Carl Rogers and person-centred counselling and therapy

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Counselling Blog Post: Sunday 8th December 2019

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Carl Rogers and Person-Centred Counselling: Some critical reflections

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2019

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Introduction

Carl RogersThis 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.

On becoming a personThen, 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[1], 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.

Nelson-Jones, Theory and practice of counselling and therapyFor 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[2] 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).

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The Emergent Social Individual:

Or how social experience shapes the human body-brain-mind

The emergent social individual, jim byrneBy 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).

Learn more about this book.***

E-Book version only available at the moment.***

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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.

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Processing Client Stories in Counselling and Psychotherapy:

How to think about and analyze client narratives

Processing client stories in counselling and therapy, jim byrne.JPGDr 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.

Available as an eBook only.***

Learn more about this book.***

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Forcing the client to therapize themselves

Right-brain communicationBecause 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[3], 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)[4]. 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

Carl RogersParadoxically, 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)[5]. (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[6].)

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

ecent logos 3The model of communication that I utilize in my emotive-cognitive, embodied narrative therapy work is similar to that described by Stephen Covey[7] 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.

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What Rogers omits, from this model, is the Logos, or Logic; the reasoning process.

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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 reason for non-directive counsellingRogers 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).

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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?Front cover Lifestyle Counselling

In my book on Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person***, I describe my perceptions or anticipations of every new client as follows:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. This client will have some kind of problem, or problems, for which I have been identified as an aid to the solution.
  6. 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[8] – to re-parent them.
  7. 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.
  8. 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***.

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Finale

Dr Jim's office2Clearly, 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.***

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That’s all for now.

cropped-abc-coaching-counselling-charles-2019.jpgBest wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

drjwbyrne@gmail.com

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Endnotes

[1] Nelson-Jones, R. (2001) Theory and Practice of Counselling and Therapy.  Third edition.  London: Continuum.

[2] E-CENT = Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy, developed by Jim Byrne, with the support of Renata Taylor-Byrne.

[3] Nelson Jones (2001); page 98.

[4] Hill, D. (2015) Affect Regulation Theory: A clinical model.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

[5] Cohen, D. (1997) Carl Rogers: A critical biography. London: Constable.

[6] 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.

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[7] Covey, S.R. (1999) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic. London: Simon and Schuster.

[8] 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.

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The best kept secret of counselling and therapy

Blog Post No.146

10th  July 2016

Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog:

jim-nata-couples-pg-w300h245
Counsellors in Hebden Bridge

The best kept secret of counselling and therapy: The role of the client…

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

 

Introduction

One of the best kept secrets of counselling and psychotherapy is this: The qualities of the client are at least as important as the qualities of the counsellor, in terms of determining the outcome (positive or negative).

But how can we refine this insight, this secret, so that it becomes clearer and more helpful or useful?

Defining client qualities

The first thing we could do is to try to define some of the most important client qualities.  Here is my own attempt to do that:Fool-type

  1. If the client knows they have a problem that they cannot resolve for themselves; and they realize that they are committed to resolving it nevertheless; and they twig that somebody else might have some kind of expert knowledge which could help them to solve their problem; and they realize that a counsellor or therapist could be just such a person: then they have a fighting chance of being able to access counselling, and to make good use of a counselling relationship and related processes.
  2. If this person then becomes a willing counselling client, and they have had the kind of experiences of being parented – when they were a child – which allows them to ask for help, and to take advice and guidance – then they have a good chance of being able to find out what their counsellor has in their toolbox which they could use to resolve their own most important problem(s).
  3. The more developed the client’s emotional intelligence, the better they will be able to able to manage their relationship with the therapist, as well as their own perceiving/feeling/thinking involvement in the therapy.
  4. The wiser the client is, the more they are going to be able to benefit from whatever they can learn from their counsellor or therapist. We are thinking here of the insight from Lao Tzu’s book, the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dao-Day-Jing). In this book, Lao Tzu writes about the ‘way of the world’, or insights into the nature of reality. He goes on to say that, when a wise person hears about the ‘way of the world’, they follow it absolutely. When a middling person hears about the ‘way of the world’, sometimes they follow it, and sometimes they don’t. And when a fool hears about ‘the way of the world’, they laugh out loud.  Clearly a fool will gain little or nothing from counselling and therapy; and a middling person will lack the self-discipline to optimise the opportunities for learning from their therapist.  But a wise client will learn well from a good therapist.
  5. The Arabic Apothegm (or saying, or maxim), which I discovered at the age of fourteen years (while rooting through a mound of second-hand books, outside a Dublin bookstore), suggests that there are four kinds of people.

Teaching-learning5(a) The person who is ignorant, and is unaware of their ignorance: They are seen to be a fool, and the advice is to shun them.  (A counsellor could [almost certainly] never help them!)

5(b) The person who is ignorant, but is aware of their ignorance.  They are seen to be in need of teaching, and they may prove to be teachable.

5(c) The person who is substantially enlightened, but who is unaware of their enlightenment.  They are seen to be asleep, and are potentially able to be awakened. (A therapist could do a good job here).

5(d) And finally: the person who is enlightened, and who is aware that they are enlightened.  They are seen to be wise; and the advice is to follow them.

Type 5(d) individuals make good therapists.  Types 5(b) and 5(c) can obviously gain from counselling and therapy.  But type 5(a) is unlikely to gain anything from counselling and therapy.

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Understanding the barrier

There are at least two or three ways that we can come to understand the barrier that prevents particular kinds of individuals benefiting from counselling and psychotherapy.

Habit-creaturesFirstly, from Zen Buddhism, we learn something about individual perception.  There is a Zen saying to the effect that, “When a thief meets a saint, all s/he sees are pockets!”  Thieves are interested in pockets, and the rest of us are driven to focus our attention on whatever our personal past taught us to focus our attention upon.  For examples:

(a) A person who has a particularly difficult kind of childhood will develop what is called ‘an avoidant attachment style’.  They will strive to operate in a remote and distant way with others, because of lack of trust, or fear of control, or expectation of rejection or hurt.  Such an individual is highly unlikely to seek out a counsellor or therapist, and if they do, they are likely to be too remote to benefit.

(b) A person who is prone to operate from what is called ‘Critical Parent ego state’ – which is to say, a person who engages in negative judgements of other, and who tends to put others down; to play a game of ‘Top Dog- Under Dog’ with others – such a person is highly unlikely to come to counselling or psychotherapy; and if they do, they are unlikely to be able to learn well from their counsellor.

(c) A person who is arrogant and harsh, or whose mind is closed to new learning, will not be open to any inputs from a counsellor.

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Secondly, a person may be ‘sent’ to counselling; or ‘dragged along’ by a parent, or couple-partner.  They are not enrolled into the value of the counselling process.  They are coerced to go.  So they have no understanding of what is possible in the counselling process.  Therefore, they cannot use the counsellor’s toolbox (or relationship support); and so they cannot benefit from being there.

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Thirdly, there is a therapeutic understanding of personal change in which a person is seen to proceed through the following stages:Pre-contemplators

3(a) Pre-contemplation: The person is not thinking of changing anything about their way of being; their life; or their relationships.

3(b) Contemplation: The person is aware of some discomfort or unworkability in their way of being, or the circumstances of their life.  And so they are beginning to think about the possibility of changing something.  So they might be willing to read something on the subject, or to ask questions, to think about the problem and how it would be good to change it.

3(c) Preparation: The person begins to plan some kind of action, to ameliorate their problem. This could include looking for an expert to help, including the possibility of looking for a counsellor or therapist, or a coach, etc.

3(d) Action: The person begins to take action to change their unworkable situation.

3(e) Maintenance: The person makes some gains or improvements; but now they have to keep remembering what they changed to produce this improvement in their life, and to keep maintaining that, in whatever ways may be necessary.  They may slip back, and then repeat the helpful change process, to move forward again.

A person at stage 3(a) may be sent to see a counsellor, but they cannot benefit, because they are not contemplating any kind of change.

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Fourthly, a counsellor may try to persuade such a pre-contemplator that they could benefit from some particular kind of personal change, but that will not have as much impact as many counsellors assume.  Why is this? Because:

No-question(a) As Postman and Weingartner, two great educators, wrote many years ago: “No question, no teacher!”  That is to say, if the student has no question, then there is no call for an educator.  Education only occurs reliably when the student is open to instruction.  (The exception to this rule is in the basic moral teaching that goes on in families and schools.  We have to instruct the young in good, pro-social tendencies and behaviours, and penalise them for breaking the rules, if we are to live in a civilised society!) But in terms of broader learning goals, it is better to wait until the individual is curious before presenting any knowledge inputs. And:

(b) Postman and Weingartner’s perspective is supported by that of Marilyn Ferguson, who wrote this statement:

“No one can persuade another to change.  Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside.  We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal”.

Again there are exceptions to this rule: Advertising, ideological memes which take over the mind, and political rhetoric.  But what is true in Marilyn Ferguson’s statement is this: You cannot reliably open the gate of learning of a fellow adult, in a counselling or therapy context.  The client has to be there because they want to be there; and they have to be open to learning something if any learning is to be achieved.

(c) Carl Rogers had a way of expressing this, which goes like this: “I know I cannot teach anything to anybody.  I can only create an environment in which people can learn”.

A good counsellor, therefore, knows that s/he depends upon having a good client – a keen learner – if anything good is to come out of the counselling and therapy encounter.

Certainly, we can try to teach the client (meaning creating a favourable learning environment for them) – but if their ‘gate of change’ is locked from the inside, there is nothing we can do about that!

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Dr Jim's photoPostscript: I would like to thank my wonderful clients – almost 900 of them – who, over a period of almost eighteen years (as at July 2016), have come to see me; worked hard on their problems; used my toolbox of models and techniques, and my relationship skills (as a secure base); and figured out how to build a better life for themselves.  Many of you have sent me testimonials*** about how well I served you, and what you gained, and how much better you now feel.  What has been missing up to now is this:

I hereby publicly acknowledge that you were at least half of the solution of your own problems.  Without your openness to change, there would have been nothing I could do to help you.  Without your willingness to look at painful aspects of your past history, nothing would have changed.  Without your courage, and you fortitude, your resilience and commitment to change, we would both have been wasting our time sitting in the same space.  Thank you for making my work productive; and for making my life meaningful.  Go well!

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That’s all for now.

Best wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

Email: Dr Jim

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