Person-centred therapy, a type of humanistic therapy, was pioneered by the American psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1940s and 1950s. Although the method was considered revolutionary at the time, it has since become the most widely used model in the fields of mental health, psychotherapy and counselling. Rogers believed, essentially, that people seeking therapy have the ability to heal themselves and fulfil their potential, and the primary role of the health professional is simply to provide a conducive environment for this transformation to take place.
In other models of psychotherapy, such as the psychodynamic theory developed by Freud, Jung and others, the therapist is the expert who helps the client to uncover unconscious influences on behaviour. Person-centred therapy, on the other hand, allows the client to consciously explore their own experience, with a firm focus on the present instead of the past or future.
In part Rogers was aiming to free adults from the lingering influence of authoritarian parenting practices prevalent in his time, by removing all traces of authoritarianism from the therapist-client relationship. His belief was that people become alienated from their true self because of a lack of total, unconditional acceptance in childhood, which leads to the suppression of feelings and actions in an attempt to please those they love.
Rogers taught that the therapist should create an environment where the client feels completely safe as a result of the particular relationship between them. This relationship is utterly dependent on three qualities the therapist must strive for. First, he must be understanding (or empathic); second, accepting (having unconditional positive regard); and third, he must be genuine (congruent). Although the theory is simple, in practice it is rather difficult to achieve, as its success depends not on techniques that can be learned, but on the level of the therapist's own development.
During such a session of counselling or therapy, the client is encouraged to lead the discussion; this is known as the ‘non-directive’ method. The therapist does not give answers or make suggestions. Instead she listens with full attention and without judgement, sometimes reflecting back what the client has said, for clarification and to affirm the client. The therapist will deal with the client openly and transparently, allowing herself to be vulnerable, because any form of duplicity – even holding back a negative thought – could lead to a lack of trust. While early sessions can sometimes be discouraging for both parties, repeated sessions will usually lead to the client’s increased self-acceptance, and ultimately to a positive outcome.
Carl Rogers came to realise that his theories had applications in other areas than those of therapy and counselling, such as teaching and conflict resolution; indeed during the last decade of his life he brought opposing parties together in Northern Ireland and South Africa, as well as fostering communication in the Soviet Union with lectures and workshops. He died in 1987, leaving a huge legacy which is felt in innumerable aspects of modern-day life, from parenting practices to business models. For all the faults of modern Western society, it is a more compassionate one than it was fifty years ago, thanks in no small part to this great man.