How Rogerian Therapy Works

The concept of client-centered therapy is simple. The counselor simply endeavors to understand the client and how the client sees the world. The counselor provides a warm and supportive atmosphere in which the client can do some self-exploration. Especially in the early days of Rogerian therapy, many client-centered therapists tried to restate what the client was saying, to make sure the therapist had a clear understanding. No direct advice was given, however, just understanding.

How does Rogerian therapy proceed?

Rogerian therapy appears to be simpler than it is. Rogers (1946) quoted a beginning therapist who complained about the "illusion of simplicity." It all seems so easy, until you actually try to do it. Then you find out how difficult it is not to interpret, not to take charge, not to dominate the therapy proceedings with advice.

What are common misconceptions of Rogerian therapy?

Misconceptions of Rogerian therapy are common. One misconception is that the counselor is supposed to adopt a passive, laissez faire attitude—just stay out of the client's way and let things evolve. Rogers said that comes across to the client as uncaring, even rejecting. It fails to convey the unconditional positive regard for the client that Rogers felt was essential to a good counselor/client relationship. Clients are likely to leave the counselor who takes a laissez faire attitude "disappointed in their failure to receive help and disgusted with the counselor for having nothing to offer."

A second misconception is that the counselor should clarify the client's thoughts. The client says something confused or muddy, and the therapist comes back with a clear restatement of it, bringing everything into focus. That is partly descriptive of what takes place in therapy, Rogers says, but it is too intellectualistic, not sufficiently warm and empathetic. The client is likely to feel put-down, as if he or she is being diagnosed or the counselor is saying, "I know better."

According to Rogers, the emphasis of therapy should not be on the counselor's brilliance in making interpretations but on the client's unique world-view and process of self-discovery. To better understand the client, the therapist may try to restate what the client is saying, so that the client can correct and clarify the therapist's understanding. Gendlin (1988) described it this way:

How does a client get to "something deeper" in Gendlin's description?

Rogers eliminated all interpretation. Instead, he checked his understanding out loud, trying to grasp exactly what the patient wished to convey. When he did that, he discovered something: The patient would usually correct the first attempt. The second would be closer, but even so, the patient might refine it. Rogers would take in each correction until the patient indicated, "Yes, that's how it is. That's what I feel." Then there would be a characteristic silence. During such a silence, after something is fully received, the next thing comes in the client. Very often it is—something deeper.

Rogers discovered that a self-propelled process arises from inside. When each thing is received utterly as intended, it makes new space inside. Then the steps go deeper and deeper. (p.127)

Rogers assumed a client had the capacity to deal with any material that came up. Rogers called this the self-actualization hypothesis.

What is the self-actualization hypothesis? What is the counselor's role?

...The counselor chooses to act consistently upon the hypothesis that the individual has a sufficient capacity to deal constructively with all those aspects of his life that can potentially come into conscious awareness. (Rogers, 1951, p.22)

Then the counselor provides the type of relationship that allows this growth to take place.

If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur. (Rogers, 1951, p.33)

What were characteristics of the beneficial counselor, according to Rogers?

The beneficial counselor was warm, but not cloying; understanding but not judgmental; supportive but not pushy. The rest happens automatically. People tell their story if they feel understood and not rejected. Rogers puts it this way:

In the emotional warmth of the relationship with the therapist, the client begins to experience a feeling of safety as he finds that whatever attitude he expresses is understood in almost the same way that he perceives it, and is accepted. He then is able to explore... (p.Rogers, 1951, 41)

How was change in the personality achieved, according to Rogers?

Rogers believed that self-exploration, conducted honestly, leads ultimately to a restructuring of self. The ego is not confronted or stressed; it participates in its own exploration, its own healing growth. The changes produced are not experienced as something alien, forced on a person. Instead, changes in the person's self-perspective feel like joyful self-discovery. This process of discovery turns out to be relatively easy, once started—a process of letting-go, rather than forcing something to happen.

In what way is the change "easy" and how does the client's statement relate to this?

Rogers quoted a successful client:

You know, it seems as if all the energy that went into holding the arbitrary pattern together was quite unnecessary—a waste. You think you have to make the pattern yourself; but there are so many pieces, and it's so hard to see where they fit. Sometimes you put them in the wrong place, and the more pieces mis-fitted, the more effort it takes to hold them in place, until at last you are so tired that even...awful confusion is better than holding on any longer. Then you discover that left to themselves the jumbled pieces fall quite naturally into their own places, and a living pattern emerges without any effort at all on your part. Your job is to discover it, and in the course of that, you will find yourself and your own place. (Rogers, 1951, p.43)

It is precisely the acceptance of one's true feelings that gets one past them, in Rogerian theory. Once barriers and defenses are let down and formerly-suppressed thoughts and feelings are confronted, the client discovers that letting go of a harmful behavior pattern or personality facade is nothing to be feared. In fact, it is easy, and it sets the stage for positive growth.


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