ROGERS’S PHENOMENOLOGICAL THEORY: APPLICATIONS, RELATED THEORETICAL CONCEPTIONS, AND CONTEMPORARY RESEARCH
A good friendship has qualities that are both wonderful and mysterious. If you’re stressed out, if life is giving you too much to handle, talking to a friend—simply discussing your problems and having the person listen carefully—can make you feel better. It’s hard to know why. Even if your friend doesn’t have any specific advice, even if he or she doesn’t offer any solutions to life’s problems, the mere fact that the person is there for you, ready to listen, can make things feel better.
And what does your friend make you feel better about? School? Relationships? Maybe. But if you’re lucky, your friend makes you feel better about that most important of things: you. By letting you explore and express your feelings, your friend somehow improves your sense of self. You end up accepting your limitations and appreciating your strengths.
Providing this type of relationship, and accomplishing this sort of change in self-concept, was Carl Rogers’s goal in his client-centered therapy. His therapeutic approach, which was a foundation on which he built his theory of personality (Chapter 5), is one focus of this chapter. As you will learn, in therapy Rogers tried to discover how his clients denied and distorted aspects of their everyday experience. He then created a therapeutic relationship—a kind of trusting friendship in a therapeutic setting—within which clients could abandon these distortions, explore their true self, and thereby experience personal growth.
In addition to learning about this clinical application of Rogers’s theory of personality, a second goal of this chapter is to review theoretical conceptions that are closely related to that of Rogers. We will consider three conceptions: (1) the human potential movement, including the contributions of the psychologist Abraham H. Maslow; (2) the positive psychology movement, a significant force in contemporary psychology; and (3) existentialism, a school of thought in philosophy that shows signs of increased influence in personality psychology.
Our third focus in this chapter is contemporary research on the self. Much current research in personality science bears on Rogers’s ideas about self and personality. As you will see, some of the research confirms Rogers’s original ideas, other research extends them in novel directions, and yet other research challenges Rogers’s conclusions. For example, cross-cultural studies question whether the psychological dynamics studied by Rogers in the United States are a universal feature of human psychological experience. This third chapter focus, then, speaks to a primary goal of this book: enabling you, the student, to use contemporary research findings to evaluate critically the classic theoretical conceptions of human nature.
QUESTIONS TO BE ADDRESSED IN THIS CHAPTER
1. According to Rogers, how do psychological distress and pathology develop, and what factors are necessary to bring about psychological change in therapy?
2. How did writers in the human potential movement add to Rogers’s understanding of human personality?
3. What does the contemporary positive psychology movement say about human personality and potentials?
4. What is existentialism, how do existentialist ideas relate to personality theory and research, and how do they relate, specifically, to Rogers’s work?
5. What are the implications of contemporary research—including cross-cultural research on self-concept, motivation, and personality—for Rogers’s phenomenological theory?
We begin this chapter where Rogers began his own professional career: in the psychological clinic, facing the challenges of psychopathology and personality change. These clinical applications were integral to Rogers’s development of his personality theory and remained a major focus of Rogers’s work throughout his career.
Rogers’s work in therapy involved more than just a set of techniques; it included a worldview—that is, a broad perspective on the nature of the therapeutic setting. Rogers’s thinking can be understood by contrasting it to Freud’s. Freud, trained as a physician, treated his clients as patients. The client was a person with problems that had to be diagnosed and cured. The therapist was the person with diagnostic and curative expertise. Rogers, in contrast, emphasized the expertise and curative power of the client. In developing his therapeutic approach, “a person seeking help was not treated as a dependent patient but rather as a responsible client” (Rogers, 1977, p. 5). To Rogers, the client possesses an inherent drive toward psychological health. The therapist’s task is merely to help the client to identify conditions that may interfere with personal growth, thereby allowing the person to overcome these obstacles and to move toward self-actualization.
Before we consider Rogers’s approach to treating psychological distress, we should address a logically prior question: From where does psychological distress come? If people have such a strong capacity for self-actualization, then why are they experiencing psychological distress in the first place? The core elements of Rogers’s answer to this question were introduced in the previous chapter. They involve the self and whether the person experiences a congruence between self and experience.
To Rogers, healthy persons are individuals who can assimilate experiences into their self-structure. They are open to experiencing rather than interpreting events in a defensive manner. It is such persons who experience a congruence between self and experience.
In contrast, the neurotic person’s self-concept has become structured in ways that do not fit organismic experience. They deny awareness of significant sensory and emotional experiences. Experiences that are incongruent with the self-structure are subceived; that is, threatening events are detected below levels of conscious awareness and then are either denied or distorted. This distortion results in a discrepancy between actual psychological experiences and the self’s awareness of experience, or a self-experience discrepancy . Such discrepancies involve a rigid defense of the self against experiences that might threaten the self-concept. Rogers (1961) gives the immediately recognizable example of “the intellectualizing person who talks about himself and his feelings in abstractions, leaving you wondering what is actually going on within him” (p. 64). Rogers’s point, of course, is that you, the observer, are not the only person who is unaware of what is actually going on within. By distorting his experiences, the person has lost an accurate sense of his or her true self.
Consistent with his rejection of a medical model, Rogers did not differentiate among types of pathology. He did not want a diagnostic scheme within which individual persons were classified and then treated merely as examples of one versus another type of psychological disorder. He did, however, differentiate among forms of defensive behaviors. For example, one such defensive behavior is rationalization. In rationalization, a person distorts behavior in such a way as to make it consistent with the self. If you view yourself as a person who never makes mistakes and then a mistake seems to occur, you may rationalize it by blaming the error on another person. Another defensive behavior is fantasy. A man who defensively believes himself to be an adequate person may fantasize that he is a prince and that all women adore him, and he may deny any experiences that are inconsistent with this image. A third example of defense behavior is projection. Here an individual expresses a need but in such a form that the need is denied to awareness and the behavior is viewed as consistent with the self. People whose self-concept involves no “bad” sexual thoughts may feel that others are making them have these thoughts.
The descriptions of these defensive behaviors are quite similar to the ones given by Freud. For Rogers, however, the important aspect of these behaviors is their handling of an incongruence between self and experience by denial in awareness or distortion of perception: “It should be noted that perceptions are excluded because they are contradictory, not because they are derogatory” (Rogers, 1951, p. 506). Furthermore, classification of the defenses is not as critical to Rogerian theory as it is to Freudian theory.
In the preceding chapter, you learned about Rogers’s most important contribution to personality science: his theory of personality. This theory, however, was not Rogers’s own highest priority. His main professional focus was the process of psychotherapy. Rogers committed himself to understanding how personality change can come about. Thus, the process of change, or of becoming, was his greatest concern. His most enduring contribution to understanding change was work in which he outlined necessary conditions of therapy; he described, in other words, types of circumstances and events that need to occur in the relationship between client and therapist in order for personality change to occur. To many people, this therapeutic approach remains as vibrant and relevant today as it was when Rogers first formulated it a half-century ago (McMillan, 2004).