by Dagmar Pescitelli
Rogerian therapy involves the therapist's entry into the client's unique phenomenological world. In mirroring this world, the therapist does not disagree or point out contradictions (Shaffer, 1978). Neither does he/she attempt to delve into the unconscious. The focus is on immediate conscious experience. Rogers (1977) describes therapy as a process of freeing a person and removing obstacles so that normal growth and development can proceed and the client can become independent and self-directed. During the course of therapy the client moves from rigidly of self-perception to fluidity. Certain conditions are necessary for this process. A "growth promoting climate"requires the therapist to be congruent, have unconditional positive regard for the client as well as show empathic understanding (Rogers, 1961). Congruence on the part of the therapist refers to her/his ability to be completely genuine whatever the self of the moment. While it is necessary during therapy h/she is not expected to be a completely congruent person all the time, as such perfection is impossible (Rogers, 1959). Empathy refers to understanding the client's feelings and personal meanings as they are experienced and communicating this back to the person. While unconditional positive regard involves relating from therapist to client
not as a scientist to an object of study, but as a person to a person. He feels this client to be a person of self-worth; of value no matter what his condition, his behavior or his feelings. He respects him for what he is, and accepts him as he is, with his potentialities (Rogers, 1965, p.22)
Rogers' strong belief in the positive nature of human beings is based on his many years of clinical experience, working with a wide variety of individuals (1961, 1965, 1977). The theory of person-centered therapy suggests any client, no matter what the problem, can improve without being taught anything specific by the therapist, once he/she accepts and respects themselves (Shaffer, 1978). The resources all lie within the client. While this may be so, this type of therapy many not be effective for severe psychopathologies such as schizophrenia (which today is considered to have strong biological component) or other disorders such as phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder or even depression (currently effectively treated with drugs and cognitive therapy). In one meta-analysis of psychotherapy effectiveness that looked at 400 studies, person-centered therapy was found least effective. In fact, it was no more effective than the placebo condition (Glass 1983; cited in Krebs & Blackman, 1988).
Rogers is reputed to have been a very gifted clinician. However, it is difficult to know whether the therapists that follow his model (or use some of the techniques) are truly practicing Rogerian therapy as it was intended. The concepts of congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard allow too much room for interpretation, although Rogers likely possessed these qualities. To Rogers credit, he took the revolutionary step of recording his sessions and opened up the previously private domain of therapy for empirical study and assessment (Ryckmann, 1993). That few can match his stature is not due to a lack of sharing techniques.
Rogers (1959) himself noted that every theory, including his own, contains "an unknown (and perhaps at that time unknowable) amount of error and mistaken inference" (p.190). His belief was that a theory should serve as a stimulus to further creative thinking. I believe he has succeeded in this intention. This theory has very strong heuristic value and continues to generate debate and interest (Krebs & Blackman, 1988; Ryckmann, 1993). The theory further focuses on the whole individual as he/she experiences the world. Agency and free will are not undermined in this model. It gives considerable attention to the concept of self and the suggestion that we can all overcome damages inflicted in childhood is very appealing. Full functioning is no the exclusive domain of a very lucky few. It is, at least theoretically, attainable for many. Rogers does not assume women are inferior to men and his "sexist" language was corrected in his later writings. Another strength is that Rogerian theory is grounded in the study of persons (not pigeons), leading to its strong applied value in many areas of life.
The main problems with this theory of personality are related to the lack of precision and specificity regarding some of the terms and concepts. Krebs & Blackman (1988) also rate the logical consistency as only "fair", maintaining that some connections are not completely clear. While this theory has become increasingly comprehensive over time, a major weakness is that it does not sufficiently address stages of development (Krebs & Blackman, 1988; Maddi, 1996). Due to his emphasis on conscious experience, Rogers has also been criticized for a lack of attention to the unconscious (Hall & Lindzey, 1985; Nietzel, Benstein, Milich, 1994). This criticism is not entirely justified. He directly acknowledges the unconscious in later writings, seeing it as "positive" (Rogers, 1977, p.246). Furthermore, the whole idea of congruence/incongruence and organic wisdom involves the idea of an unconscious and he clearly posits an organism that has many experiences of which the person is not aware (Hall & Lindzey, 1985). While Rogers contribution in the area of psychotherapy is substantial, clinical applicability of his therapy may be limited to those segments of the population whose intellectual and cultural backgrounds are compatible with this therapy (Nietzel et. Al, 1994). This theory's development from therapeutic practice may be both a blessing a curse. It keeps it practical and bases it in human experience, yet leads to the extension of concepts that while appropriate to therapy may not be comprehensive or specific enough to apply to all people.
Some human conditions, such as psychopathy, do not make much sense according to this theory. The psychopath apparently feels no guilt, discomfort or remorse for his/her actions. There is no anxiety. Incongruence is not apparent, although the theory suggests it would be substantial indeed. I also wonder about those human beings that have limited potentialities in the first place. Is one "fully functioning" if one has fulfilled all potential, even though there is an extremely limited amount in the first place? The capacity for creativity and free expression might not exist in such a case. Despite my questions and criticism, this theory's value is substantial and should not be minimized. It offers a reasonable alternative to dominant theories that would have us objectify and control human beings. It also recognizes persons as the most important focus in the study of personality.
© 1996 Dagmar Pescitelli