Carl Rogers - Psychotherapy - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Carl Rogers
The Canon


BORN 1902, Oak Park, Illinois


DIED 1987, San Diego, California


Educated at the University of Wisconsin and Teachers College, Columbia University



Carl Rogers was a clinician through and through. His research and writing made an indelible impact on psychology, but by all accounts his presence in the therapy room—genuine and warm—was also something to behold.

The approach that Rogers pioneered was originally called person-centered psychotherapy and eventually came to be known as client-centered psychotherapy. Both played a large role in the founding of humanistic therapy. Rogers believed that people in pain did not need to be talked down to and did not need their distress pathologized. He showed that some of the most powerful therapeutic techniques don’t have to be complicated; they are about simply being a caring person in the room. His approach underscores two ideas: that an effective therapist truly recognizes a person’s potential, and that an effective therapist truly recognizes a person’s capacity for lifelong growth. According to Rogers, among a therapist’s most important responsibilities are conveying those ideas, being a supportive presence in the therapy room, and collaborating in the client’s growth.

These ideas ran counter to the well-trod path of psychoanalysis, which has not been particularly concerned with being egalitarian. In fact, psychoanalysts call the people they treat analysands or patients, whereas humanistic therapy uses the more egalitarian term clients. Rogers saw the power dynamics of psychoanalysis as troubling and potentially manipulative. Psychoanalysis, Rogers argued, also overemphasizes the baggage of the past at the expense of recognizing a person’s true and inspiring potential in the present. Despite his gentle manner in the therapy room, Rogers was not afraid of picking a fight with this older school of thought, and humanistic psychotherapy came to be known as the third force, a refreshing new wave after psychoanalysis and behaviorism.

Humanistic therapy’s fundamental differences with behaviorism stem from humanistic therapy’s emphasis on the potential for inner growth, as opposed to environmental conditioning. Rogers very much believed that we, not external stimuli or other people, are in charge of our own lives. In fact, Rogers and the behaviorist guru B. F. Skinner even appeared together for a series of debates: two giants in the field, hashing out their disparate beliefs and making history in the process.

So what does humanistic therapy actually look like? The hallmarks of Rogers’s client-centered approach, outlined in Client-Centered Therapy (1951) and On Becoming a Person (1961), are the warm, empathetic presence of the therapist and the therapist’s nondirective way of helping clients find and understand their true feelings, without the therapist’s having undue influence on that process. The therapist is not to force issues but rather to create an environment ripe for self-exploration and inquiry. Rogers believed that people have a fundamental need to experience genuineness and an understanding ear, and that they are helped by having their feelings reflected back to them. And being nonjudgmental is key: Rogers believed that individuals have the capacity to correct their own mistakes when given the right supportive forum.

Another important tenet of Rogers’s approach is unconditional positive regard: He posited that to feel truly accepted and cared for, no matter what, is an extremely powerful experience. His theory says that when people’s self-worth is tied to conditions—certain achievements, saying the right thing, acting in a particular way—they suppress the deepest, truest parts of who they really are in order to fit themselves into the boxes that will gain them love and acceptance. It’s not hard to imagine how this can lead to confusion, distress, and self-doubt. The gaps between the real self (who we are) and the ideal self (who we “should” be) can spur us to dislike ourselves, and Rogers felt that this happens to virtually all of us, to some degree. But being in the presence of someone who offers us true empathetic understanding, validating our feelings and even being willing to experience them along with us, can help us become whole and spur us toward real growth.

Despite the feel-good nature of humanistic therapy, Rogers’s theories are neither subjective nor fuzzy. In fact, he pioneered new methods of doing research on the effectiveness of therapeutic techniques. It’s rather astounding that, before Rogers, not many practitioners had really tried to do that in the decades since Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis. Rogers prized the importance of empirical validation and sought objectivity in assessing the success of his therapeutic tools. He recorded sessions, provided transcripts, and broke the fundamentals of client-centered therapy down into concrete, teachable techniques. He was intent on demystifying the psychotherapeutic process and often displayed examples of his interventions, complete with a volunteer suffering from a real problem, to packed audiences. He called these presentations demonstration interviews and considered them genuine slices of the therapeutic relationship.

At the end of his life, Rogers had begun to apply his techniques to larger groups, including people outside the United States who were involved in racial or religious conflict. Such interventions took him to South Africa and Belfast. The realization that the benefits of a healing, person-to-person interaction could be extended to larger, starkly conflicted groups was an important breakthrough for our thinking about how psychotherapeutic techniques can help address society’s problems as a whole.


Rogers’s humanistic approach—so widely used that it is often simply referred to as the Rogerian approach—has influenced generations of mental health practitioners and people in other helping professions, such as the ministry. His approach has even spread to business, encounter groups, conflict resolution, and sensitivity training. His emphasis on research also set the stage for decades of study on empirically validated treatment techniques.


Let’s say you have a friend who has asked to meet with you and talk about a crucial personal problem. If you receive these requests with any frequency, chances are you have learned to be an empathetic listener—making eye contact, offering nonjudgmental and understanding statements, and asking, “How have you thought about handling it?” instead of announcing, “Here’s what you should do.” Even without realizing it, you are probably taking the Rogerian approach, which says that in order to really help people, you should be there in the moment, connect with what they’re feeling, and even share their feelings to some extent. When people know that you respect and love them without conditions, you can help them make their best choices and be their best selves.

As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I often talk on the phone for about 30 minutes with a potential client who is in emotional pain. I take some history, assess the person’s level of distress, answer questions, and determine whether we will be a good fit and what our goals will be. If everything is a go, then we schedule our first in-person session. But most of the time, something very interesting happens between the phone call and the first session: The potential client almost always experiences a lift in mood, which often takes the form of a reduction in symptoms and a sense that things aren’t as bad as they seemed. Is it the magic of my phone voice? Nope. It’s the theories of Carl Rogers playing out in real life. I gave the person hope. I let the potential client know that we were in it together. I showed the person that I cared, that I would be there, and that he or she had value to me. I listened and didn’t judge. I accepted and validated the person’s emotional experience and showed that I would not shy away from it. Whether the client is suffering from depression or disordered eating or anxiety or any number of other problems, we still have much work to do. But we’ve already connected as human beings—and the beautiful importance of that fact is Carl Rogers’s greatest legacy.