Humanistic Psychotherapy

Humanistic Psychotherapy

“Higher Virtue isn’t virtuous/ thus it possesses virtue/ Lower Virtue isn’t without virtue/ thus it possesses no virtue/ Higher Virtue involves no effort or the thought of effort/ Higher Kindness involves effort/ but not the thought of effort/ Higher Justice involves effort/ and the thought of effort/ Higher Ritual involves effort/ and should it meet with no response/ then it threatens and compels/ virtue appears when the Way is lost/ kindness appears when virtue is lost/ justice appears when kindness is lost/ ritual appears when justice is lost/ ritual marks the waning of belief/ and the onset of confusion/ augury is the flower of the Way/ and beginning of delusion/ thus the great choose thick over thin/ the fruit over the flower/ thus they pick this over that” (Tao Te Ching, 38).[1]

Carl Rogers is known for developing what has come to be called humanistic (or person-centered) psychology. Rogers came to the field of psychology only indirectly. His original plan was to be a Christian minister, but changed directions after realizing the extent to which ecclesiastical dogma stifled the autonomy requisite for human growth.[2] He describes his experience at Union Seminary as follows:

“I feel that it moved me a long way toward a philosophy of life that was my own. The majority of …[my classmates], in thinking their way through the questions they had raised, thought themselves right out of religious work. I was one. I felt that questions as to the meaning of life, and the possibility of the constructive improvement of life for individuals, would probably always interest me, but I could not work in a  field where I would be required to believe in some specified religious doctrine. My beliefs had already changed tremendously, and might continue to change. It seemed to me it would be a horrible thing to have to profess a set of beliefs, in order to remain in one’s profession. I wanted to find a field in which I could be sure my freedom of thought would not be limited.”[3]

Rogers began by working with children, and soon came to view himself as a clinical psychologist.

            Rogers used this extensive clinical experience as the foundation for a novel conception of psychotherapy that contrasted sharply with the reigning orthodoxies which construed man as little more than an object to be controlled.  While behaviorists were studying how to influence the behavior of pigeons and psychoanalysts were attempting to redirect the chaotic forces of the id, Rogers was busy interacting with the lived experiences of his clients. In doing so, he came to view his clients not as patients to be diagnosed, cured, and put back in their place in society, but as individual subjects capable of self-directed growth.

            Rogerian therapy thus presupposes a fundamentally positive view of human nature. There is, according to Rogers, within each individual a core self, urging him or her on to greater maturity and integration. Rogers explains:

“Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive toward self-actualization, or a forward-moving directional tendency, it is the mainspring of life, and is, in the last analysis, the tendency upon which all psychotherapy depends. It is the urge which is evident in all organic and human life—to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, mature—the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism, to the extent that such activation enhances the organism or the self. This tendency may become deeply buried under layer after layer of encrusted psychological defenses; it may be hidden behind elaborate facades which deny its existence; but it is my belief that it exists in every individual, and awaits only the proper conditions to be released and expressed.” [4]

This faith in the core goodness of the person is the fundamental presupposition of humanistic psychology.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Personal Development

            Given that each person is governed by an essential entelechy that both knows how it should unfold and has the power to do so, the therapist, according to Rogers, should be considered neither as a doctor prescribing drugs to the mentally ill nor as a diagnostician analyzing the root causes for the client’s failures at life. Rather, like a Daoist sage, Rogers recommends that the therapist act through inaction. The therapist needs only be present as an integrated self projecting positive regard, and, like a lapis philosophorum, he will catalyze the client’s internal alchemical transformation. Rogers crystalizes his conception of the therapeutic relation into six theses which he believes to be individually necessary and jointly sufficient for positive personality change:

“1. Two persons are in psychological contact. 2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious. 3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship. 4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client. 5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client. 6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.”[5]

The first condition implies that personality change can occur only in relationship. This claim might be disputed (and will be examined more fully at the end of this essay), but its meaning is relatively non-controversial, so we can grant it for the sake of argument. The second condition claims that, whatever the presenting problem may be, the client’s core problem is that of alienation. His beliefs about himself, his actions in the world, and social roles he is assigned do not reflect his core self. He feels bound by the facades he has adopted, the desire to please others, and the obligations and expectations that have been placed upon him by family and the broader social world.[6] But, at an unconscious level, he nonetheless feels the self’s demand to become who he really is.[7] The tension resulting from this inner alienation then manifests itself through a variety of symptoms.

            Rogers’ third condition is that there should be a non-alienated therapist. Such a therapist would have achieved authentic selfhood, being aware of and accepting of his sensations, feelings, beliefs, and values regardless of the opinions and expectations of others. Rogers calls this state of non-self-alienation “congruence”. He defines it as follows:  

“Congruence …indicate[s] an acute matching of experiencing and awareness. It may still further extended to cover a matching of experience, awareness, and communication. Perhaps the simplest example is the infant. If he is experiencing hunger at the physiological and visceral level, then his awareness appears to match this experience, and his communication is also congruent with his experience. He is hungry and dissatisfied, and this is true of him at all levels. He is at this moment integrated or unified in being hungry. On the other hand, if he is satiated and content this too is a unified congruence, similar at the visceral level, the level of awareness and the level of communication. He is one unified person all the way through, whether we tap his experience at the visceral level, the level of his awareness, or the level of communication.”[8]

The congruent person will thus be aware of what he actually feels and freely communicate that feeling to himself and others. This is the opposite state to that of the alienated man who, for example, may feel angry and communicate anger to his family and co-workers, but all the while claim that he is not angry.[9]

            The fourth condition requires that the therapist hold the client in unconditional positive regard, a stance that contrasts sharply with the conditional regard displayed in ordinary relationships. Usually, we are approved of only when we perform well or behave in ways deemed as socially appropriate. But, in the therapeutic relationship, the therapist takes view of a person’s inner core and approves of it without conditions. All emotions and behaviors are accepted as parts of a person that is essentially good. Within the therapeutic relationship, the client is valued for who he is, rather than what he does. And, as a result, all the client’s attendant feelings and doings are accepted without judgment.

            The fifth condition requires that the therapist understand and empathize with the internal world of the client and communicate this understanding to the client. The therapist must observe his client’s words and actions with clinical precision, and do his best to enter into the client’s internal world. “When the client’s world is this clear to the therapist, and he moves about in it freely, then he can both communicate his understanding of what is clearly known to the client and also voice meanings in the client’s experience of which the client is scarcely aware.”[10] By offering these tentative interpretations on behalf of the client, the client gains the confidence to start doing so for himself and identifying and accepting his core beliefs, emotions, and values.

            This then leads to the final condition; the client becomes aware of the positive regard and empathy of the therapist. Once the client understands the nature of the therapeutic relationship, his core self begins to move towards growth. Rogers describes the process as he imagines it from the client’s point of view as follows:

“I can even tell him just how I’m feeling toward him at any given moment and instead of this killing the relationship, as I used to fear, it seems to deepen it. Do you suppose I could be my feelings with other people also? Perhaps that wouldn’t be too dangerous either.

            You know, I feel as if I’m floating along on the current of life, very adventurously, being me. I get defeated sometimes, I get hurt sometimes, but I’m learning that those experiences are not fatal. I don’t know exactly who I am, but I can feel my reactions at any given moment, and they seem to work out pretty well as a basis for my behavior from moment to moment. Maybe this is what it means to be me. But of course I can only do this because I feel safe in the relationship with my therapist. Or could I be myself this way outside of this relationship? I wonder. I wonder. Perhaps I could.”[11]

Once the client can relax into the safety of therapeutic relationship, he can begin to let go of his rigid defenses and enter into the flow of his own life.

Seven Stages of Personal Development

            These then are the logical conditions Rogers takes as necessary and sufficient for positive character change. He believes that the temporal unfolding of this process also tends to follow a common course, beginning with rigidity and ending in fluidity. He takes this course to typically involve seven stages. In the first stage, the client unwilling to attend to or communicate the self, deflecting attention to external issues. Rogers notes that, in this stage, the client:

  • Feels and personal meanings are neither recognized nor owned.
  • Personal constructs…are extremely rigid.
  • Close and communicative relationships are construed as dangerous.
  • No problems are recognized or perceived at this stage.
  • There is no desire to change. There is much blockage of internal communication.[12]

            Once the client begins to feel recognized by the therapist, he enters the second stage. Here, the client begins to speak more spontaneously, but only about topics that do not relate to the core self. Rogers characterizes this stage as follows:

  • Expression begins to flow in regard to non-self topics.  
  • Problems are perceived as external to the self.
  • There is no sense of personal responsibility in problems.
  • Feelings are described as unowned, or sometimes as past objects.
  • Feelings may be exhibited, but are not recognized as such or owned.
  • Experiencing is bound by the structure of the past.
  • Personal constructs are rigid, and unrecognized as being constructs, but are thought of as facts.
  • Differentiation of personal meanings and feelings is very limited and global.
  • Contradictions may be expressed, but with little recognition of them as contradictions. [13]

            The client continues to soften and relax his defenses in the third stage. Here, the client begins to acknowledge himself (though only externally) and his feelings, but without accepting them.  Rogers describes it as follows:

  • There is a freer flow of expression about the self as an object.
  • There is also expression about self-related experiences as objects.
  • There is also expression about the self as a reflected object, existing primarily in others.
  • There is much expression about or description of feelings and personal meanings not now present.
  • There is very little acceptance of feelings. For the most part feelings are revealed as something shameful, bad, or abnormal, or unacceptable in other ways. Feelings are exhibited, and then sometimes recognized as feelings. Experiencing is described in the past, or somewhat remote from the self. … personal constructs are rigid, but may be recognized as constructs, not external facts.
  • Differentiation of feelings and meanings in slightly sharper, less global, than in the previous stages.
  • There is a recognition of the contradictions in experience.
  • Personal choices are often seen as ineffective.[14]

In the fourth stage, the client grows comfortable describing more intense emotions, so long as they are not present to consciousness and the hold of his previous self-constructs begin to loosen. Rogers describes it as follows:

  • The client describes more intense feelings of the ‘not now present’ variety.
  • Feelings are described as objects in the present.
  • Occasionally feelings are expressed as in the present, sometimes breaking through almost against the client’s wishes.
  • There is a tendency toward experiencing feelings in the immediate present, and there is distrust and fear of this possibility.
  • There is little open acceptance of feelings, though some acceptance is exhibited.
  • Experiencing is less bound by the structure of the past, is less remote, and may occasionally occur with little postponement.
  • There is a loosening of the way experience is construed. There are some discoveries of personal constructs; there is the definite recognition of these as constructs; and there is a beginning questioning of their validity.
  • There is an increased differentiation of feelings, constructs, personal meanings, with some tendency toward seeking exactness of symbolization.
  • There is a realization of concern about contradictions and incongruencies between experience and self.
  • There are feelings of self responsibility in problems, though such feelings vacillate.
  • Though a close relationship still seems dangerous, the client risks himself, relating to some small extent on a feeling basis.[15]

In the fifth stage, the client begins to live more fully in the present and grows aware of the core self from which his feelings emerge (though this self is still experienced as rather frightening). Rogers describes it as follows:

  • Feelings expressed freely in the present.
  • Feelings are very close to being fully experienced. They ‘bubble up’, ‘seep through’ in spite of the fear and distrust which the client feels at experiencing them with fullness and immediacy.
  • There is a beginning tendency to realize that experiencing a feeling involves a direct referent. (There is…the dawning realization that the referent of these vague cognitions lies within him, in an organismic event against which he can check his symbolization and his cognitive formulations.)
  • There is surprise and fright, rarely pleasure, at the feelings which ‘bubble through’.
  • There is an increasing ownership of self feelings, and a desire to be these, to be the ‘real me.’
  • Experiencing is loosened, no longer remote, and frequently occurs with little postponement.
  • The ways in which experience is construed are much loosened. There are many fresh discoveries of personal constructs as constructs, and a critical examination and questioning of these.
  • There is a strong and evident tendency toward exactness in differentiation of feelings and meanings.
  • There is an increasingly clear facing of contradictions and incongruences in experience.
  • There is an increasing quality of acceptance of self-responsibility for the problems being faced, and a concern as to how he has contributed. There are increasingly freer dialogues within the self, an improvement in and reduced blockage of internal communication.[16]

In the sixth stage, the client drops the mode of observation and analysis and simply enters into the flow of life. Rogers explains:

  • A feeling which has previously been ‘stuck,’ has been inhibited in its process quality, is experienced with immediacy now.
  • A feeling flows to its full result.
  • A present feeling is directly experienced with immediacy and richness.
  • This immediacy of experiencing, and the feeling which constitutes its content, are accepted. This is something which is, not something to be denied, feared, struggled against.
  • There is a quality of living subjectively in the experience, not feeling about it.
  • Self as an object tends to disappear.
  • Experiencing, at this stage, takes on a real process quality.
  • Another characteristic of this stage of process is the physiological loosening which accompanies it.
  • In this stage, internal communication is free and relatively unblocked.
  • The incongruence between experience and awareness is vividly experienced as it disappears into congruence.
  • The relevant personal construct is dissolved in this experiencing moment, and the client feels cut loose from his previously stabilized framework.
  • The moment of experiencing becomes a clear and definite referent.
  • Differentiation of experiencing is sharp and basic.
  • In this stage, there are no longer ‘problems,’ external or internal. The client is living, subjectively, a phase of his problem. It is not an object.[17]

Finally, in the seventh stage, the client is at home in his own autonomy, experiencing the fine details of life and tentatively positing new self-constructs as the external situation demands. Rogers describes this final stage as follows:

  • New feelings are experienced with immediacy and richness of detail, both in the therapeutic relationship and outside. The experiencing of such feelings is used as a clear referent.
  • There is a growing and continuing sense of acceptant ownership of these changing feelings, a basic trust in his own process.
  • Experiencing has lost almost completely its structure-bound aspects and becomes process experiencing—that is, the situation is experienced and interpreted in its newness, not as the past.
  • The self becomes increasingly simply the subjective and reflexive awareness of experiencing. The self is much less frequently a perceived object, and much more frequently something confidently felt in process.
  • Personal constructs are tentatively reformulated, to be validated against further experience, but even then, to be held loosely.
  • Internal communication is clear, with feelings and symbols well matched, and fresh terms for new feelings.
  • There is the experiencing of effective choice of new ways of being.[18]


I appreciate the humanistic approach of Rogers. When much of psychology was attempting to emulate the hard sciences and treating men and women as mere objects to be manipulated, Roger’s was going back to the Kierkegaardian mystery of subjectivity. I believe that there is much to recommend a Rogerian approach to the therapeutic relation. However, a few questions remain for me:

  1. Is human nature inherently good? This is a fundamental premise of Roger’s position, but he offers no argument to support it. It may very well be true, but it is nonetheless a highly contentious position. For example, this question was a point of contention in Confucianism as evinced by the debate between Mencius and Xunzi. Or perhaps more pertinently, it appears to conflict with Kierkegaard’s philosophical position, a position which Rogers himself appeals to as inspiration for his own view.
  2. Is it possible for a therapist to hold a client in a truly unconditional positive regard? Some people are sociopaths, people with no empathy for others and who act with incredible cruelty as a result.[19] Imagine, for instance, Stalin going to therapy. His therapist would sit across from him discussing the genocides carried out by his regime. Is it really possible for this therapist to accept all of Stalin’s feelings and actions as a part of him, and hold him in unconditional positive regard? Even if by extreme ascesis, it were possible, should one do so? Another problem comes from the nature of the therapeutic relation itself. As it has developed, there are certain social preconditions for entering and remaining in a therapeutic relation. For example, one must pay for services rendered. If the client fails to pay, the services will not continue. Is it then not disingenuous to say that the therapist’s regard for the client is truly unconditional? Perhaps it is better to think of it as a social game as in which each participant pretends that the relation is unconditional? The client will act as if he is held in unconditional positive regard by the therapist and the therapist will act as if he viewed the client in this way. But if this is so, wouldn’t the very practice of therapy depend on the kind of inauthenticity that Roger’s seeks to deliver his clients from?
  3. Does Roger’s normative claim that human maturation involves moving away from rigidity and toward fluidity conflict with his non-directional approach to therapy. On a Rogerian framework, the therapist is not supposed to make any judgments and allow the client to determine for himself what direction to move in. But what if the client decided to become a super Stoic and decided that the highest life for man was in brutally subjecting the emotions to the judgments of the understanding? Would not the therapist who accepts Roger’s model be forced to evaluate such an action as misguided? If so, then would he not be judging the actions of the client?
  4. How exactly does the therapeutic relationship heal? On the one hand, Rogers suggests that it is the internal entelechy of the subject that unfolds on its own. This would suggest that self-development could happen autonomously, requiring no relationship to another. But, on the other hand, Rogers suggests that such movement is impossible apart from the therapeutic relation. One way of understanding the necessity of the therapeutic relationship is to take an essentially relational view of the self. As social beings, we cannot see who we really are (or even be who we are) apart from how we see ourselves as seen by others. In Hegelian terminology, we seek an I that is also a we. If this is so, then the therapeutic relationship might heal by constituting a new social relation which then constitutes a new self-identity. This leads to a couple of worries. First, it appears to contradict the Rogerian claim that there is such a thing as an autonomous self of the client. The therapist is, in a sense, creating a new self from scratch via the therapeutic relation.[20] Second, if one takes such a social conception of the self, can self-alienation ever truly be overcome purely in the therapy room. Would therapy ever really be sufficient to overcome one’s alienation in a society that, for example, treats one as a mere object to be exploited to further stuff the pockets of a few banking dynasties and self-styled lords of industry?
  5. What would a therapy look like if we took the following Heideggerian musings as our inspiration?

What we extol as blessing depends on what afflicts us as plight. And on whether plight truly urges us on, i.e., urges us away from staring at the situation and talking it over. Greatest plight—that we must finally turn our backs on ourselves and on our “situation” and actually seek ourselves. Away from detours, which merely lead back to the same beaten paths; sheer evasions—remote and desultory—before the ineluctable.

The human being should come to himself! Why? Because a human being “is” a self—yet is in such a way as to lose or indeed never win himself and to sit somewhere otherwise captivated and transported—we still scarcely see all this great being and potential for being as we gaze at wretched imitations and dried up and incomprehensible exemplars—proffered “types.” But: how does a human being come to his self? Through what are his self and its selfness determined? Is that not already subordinated to a first choice! Insofar as the human being does not choose and instead creates a substitute for choosing, he sees his self: 1. through reflection in the usual sense; 2. through dialogue with the thou; 3. through meditation on the situation; 4. through some idolatry.

            Supposing, however, that the human being had chosen and that the choice actually struck back into his self and burst it open— i.e., supposing that the human being had chosen the disclosability of the being of beings and by this choice was placed back into Dasein, must he then not proceed far into the stillness of the happening of being, a happening which possesses its own time and its own silence? Must he not have long been silent in order to find again the power and might of language and to be borne by them? Must not all frameworks and specialties be shattered here and all worn-down paths be devastated? Must not a courage, one which reaches very far back, attune the disposition here?

            Someone who sticks fast to the foot of the mountain—how will he ever even see the mountain? Only more and more rock faces. But how to come upon the mountain? Only through a leap from another mountain; but how to come upon that one? Already to have been there; to be someone placed on the mountain and ordered to be there. Who was already so? And is it still because no others can drive him away? Beginning and re-beginning of philosophy![21]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching trans. Red Pine, rev. ed. (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2009).

[2] Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, 7.

[3] Ibid., 8. Unfortunately, today this seems to be the state of affairs in the university as well as the church.

[4] Ibid., 35. One client describes it the awareness of this core as follows: “I’ve been using a word ‘selfish.’ Then I have this feeling of—I—that I’ve never expressed it before, of selfish—which means nothing. A—I’m still going to talk about it. A kind of pulsation. And it’s something aware all the time. And still it’s there. And I’d like to be able to utilize it, too—as a kind of descending into this thing. You know, it’s as though—I don’t known, damn! I’d sort of acquired someplace, and picked up a kind of acquaintance with the structure. Almost as though I knew it brick for brick kind of thing. It’s something that’s an awareness. I mean, that – of a feeling of not being fooled, of not being drawn into the thing, and a critical sense of knowingness. But in a way—the reason, it’s hidden and—can’t be a part of everyday life. And there’s something of—at times I feel almost a little bit terrible in the thing, but again terrible not as terrible. And why? I think I know. And it’s –it also explains a lot to me. It’s—it’s something that is totally without hate. I mean, just totally. Not with love, but totally without hate.” Ibid., 97.

[5] Carl Rogers, “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change” in Journal of Consulting Psychology vol. 21 (1956): 95-103.

[6] Rogers, Becoming a Person, 167-170.

[7] Ibid., 166.

[8] Ibid., 339.

[9] Ibid., 339-340.

[10] Rogers, Necessary and Sufficient Conditions.

[11] Rogers, Becoming a Person, 68-69.

[12] Ibid., 132.

[13] Ibid., 133-134.

[14] Ibid., 135-136.

[15] Ibid., 137-139.

[16] Ibid.,139-142.

[17] Ibid., 145-150.

[18] Ibid., 151-154.

[19] Simon, In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, rev. ed. (Little Rock: Parkhurst, 2010).

[20] Sociologist Peter Berger, for example, explains as follows: “What psychoanalysts call ‘transference,’ the intense social relationship between analyst and analysand, is essentially the creation of an artificial social milieu within which the alchemy of transformation can occur, that is, within which this alchemy can become possible to the individual. The longer the relationship lasts and the more intensive it becomes, the more committed does the induvial become to his new identity. Finally, when he is ‘cured,’ this new identity has indeed become what he is.” Invitation to Sociology, 104.

[21] Heidegger, Ponderings II-VI trans. Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), 5-6.

One Reply to “Humanistic Psychotherapy”

  1. Very enlightening perspective. In relation to a person’s job, how many people are unwilling or unable to seek within themselves what work might make them happy, and settle for jobs they need a glass of cognitive dissonance and vodka to make it thru the work week

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