People turn to mental health experts because they want to better understand an issue or situation better. At some level they may know what it is the trouble is, but they just can’t put it into words.
The person-centred approach to counselling and psychotherapy views the client as the expert on his or her life. Counselling, on this approach, can provide a safe space for clients to talk over an issue openly and honestly, so they feel heard and understood.
Most importantly they learn to articulate what they are feeling in a way that gives them the clarity needed to resolve an issue or move forward with their life.
Rather than a method per se, the person-centred approach to counselling is a set of principles that can be applied to any form of counselling or therapy.
Person-centred counselling was developed by Carl Rogers, arguably one of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century. Counselling or therapy, on this approach, is all about helping a client find the internal resources they need in order to resolve an issue and to live a more constructive and meaningful life.
Learning What it Means to Be You
In his work with thousands of clients, Rogers found that people come to counselling for all sorts of reasons, but the underlying difficulty usually stems from a sense of alienation, or confusion about a particular issue or situation.
This sense of alienation or confusion comes from being out of touch with their own feelings or sense of self.
According to Rogers, children learn to be the person their parents and teachers want them to be. They do this because of their need for acceptance and love; their need to belong. This is a powerful motivator when your parents or caregivers are the key to your survival. But it can lead to problems when people get older and they need external approval in order to feel valued or worthwhile.
Becoming Who You Were Meant to Be
Unless people become aware that this is what they are doing, looking for external approval becomes so ingrained that they can lose that vital connection with our own feelings and desires. When this happens a person becomes what Rogers called incongruent, unable to harmonise what is going on inside them with their external behavior.
For example, if a child is told often enough that it is not OK to show their feelings, then he or she will grow up to hide or suppress them, rather than express them openly and honestly. If they do this often enough, the way he or she really feels at any particular moment becomes lost or inaccessible.
Reflective Listening and Genuine Caring
The point of therapy or counselling is to help people get back in touch with their inner experiences so they can learn to make sense of them. When they become more skilled at this, they can learn to manage their feelings and desires in ways that promote a healthier and happier life.
A person-centred counsellor helps the client by providing the three conditions that Rogers’ believed could help the client live a more authentic life.
- Congruence or genuineness.
- Unconditional acceptance.
- Empathic understanding.
Seeing Things From the Client’s Point of View
The ability of the counsellor or therapist to enter into the client’s frame of reference is at the heart of Rogers’ theory. This requires leaving behind their own theories and subjective perspective so they can tune in to what the client is saying.
Rogers’ believed that it was important for the counsellor to see the client as a unique human being, who may be experiencing difficulty in their life, rather than as someone who is sick or damaged. This is the case even if there is a psychiatric diagnosis, or if the client is on medication or has to be hospitalised.
Being able to demonstrate this positive regard to the client not only helps the client accept his or her self, it also helps to develop the therapeutic alliance that is crucial to successful outcomes in counselling and psychotherapy.
The Therapeutic Alliance
As a host of studies show it is the relationship that develops between the client and the therapist, rather than the particular method used, that best determines a positive outcome in counselling and psychotherapy.
This sort of counselling depends a lot on the counsellor’s ability to be genuine and fully present with the client. To do this they have to be able to let go of their own preconceptions and attempt to see things from the client’s point of view, rather than their own.