Person-centred therapy – also known as person-centred counselling or client-centred counselling – is a humanistic approach that deals with the ways in which individuals perceive themselves consciously rather than how a counsellor can interpret their unconscious thoughts or ideas.
Created in the 1950s by American psychologist, Carl Rogers, the person-centred approach ultimately sees human beings as having an innate tendency to develop towards their full potential. However, this ability can become blocked or distorted by our life experiences – particularly those that affect our sense of value.
The counsellor or psychotherapist in this approach works to understand an individual’s experience from their point of view. The counsellor must positively value the client as a person in all aspects of their humanity, while aiming to be open and genuine. This is vital to helping an individual feel accepted and better understand their own feelings – essentially helping them to reconnect with their inner values and sense of self-worth. This reconnection with their inner resources enables them to find their own way to move forward.
The purpose of person-centred therapy
The core purpose of the person-centred approach is to facilitate the client’s actualising tendency (self-actualisation is the belief that all humans will pursue what is best for them). This type of therapy facilitates the personal growth and relationships of an individual by allowing them to explore and utilise their own strengths and personal identity. A person-centred counsellor will aid this process and provide vital support.
According to Rogers, there are six conditions necessary to enable real change. These are:
- There is psychological contact between the client and the counsellor.
- The client is emotionally upset, in a state of incongruence.
- The counsellor is genuine and aware of their own feelings (congruent).
- The counsellor has unconditional positive regard for the client.
- The counsellor has empathic understanding of the client and their internal frame of reference, and looks to communicate this experience with the client.
- The client recognises that the counsellor has unconditional positive regard for them and an understanding of their difficulties.
Out of these, the following three are known as the ‘core’ or ‘active’ conditions:
- Congruence – the counsellor must be completely genuine.
- Unconditional positive regard – the counsellor must be non-judgemental and valuing of the client.
- Empathy – the counsellor must strive to understand the client’s experience.
A variety of factors can affect an individual’s ability to flourish, including low self-esteem, a lack of self-reliance and very little openness to new experiences. The person-centred approach recognises that an individual’s social environment and personal relationships can greatly impact these, so therapy is offered in a neutral and comfortable setting where a client can feel at ease, authentic and open to learning about themselves. In this way, the approach offers individuals the opportunity to counteract past experiences that affected conditions of worth (the circumstances under which we approve or disapprove of ourselves).
Other related changes that can be cultivated from this therapy include:
- Closer agreement between an individual’s idealised and actual selves.
- Better self-understanding and awareness.
- Decreased defensiveness, insecurity and guilt.
- Greater ability to trust oneself.
- Healthier relationships.
- Improvement in self-expression.
- Overall a healthy sense of change.
The theory behind person-centred therapy
In some psychotherapuetic approaches, the therapist and their observations are deemed ‘expert’. The person-centred approach moves away from this idea and instead trusts that human beings have an innate tendency to find fulfilment of their own personal potentials. By facilitating this, a person-centred counsellor helps the client recognise their own capacity for self-healing and personal growth.
Another key factor in this theory is the notion of self-concept. Self-concept refers to the organised and consistent set of beliefs and perceptions an individual has about himself or herself. These form a core component of a person’s total experience and influence their perception of the world. Person-centred counselling recognises that a person’s self-concept can become displaced if they strive too hard to fit in and be accepted by those around them.
Typically, individuals cope with any conditional acceptance offered to them by gradually and unconsciously incorporating these conditions into their own self-image. This can lead to the development of a self-concept that consists of characterised ideas such as ‘I am the sort of person who always respects others’. Because human beings generally desire positive regard from others, it is often easier for individuals to ‘be’ this accepted, simplified type of person. To be anything else, or different could see them risk losing that positive regard from others.
Over time, a person’s identity – their personal judgements, meanings and experiences – can become displaced with the ideals of others. It is for this reason that person-centred counselling aims to help individuals to self-actualise and achieve personal growth. This is cultivated through the provision of a supportive environment where clients can strengthen and expand on their own identity and begin to separate themselves from their developed notions of how they should be.
Who can benefit?
Generally, person-centred counselling can help individuals of all ages with a range of personal issues. Many people find it an appealing type of therapy because it allows them to keep control over the content and pace of sessions, and they do not need to worry that their therapist will be evaluating or judging them in any way. The non-directive style of person-centred counselling is thought to be of more benefit to individuals who have a strong urge to explore themselves and their feelings, and for those who want to address specific psychological habits or patterns of thinking.
The approach has been found particularly useful in helping individuals to overcome specific problems such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, eating disorders and alcohol addictions. These issues can have significant impact on self-esteem, self-reliance and self-awareness, but person-centred therapy can help individuals to reconnect with their inner self in order to transcend any limitations.
Alternatively, even though person-centred counselling was originally developed as an approach to psychotherapy, it is often transferred to other areas where people are in relationships – including teaching, childcare and patient care to name a few. Today many people who are not practising counsellors use the approach to help guide them through day-to-day work and relationships.