5. Becoming “we” again (I)

It is all about relationships

By mid 1900’s, Freud’s ideas were beginning to be challenged by scientists and practitioners who saw the value of therapy beyond psychoanalysis. This trend is exemplified by the emergence of humanistic therapies. If Freud’s focus was on the unconscious, humanistic therapies were concerned with the conscious; if psychoanalysis was interested in truth and facts, humanistic therapies stressed the subjective experience of clients as holding the key to recovery. The end goal of psychoanalysis was symptom reduction; relationships were subservient to this goal. But in humanistic therapies relationships were the goal. It was the relationship that unlocked people’s potential to change.

Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, is considered the founder of humanistic therapies. Numerous humanistic therapies, for example person-centred, gestalt, and existential, sprang from Rogers’ work.

Being mindful of what is going on with and around us is an indicator of how well we know ourselves.

Humanistic therapies focus on self-concept, on how we, as individuals, define ourselves. This self definition extends to what we think about others, and to the value we attach to these perceptions. A healthy self-concept means knowing oneself well, which is understood by humanistic theorists as paying attention to and making sense of our feelings. Being mindful of what is going on with and around us is an indicator of how well we know ourselves. This capacity develops throughout the life-course reflecting from Rogers’ viewpoint our inherent motivation to grow.

From a humanistic perspective, the relationships we develop with others allow us to become “we”, to know ourselves in the context of the world we inhabit. Unequivocal care and regard from others, for example when a sensitive mother attends to her baby’s needs, convey the message that we are important. When we feel we matter to others, we begin to value ourselves. People with a healthy self-concept are attuned to their experiences, trust their instincts, exert agency over their lives, and are creative. According to Rogers, we strive to be all we can be. On the other hand, if love and care rest are conditional or absent, a void is created. The unloved, the uncared for have to fill this space for themselves. Little room is left for other development.

From a humanistic perspective, the relationships we develop with others allow us to become “we”, to know ourselves in the context of the world we inhabit.

So some people are filling a space left empty by the poverty of their relationships. Their self is “entrapped”. How to escape the trap? In Rogers’ view, by a relationship with a therapist.

Once again we see the difference between Freud and Rogers. In psychoanalysis, the focus is on resolving inner conflicts, on unstrapping the conscious. Humanistic therapy reconnects the person being helped to the world, which allows them to develop a sense of self.

But what type of relationship? For Rogers, a humanistic relationship is one where the two parties are equal. There is no expert in the relationship. If we were to choose someone to be in charge of the process and progress of therapy it would be the client. “Truth”, facts, focus on the past, all core elements of Freudian therapy matter little. Instead, validity is given to the subjective experience of the client, how they feel here and now in the moment of the interaction with the therapist. By this process, the client becomes an agent of his own change.

For Rogers, a humanistic relationship is one where the two parties are equal. There is no expert in the relationship. If we were to choose someone to be in charge of the process and progress of therapy it would be the client.

This is not to say that the therapist does not matter. He does, but rather ironically given the amount of training and preparation needed to be a professional helper, it is not his intellect or expertise per se that makes the difference as much as his human capacity to help the client to be able to experience, reflect and make sense of his experiences. It is the human qualities that matter hence the label of humanistic therapy.

Rogers identified three human qualities applicable to all human relationships, the necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to help somebody: acceptance, understanding, and a genuine attitude. Acceptance-also known as unconditional positive regard- means that the therapist respects and likes the client and makes no judgement about the client’s condition, behaviour, or feelings. Understanding refers to the therapist seeing the client’s world as the client sees it, through their eyes. A genuine attitude requires therapist to monitor his own feelings during therapy and, when appropriate, to communicate these to the client.

From Rogers’ perspective, when clients experience an understanding, accepting, and genuine helper, they are more likely to allow themselves to pay attention to their own feelings. They deepen their internal experiences. They begin to recover the self. This is not the discovery of a new capacity but an activation of one laid dormant, the capacity to be all one can be. As feelings are set free, individuals become cognisant of their needs and will act accordingly to satisfy them, themselves.

When clients experience an understanding, accepting, and genuine helper, they are more likely to allow themselves to pay attention to their own feelings. They deepen their internal experiences. They begin to recover the self.

Theoretically Rogers’ work makes a lot of sense. But is it true? The evidence of the effectiveness of humanistic therapies is neither better nor worse than for other therapies, Freudian included. Some people receive some benefit, but many not at all. Research focusing on the three core conditions- acceptance, understanding, genuineness- proposed by Rogers also produces mixed results. Some studies show that all three qualities are essential to recovery. Others say one or two are sufficient, and others still that none of them matter. The most recent research on this matter comes from the American Psychological Association’s initiative, Division 29 Task Force on Empirically Supported Relationships. This inquiry gives primacy to empathy and considers acceptance and genuine attitude promising avenues for further inquiry.

In sum, Rogers had a major influence on how people understood relationships in the therapeutic context. He brought back therapy to ordinary human interaction. My interest is understanding its relevance beyond therapy.


How does Rogers’ view of relationships make us think differently about responding to disadvantage? Rebeca turns to this question on Thursday.

It is all about relationships

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