Person Centred Counselling - so what is it?
Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) is widely respected as the founder of Person-Centred Counselling. He was a highly experienced and successful humanistic psychologist who believed that in order for us as individuals to meet our full human potential, we need to be in an environment where we experience the core conditions of acceptance (being respected and not being judged), empathy (being understood with compassion) and openness (being free to be our authentic selves without being judged negatively or rejected).
Rogers believed that we are all are born with the capacity to trust our own inner valuing system, a process he referred to as our organismic valuing process (1). However, as we grow, we stop trusting our inner guide star and begin trusting the values and opinions of our primary carers. This is driven by our innate needs – not just our need for food, shelter and protection, but also for our need for acceptance and our fear of rejection.
Conditions of Worth
We all need to be loved and accepted by the significant people in our lives – our parents, carers, teachers, peers, society at large. However, the significant influencers in our lives place conditions on that acceptance. This is how we’re socialised – into our family units, our communities, our social environments and the wider society. It starts when we’re born, in the home, and continues through nursery, into school and eventually into work where we are socialised into a work culture. We are given subtle and sometimes not so subtle cues throughout our lives – you are only an acceptable person, a person of value or worth if you behave in a way that is acceptable to us. If you don’t accept the conditions placed upon you and you don’t adapt to our rules – the house rules, the group rules, the community rules, society rules, you may be emotionally, psychologically or physically punished or even rejected.
So, in order to have our needs met i.e. to be fed, sheltered, protected, to be accepted and loved and to not be punished or rejected, we adapt. We learn the rules. We learn to think, respond and behave in ways that are acceptable to our primary carers. For example, in relatively benign circumstances we learn to use good manners such as saying please and thank you and asking if we may leave the table. We learn to be respectful to our parents and teachers. We learn not to lash out if we feel angry or hurt. We learn to manage our emotions in healthy ways and we learn how to communicate in ways that are acceptable to others. We develop in a way that is acceptable to others, whilst being ok with that.
Developing inner conflict
However, in some family or carer units, we have to adapt to circumstances that are less than ideal. For example, our parents and carers may themselves have developed unhealthy ways of coping such as misuse of drugs or alcohol. They may have been struggling with mental health or anger issues. They may have been emotionally unavailable to us and not able to support us to develop our own emotional coping strategies. They may even have been neglectful or abusive. But even in these circumstances we still need to have our own needs met, not just for food, clothing and shelter, but also for love and acceptance. No matter how bad the circumstances, we still want the love and acceptance from our primary carers. So we develop an ideal self that, whilst it suits our primary carers, may actually be in conflict with our felt sense of self.
As individuals, we strive to be the ‘ideal’ self that we have been taught is the acceptable self. So for example, someone who is experiencing same-sex attraction growing up in a homophobic household or community may hide their sexuality through fear of rejection or worse. Someone who is expected to be a high achiever will reject other parts of themselves in order to achieve high grades so as not to be rejected by their parents.
If we’re raised in an environment where we are not accepted for who we are, where we are not nurtured, where our voice is silenced or not respected, where we are not encouraged to grow and thrive, where we don’t learn to sooth or heal our emotional wounds in healthy ways, we can develop survival strategies that over time become patterns of being. For example, we may develop ways of relating to others that are based on relational patterns we developed as children and young adults. The young child that didn’t feel loved or nurtured may become the adult that is constantly seeking affection in unhealthy relationships. An adult that felt frequently abandoned as a child may struggle to form healthy attachments to others through fear of abandonment or rejection.
There is duality in all of us. Striving to be ‘ideal’ based on conditions of worth can cause a rupture between our acceptable ‘ideal’ self and our 'real' self. Our 'real' and 'ideal' selves may have differing and competing needs and this can result in feelings of confusion and mental distress. As we struggle to quash the needs of parts of ourselves, we can develop an internal dialogue that can feel very distressing. We can begin to dislike or even loathe parts of our self. In order to cope with the distress, we can develop strategies for dealing with those parts of our self that we are starting to dislike. Our internal dialogue can become quite distressing.
People describe their internal dialogue in different ways. Some people call this their 'internal bully', that part of themselves that tries to control or reject their needs. For example, the high achiever who considers taking a day off sick will tell him or herself that he’s a failure. Others describe it as an argument between the head and the heart or their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other, with themselves in the middle feeling confused. Some describe a critical, controlling parent voice arguing with an upset inner child, with their own adult voice trying to mediate between the two. Yet others use the metaphor of masks i.e. presenting a confident self in public, whilst berating themselves for being a fraud in private, terrified that people will discover the ‘real’ them. Our internal dialogue between the different parts of ourselves can create significant mental distress.
Conditions of Worth
Mental distress may occur when there's a conflict between what our inner self knows to be true and right for us, and what we think we should do, based on the expectations of others. Those of us in most distress are often the ones who prioritise the values and judgements of others over their own wants and needs. A good indicator is if we're using words like ‘should’ – I ‘should’ do this or I ‘shouldn’t’ do that, then we may be ignoring our own internal valuing system and prioritising the needs of others over our own. The word 'should' or 'shouldn't' may be an indicator that our judgement is being influenced by our conditions of worth, rather than coming from our internal valuing system. Conditions of worth can often result in fear - fear of rejection, fear of loss and this can make us behave in ways that may appear to be irrational to others.
Stress, anxiety and depression
The conflict between these parts of ourselves can result in feelings of stress, anxiety and depression that feel so overwhelming that we may struggle to cope. Our inner conflicts arise because our emerging, self-actualising self feels constrained by fear, fear that is maintained by the critical voice in our heads, and the emotional wounds that we sustained as a child. “I want to be my true self and follow my own path but I’m afraid of judgement and rejection.” Fear of loss, rejection and emotional pain can drive unhealthy behaviours that our well-adjusted friends and partners may struggle to cope with. We may even begin to reject or distort the reality of who we are or our situation which ultimately could lead to dissociation and dissociative disorders.
Rules and values
Think about what it was like growing up for you. What were the rules and values in your household? Looking back, how do you feel about them now? Do you still uphold the same rules and values you were brought up with, or have you changed and adapted some of them so that they feel right for you now as an adult? It’s an important question, because the rules and values that worked for us in childhood may not be working for us now, causing distress for us as adults and restricting our potential for growth and personal development.
Person Centred Counselling
Person-centred counselling provides the perfect conditions for personal exploration and growth. A person-centred counsellor provides a safe, therapeutic space where we can:
remove our masks, allow ourselves to be vulnerable
trust that we can be ourselves, express ourselves fully without being judged
be accepted and respected for who we really are – including the sides of ourselves that we don’t like
be treated with empathy and compassion while we struggle to accept those parts of ourselves that we reject
learn to accept and love ourselves
be accepted and cared for, without conditions - for some, this may be the first time in their lives
experience our raw pain, process it, accept it and move forward
learn to listen to and respect our inner guide star, our inner compass
learn to accept that we have needs, to identify what those are and to find healthy ways of having those needs met
find our self-worth and learn to value ourselves
be helped and guided to make the changes we want to make, whilst not rejecting the things we value
be respectfully challenged, with compassion, to care about ourselves, develop and grow
Time for Change
Carl Rogers discovered that over time, as individuals begin to be accepted within the therapeutic relationship, they learn to better accept themselves and their personal circumstances, begin to trust their own inner valuing process, start to make choices and decisions based on what feels right to them and to start to make the changes they need to make in order to improve their own lives.
Counselling can help alleviate mental distress caused by sustained psychological damage and pain. Your counsellor will be on your side, even when you’re not, helping you to get underneath your own resistance to change, to accept what went before, to be in the flow of the here and now and to develop and grow towards self-understanding, self-care, self-love and self-acceptance.
The counselling process can be a long and difficult journey and it can feel very lonely at times. Not everyone will adjust to the new and emerging you. But it can also be very rewarding and even liberating. Reassuringly, you don’t have to make this journey alone. If you feel you need help to get you started on your own journey, our fully qualified, BACP registered counsellor is here to help you.
1) Sheldon, K.M., Arndt, J. and Houser-Marko, L. In Search of the Organismic Valuing Process: The Human Tendency to Move Towards Beneficial Goal Choices. Blackwell Publishing. Journal of Personality (2003), 71:5.