I am slowly integrating in my knowledge the books recommended by the Canadian professor of psychology Jordan Peterson, by reading them, writing and speaking about them. My initial goal was to follow his advice to “rescue my dying culture”. But the question remained: why his recommended readings, with their focus on psychology, philosophy and the dark side of the human condition? Why not Harold Bloom’s Western Canon or Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World or any other online list of most influential books?
Over time, I am getting it: Peterson is an expert in the psychology of meaning — maybe the world’s foremost expert. And his core claim is that meaning is the most fundamental experience, and an antidote to the limitations of existence. That could explain why he is currently taking the world by storm and motivating hundreds of thousands to soften their cynicism and dare to take on their lives more proactively (clean their rooms and sort themselves out, as the memes go).
And this would explain what I am trying to do: I am trying to look behind the curtain and really understand the inner workings of meaning. I am, slowly, very slowly, reading the background readings of the book that explains Peterson’s core theory, Maps of Meaning. Because if meaning really is the most fundamental experience, having a deep understanding of its inner workings is bound to be very powerful (and if that power could be used to improve people’s lives, that would be good).
It’s no wonder that Carl Rogers, ranked the 6th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century by the American Psychological Association, is featured among Peterson’s recommended readings. Peterson credits Rogers with strongly influencing his conceptualization of authentic speech and true listening. Take this Peterson quote on authentic speech:
“With regards to telling if you are speaking authentically: Listen to yourself talk, as if a stranger was talking. Try not to identify too much with what you are saying. Then, observe. See if what you are saying makes you feel stronger, physically, or weaker. If it makes you feel weaker, stop saying it. Try to reformulate your speech until you can feel the ground under your feet solidifying. Then practice only saying things that make you strong.
Stop trying to use your speech to get what you want. You don’t necessarily know what you want. Instead, try to articulate what you believe to be true as carefully as possible. Then, accept the outcome. Assume that your truth, as lived and spoken, will produce the best possible outcome. It’s an act of faith.
But so is every other way of being.”
In particular, it’s the emphasis on phenomenology (the contents of one’s experience) that is properly Rogerian: authentic speech is not just a theory, a set of axioms to follow — it is something that you can feel. There is something in your subjective experience that you need to watch.
This principle can be extended to how you live your life in general. Authentic action is what Roger calls “a way of being”. This is also the title of Carl Rogers’ last book, published in 1980, 7 years before his death, the book I am going to present in this article. It is a selection of talks and papers and autobiographical essays, and provides a very good overview of the man’s life and philosophy. It contains many pearls of practical wisdom, some of which I tried to extract and lay out here. Let’s jump right in.
There are moments, those magical moments where someone is able to talk about something and, at the same time, do it in a manner that renders them a living example of what they are talking about. A beautiful example is Brené Brown’s TED talk about the power of vulnerability, a talk that became as powerful as it was exactly thanks to the vulnerability she was able to show right there on stage.
56 years earlier, Carl Rogers did something very similar in his talk “Experiences in Communication”, given in the autumn of 1964 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, when he decided “rather than talking about communication, to communicate with [his audience] at a feeling level.”
“In my own two-way communication with others there have been experiences that have made me feel pleased and warm and good and satisfied. There have been other experiences that to some extent at the time, and even more so afterward, have made me feel dissatisfied and displeased and more distant and less contented with myself. I would like to convey some of these things.”
The talk exemplifies his “person-centric” philosophy. He doesn’t talk as an authority on certain theories. He talks about his own lived experience. Almost every sentence in the talk begins, unapologetically, from a personal perspective (“When I”, “When my experiencing”, “I am X when”…). This allows him to connect to us, to you and me, in a deeper way than would be possible when speaking about some theoretical construct.
Nonetheless, the talk has a clear structure. Rogers goes systematically through what he regards as the components of authentic communication:
- Truly hearing, and being heard
- Speaking authentically and encountering authentic speech
- Prizing, receiving and sharing positive feelings
Let’s look at interesting quotes on each of these points. See, for example, what happens when you can really hear someone:
“When I say that I enjoy hearing someone, I mean, of course, hearing deeply. I mean that I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Sometimes too, in a message which superficially is not very important, I hear a deep human cry that lies buried and unknown far below the surface of the person. […] when I let him know that I have heard his own private personal meanings, many thing happen. There is first of all a grateful look. He feels released. He wants to tell me more about his world. He surges forth in a new sense of freedom. He becomes more open to the process of change.”
Authentic speech then is what happens when experience, awareness and communication are aligned:
“When my experiencing of this moment is present in my awareness and when what is present in my awareness is present in my communication, then each of these levels matches or is congruent. At such moments I am integrated or whole, I am completely in one piece.”
Being the recipient of authentic speech is positive, too:
“It is a sparkling thing when I encounter realness in another person.”
And conversely, being unauthentic or not allowing others to be authentic (i.e. being controlling) is something that generates a sense of malaise:
“I am disappointed when I realize — and of course this realization always comes afterward, after a lag of time — that I have been too frightened or too threatened to let myself get close to what I am experiencing, and that consequently I have not been genuine or congruent.”
Finally, the last dimension of authentic communication, prizing, is the one that causes me the most difficulties. I had to look up the meaning of “to prize”. Google says it is to “value extremely highly.”
“I feel enriched when I can truly prize or care for or love another person and when I can let that feeling flow out to that person.”
The expression of positive feelings really is something I have to work on — my default modus operandi is a problem-solving one, which is useful but pretty harsh (“if everything is good there’s nothing to say”). I’m slowly learning to tell people when they do something I appreciate — but it feels weird to me. At the same time, there is almost nothing I crave more than validation, but there, too, it is very hard to “[…] let in the fact, or permit myself to feel, that someone cares for, accepts, admires, or prizes me.”
Prizing is also something you can direct to yourself.
“I have come to prize each emerging facet of my experience, of myself. I would like to treasure the feelings of anger and tenderness and shame and hurt and love and anxiety and giving and fear — all the positive and negative reactions that crop up. I would like to treasure the ideas that emerge — foolish, creative, bizarre, sound, trivial — all part of me. I like the behavioral impulses — appropriate, crazy, achievement-oriented, sexual, murderous. I want to accept all of these feelings, ideas, and impulses as an enriching part of me. I don’t expect to act on all of them, but when I accept them all, I can be more real; my behavior, therefore, will be much more appropriate to the immediate situation.”
Yes, definitely something I have to work on. There are many aspects of me that I’m afraid to accept, let alone treasure. Other people (a therapist, an understanding partner, even an understanding youtube audience) have been essential for my growth in this regard. It is greatly relieving to reluctantly express a difficult feeling and be met with full acceptance. It allows one to heal one dark piece of one’s soul and let it slide into its proper place.
The growth-promoting climate
Have you ever asked yourself: how do I help a friend in distress? Do I tell them everything will be fine? Do I tell them what I think is good for them? Should I be harsh or understanding? Do I try to find a solution with them? Do I just shut up and let them speak? Here’s the solution:
On a more serious note, here is how not to help people on Rogerian terms: by trying to solve their problems. The core assumption in Rogers’ framework is: people have it in themselves to grow and solve their own problems. It is what Rogers calls an innate “self-actualizing tendency”. You can’t “help” people through emotional problems, if by help you mean taking responsibility for their problems and telling them how to solve them.
But there is a way to help. Everybody needs a climate that promotes growth. You can help by providing that climate, to allow their own self-actualization to unfold. This is why this approach is called person-centered and non-directive: you don’t carry out your agenda.
“I have come to trust the capacity of persons to explore and understand themselves and their troubles, and to resolve those problems, in any close, continuing relationship where I can provide a climate of real warmth and understanding. […] Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding 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.”
This faith in the “actualizing tendency” of people is the birthplace of humanistic psychology. People have a potential that will manifest on its own given the right climate.
So, what does this growth-promoting climate look like? It has, Rogers explains, 3 components:
- Genuineness, realness, or congruence
- Acceptance, or caring, or prizing, “unconditional positive regard”
- Emphatic understanding
You might recognize these as the components of authentic communication. In my understanding, the difference is that in this case the communication is asymmetric. The focus of the conversation will inevitably be on the person in need of help, who feels a lack of congruence, self-acceptance or understanding, and the helping person is there to provide that environment to foster their growth. Rogers talks of situations “between therapist and client, parent and child, leader and group, teacher and student, or administrator and staff. […] in fact, in any situation in which the development of the person is a goal.” I’m going to venture the hypothesis that even people in a romantic relationship or a friendship can benefit from these kinds of asymmetric conversations, as long as they are able to take turns, and as long as these conversations don’t define the relationship.
These components help persons develop by allowing them to
“develop a more caring attitude toward themselves […] to listen more accurately to the flow of inner experiencings […] as a person understands and prizes self, the self becomes more congruent with the experiencings. The person thus becomes more real, more genuine [and thus becomes] a more effective growth-enhancer for himself or herself. There is a greater freedom to be the true, whole person.”
This quote alone feels liberating to me :)
Let’s now look at a few more interesting quotes about the growth-promoting climate.
Here is a characterization of congruence:
“The more the therapist is himself or herself in the relationship, putting up no professional front or personal facade, the greater is the likelihood that the client will change and grow in a constructive manner. This means that the therapist is openly being the feelings and attitudes that are flowing within at the moment.”
If find this concept so cool, and so counter to what our intuitions are about what a therapist is or should be like. An air of “professionality” and detachment are counterproductive. I happen to know that Acceptance and Commitment therapy (a more recent form of therapy) has the same approach: you should meet human to human, with a sense that we are struggling with the same fundamental problems.
With regards to acceptance, Rogers says:
“When the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely to occur. The therapist is willing for the client to be whatever immediate feeling is going on — confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love, or pride. Such caring on the part of the therapist is nonpossessive. The therapist prizes the client in a total rather than conditional way.”
How can the therapist make sure to be experiencing such radical acceptance? The therapist has to firmly believe in the client’s capacity to self-actualize. Again, this hints at a radical approach to therapy, where human meets human.
And finally, here’s how Rogers describes empathic understanding:
“The therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client. 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 […] listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”
I have personally benefited from this approach in various situations, where if I don’t know what to think about what my interlocutor is saying I now fall back to careful listening. Then I attempt to formulate a synthesis of what I heard instead of trying to find a clever comeback. Surprisingly to me this has lead to deeper conversations. This behavior still feels quite unusual to me, I’m still finding a way to do it in a way that feels completely right and not like I’m “parroting” or “shrinking” the person. But it seems well worth the effort.
There are other interesting chapters in this book I completely ignored in this article. Worthy of note are his concrete examples of the effects of his principles, his descriptions of his experience of growing old, and his attempt to build person-centered-communities.
Carl Rogers introduced his principles as the necessary and sufficient conditions for growth. I’m not so convinced about the “sufficient” part. Meanwhile, especially within Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy, a large number of targeted and effective psychological interventions for specific issues have been developed. While a nondirective approach might lead to progress, such targeted interventions are most likely going to lead to a quicker resolution of specific problems.
Nonetheless, for therapists and non-therapists alike, Carl Rogers has a lot to offer. I believe Rogers’ “way of being” could enrich everyone’s relationships with other people and with themselves. Additionally, as I said in the beginning, the focus on authenticity as something you can feel hints at something even deeper: it is in the field of your own experience that you will find meaning, and the more you can integrate the meanings within you and align yourself with them, the more you will be oriented and have a meaningful direction in life. I have talked about this process elsewhere, but I intend to investigate this further. Next in the list: Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl.