Client-centered therapy is about respecting the self-determination of the client
Posted August 26, 2015
In a previous blog I discussed how non-directive therapy does not mean no direction but that the direction of the therapy comes from the client rather than the therapist. But the idea of non-directive therapy continues to be misunderstood.
Often non-directive therapy is thought of as sloppy, unstructured, and passive. I would disagree, particularly with the idea that it is a passive form of therapy, because for me it refers to very actively following the direction of the client, closely, carefully and creatively.
Non-directive therapists strive to go at the client’s pace and direction, bringing what they can along the way to support the client’s needs. That is an active process, not only of listening attentively, empathically, reflectively, and with genuine interest, but also in offering yourself authentically as a therapist in whatever way it is you think the client may benefit. This may include the use of psychometric tests, cognitive exercises, or whatever, but always doing so in a way that is respectful of the client’s right to self-determination.
This is more complicated than it sounds because to respect someone’s right to self-determination you have to do so for its own sake because it is the ethical thing to do, not because it achieves another desired goal. If I respect your right to self-determination because my goal is to make you do something other than what you are doing, then by definition I’m not actually respecting your right to self-determination. Rather, I am trying to make you change in a way that I think you ought to. In a sense I am only pretending to you and to myself that I respect your right to self-determination.
The non-directive therapist’s agenda is to genuinely respect the client’s self-determination, with the understanding that it is when people experience themselves as self-determining agents they will make the best decisions for themselves that they can, and that as a result the client will move in the direction of becoming more fully functioning. As Brodley (2005) wrote:
“The non-directive attitude is psychologically profound; it is not a technique. Early in a therapist’s development it may be superficial and prescriptive – ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’. But with time, self-examination and therapy experience, it becomes an aspect of the therapist’s character. It represents a feeling of profound respect for the constructive potential in persons and great sensitivity to their vulnerability”. (p. 3).
However, I do completely understand that non-directivity is a confusing concept because while it tells us what not to do it doesn’t tell us what to do. A helpful way to consider the concept of non-directivity is to see it as only one side of a coin. The other side of that coin is the client’s direction. The therapist is non-directive because he or she is following the client’s direction. That is why, as I said in another blog, Carl Rogers began to use the term client-centred therapy instead as it better captured the idea of going with the client’s direction. As Grant wrote:
“Client-centered therapists make no assumptions about what people need or how they should be free. They do not attempt to promote self-acceptance, self-direction, positive growth, self-actualization, congruence between real or perceived selves, a particular vision of reality, or anything….Client-centered therapy is the practice of simply respecting the right to self-determination of others” (Grant, 2004, p.158).
Brodley, B. T. (2005). Client-centered values limit the application of research findings – an issue for discussion. In S. Joseph & R. Worsley (Eds.), Person-centred psychopathology: A positive psychology of mental health (pp. 310-316). Ross-on-Wye: PCCS books.
Grant, B. (2004). The imperative of ethical justification in psychotherapy: The special case of client-centered psychotherapy. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies, 3, 152-165.
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