Carl Rogers Biography, Theories and Books: The Founder of Humanistic Psychology

Carl Rogers was an American psychologist who is best known for developing client-centered therapy, and is also among the founders of what is referred to as Humanistic Psychology. 

A Short & Sharp Intro to Rogers Most Famous Theory of Personality and Experience

Contrary to Freud, who suggested that much of personality is based on unconscious forces that the person has no awareness of or control over, Rogers proposed that personality is built of conscious decisions and choices based on an individual's perception of his experiences.

In this way he also claimed that individuals are not victims of their childhood. Yes, childhood experiences are important and can affect the way a person sees or interprets the world around him, but current feelings and emotions also play a powerful role.


So Basically Rogers Said:
'Past Experiences Can Influence Present Personality, BUT They Don't Have to

Close-up photo of a young Carl RogersAt least not entirely!

Carl Rogers' theory states that all personality is based on "experiences", and current experiences have the ability to override the past and bring about change ... if the individual chooses to.

By some current philosophies, this idea can be likened to "letting go of the past".

  • "Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person's ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming me." ~ Carl Rogers quote


Carl Roger's Provocative and Ground-Breaking Insight:
'Your Life is Your Responsibility - Experience Is a Choice'

Rogers' idea that experience - and one's interpretation of experience - is what forms personality, also carries the assumption that a change in experience - or a change in the perception of experience - can bring about a change in personality.

Furthermore, he stated that human beings have the ability and responsibility to improve themselves and work to become who they want to be (what he calls 'ideal self').

This optimistic view of the world was quite a change in the popular thinking of the time.

Up to this point, many psychologists had focused on the problems, looking at dysfunctional families or disturbed children.

So, Rogers' claim that people can choose to be healthy, forward thinking beings, was met with much criticism - which is not surprising!

From his observations, Carl Rogers concluded that emotional and psychological problems were the exception, not the rule, and in most cases these issues could be overcome.


Carl Rogers Sowed the Seed for Today's Therapies: Stop Being a Victim of Your Past!

This changed the world of psychology and psychotherapy, and set the trend for a lot of current counselling treatments.

Today, it is common for someone to visit a psychologist who will help them deal with past experiences so that they can move onto a healthy future.

But, back when Rogers first introduced this idea, it was revolutionary. And, his optimistic approach gave hope to a lot of people who believed themselves to be eternal victims of their past.


What You'll Read about in This Article

This is a very extensive, in-dept article about Carl Rogers and this theories and work and here you'll get to:


The Carl Rogers Biography

Carl Rogers was born on January 8, 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

He was the fourth of six children and was raised in a very loving, yet strict home.

Raised in Love but Imprisoned by Beliefs

Old photo of Carl Ransom Rogers as a child.His parents were devout protestants and imposed very rigid rules on their children, such as no dancing, cards, movies, smoking, or drinking.

While Carl Rogers does not argue that these rules were for the benefit of his health and morality, he felt that he was only given someone else's view of the world.

He was not allowed to think for himself as it was presumed that he would adopt his parents' beliefs and perceptions.

It is important to note that Rogers did not take objection to his parents' belief that drinking was wrong (the right or wrong of it was irrelevant) - the problem came in the fact that they assumed their son would automatically believe the same.

He was expected to internalize the conclusions of his parents.

Rogers' belief that his world view was being imposed upon him was a great impetus for his later theory of personality development.


Childhood Loneliness Paved the Way for Getting Close to People - Thus the Interest for Therapy

Carl Rogers was a solitary child and spent many hours alone, usually reading.

He later realized how much this solitude affected his interest in psychotherapy as this Carl Rogers quote illustrates:

  •  "As I look back, I realize that my interest in interviewing and in therapy certainly grew out of my early loneliness. Here was a socially approved way of getting really close to individuals and thus filling some of the hunger I had undoubtedly felt" (Rogers, 1980, p.34).


Rogers Started out with Science Studies

When Carl Rogers was 12, his family moved to a farm in Glen Ellen, Illinois, and it was here that Rogers became interested in science.

He attended the University of Wisconsin to pursue a career in agriculture.


... But Changed to History

While he was there, he began going to religious "revival" meetings, and this experience together with his religious upbringing, inspired him to change his major to history, with the plans to attended seminary after graduation.


Finally Breaking Free to Think His Own Thoughts

In 1922, Carl Rogers was chosen to spend six weeks in China at the International Christian Youth Conference.

This time away allowed him to break free from his parent's control, and he would later recall that he was able to think his own thoughts and decide what he believed as an individual for the first time in his life.

After graduation from the University of Wisconsin, he married his wife and the couple went on to have two children.


His Professional Life and Powerful Legacy

Drawing of Carl Rogers.In 1924, Carl Rogers enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and also began taking psychology courses at the Teachers College of Columbia University.

Two years later, he transferred full-time to Columbia after deciding not to pursue a career in the ministry.

In 1931 he earned his Ph.D from Columbia and throughout his career he held professional positions at several institutions including Ohio State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin.

During this time, he created his theory of personality development, pioneered client-centered therapy, and authored several publications.

In 1946, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and in 1987, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Carl Rogers died on February 4, 1987, but he left behind a legacy that forever changed the fields of parenting and psychology.


Carl Rogers' Theoretical Contributions

Carl Rogers is among those professionals credited for developing humanistic psychology and laid the foundation upon which many others would build.

He was one of Freud's biggest critics and preferred to look at human beings in a more positive light - rather than the negative and hopeless view that Freudian principles often imply.

Some of Rogers' most prominent contributions include:


The Experiential World
- Reality Is Completely Subjective

A person's "reality" is based on how he perceives his environment or interprets his experiences.

It is very subjective and may not match up, or coincide with, objective reality.

In other words, two people can experience the exact same situation but the individual "realities" could be different.


There Are Two Sides to Every Story (or Reality)

The experience of a man shouting or yelling is subjective and individual. I am sure you have heard the expression, "there are two sides to every story"!

Each individual has their own frame of reference or context and will experience the situation differently depending on their perception.

For example, a teacher may raise his voice to be heard over a noisy classroom of children. His goal is to get everyone to sit quietly and pay attention.

Now, let's say a child grew up in a home where his dad yelled - or raised his voice - every time he expressed his displeasure.

If the child disobeyed or failed to meet expectations, he could expect his dad to begin shouting a reprimand.

So, when the teacher raises the volume of his voice to be heard over the noisy students, the child's interpretation of the situation (based on his experiences) is that the teacher is angry and it is his fault.

Another student may not pick up a sense of anger at all, but realize that the teacher is just trying to get everyone's attention and cannot do so when speaking at a normal volume because the classroom is too noisy.

If these two students had to describe their day, the story would be very different.

So, Carl Rogers was interested in how people reacted to the stimuli and experiences around them.


The Experiential Layers of the Past Do not Have to Override Those of the Now

And, Carl Rogers also believed that a person's perceptions can change with time and additional experiences. The experiential world includes present experiences, but Rogers suggested that past experiences can also guide or influence a person's perception of current experiences.

For example, as an infant grows, he is exposed to more and more stimuli. Therefore, his experiential world is broadened and his behavior is going to change.

His past experiences have governed the way he interprets the new experiences, but it is the new experiences that are most important.

Rogers argues that as a child grows and matures, he will develop the ability to interpret experiences consciously - that is to decide how much his past will affect his present.

A teenager would have the capability to look at the situation in the classroom and realize that the teacher's "yelling" was not at all the same as his mother's "yelling".

He could then consciously decide that the current situation did not fit with his context or frame of reference - in other words, not all yelling means anger, and the teacher's raised voice is not an expression of disapproval or a reflection of the child's self-worth.

According to Rogers, the experiential field makes up a person's view of the world and is extremely important when it comes to personality development and change.


Self-Concept and the Unconditional Positive Regard

Carl Rogers believed that as a child develops a broader experiential field (resulting from his experiences and interaction with others and his environment) a sense of "self" begins to emerge.

This is the part defined by the words "I" or "me" and is his perception of who he really is as an individual.

Rogers called this aspect "self-concept" and it includes the child's inner picture of who he is, who he wants to be, and who he thinks he should be.

Self-concept is influenced by the evaluation of others, childhood experiences, and the interpretation of those experiences (or perspective).


The 3 Components of the Self-Concept

According to Carl Rogers, self-concept has three components:

  • Self-worth - "I feel good about myself":
    This is how or what a child feels about himself. Feelings of self-worth are developed from infancy and are formed most strongly through interaction between the child and his mother. The relationships with the father and other main care providers are also important.

  • Self-image - "I think I am a good person":
    This is how a child sees himself. This also includes physical qualities and emphasizes the importance of body image on the formation of personality.

  • Ideal-self - "I would like to be a good person":
    This is who the child would like to be, and includes his dreams, goals, and valued personality traits. It is important to note that many aspects of the ideal-self are not static in that they change as the child grows. The ideal-self for a four year old will be different than the ideal-self for a 16 year old.
Picture of little boy showing Rogers' idea of self concept, self worth, self image and ideal self.

The closer the self-image and ideal-self are to each other the more self-worth a child will have.

If his experience does not fit with his self-image then he is in what Rogers call a state of "incongruence".

We will discuss that a little more shortly. But, first, we need to look at the connection between self-worth and Positive Regard.


Positive Regard

Basically, Carl Rogers said that everyone has a need for what he calls Positive Regard, or the acceptance, love, and approval from others. He also believed that self-worth and positive regard are closely linked.

How a child thinks and feels about himself and how he sees himself will determine the likelihood of him achieving his ideal-self, or making his goals and dreams a reality.

A person with high self-worth will have confidence, a positive self-image, and will be able to deal with challenges without becoming discouraged.

On the other hand, a person with low self-worth will be defensive, have difficulty in relationships, and will have a hard time dealing with painful or challenging experiences.

In other words, one is an optimist while the other is a pessimist.

Rogers believed that this self-worth is developed most strongly in childhood and is derived from positive regard.

But, he outlines the difference between "conditional" and "unconditional" positive regard, and it is a very important distinction in the formation of self-concept.

Unconditional Positive Regard, is when a parent gives love, acceptance, and approval to a child for who he is, not for what he does.

Love is not withdrawn when a child makes a mistake or does something wrong. As a result, the child feels free to try new things, even if it means making mistakes.

On the other hand, Conditional Positive Regard, is when a parent's approval is dependent on the child's behavior. He is not accepted for who he is but for what he does.

Disobedience brings disapproval from others, and eventually the child will begin to develop disapproval of himself.

As a result, the child feels like he has to constantly work to seek approval from others rather than trying new things and working toward his ideal-self.

So, a child who received unconditional positive regard will tend have a high self-worth, while a child who received conditional positive regard will tend have a low self-worth.

Rogers goes on to say that the feedback we get from others - their approval or disapproval - not only influences our self-worth, but also our entire self-concept:

A child will internalize the positive regard and this will affect how he thinks about himself, how he sees himself, and how confident he is in his ability to achieve his ideal-self.

Now, let's return to the discussion about congruence. When a person's reality lines up with his self-concept, he is said to be in a state of congruence. In order to achieve actualization (full potential), congruence is necessary.

However, when a person's self-concept does not match his reality, incongruence results.


The Self-Concept Decides the Experiential Quality

According to Carl Rogers, individuals want to think, feel, and experience in ways that are consistent with their self-concept, or with the image they have of their ideal-self.

The closer the self-image is to the ideal-self, the higher the level of self-worth will be.


Everybody Strives to Be in Congruence ...
Irrelevant of Whether the Self-Concept Is Positive or Negative

By nature, individuals want to be in a state of congruence, so when there is a discrepancy, anxiety is created because the self-concept is threatened.


If our Self-Concept Is Threatened ...
We Lie to and Deceive Ourselves to Get Peace

Rogers says that anxiety is dealt with using defense mechanisms so that the individual can convince himself that the inconsistency is not real.

For example, if a person believes himself to be very honest yet is regularly lying to his parents he may justify this by saying that when he tells the truth his parents always get angry and yell at him.

Therefore, it is alright to lie because his parents are unreasonable and cannot handle the truth. This way, his self-concept is maintained and the threat is neutralized

Parents often justify "lying" to their children by claiming that they are protecting them or by believing that they are not old enough - or mature enough - to handle the truth.

This discrepancy is not seen as a threat to self-concept because the lie is attributed to a love for their children and a desire to do what is best for them.


Rogers: "Conditional Parenting Promotes Incongruence"

Carl Rogers believed that parents promote incongruence when they give conditional love.

These children grow up to become adults that "distort" their experiences or alter their perceptions in order to feel loved and accepted.


Actualization and the Fully Functioning Person

The Desire for Self Acualization Is Our Fuel

  • "The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism" (Rogers, 1951, p. 487)

Carl The desire to actualize ourselves is our existential fuel: Picture of a can of gaz.Rogers proposed that everyone is born with an innate tendency to "actualize" - that means to develop all your abilities and potential and to become all you were meant to be - or to achieve your ideal-self.

This includes everything from the most basic biological needs such as food and water to the most complex psychological needs such love and acceptance.

According to Rogers, everyone is born with this ability, but one's experiences and self-concept will determine how this ability is developed.

And, since everyone has unique potentials, skills, talents, and abilities, personality development is very individualized.

For a young child, actualization is based more on physical maturation or development.

For example, learning to walk is part of the biological development but is also necessary for the child to move toward actualization.

When a toddler first begins trying to walk, he will fall down several times, sometimes even crying because of discouragement or injury.


The Desire for Self Actualization Is so Strong that We Will Climb Mountains for It

The power and result of the unconditional positive regard: A girl climbing mountains.However, Rogers claimed that the tendency to actualize is so strong that the child will continue to pursue his goal despite setbacks.

In other words, the desire to move forward or to progress is stronger than the desire to quit.

Carl Rogers believed that this was due to the fact that children are optimistic by nature and - if they receive unconditional positive regard and have a strong self-worth - they know that anything is possible.

Mistakes are not signs of failure and goals are not abandoned when success is not immediate.

As a child becomes more mature, the actualizing process becomes less biological and more psychological.

Remember, for a person to move toward self-actualization, congruence and a strong self-worth are necessary.

Parents can influence how effectively their child develops congruence and self-worth - and ultimately actualization - by giving unconditional positive regard.

Rogers is also very clear in stating that a child who did not receive unconditional positive regard can still achieve a state of actualization if his experiences change or if he makes a conscious decision to adjust his world view.


Self Actualization Is Never Reached as We Will Always Be Actualizing

He also described human nature as "ever-changing". Therefore, people never really achieve self-actualization but are continually in a state of "actualizing".

We are always changing the image of our ideal-self, so we are constantly moving forward toward new possibilities.

Falsely believing that there is nothing else to achieve will lead to stagnation, inflexibility, and lack of openness in relationships.

Self-actualization is "direction not a destination" (Rogers, On Becoming a Person, 1961).

The person who is able to self-actualize is called a fully functioning person.

The fully functioning person has certain qualities and characteristics that allow him to keep growing and changing:

  • Open to new experiences. All experiences are accepted, even the negative ones. Feelings are not denied or buried but are worked through without the use of defence mechanisms.

  • Living in the moment. Life is lived to the fullest and current experiences are accepted without preconceptions or past influences.

  • Trust. Feelings, instincts, and reactions are trusted rather than being influenced by the judgements or perceptions of others. World view is based on experience rather than being imposed upon the individual by outside sources.

  • Creativity. Creative thinking and the willingness to take some risks lead to adaptive and flexible behavior. The individual can adjust to change and embrace new experiences.

  • Sense of freedom and fulfillment. Self-actualizing people are happy and satisfied. They feel a sense of power and know that their lives are controlled by their own actions rather than past events or the influences of others. They behave the way they want to, not the way others think they should (although these can be one in the same).

Since Rogers promoted individuality, he did stress that these five characteristics seem to be present in all fully functioning people; however, the way these qualities are expressed and the experiences that are connected with them can be very different depending on the person.

For example, two people can be open to new experiences yet have different personalities.


Client-Centred Therapy

To Help the Client We Must Understand the Client's Experiences

  • "It is that the individual has within him or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering the self-concept basic attitudes, and his or her self-directed behavior - and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided"
    (Carl Rogers quote from 'The Foundations of the Person-Centered Approach', 1979, p. 1).

For Rogers, was about the individual's experiences and how he perceived and interpreted these experiences.

Therefore, when it comes to therapy, the belief is that the client knows himself better than any therapist ever could.

Carl Rogers believed that the therapist must see the client's world from the client's point of view (or his reality) in order to be helpful.

Since experiences are subjective, the only way to assess personality and bring any change is to study and understand the individual's experiential field.

  • "It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried"
    (Carl Rogers quote from 'On Becoming a Person', 1961).

In the video below you will see Carl Rogers analyze and talk about a session he has just had with a client called Gloria.

As you will see Rogers is clearly moved by the session and feels that not only Gloria but also himself have been enriched by this honest and powerful encounter:

 

The Therapist Must Show Unconditional Positive Regard - Be Without Judgement and Biases

Carl Rogers therapy from 1960Remember, Rogers suggested that everyone has the ability to change and improve their own personality despite past experiences or influences.

So, in client-centered therapy, it is the job of the therapist to facilitate change or guide the client in the right direction.

Clients are never told what they should do, but are allowed to come to their own conclusions and solutions.

Of course, true to Rogers' theories, the main key to success is unconditional positive regard - the therapist must give it and the client must feel free to explore their inner personality and express their feelings without fear of judgement.

Clients are accepted for who they are and all ideas for change are considered valid.

The only assumption made on the part of the therapist is the understanding that every client is valuable, possesses worth, and has the capability to realize his ideal-self.

Below you will find an old video from 1960. In this video of Carl Rogers you are first presented with an excerpt from a counselling session and you hear about the client's positive experience of a therapist using the unconditional positive regard.

 

The Client Must Take Responsibility for His Own Life
... and His Experiences

It is the responsibility of the client - not the therapist - to bring behavior changes, alter world views and perceptions, and to develop a self-concept based on a high level of self-worth.

In other words, only the client can change his own future because he is in control of his own happiness and fulfillment.

Rogers called this method of therapy client-centered therapy or non-directive therapy. And, he claimed that this approach worked because it did not force the person to fit into a predetermined theory or structure.

He believed that previous methods, such as those presented by Freud or Adler, were limited because they tried to push the client to fit a pattern based on the therapist's idea of personality development.

We can see the prominence of client-centered therapy in today's society, which suggests its level of success.


Rogers' Theories Allow for Children to Recover from Poor Parenting

 

While experts such as Freud and Watson put psychological and personality development completely in the hands of the parents, Rogers strove for a "happy medium".

According to behaviorists, everything "wrong" with a child is the fault of the parent.

Rogers, however, states that childhood experiences are extremely important and a healthy self-concept is the result of parenting that provides unconditional positive regard.

So, parenting is important, but bad parenting is not a death sentence for the child.

Every human being has a need for unconditional positive regard. If a child doesn't receive it from a parent, his personality development will be hindered; but, parents are not the only source of love, acceptance, and approval.

Rogers argues that if a child were to receive unconditional positive regard from someone else, he could then overcome his negative self-image and begin to develop a more positive self-concept.

Ideally according to Rogers, unconditional parenting is the best environment for the child.

But, unlike Freud and Watson, Rogers says that childhood can have a great impact on adulthood but negative childhood experiences do not have to result in negative adult personality.

In this way, Rogers believed that therapy should help the individual focus on how he can change himself so that he regains control of his own future and happiness.


Experts' Criticism of Rogers: Too Rosy and Too Subjective

While this is the basis for a lot of "self-help" philosophies, some experts believe that Rogers was too "rosy", that his over-cheery attitude caused him to sometimes miss deeper problems that needed more clinical intervention.

He has also received some criticism for his "self-reporting" policy, with some people arguing that data coming from a client who is in need of therapy can often be a little "fuzzy" or skewed.

For example, a client can adamantly say that he is happy, even if he is not.

And if he can convince the therapist that it is true, then is he really getting the help he needs?


Famous Books By Carl Rogers

Client-Centred Therapy (1951)

 A Short Resume of 'Client-Centred Therapy'

Although this book is geared toward those who are interested in becoming a therapist or counsellor, it is also very beneficial for the average reader.

It is well-written, informative, and easy to read.

And, it clearly outlines the concept of client-centered therapy and how it can be applied and practiced.

Rogers talks about the process of developing this method and his philosophies behind it, and also shares some case histories and examples of how client-centered therapy has been successful.

Rogers also discusses what he calls the "core conditions" that a therapist must possess including such things as unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness.

But, since he also claims that all these characteristics should be present in the "fully functioning person", this book will also be of interest to those not pursuing a career in therapy.

It includes advice that parents can apply to their relationships with their children as well the interactions with other people in their lives.


On Becoming a Person (1961)

A Short Resume of 'On Becoming a Person'

If you have any interest in humanistic psychology this is the book to read.

It is a thorough, yet easy to understand overview of Rogers' basic concepts and the impact these ideas have on the individual, the community, and society as a whole.

Rogers addresses questions such as:

  • "What is self?"
  • "What is personal growth?"
  • "What does it mean to become who you truly are?"

The book outlines the characteristics of a healthy self-concept such as openness to experiences and a trust in oneself.

It lays the foundation for the idea of personal growth and what it means to become a fully functioning person.

Rogers also talks about client-centered therapy and what impact this could have on other aspects of society such as family life, interpersonal relationships, and an education system based on student-centered teaching.

On Becoming a Person is really a collection of papers and lectures that cover a wide range of Rogers' ideas and emphasize his optimistic view of human beings and the belief that people have the ability to help themselves.

The ideas presented in this book are the foundation of what we know as "self-help" therapy.

Although the self-help movement has received much criticism, the concept that everyone holds the ability within themselves to bring about their own change and control their own destiny is rooted in the theories presented by Carl Rogers.

By his philosophy, it is the parents' job to raise their child to believe that he is capable of achieving his goals, making his own decisions, forming his own world view and perspectives, and determining his own happiness.


A Way of Being (1980)

A Short Resume of 'A Way of Being'

This book was written near the end of Rogers' career and is really a reflection of his life and work.

As an older man, he is looking back on his ideas and theories, and in a sense, evaluating their credibility.

In the first section, Rogers talks about his own personal experiences and perspectives, and discusses the changes he has made throughout his life.

He re-emphasizes the importance of unconditional positive regard and the role it plays in the growth of both the individual and the community.

He revisits the concept of reality:

  •  Do we need a reality?
  • What role does it play?
  • How does it influence the interpretation of our experiences and the development of our world view?

In answering basic questions of personality development he discusses concepts such as congruence, empathy, self-worth, and social change.

Rogers ends the book with a discussion about the future and the need for psychology and therapy to become more humanistic.

This book is very informative for any parent wanting to have a deeper understanding of Rogers' theories, particularly the importance of positive regard and the impact a parent has on a child's ability to develop self-worth and achieve self-actualization.

Your Positive Parenting Ally,
Birgitte

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