Since I’ve been off from school and prepping for the start of practicum in a few weeks, I decided to read up on some of the theoretical approaches I’m drawn to. I ordered a big old stack of books (yikes!) and have been slowly making my way through…one of them. I’m really thankful we have a 6-hour ride to Denver coming up this weekend!
Out of that pile, I decided to start with On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers. I think that was the right choice. Sadly, we don’t read many original sources in our theories and techniques classes, and in this case, we’re all missing out. I didn’t know much about him and so looked up his bio in Wikipedia (scholarly, I know) and was surprised to see that he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and South Africa.
On second thought, maybe I’m not surprised about that. Rogers’s personality shines through his writing like few other academics I’ve read. His prose is humble, compelling, and incredibly accessible. You can see curiosity, caring, and again, humility in how he lays out ideas and gives examples. In addition, he puts into words so many principles that have fundamentally shaped the helping fields. It totally makes sense that someone like Rogers could make strides in working towards a more peaceful world. Like I said, I’m rather sad we haven’t read any Rogers in classes.
I’m probably only going to read the first half for now (the second half deals with research, learning, group work, etc.), but a few things have really stuck with me. One is his concept of psychotherapy looking from the outside in. Rogers posits that there are seven approximate stages that a client goes through on their journey towards being a fully-realized person, from being closed to experience and emotion to being open and congruent. A person in the first stage is hard to get close to and not open to much of anything. These clients are either a) not even clients, because they see no reason to go to therapy, or b) are in therapy because someone else made them go. I don’t think I’ll see any clients like this in practicum, but probably in my internship. Rogers says that most people start counseling around stage three, when they have some self-awareness, but aren’t able to experience or label emotions yet. This seems like a good place to start–the client knows that something needs to be changed and is open to forming a relationship and changing. This continues until stage seven, when the client can freely experience and label things and not be stuck in past patterns. I had to read this part a few times since it was pretty abstract, and I wonder if this is more of an aspirational stage than something that most clients actually reach.
Through these stages, Rogers hoped to achieve congruence: experiencing emotions fully and and fearlessly, and communicating them to others. There are no defense mechanisms or holding back because an emotion is too scary, unworthy, or whatever to experience. There are no masks or fakeness. Put that way, doesn’t congruence sound nice? We all gripe so much about “fake” people. Imagine if we and everyone around us had access to our emotions and could describe them. We’d have so much less defensiveness and misdirected anger, and fewer fake smiles covering hurts. We could experience emotions, understand and describe them, and move on. The concept of congruence has fascinated me since I began my studies, and since I see the value in being straightforward and honest about how I think and feel, I try reeeeaaaaallllyyyy hard for congruence. It’s not reeeeaaaaallllyyyy easy, but it has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older and care less about others’ perceptions and fear less. I hope that I can help my clients work towards some level of this.
Achieving some level of congruence can only come with a strong counselor-client relationship, which is what everyone studies when they study person-centered counseling in school. There’s a reason for that, though! Think about it–would you want a cold, detached counselor during your darkest moments? Someone you don’t trust? Someone who treats you without dignity, doesn’t recognize your choices as yours, or isn’t even interested in you? How much would that accomplish–especially if you don’t want to be there in the first place? Rogers states that the relationship is the agent for change, meaning that a client progresses through the stages because the strong relationship bolsters the client’s willingness to explore. Although I’m still not sure about the relationship being the sole thing needed for change, I sure do believe that it’s the foundation of good counseling. I think it’s becoming increasingly more important as we isolate ourselves from each other–our current technology does a great job as a defense mechanism. We all hide behind the masks Facebook, Twitter, and the like instead of really, truly connecting.
So! Rogers! I can’t wait to see some of his ideas in action as I begin practicum in two weeks, and maybe even to see some NOT in action. For any classmates that may be reading this, read a bit of Dr. Rogers when you have a chance. For any counselors who need a little brushing up, go read some! And for anyone outside the field but wanting to learn more about relationships, you’ll probably find something useful, too.
Have you read any Rogers? What did you find most useful, or alternately, what isn’t useful to you?