Why Carl Rogers' Person-Centered Approach Is Still Relevant

Three reasons why Carl Rogers was way ahead of his time

Posted Apr 15, 2018

I first studied the work of Carl Rogers as an undergraduate over thirty years ago, as I only realized quite recently when tidying up some old files from my student days. In my own handwriting I was surprised to read notes that I’d written in a lecture about Carl Rogers and Client-Centered Therapy I'd attended in 1985 . But it was clear to me in rereading these notes that at the time I hadn’t fully understood the depth and detail of Rogers' theory.

I don't think my story is unusual.  I think it is the experience of many who are taught about Rogers. His work is touched on only briefly and superficially, often taught by those who are themselves not that familiar with the depth and detail of Rogers' work, and presented more as a historical footnote in the development of modern therapies than a therapy that is still researched and widely practised.

But Rogers is much more than a footnote in history. He offered a new paradigm for psychology that even to this day presents challenges to mainstream psychology.

Clearly, that lecture I attended during my student days left no lasting impression on me about the importance to psychology of Carl Rogers. If I knew anything about Rogers then it was little more than he had developed a type of therapy that was centered on the person and he thought being empathic was a good thing.

I feel I was fortunate to have encountered Rogers’ writings again a decade later. This time, however, I did begin to see the depth and detail. And for the past twenty years I have dedicated my career to developing my own understanding of person-centered psychology, researching and writing about its applications, and educating others about it. 

There are three reasons why I think person-centered psychology is still relevant today.

First, one of the reasons I was first attracted to the person-centered approach was because I liked how Rogers went beyond simply understanding mental health as the absence of distress. He described improvement in terms of what the person can do as health is achieved, instead developing positive conceptualizations of mental health. He described the ‘Fully Functioning Person’. Positive psychology, as we now call it, did not exist then, but that is exactly what Rogers was offering us way back in the 1950's. The person-centered approach is a positive psychology.  But now that positive psychology is with us, Rogers work seems more relevant than ever.  His ideas on the good life are still leading the way.

Second, I liked how Rogers did not just question the medicalization of psychology and the use of diagnosis, he actually developed an alternative meta-theoretical framework, one in which people have an inherent tendency towards growth, development and becoming fully functioning. His was a holistic theory, dealing with the nature of experience; the development and structure of personality; its nature, order, disorder and distress; and therapeutic change. With more and more clinicians now recognizing the limitations to the medicalization of human distress and seeking alternatives to diagnosis, Rogers ideas are well worth another look. They preempt many of the new ideas that are being put forward about alternatives to diagnosis.

Third, I liked how Rogers developed a therapeutic approach that seemed respectful of people, foreshadowing the current trend in therapies towards mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion, with his emphasis on the differently named but similar concepts of congruence, unconditional regard, and empathy. But Rogers particular genius was to understand that it is when these conditions work together in the relationship that the therapist is most effective. As the modern therapies seem to go back to these older ideas, the relevance of Rogers is clear, and the evidence for Client-Centered Therapy has stood the test of time.

There is such depth and detail to Roger’s theory that is often overlooked and misunderstood, but he was way ahead of his time in these three ways. The profession of psychology is only now catching up.

To find out more about the Person-Centered Approach, here is a link to a recent book chapter.