Unconditional Positive Regard

By Mary Montaut

Where has all the controversy gone? Rogers has been dead less than ten years, and already the phrases and ideas we associate with his work have become the acceptable coinage not only of Humanistic Psychotherapy, but part of the generally approved psycho-babble of the day. “Empathy”, “congruence” and “unconditional positive regard” trip off the tongues of trainees in all sorts of “helping professions” before they are out of their apprentice-diapers. It seems as if Rogers is unconditionally positively regarded. And yet, though his words seem on the surface to have become so widely accepted, I wonder whether the deeper concerns which inform his work are really receiving much attention from us? Certainly I feel, on re-reading some of his books after eight or nine years’ lapse, that there is far more in them to surprise and challenge me than I had expected; far, far more than those comfortable words which are so often quoted would lead you to expect.

For example, here is a passage which Rogers wrote about teaching and learning:

“… It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behaviour. That sounds so ridiculous I can’t help but question it at the same time that I present it …

I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.

… I realize that I am only interested in being a learner, preferably learning things that matter, that have some significant influence on my own behaviour. … I find that one of the best, but most difficult, ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily … I find that another way of learning for me is to state my own uncertainties, to try to clarify my puzzlements and thus get closer to the meaning that my experience actually seems to have …It seems to mean letting my experiences carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward goals that I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing complexity.”

[From Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning (1952)]

This passage is well-known and is usually interpreted as being pro­vocative, that is intended to spark off lively discussion among his students or colleagues. A sympathetic editor remarks that “It was the demons­tration of the student-centred discussion method that was most important to him, rather than his own brief comments.” (Howard Kirschenbaum, in The Carl Rogers Render 1990). In other words, he didn’t mean it. But this is exactly the point of that passage for me – the intensely personal way in which Rogers expresses his radical dissent from the ordinary view of teaching underlines the fact that he not only means it utterly, but he wishes to know how we react to him saying and meaning it:

“… Such experience would imply that we would do away with teaching, People would get together if they wished to learn… We would do away with the exposition of conclusions, for we would realize that no-one learns significantly from conclusions. I think I had better stop there. I do not want to become too fantastic. I want to know primarily whether anything in my inward thinking … speaks to anything in your experience …” [Ibid]

The editor’s comment seems to me to demonstrate exactly the kind of bland response to Rogers’ work which has reduced his hard-won phrases to comfortable cliches. To me, the editor’s implicit admiration of Rogers as a clever teacher, able to get a lively discussion out of his students, completely misses the point. Rogers is not teaching. He is speaking as one human being to others – simply. And as one human being to another, he wants to hear their views too. The shock of such unhierarchical dealing, if we can allow ourselves to experience it, is very great.

Perhaps this is the exact shock which is the essential therapeutic elem­ent in all Rogers’ work – writing, research, therapy, running encounter groups, running “test-tube” groups in Belfast and in South Africa – throughout it all, there are no types, no categories, there are persons. In one of his earliest books, The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939), it is already clear that Rogers is drawing extremely radical conclusions, against the tide of the day, from his research. He draws attention to the finding that, contrary to the expectations of the researchers, delinquency did not correlate reliably with (deprived) background. Far more reliable was the correlation between the independence of personality of the child and non-delinquency. Unlike so many researchers, faced with findings which might upset the apple-cart, Rogers does not attempt to rehabilitate his theory by the back way – by suggesting, for instance, that background must still account for personality. With unusual consistency, he accepts the finding and goes on from there, not attempting to explain (away) the personal qualities of the kids he was studying.

Just as unusual is his way of writing about himself:

A more serious crisis built up around an incredibly lengthy, poorly handled therapeutic relationship which I had with a severely schizo­phrenic girl. The story is a long one, but suffice it to say that partly because I was so determined to help her, I got to a point where I could not separate my “self” from hers. I literally lost my self, lost the bound­aries of myself. The efforts of colleagues to help me were of no avail and I became convinced (and I think with some reason) that I was going insane. One morning after an hour or so at the office I simply panicked. I walked home and told Helen, “I’ve got to get out of here! Far away!” She of course knew something of what I had been going through, but her reply was balm to my soul. She said, “Okay, let’s go right now.”

[From Speaking Personally (1961)]

It seems to me that this anecdote illustrates in miniature the process which he believed to be the essence of therapy. Here, he has “lost” him­self; he panics and goes home to a person who can hear him, his wife. Her listening is so effective that it is “balm” to his soul, and he can get away from the situation and heal himself in her presence. Rogers makes no attempt to explain or analyse himself to the reader. Later in the same chapter, he writes: “I can trust my experience” and “evaluation by others is not a guide for me.” In some extraordinary way at times like this, his writing seems to perform the function of allowing us as readers in on a session. His willingness to give the same attention to his own experience as he gives to clients’ or students’ seems to put us in touch with his process, so that it makes perfect sense when later on he says: “What is most personal is most general.” This seems to dissolve the common writer/reader dichotomy; to do away with the “author” as authority over the reader or as subject for criticism by the reader. The process of this chapter, which is the opening chapter of On Becoming a Person (1961), functions as a kind of initiation into Rogers’ whole method and view of the world.

In Counselling and Psychotherapy (1942), the basic principles of his approach are already clearly expressed. First of all, there is the principle that he is suggesting a hypothesis, not putting forward a theory. This distinction, which may seem rather academic, is I believe a critical one; it is as if Rogers believed his work continually to be on an experimental footing – a sort of quest, rather than a means of demonstrating or validating his ideas. So, for example, he puts forward the “Basic Hypothesis – Effective counselling consists of a definitely structured permissive relationship which allows the client to gain an understanding of himself to a degree which enables him to take positive steps in the light of his new orientation.” (Op.cit.1942) The rest of the book tests out this hypothesis in various ways, most strikingly in its final section where very long passages of verbatim reports from sessions are offered to the reader’s scrutiny. This frank exposure of his work to public and professional readers was a new departure at the time. Even the stuffy old Pelican History of Psychology (Robert Thomson, 1968) grudgingly gives Rogers the credit for this new openness of approach:

“He was the first to obtain recordings of therapeutic sessions – with the full consent of his patients (sic!!) – and from the ensuing transcriptions he attempted methods of classifying, counting and analysing the responses of patients during therapy or interview.”

The discomfort of the establishment with Rogers’ method is very evident in such a passage, right down to the refusal to use the word “client” which Rogers so much preferred.

“What term shall be used to indicate the person with whom the therapist is dealing? … We have increasingly used the term client, to the point where we have absorbed it into the label of ‘client-centred therapy’… The client … is one who comes actively and voluntarily to gain help on a problem, but without any notion of surrendering his own responsibility for the situation. It is because the term has these connotations that we have chosen it, since it avoids the connotation that he is sick, or the object of an experiment, and so on …” (Client-Centred Therapy 1951)

Writing as late as 1986, Rogers was still using the word “hypothesis” even though the definition of the “Client-centred / Person-centred Approach” was by this time a good deal more fluent than in 1942:

“The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behaviour – and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

(In Kutash, I. and Wolf, A. (eds) Psychotherapist’s Casebook, 1986)

And in this instance too, Rogers goes on to offer a verbatim account of the material from a session to make the points by which the reader may judge the hypothesis. However, by this late stage in his life, he seems to have become reconciled to the fact that his work, no matter how scientifically researched, will be regarded as overly philosophical by the academic psychology establishment.

Yet it is true that Rogers’ writing always maintains an active relation­ship with formal research, both his own and others’. Not only did he in­troduce a vital openness about his work, which has led to a great increase in the variety and communicativeness of psychotherapeutic research, he also persisted in trying to quantify aspects of his results and in taking notice of clusters and patterns which quantification made apparent. In Psychotherapy and Personality Change (1954), for example, he again lays out the basic hypotheses of his work and proceeds to examine with a fine-tooth comb both data from his own work and that published by many other psychologists. He explains with clarity the use he is making of all the data offered – “This is possibly the first major psychological research to build heavily on the objective analysis of phenomenological data… to obtain the client’s picture of self … client’s awareness … client’s internal frame of reference …” and tabulates various findings. But the essentially humane definitions of psychology and psychotherapy which underlie his hypotheses seem always to have alienated the establishment which he was working so hard to reform. He even quotes a particular study in which the researcher was seeking to compare the effectiveness of three different methods of psychotherapy, in the expectation that behaviour modification would produce the most striking results, followed by psychoanalysis, with client-centred included in the expectation that it would act as a foil. Rogers notes without surprise that in the event, these results were re­versed. [How hard it is to imagine such a study being conducted, far less openly reported, these days!] But he came to believe that none of this effort had shifted the “disregard of humanistic psychology by academic psychology” and in his later work, he accepted this:” The person-centred approach then, … is a basic philosophy rather than simply a technique or a method …” (Op. cit. 1986) It seems to me that this is one of the defining points of humanistic psychology and psychotherapy.

At the same time, Rogers was well aware that humanistic psychology “has had a tremendous impact on our culture” (Towards a More Human Science of the Person (1985)) and energetically welcomed the challenges to rational positivism which the New Paradigm thinkers were announcing in the 1980s.

However, it seems to me that Rogers was no philosopher. It is not love of knowledge which moves him, but of people. His entire life’s work ex­presses in every facet a complete infatuation with the process of human being. It cannot bore him or dissatisfy him. He rejoices in his own failures and admonishes the rest of us that “the field of psychotherapy cannot come of age until it understands its failures as well as it understands its successes.” (Op. cit. 1954). Is there any other therapist who would publish “The Case of Mr Bebb: The Analysis of a Failure Case”? (Ibid) In many of his books he discusses the “regression” of clients after termination of therapy, again a field in which I suspect he stands alone. The amount of work which would be generated in trying to answer the questions which he has posed is enormous, and obviously it needs to be done. The cutting edge of his mind always moved by questioning: many of his books close with questions: “What, then, has occurred? What has taken place?” he asks at the end of Counselling and Psychotherapy, regarding the experience of therapy. It is this constantly questioning attitude which refuses to reach a conclusion, to draw the process to a close, which is characteristic of all his work and of his attitude to human life, he continually seeks to understand the process itself:

“… therapy is very definitely a process … In this process the client finds emotional release from feelings heretofore repressed, increasing aware­ness of the basic elements in his own situation, and increased ability to recognize his own feelings openly and without fear. He also finds the situation clarified by this process of exploration and begins to see relationships between his various reactions. This is the beginning of and the basis for insight …” (Ibid)

All parts of the process are of interest to him, he is incapable of blinding himself to their essential unity within the process. In this sense, he is able to integrate his own and other’s findings in a way which could possibly seem very threatening to less inquiring spirits. He seems to detest closure of all sorts – at eighty-five, he is still looking forward to more surprises from life. But perhaps the most striking of his refutations of closure comes in his words about transference:”

“… when there are no interpretations given and no evaluations made, “transference” attitudes tend to dissolve and the feelings are directed toward their true object … In my opinion, interpretations tend to delay – not hasten – the process … Psychoanalysts speak often of resistance and the difficulties of dealing with it. It is well to recognize that there are two types of resistance. There is the pain of revealing – to oneself and another – the feelings that have hitherto been denied to awareness. There is also the resistance to the therapist, created by the therapist. Offering interpretations, making diagnoses and other judgements – these are the usual way by which resistance is brought about – the resistance with which the therapist must then deal. Here is the special virtue of the client-centred approach. By creating a relationship that is safe, the client has no need to resist the therapist, and hence is more free to deal with the resistance she finds in herself. She finds the situation safe enough to realize that all the thoughts and feelings she has projected onto the therapist are in fact thoughts and feelings she has about herself … To deal with transference feelings as a very special part of therapy, making their handling the very core of therapy, is to my mind a grave mistake. Such an approach fosters dependency and lengthens therapy … I deplore it. There is one additional point I would make. If dealing with the “transference neurosis” is so important in therapy, and brings about a greater depth of change in personality and behaviour, why are there no data to back this up?” (Client Centred Therapy 1951)

I have quoted this passage at length in case Rogers’ “permissive” ideas should be mistaken for vague or simply tolerant. It is evident here and in other brief articles that Rogers was passionately convinced of the effectiveness of the client-centred approach. A particularly striking instance of this conviction occurs in an odd little piece he wrote in 1961, called “Ellen West – and Loneliness” (Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 2 no 2). This article was inspired by reading about the death of a woman whom we would nowadays label “anorexic”. For Rogers, the tendency of the people around her, including most notably the professionals, to view her as an object and not a person was solely responsible for the tragedy of her death. Her loneliness within the context which refused to notice her is described by Rogers not in terms of her loss of others but of her estrangement from herself. When her father rejects the man she wants to marry and she conforms to her father’s wish, Rogers sees her first failure of confidence in herself and her own experience and feelings. Her anorexia follows immediately and this too he describes (using her own words from her diary) in terms of loss of herself: “In other words, if she were to trust her own feelings, desires, experiences, she would become a robust, plump young woman and marry the student she loves …” Her marriage to a cousin approved by her father represents a further giving up of her autonomy. She becomes “obsessed with the idea that she must make herself thin.” She tries psychoanalysis, feels it doesn’t help her and yet worsens when she stops the sessions. She attends doctors, psychiatrists, “becoming increasingly an object in the eyes of those dealing with her.” At last she is regarded as a hopeless case by the professional, who realizes “that a release from the institution meant certain suicide.” A correct prediction.

Rogers writes passionately against this entire process, not as the special plight of the Anorexic (objectifying her still further), but of a person in whose life “what went wrong is something that occurs to some degree in the life of every one of us … she was made to feel that her own experi­encing was invalid, erroneous, wrong and unsound … She gave up being herself … This is the loneliest state of all – an almost complete separation from one’s autonomous organism.” It is from this shared sense of what can go wrong with the process of ordinary living that Rogers states with confidence: “I feel sure I would find no barrier to feeling acceptant toward this depressed, unhappy, emaciated, self-starved young woman.” Perhaps rashly, he imagines how sessions with her might have gone – the difficult process of her self recovery, whereby “the glass wall would have dissolved.” He goes on hardily: “I cannot apologize for having stated with confidence and optimism the probable outcome of therapeutic events for Ellen, had she had the opportunity to participate in person-centred therapy. My experience justifies no other conclusion. I am not sure that she would move as far as I have indicated, but that she would move in this direction I have no doubt, providing I had been able to create a person-to-person therapeutic relationship.” It is not difficult to see how this total trust in the process could be misconstrued as the height of swaggering smugness. But if we pause a moment and compare this solitary example of Rogers dealing with a case-history rather than with a person, with the frequent excursions into such imaginary material by, say, Freud, the point will become clear. Rogers cannot and does not try try to invent the person, whereas Freud in an almost literary sense ‘creates’ Gravida or the Wolf Man; instead, Rogers tries to vouch for his own part in the therapeutic encounter – no more than that. He is confident he will bring to it acceptance, optimism – trust in the process.

The attention to process which is the central tenet of Rogers’ work is also central to the whole humanistic approach. In conclusion, let me quote a passage which makes clear the extreme challenge of Rogers’ work to us, not to enclose ‘therapy’ in a little, professional niche or tidy specialism. He continually asserts that the process of therapy is not unique, but is full of the same qualities of nurturance, respect and freedom which make up the good of life itself.

“The good life is a process, not a state of being.
It is a direction, not a destination.
The direction which constitutes the good life is that which is selected by the total organism, when there is psychological freedom to move in any direction. This organismically selected direction seems to have certain discernible general qualities which appear to be the same in a wide variety of unique individuals.”

(A Note on ‘The Nature of Man’, Journal of Counselling Psychology Vol 4, No 3, 1957)