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The Origins and Benefits of Person-Centered Therapy

April 29, 2021
social worker meeting with his patient

With over 350 theories and therapies in counseling, therapists have a wide range of options for promoting healthy development in their patients. In general, these theories and therapies share a common goal of developing safe environments in which collaborative relationships between the patient and therapist lead to successful treatment. While counselors naturally want to choose methods that best suit clients' needs, they also naturally tend toward approaches they feel more comfortable and confident with.1

Most models of counseling fall within six major categories, including behavioral, cognitive, constructionist, humanistic, psychoanalytic and systemic. In this article, we explore in detail the origins and benefits of the humanistic theory of person-centered therapy.

The Origins of Humanistic Theories

Humanistic theories originated in the late 1950s from a growing interest in holistic approaches based on the ideology that human nature is inherently positive. Psychotherapist Abraham Maslow published his human hierarchy of needs and motivations theory at this time, and Carl Rogers, a fellow therapist, likewise developed his ground-breaking theory of person-centered therapy. Both theories were revolutionary and inspirational, promoting self-actualization as an inherent human motivation to fulfill one's potential by meeting one's needs.2

A defining difference in humanistic therapies is the reference to "clients" rather than "patients." Deliberately moving away from the doctor-patient relationship, humanistic counselors build equal partnerships with clients. Rather than doctors diagnosing and 'fixing' patients, clients discuss problems with counselors who listen and encourage clients to determine their own rational solutions.3

Humanistic therapies are holistic, viewing the whole person from the counselor's perspective and the client's own perspective, as well. And, instead of categorizing clients into pre-defined groups sharing similar problematic characteristics, the focus is on each client's individual nature. The client's positive behaviors and characteristics are emphasized, encouraging them to follow their personal instincts in their search for healing, growth, and fulfillment.2

Carl Rogers: The Client Knows Best

When Carl Rogers was developing his person-centered theory, the best starting point centered on the conscious mind and subjective understanding of the client's current situation.3,4 As Rogers noted, "It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process."4

So, departing from psychodynamic and behavioral theories, Rogers encouraged clients to focus on present situations rather than analyzing unconscious motives or making interpretations based on a superficial familiarity with the client. Instead, he proposed a more genuine and friendly approach to counseling. Rogers believed strongly that a mutually optimistic, warm and understanding relationship between a counselor and client would greatly facilitate the client's inherent inclination toward personal growth and improvement.1,3

"Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding," Rogers stated, "and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided."5

Beneficial Uses of Person-Centered Therapy

Several significant benefits are attainable with Rogers' person-centered therapy, including increased self-esteem and confidence. Also, by striving for congruence or balance between the client's actual self and ideal self, emotional dysfunction decreases, enabling the client to become a more fully functioning individual.3

People seeking help with stress, anxiety, depression or grief may benefit greatly from a person-centered counselor's empathy and optimism. This approach also benefits those having trouble with aging, dealing with disability, trusting their own decisions or building healthy interpersonal relationships by helping clients develop a stronger sense of self-identity and self-worth. Individuals suffering from traumatic experiences or physical, emotional or substance abuse may also find person-centered therapy helpful for resolving emotional pain and restoring emotional balance.6

Rogers believed every client was a "potentially competent individual" that would greatly benefit from his approach to counseling.3 However, because the client must do most of the talking in person-centered therapy, success is more likely if the client is motivated and comfortable with this approach.6

Person-Centered Therapy Techniques

Person-centered therapy is lauded more for the unique relationship between counselor and client, rather than for specific techniques beyond attitude-oriented listening, sharing, accepting and understanding.3

As a client and counselor discuss a client's current situation or trouble, the counselor listens actively, empathizing and helping the client discover effective solutions. The interpersonal relationship effectively becomes the most important 'technique' for successful treatment. However, this relationship requires a strong bond of trust between the counselor and client, evidenced by mutual authenticity, non-judgmental regard and shared optimism between both.4

As Rogers explained, "When functioning best, the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that he or she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness."4

Client & Counselor Expectations

When first encountering person-centered therapy, clients' expectations should include the understanding that clients will do most of the talking. The counselor will not judge or psychoanalyze conversations but may restate clients' words to facilitate a deeper understanding. This paraphrasing may occur throughout the session, with some long moments of silence while the counselor processes the client's words, thoughts and feelings.6

Counselors' expectations are more diverse. They include understanding that clients are the ones who know best what is wrong. Person-centered therapists function best as non-judgmental sounding boards helping to clarify clients' points of view, feelings and choices going forward. Offering advice is not recommended, but some clients may need encouragement to find their own solutions and may need help exploring the potential consequences of their decisions.3

Additionally, although counselors try carefully to control their tone of voice, some clients may express aggression or other negative emotions that may be challenging to address and work through. Boundaries must be set and respected, and abuse of any type should never be a facet of the counselor-client relationship.3

Finally, it's just as important for counselors to know themselves as it is to know their clients. Sometimes a counselor-client relationship doesn't work. It's unrealistic for counselors to expect 100% success 100% of the time.3 However, person-centered therapy has great potential for success because, as Carl Rogers said, "When you are in psychological distress and someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels d(***) good!"4

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1. Retrieved on April 4, 2021, from psychology.iresearchnet.com/counseling-psychology/counseling-theories/
2. Retrieved on April 4, 2021, from psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/humanistic-therapy
3. Retrieved on April 4, 2021, from simplypsychology.org/client-centred-therapy.html
4. Retrieved on April 4, 2021, from positivepsychology.com/client-centered-therapy/
5. Retrieved on April 4, 2021, from goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/person-centered
6. Retrieved on April 4, 2021, from psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/person-centered-therapy