Counselling Blog Post: Sunday 8th December 2019
Carl Rogers and Person-Centred Counselling: Some critical reflections
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2019
This is the second blog post, in a series of posts, about systems of counselling and psychotherapy. Last week I wrote about Freud’s system of psychoanalysis****; and today I want to reflect upon a few key elements of Carl Rogers’ system of Person-centred counselling.
At first glance, there could not be anything more wholesome than something called ‘person-centred counselling’. Being ‘person centred’ sounds laudable, and beyond the need for any kind of reflection or inspection.
Although my first experience of counselling and therapy involved primarily the neo-Freudian approach to psychoanalysis (in 1968), I also had a couple of encounters with Carl Rogers’ person-centred, or client-centred approach. My first experience of the person-centred approach was working with two individuals, in Bangladesh, who had been through some training and therapy at Big Sur, California, in the mid-1970’s. They had worked with Carl Rogers, and I picked up a flavour of their ‘non-directive, humanistic approach’ to life by osmosis.
Then, in 1979, back in the UK, I stumbled upon Roger’s book, ‘On Becoming a Person’, which I enjoyed enormously. (Later, I realized that it was somewhat amoral – or lacking in moral sense – in that it elevated the needs of the individual above the social relationships found in a situation, in every case, as a matter of principle; whereas, in my moral judgement, social commitments and responsibilities are also important, and have to be balanced against the needs of the individual, on a case by case basis).
My third experience of Rogers’ system was when I studied for my Diploma in Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy. During that period, I studied a range of counselling systems, including the person-centred approach (at a time when I was more involved with the rational/cognitive approach – as distinct from my current system of emotive-cognitive embodied narrative therapy).
In this blog, I want to review a couple of elements of the person-centred counselling approach, and to clarify where I differ from that approach.
Carl Rogers and the client’s ‘self-conception’
According to Richard Nelson-Jones, person-centred counselling gives first priority to the idea of the client as the possessor of something called “a subjective self-concept”. This is equivalent to the ‘ego’ (or the ‘I’, or ‘sense of self’) in Freudian and neo-Freudian psychotherapy.
For Carl Rogers, the creator of person-centred counselling, the subjective self-concept, when it’s psychologically healthy, is a result of the ways in which the individual perceives and defines themselves. By contrast, when they internalize the values of others, this is seen by Rogers as a ‘distorted sense of self’, which is psychologically unhealthy. This perspective of Rogers’ is reminiscent of Jean Piaget’s view of the individual as essentially capable of autonomous activity from birth, with an urge (which Rogers calls the ‘actualizing tendency’) to explore the world. But this is completely unrealistic, which is why Piaget’s perspective was eventually replaced (for most educational psychologists) by that of Vygotsky, who recognized the role of ‘instruction’, and other socializing influences, upon the shape taken by the developing child.
Rogers’ mistake was to think that a child could be independent of its parents’ influences – which it cannot be. Every child comes into existence, mentally, as a result of having parents (or parent substitutes) who relate to it and educate/socialize it. In E-CENT counselling, we see the emergence of the ‘individual self’ as a dialectical (or interactional) process of relationship between the ‘cultural mother’ (initially) and the ‘biological baby’, out of which comes a sense of socialized identity. (See my eBook on The Emergent Individual).
The Emergent Social Individual:
Or how social experience shapes the human body-brain-mind
By Dr Jim Byrne
Copyright © Jim Byrne, 2009-2019
The E-CENT perspective sees the relationship of mother-baby as a dialectical (or interactional) one of mutual influence, in which the baby is ‘colonized’ by the mother/carer, and enrolled over time into the mother/carer’s culture, including language and beliefs, scripts, stories, etc. This dialectic is one between the innate urges of the baby and the cultural and innate and culturally shaped behaviours of the mother. The overlap between mother and baby gives rise to the ‘ego space’ in which the identity and habits of the baby take shape. And in that ego space, a self-identity appears as an emergent phenomenon, based on our felt sense of being a body (the core self) and also on our conscious and non-conscious stories about who we are and where we have been, who has related to us, and how: (the autobiographical self).
The baby is always a social-baby
For Rogers – unrealistically – the baby has a capacity to engage in ‘the organism’s own valuing system’, which can produce elements of self-conception, which are independent of the values of mother and father and others. But this proves to be a completely unrealistic idea. Every baby is shaped by its early social environment.
Of course there is a back and forth exchange between the child and the parents, but the parents have a huge power to influence and control the baby and its emerging values and behaviours; while the baby has a limited capacity to influence the parents’ values and behaviours.
And, of course the child does go through a set of biologized stages of development – such as the ‘terrible-twos’; moving towards peer influence and away from parent influences; then puberty; and eventually leaving home; etc. But the social environment bears down heavily upon all of those developments, and produces a ‘synthesis’ of ‘individual/social being’, or ‘socialized selfhood’.
The individual is always connected to a social environment, both internally (in memory) and externally, in present time relationships (at home and in work, business, etc.), and in terms of cultural rules, expectations and social possibilities.
There is no place for a ‘pure individual’ (or pure ‘self-conception’) to emerge or to stand in the real world. We are social beings from first to last. From soon after birth until the last breath is drawn! We live inside of social stories.
Processing Client Stories in Counselling and Psychotherapy:
How to think about and analyze client narratives
Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling
The Institute for E-CENT Publications – 2019
Copyright © Jim Byrne, 2019. All rights reserved.
Of all the systems of counselling and therapy, the main ones that pay attention to the body of the client include Gestalt Therapy, and my own system of Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (or E-CENT for short).
In E-CENT counselling, when a client arrives to see us, we see a body-brain-mind-environment-whole enter our room. We agree that this person will begin by telling us a story about their current difficulties; but we recognize that this story is affected, for better or worse, by the quality and duration of their recent sleep patterns; their diet (including caffeine, alcohol, sugary foods, and trans-fats in junk food); and whether or not they do regular physical exercise; and other bodily factors.
However, in this book, we will mainly focus upon the client’s story or narrative; and perhaps remind ourselves occasionally that this story is being told by a physical body-brain-mind which is dependent for optimal functioning upon such factors as diet, exercise, sleep, and so on. We will focus upon the question of the status of autobiographical narratives; and how to analyze the stories our clients tell us.
Forcing the client to therapize themselves
Because Carl Rogers didn’t understand the inescapably social nature of the so-called ‘individual’, he created a system of counselling in which the client is left to ‘self-manage’ their therapeutic journey, with the counsellor providing nothing but a ‘mirror’ and ‘sounding board’, both of which provide essentially or primarily non-verbal feedback under the false banner of being ‘a facilitating environment’!
What was Rogers’ justification for creating and practicing such a passive form of counselling? According to Richard Nelson-Jones, Rogers believed that it was the quality of the interpersonal encounter with the client that was the really important element in producing a healing/growing/liberating effect on the client. However, the nature of the interpersonal environment produced by person-centred counselling is largely right-brain to right-brain nonverbal communication. This is helpful, and potentially healing, up to a point. (See Daniel Hill’s book on Affect Regulation Theory). However, human relational encounters normally rely upon both left-brain (language-based) communication and right-brain (non-verbal) communication. And Rogers discounts the value of left-brain, language based communication, because, back in 1940, he had a bee in his bonnet about how mainstream counselling was ‘too directive’! (It seems to me that Rogers system is too passive, and Albert Ellis’s system is too directive; which is why we have developed a ‘middle way’, in the form of E-CENT counselling.***)
The power of social pressure
Paradoxically, Rogers did understand the power of social pressures and influences upon the individual, outside of the therapy room. Indeed, in an article in 1940, he pointed out that if an individual was facing too many adverse social factors (pressures and restraints), then therapy was unlikely to work, because what the person needed was “a radical change of conditions”. (Cohen, 1997, pages 93-94). (There is, of course, a lot of truth in this insight, as we have seen in the huge increase in mental illness – depression, anxiety and more extreme conditions – since the advent of neoliberal economic policies, introduced by Thatcher and Reagan, produced huge social and economic problems based on inequality and insecurity.)
However, the fact that some (or perhaps most) of my clients may be facing intractable social pressures outside of the counselling room, in their daily lives, does not justify me in declining to engage my left-brain, and linguistic communication, during my counselling sessions with them. It is, after all, normal for human beings to utilize both their left and right brains: their language and their feelings, in all forms of human communication. So it seems perverse for person-centred counsellors to exclude meaningful, language-based, left-brain communications when dealing with their clients.
The E-CENT approach to counselling communication
The model of communication that I utilize in my emotive-cognitive, embodied narrative therapy work is similar to that described by Stephen Covey as follows:
Habit No.5: “First seek to understand (the other person); and then to be understood (by them)”.
Carl Rogers includes the first part of this habit or principle; but he excludes the second; and thus it is not true or full communication that he advocates or uses with his clients.
Here is a little more detail about Covey’s Habit 5:
5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Use empathic listening to genuinely understand a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving.
The Habit 5 is greatly embraced in the Greek philosophy represented by 3 words:
1) Ethos – your personal credibility. It’s the trust that you inspire, your Emotional Bank Account.
2) Pathos is the empathic side — it’s the alignment with the emotional trust of another person’s communication.
3) Logos is the logic — the reasoning part of the presentation.
The order is important: ethos, pathos, logos — your character, and your relationships, and then the logic of your case or argument.
What Rogers omits, from this model, is the Logos, or Logic; the reasoning process.
The centrality of two-way communication
When a client seeks my help, I put a lot of time and energy into understanding their understanding of their problem.
Then I put a lot of effort into helping them to understand my understanding of their understanding (of the nature of their problem[s]).
None of this is about hard-and-fast concrete facts; but rather of my story about their story about their experiences.
And out of this dialogue, it often happens that I influence them more than they influence me – which is the right way around for a therapy encounter. Since they are very often struggling with problems of which they have only recently become conscious; and since I’ve been studying and consciously wrestling with similar problems for decades, it would be perverse of me not to seek to influence their undeveloped understanding with my tried, tested and developed understanding.
Rogers thought that therapy was ‘too directive’ and, as a reaction against it, he developed a completely non-directive system of therapy (which does not involve fully-human communication – as explained above). But he was wrong to think that a non-directive form of therapy would ‘liberate’ the ‘inner self’ of the client, because the ‘inner self’ of the client is precisely the ‘socialized self’ which carries the wounds that need to be healed.
Non-directive therapy neglects the responsibility of the therapist to re-parent, or re-educate, the client, using left and right brain engagement. (See Hill, 2015).
The E-CENT approach to therapy
So what does Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT) offer instead of the non-directive listening of Person-centred therapy?
In my book on Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person***, I describe my perceptions or anticipations of every new client as follows:
- I do not know who this client will turn out to be; or how complex their case might be; or how I should begin to think about them. I have to wipe my mind as clear as possible of preconceptions, which, of course, is an impossibility for a human being. (Our preconceptions reside at the non-conscious level, and we most often do not know what they are! And without our preconceptions we would be gaga! We would literally not know what anything was).
- This client will be a body-brain-mind, linked to a familial social environment (in the past) and a set of relationships (in the present).
- They will be subject to a range of stressors in their daily life, and those stressors will be managed by a set of coping strategies (good and bad – resulting from the degree to which their emotions are habitually regulated or dysregulated [where dysregulated means over-aroused or under-aroused).
- This client will have been on a long journey through space-time, sometimes learning something new, and often repeating the habitual patterns of their past experience/conditioning. They will be aware of some of their emotional pain, and unaware of much of it.
- This client will have some kind of problem, or problems, for which I have been identified as an aid to the solution.
- This client will come in and tell me a story; and another story; and another; and will want me to make sense of those stories; so they can escape from some pain or other. And that is part of my job. But a more immediate, and important part may be to be a ‘secure base’for them – to re-parent them.
- This client may or may not be aware that their body and mind are one: a body-mind. They may not realize that, to have a calm and happy mind, they need to eat a healthy, balanced diet; exercise regularly; manage their sleep cycle; drink enough water; process their daily experiences consciously (and especially the difficult bits [preferably in writing, in a journal]); have a good balance of work, rest and play; be assertive in their communications with their significant others; have good quality social connections; and so on.
- This client may have heard of ‘the talking cure’, and believe that all we have to do is exchange some statements, and then I will say ‘Take up thy bed and walk!’ And they will be healed.
They may not know that the solution to their problems is most likely going to involve them taking more responsibility for the state of their life; being more self-disciplined; learning to manage the ‘shadow side’ of their mind (or ‘bad wolf’ state); learning to manage their own emotions; manage their own relationships better; manage their physical health, in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation, stress, and so on; and to manage their minds also. Clearly, they are not going to realize any of these necessary developmental challenges if all I do is LISTEN!
For more information about this radically new approach to helping people with bio-psycho-social problems of everyday living, please see my book on Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person***.
Clearly, Carl Rogers had a very simplistic model of the human body-brain-mind-environment which we call ‘a counselling client’. To help a client to resolve their emotional, behavioural and relationship problems is normally going to take a whole lot more than listening, listening, listening!
The bottom line of my approach to counselling, therapy and coaching is this: I occupy the central ground between the extremes of Carl Rogers’ non-directive approach, and Albert Ellis’s Extreme Stoical and overly-directive REBT.***
That’s all for now.
Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling
 Nelson-Jones, R. (2001) Theory and Practice of Counselling and Therapy. Third edition. London: Continuum.
 E-CENT = Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy, developed by Jim Byrne, with the support of Renata Taylor-Byrne.
 Nelson Jones (2001); page 98.
 Hill, D. (2015) Affect Regulation Theory: A clinical model. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
 Cohen, D. (1997) Carl Rogers: A critical biography. London: Constable.
 Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everybody. London: Penguin Books.
And, as explained by Dr Oliver James:
“Nearly ten years ago, in my book Britain on the Couch, I pointed out that a twenty-five-year-old American is (depending on which studies you believe) between three and ten times more likely to be suffering depression today than in 1950. … In the case of British people, nearly one-quarter suffered from emotional distress … in the past twelve months, and there is strong evidence that a further one-quarter of us are on the verge thereof. … (M)uch of this increase in angst occurred after the 1970’s and in English-speaking nations”. People’s beliefs have not changed so much over that time. This is evidence of the social-economic impact of the post-Thatcher/Reagan neo-liberal economic policies!
Oliver James (2007) Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane. Page xvi-xvii.
 Covey, S.R. (1999) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic. London: Simon and Schuster.
 In attachment theory, a child is seen to use his/her mother (or main carer) as a secure base from which to explore its environment, and to play. If the child’s stress level rises, or s/he becomes anxious, s/he can scurry back to mother for a feeling of being in a sensitive and responsive relationship of care and reassurance. This reassurance can also be sought and given nonverbally from a distance. And in counselling and therapy, that role of being sensitive and caring, and reassuring the client, is also seen as providing a new form of secure base from which the client can explore difficult and challenging memories and feelings.