Carl Rogers ― 6 min read

Some trees with a blue sky and sun

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

—Carl Rodgers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy

Carl Rogers was a person who had a profound and life-changing impact on me. I never met him, but I did read a couple of books by him, listened to some recordings and watched some old video and was absorbed by his ideas. Here was a guy who was really onto something.

There's a body of research that demonstrates the effectiveness of his person-centered approach and it's still heavily taught and in use today (especially in the field of counseling & psychotherapy). But, his ideas are so simple that you can easily try them yourself and see what impact they have. It's no overstatement to say that practicing this way of being in relation to others can have profound life-changing effects (both for yourself and others).

Actualizing tendency

The organism has one basic tendency and striving—to actualize, maintain and enhance the experiencing organism.

—Carl Rodgers, Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory

According to Carl Rodgers, all people have a tendency towards self-actualization at their core. What this means is that all people have an inherent desire to fulfill their full potential, live their best life and reach the highest level of their existence.

Of course, if this is the case then why do so many people cause harm to themselves and others? Why do so many people appear not to have any drive or ambition? Why do people often seem to not act on this supposed core tendency?

Carl Rodgers answers this by way of a evocative analogy between people and potatoes:

I remember that in my boyhood, the bin in which we stored our winter’s supply of potatoes was in the basement, several feet below a small window. The conditions were unfavourable, but the potatoes would begin to sprout — pale, white sprouts, so unlike the healthy green shoots they sent up when planted in the soil in the spring. But these sad, spindly sprouts would grow 2 or 3 feet in length as they reached toward the distant light of the window. The sprouts were, in their bizarre, futile growth, a sort of desperate expression of the directional tendency I have been describing. They would never become plants, never mature, never fulfil their real potential. But under the most adverse circumstances, they were striving to become. Life would not give up, even if it could not flourish. In dealing with clients whose lives have been terribly warped, in working with men and women on the back wards of state hospitals, I often think of those potato sprouts. So unfavourable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted, scarcely human. Yet, the directional tendency in them can be trusted. The clue to understanding their behaviour is that they are striving, in the only ways that they perceive as available to them, to move toward growth, toward becoming. To healthy persons, the results may seem bizarre and futile, but they are life’s desperate attempt to become itself.

Carl Rodgers, A Way of Being

So, for Carl Rodgers people are always seeking the best they can for themselves, it's just that living (and especially growing up) in unfavorable environments can cause serious issues for the ways in which people try to self-actualize. This is how people can end up behaving in ways that make themselves and others miserable.

Core conditions

What I find remarkable about Carl Rodger's person-centered approach is that any person can help any other person to grow and develop if they manage to provide just 3 core conditions in their relationship. Much as plants just need light, air and nutrients to grow, people just need the following three things:

  1. Empathy
  2. Congruence
  3. Unconditional positive regard

Each of these 3 core conditions requires a little bit of explanation to give the full picture.

1. Empathy

Empathy is about understanding what someone else's experience is like from their perspective. It's about putting yourself in their shoes so you can really get what a person is experiencing. This makes the other person feel heard and understood.

2. Congruence

Congruence is about being genuine and honest. You present your true self to the other person and you do not mislead or lie to the other person or yourself. It's only through being real in your relationships to others that you are able to forge real and meaningful connections.

3. Unconditional positive regard

This one has a bit of a funny name. We can break it down into 2 parts, "positive regard" and "unconditional":

  • The "positive regard" part means seeing the value that lies in the person you are talking to. Seeing their worth and believing in them.
  • The "unconditional" part lies in your faith that they have this value regardless of any other conditions (how they look, what they've done, what their beliefs are etc).

This is probably the most challenging condition for me, it requires that you abandon all negative judgement and that you see the actualizing tendency in whoever it is that you are talking with.

Your turn

Now of course it is not always easy to maintain all these 3 core conditions, but if you can then you will notice your relationships deepen and you will notice things really can start to change.

Give this a go next time you're talking to someone who is struggling with a problem. You've probably heard before that listening can be far more transformative than giving advice. You may find that being empathic, congruent and feeling unconditional positive regard for the other person might be even more powerful. Try and understand the problem from the other person's perspective, be honest about how you feel and really believe that the other person has all the resources at their disposal to overcome whatever issues they are facing. I believe in you both 🙂

People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, "Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner." I don't try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.

—Carl Rodgers, A Way of Being

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