model used in therapy practices, whether in traditional therapy offices or in online therapy practices. 

Humanistic Psychology In Online Therapy

If you’re interested in learning more about therapy but don’t like the idea of going to a counseling center, you might try online therapy, which research has shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with experience in humanistic psychology. You can communicate with them at a time that works for you from the comfort of your own home via phone or videoconference. You can also write to them in between therapy sessions via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can. 

Below are some reviews of individuals who have tried online therapy at BetterHelp.

“Melinda is an incredible counselor. She is involved, responsive, caring, and very knowledgeable. I have been in counseling for years, and my experience with Melinda has truly been the best. I highly recommend her with all of my heart!”

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“Now that I’ve been seeing Traci for a while, I wanted to add an updated review. She always goes above and beyond. My favorite thing is that she habitually sends a voice-recorded recap of our video session the day after. It helps me keep track of what we’ve gone through, and it’s a good refresher if I want to go back and re-listen.

“Another huge thing is that I feel safe with her. I feel like I can tell her anything and I’m not being judged or shamed. The thing I love most about working with Traci is that she isn’t afraid to dig / press buttons to get to the core issue of things. She is very engaging and if there is a pause in the conversation, she takes the reins. It’s a nice change of pace. I recommend BetterHelp to all of my friends because of her.”


Are you interested the current practice of Carl Rogers’s psychology or other approaches to mental health? If so, you can be matched with a BetterHelp therapist with training in humanistic therapy for whatever mental health concerns you’re experiencing. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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