On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy by Carl Rogers
‘On Becoming a Person’ is a compilation of lectures and manuscripts drafted by Carl Rogers between 1951 and 1961. The book is deeply insightful and almost meditative in its explanation of how Rogers arrived at his person-centred approach to psychotherapy. Candid personal revelations of Roger’s experience and insights on human relationships are provided, as is an exploration of psychotherapy as a helping ‘relationship’ between the therapist and client.
I was especially struck with Rogers’ concept of congruence, which was discussed at length. A person is congruent when they behave in accordance with what they truly feel – if they feel sad, then it is right that they shed tears. When a person is incongruent with their true feelings they wear a mask and are thus removed from and ‘unacceptant’ of their true self. To the extent that someone is ‘unacceptant’ of their true self, they cannot be ‘acceptant’ of others. According to Rogers, congruence is required of all therapists – being genuinely acceptant of themselves frees them to be acceptant of clients.
The message that stays with me after reading the book is Rogers’s idea that ‘becoming a person’ means being a work in progress. We tend to think of personality as defined by specific traits, characteristics, and behaviours. Rogers posits that we are the sum total of our experiences, which flow in time; therefore, our personality is not rigid but flowing as well – we are continually and progressively becoming the person we desire to be. It is when we cannot become our ideal self that mental distress is experienced.
Rogers illustrates the effects of being ‘unacceptant’ of oneself as wearing a mask and building a wall. When a person is ‘unacceptant’ of themselves they remain ignorant of their true self (their feelings, perceptions, and perspectives). As a consequence, they assume the personality characteristics expected of them by their environment or culture. I could relate this to my client work, demonstrating just how relevant the book is to my growing knowledge-base.
Rogers explains that people wear a ‘mask’ before others as they fear others might see the real person under the mask and reject them. Therefore, people can find themselves wearing an externally-imposed mask in order to prevent friction with significant. By experience, when wears the mask, significant others respect, love, accept and even admire the mask, which supports their belief that the real them would not be accepted.
Living this way, a person builds an impenetrable wall that hides who they truly are – even from themselves. The need to go as far as hiding the ‘self’ from themselves comes from the fear of discovering the depths of their emotions and losing control of them. Again, I can relate this to some of my clients, as well as to myself. Reflecting on this has given me a greater understanding of the psychological distress experienced by those who hide their true ‘self’ – it takes all of their strength and creativity to keep the mask and the wall in place. Rogers believes that in a genuine, acceptant and empathic therapeutic relationship the client will feel safe enough to slowly remove the mask and dismantle the wall until they are comfortable with and ‘acceptant’ of themselves. This is Rogers’s definition of ‘successful’ therapy.
The tone and choice of words in the book are familiar, and its development of ideas deceptively simple. Indeed, Rogers indicates that the book was written primarily for ‘ordinary’ people. It is therefore in ‘plain English,’ with any complicated concepts described in simple terms. Roger’s also uses metaphors and excerpts of interviews to illustrate his observations.
Knowledge gained from reviewing the book will facilitate me with my counselling practice. In particular, if I accept that I have a duty to establish a relationship with my clients, then I can also accept that my relationship with clients must be characterised by genuineness (i.e. the ability to be honest, open and congruent in self-disclosure), acceptance (i.e. an unconditional positive regard of the client), and empathy (i.e. the ability to truly listen and understand the clients perceptual world as opposed to merely labelling their utterances). These three conditions enable the therapeutic relationship to inform and enhance the therapeutic process.
All past and present relationships from which I derive pleasure and emotional growth are those comprising genuineness, acceptance and empathy. If personal relationships of this kind can propel me to heights of personal maturity and growth, how similarly a genuine, acceptant and empathic relationship with a therapist can propel a client to become a fully functioning person who is aware of their feelings and experiences and empowered to address their own incongruence. Over all, Roger’s phenomenal text – ‘On becoming a person’ – has highlighted to me the importance of the relationship between counsellor and client within the person-centred approach.
Rogers, C.R. (1961) On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable.