Carl R. Rogers – Self-Actualization Theory

Self-Actualization Theory

As the 20th century progressed toward the halfway point, some psychoanalysts and psychotherapists encountered a puzzling phenomenon. Social standards had become far more permissive than in Freud’s day, especially with regard to sexuality. In theory, this greater liberalism should have helped to alleviate troublesome id-superego conflicts and reduce the number of neuroses. Yet while hysterical neurosis and repression did seem to be less common than in Victorian times, more people than ever before were entering psychotherapy. And they suffered from such new and unusual problems as an inability to enjoy the new freedom of self-expression (or, for that matter, to feel much of anything), and an inner emptiness and self-estrangement. Rather than hoping to cure some symptom, these patients needed an answer to a more philosophical question: how to remedy the apparent meaninglessness of their lives.

As we have seen, some theorists tried to resolve this pressing issue within a more or less psychoanalytic framework (e.g., the Eriksonian identity crisis, Fromm’s conception of escape from freedom). However, other noted psychologists called into question the basic rationale underlying analytic therapy. They pointed out that Freud’s insights may have applied brilliantly to the

Victorian era, when an aura of repulsiveness surrounded the topic of sexuality and people suffered from the misconception that personality was wholly rational and conscious. But they argued that constructs like psychic determinism and the structural model, and Freud’s pessimism about human nature, were now aggravating the modern patient’s apathy by depicting personality as mechanical, fragmented, malignant, and totally preordained by prior causes.

One major critic of Freudian pessimism was Carl Rogers. Like Adler and some of the neo-Freudians, Rogers was no stranger to the rancorous side of scientific inquiry. In 1939, some 10 years after receiving his doctorate degree in psychology, Rogers’s position as director of a child guidance clinic was strongly challenged by orthodox psychiatrists—not because of any question as to the quality of his work, but on the grounds that no nonmedical practitioner could be sufficiently qualified to head up a mental health operation. “It was a lonely battle … a life-and-death struggle for me because it was the thing I was doing well, and the work I very much wanted to continue” (Rogers, 1974/1975, p. 129; see also Rogers, 1967, pp. 360, 364; 1977, pp. 144–145). A few years later he established a counseling center at the University of Chicago, and he again met with charges from psychiatrists that its members were practicing medicine without a license. Fortunately, Rogers won both of these confrontations, and his work has helped gain recognition and respect for the field of clinical psychology.


  • To correct Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature by showing that our inborn potentials are entirely positive.

  • To show that each of us has an innate tendency to develop our healthy potentials (actualization), and an innate ability to know what is actualizing for us and what is not.

  • To show that psychopathology occurs when pathogenic parenting causes the child to abandon the healthy quest for actualization in order to keep the parents’ love and respect (positive regard), resulting in such symptoms as “I wonder who I really am” and “I don’t know what I want.”

  • To emphasize the conscious aspects of personality because they are easier to study using empirical research, and to recognize that the unconscious aspects of experience can be useful and important.

  • To define the construct of self (self-concept) and show that it is important for understanding personality.

  • To stress the importance of equality in human relationships, including parent and child.

  • To show that effective psychotherapy requires only a constructive relationship between therapist and client, wherein the therapist demonstrates genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard, and that Freudian procedures are not necessary.

  • To obtain information about personality from both psychotherapy and empirical research, and to make the former more accurate by using tape recordings and verbatim transcripts (with the client’s permission).


Carl R. Rogers was born on January 8, 1902, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His father was a successful civil engineer. His close-knit family, which included four brothers and one sister (three of them older), was committed to conservative Protestantism and the value of hard work. When Carl was 12, the Rogerses decided to escape the evils and temptations of suburban life by moving to a farm west of Chicago. There he read extensively about scientific approaches to soils and feeds, reared lambs and calves, bred moths, and often rose before the crack of dawn to help with such chores as milking the cows. (See Rogers, 1961, pp. 4–15; 1967.)

Carl’s study of farming generated a marked respect for the scientific method and led him to pursue an undergraduate degree in agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, but he soon became more interested in the helping professions. At first he considered joining the clergy and attended the Union Theological Seminary in New York, but his experiences at this liberal institution introduced him to a more enticing profession: psychotherapy. He therefore transferred to Columbia University Teachers College, where he received his Ph.D. in 1928. Carl married Helen Elliott on August 28, 1924. The union proved to be a happy and successful one, and the Rogerses were to have one son and one daughter.

Rogers’s first professional position was at a child guidance clinic in Rochester, New York, where he had the aforementioned confrontation with orthodox psychiatry. Educated in Freudian theory among others, Rogers found that analytic insight often did not seem to benefit his clients and began to formulate his own approach to psychotherapy. In 1940 he accepted a full professorship at Ohio State University, about which he was later to observe: “I heartily recommend starting in the academic world at this level. I have often been grateful that I have never had to live through the frequently degrading competitive process of

step-by-step promotion in university faculties, where individuals so frequently learn only one lesson—not to stick their necks out” (Rogers, 1961, p. 13; see also Rogers, 1967, p. 361).

Rogers moved to the University of Chicago in 1945, where he established a counseling center. In accordance with his theory, he gave up control of the center in 1947 and allowed everyone an equal voice in running it—including student interns, secretaries, and faculty. This equalitarian approach produced so much enthusiasm and involvement that when the center lost its grant, everyone pooled their pay and worked for very little until new funding could be obtained (Gendlin, 1988).

In 1957, Rogers joined the University of Wisconsin to conduct research on psychotherapy and personality. The return to his alma mater proved to be a trying one, however. The doctoral program emphasized the memorization of trivial facts and rigid formal examinations, and many of his most able and creative graduate students either failed or left in disgust. Rogers resigned in 1963 and joined the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California, where he pursued the humanistic study of interpersonal relationships and founded the Center for Studies of the Person.

Personally, Rogers has been described as compassionate, patient, and even-tempered. He cared deeply about people but not about institutions, appearances, credentials, or social class, and he doubted every authority including his own (Gendlin, 1988).

Throughout his career, Rogers devoted an average of some 15 to 20 hours per week to the practice of client-centered therapy. He has authored some 10 books and numerous articles, and his honors include receiving the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association in 1956. Rogers was keenly interested in promoting world peace, organized the Vienna Peace Project that brought together leaders from 13 nations in 1985, and conducted peace workshops in Moscow during 1986. Carl Rogers died on February 4, 1987, from cardiac arrest following surgery for a broken hip sustained in a fall.


Rogers rejects the concept of a superior, prescient psychotherapist, on whom the “patient” passively depends for shrewd interpretations. Instead he emphasizes that only we can know, and choose, our proper directions in life. In accordance with this belief, Rogers originally named his approach “client-centered therapy.” Having subsequently expanded his ideas to include such nonclinical areas as parenting, education, and interracial relations, he now prefers the broader designation of person-centered theory. (See Rogers, 1951, p. 7 n. 1; 1977, p. 5.)


According to Rogers, we are motivated by a single positive force: an innate tendency to develop our constructive, healthy potentials. This actualizing tendency includes both drive-reducing and drive-increasing behavior. On the one hand, we seek to reduce the drives of hunger, thirst, sex, and oxygen deprivation. Yet we also demonstrate such tension-increasing behavior as curiosity, creativity, and the willingness to undergo painful learning experiences in order to become more effective and independent:

Persons have a basically positive direction … [It is the urge] to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, mature.… The first steps [of a child learning to walk] involve struggle, and usually pain. Often it is true that the immediate reward involved in taking a few steps is in no way commensurate with the pain of falls and bumps.… Yet, in the overwhelming majority of individuals, the forward direction of growth is more powerful than the satisfactions of remaining infantile. The child will actualize himself, in spite of the

painful experiences in so doing. (Rogers, 1951, p. 490; 1961, pp. 26, 35. See also Rogers, 1951, pp. 487–491;

1959, p. 196; 1961, pp. 90–92, 105–106; 1977, pp. 7–8.)

Rogers’s theoretical optimism does not blind him to our capacity for cruel and destructive behavior, but he attributes this to external forces. There are many potential pitfalls along the path to actualization, and a pathogenic environment may cause us to behave in ways that belie our benign inner nature.

The Need for Positive Regard

All of us need warmth, respect, and acceptance from other people, particularly such “significant others” as our parents. This need for positive regard is innate, and remains active throughout our lives. But it also becomes partly independent of specific contacts with other people, leading to a secondary, learned need for positive self-regard. That is, what significant others think of us strongly influences how we come to regard ourselves. (See Rogers, 1951, p. 524; 1959, pp. 207–209, 223–224.) The quest to satisfy the powerful need for positive regard represents the single most serious impediment to the actualizing tendency, as we will see in a subsequent section.


Rogers agrees that childhood events play a prominent role in forming the adult personality. But he prefers to emphasize currently active needs and our striving toward the goal of actualization. “Behavior is not ‘caused’ by something which occurred in the past. Present tensions and present needs are the only ones which the organism endeavors to reduce or satisfy” (Rogers, 1951, p. 492; see also Rogers, 1942, p. 29; 1959, pp. 198–199; Rogers, cited by Evans, 1975, pp. 8, 75–76).‌


Since actualization involves the total organism, Rogers sees little need to posit specific structural constructs. Yet his theory is not truly holistic, for he shares Horney’s belief that we often suffer from painful intrapsychic conflicts. “The great puzzle that faces anyone who delves at all into the dynamics of human behavior … [is] that persons are often at war within themselves, estranged from their own organisms” (Rogers, 1977, p. 243).

Experience and the Organismic Valuing Process

ExperienceEach of us exists at the center of our own private, ever-changing world of inner experience (experiential field, phenomenal field), one that can never be perfectly understood by anyone else. (See Rogers, 1951, pp. 483–484, 494–497; 1959, pp. 191, 197–198, 210.) Experience includes everything that is available to your awareness at any given moment: thoughts; emotions; perceptions, including those that are temporarily ignored (such as the pressure of the chair seat on which you are sitting); and needs, some of which may also be momentarily overlooked (as when you are engrossed in work or play). However, only a small portion of experience is conscious. The greatest part consists of stimuli and events that we perceive below the level of awareness (“subceptions,” similar to subliminal perceptions in Jungian theory1):

Although Rogers (1959, p. 199) attributes the concept of subception to an article published by two psychologists in 1949, his usage of this term parallels Jung’s discussion of some twenty years earlier (1927/1971b, p. 38).

The individual’s functioning [is like] a large pyramidal fountain. The very tip of the fountain is intermittently illuminated with the flickering light of consciousness, but the constant flow of life goes on in the darkness as well, in nonconscious as well as conscious ways. (Rogers, 1977, p. 244.)

Like George Kelly, Rogers concludes that we evaluate our experiences by forming and testing appropriate hypotheses. If you perceive a white powder in a small dish as salt, taste it, and find it to be sweet, the experience will promptly shift to that of sugar. Also, as in Kelly’s theory, how we interpret events is more important than objective reality. An infant who is picked up by a friendly adult, but who perceives this situation as strange and frightening, will respond with cries of distress. Or a daughter who initially perceived her father as domineering, but who has learned through psychotherapy to regard him as a rather pathetic person trying desperately to retain a shred of dignity, will experience him quite differently even though he himself has not changed. (See Rogers, 1951, pp. 484–486; 1959, pp. 199, 222–223.)

The Organismic Valuing Process. According to Rogers, there is no need for us to learn what is or is not actualizing. Included among the primarily unconscious aspects of experience is an innate ability to value positively whatever we perceive as actualizing, and to value negatively that which we perceive as nonactualizing (the organismic valuing process). Thus the infant values food when hungry but promptly becomes disgusted with it when satiated, and enjoys the life-sustaining physical contact of being cuddled.

These nonconscious aspects of experience are an invaluable addition to our conscious thoughts and plans. It is at this deepest level of personality that we know what is good for us (actualizing) and what is not. This implies that only we ourselves, rather than a parent or a psychotherapist, can identify our true organismic values and know how best to actualize our own potentials:

Experience is, for me, the highest authority … When an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing. … [Thus I trust] the totality of my experience, which I have learned to suspect is wiser than my intellect. It is fallible I am sure, but I believe it to be less fallible than my conscious mind alone. (Rogers, 1961, pp. 22–23. See also Rogers, 1951, pp. 498–499; 1959, pp. 210, 222; 1977, pp. 243–246.)

The Self-Concept (Self) and Self-Actualization

DefinitionsGuided by the actualizing tendency, the growing infant expands its experiential field and learns to perceive itself as a separate and distinct entity. This self-concept (self) is entirely conscious, and represents part of the tip of the constantly flowing fountain of subjective experience.2

Some of the actualizing tendency now becomes directed toward an attempt to satisfy the demands of the self-concept. This is referred to as self-actualization, after a term first popularized by Kurt Goldstein. (See Goldstein, 1939; 1940; Rogers, 1951, pp. 497–498; 1959, pp. 196–206, 223; Rogers, cited by Evans,1975, pp. 6–7.)

How Conflict Develops Between the Actualizing and Self-Actualizing Tendencies. To actualize our true potentials, we must follow the inner guidelines provided by the organismic valuing process. However, self-actualization is achieved in a different way: the self-concept must be supported by positive regard from significant others, such as the parents. Therefore, the child must pay close attention to parental requests and demands.

In the best of all possible worlds, parents would never do anything that interfered with the child’s organismic valuing process. They would show unconditional positive regard for the child’s self-concept and feelings, and limit their criticisms to specific undesirable behaviors. For example, if a little girl expresses hostility toward her brother, her mother might ideally respond: “I can understand how satisfying it feels to you to hit your baby brother … and I love you and am quite willing for you to have those feelings. But I am quite willing for me to have my feelings, too, and I feel very distressed when your brother is hurt … and so I do not let you hit him. Both your feelings and my feelings are important, and each of us can freely have [our] own” (Rogers, 1959, p. 225; see also Rogers, 1951, pp. 498–503; 1959, pp. 208–210, 224). The girl’s positive self-regard is not threatened by this response, since she was not accused of having shameful feelings or being a “bad girl.” So she will accept her aggressiveness as one aspect of her self-concept, and this view of herself will be consistent (congruent) with her experience and organismic valuing process (that hitting her brother is pleasant). And she will remain psychologically well-adjusted.

Unfortunately, this favorable sequence of events is an unlikely one. Instead, parents typically respond to the child with conditional positive regard. That is, they provide affection and respect only if the child’s self-concept and feelings meet with their approval. They may indicate in direct or subtle ways that wishing to hit her brother will result in the loss of their love, or that this urge “should” cause feelings of guilt and unhappiness instead of satisfaction. This presents the child with a difficult and painful choice: to accept her true inner experience (i.e., that hitting her brother is pleasurable), which risks the shattering possibility of becoming unloved; or to succumb to temptation, disown her real feelings, and distort her experience in ways that will please others (as by concluding that hitting her brother is distasteful).

Because the need for positive regard is so powerful, the child ultimately elects to disown her true feelings at least to some extent (as in Horney’s theory). She incorporates the parental standards into her self- concept, a process for which Rogers borrows the Freudian term introjection. Her positive self-regard now depends on satisfying these introjected conditions of worth, which replace the organismic valuing process as an inner guide to behavior. Instead of being guided by her true feelings (“hitting my brother is pleasant”), she concludes that hitting her brother is unpleasant, and that she must feel this way in order to think well of herself (have conditional positive self-regard). Thus her actualizing and self-actualizing tendencies become divided (incongruent) and work at cross purposes, leading to a state of confusion and anxiety:

The accurate symbolization [of the child’s experience] would be: “I perceive my parents as experiencing this behavior as unsatisfying to them.” The [actual but] distorted symbolization, distorted to preserve the threatened concept of self, is: “I perceive this behavior as unsatisfying.” … In this way the values which the infant attaches to experience become divorced from his own organismic functioning, and experience is valued in terms of the attitudes held by his [significant others].… It is here, it seems, that the individual begins on a pathway which he later describes as “I don’t really know myself.” (Rogers, 1951, pp. 500–501. See also Rogers, 1959, pp. 203–205, 209–210, 224–226.)

At a later age, the journey away from self-knowledge is encouraged by various social institutions and groups. Many of us introject these external standards and believe them to be our own (“Making lots of money is the most important goal of all;” “I should be extremely thin, just like that famous model;” “I need to wear the same brand of sneakers that this great athlete wears”), even though they may well run counter to our true organismic needs and values. (See Rogers, 1977, p. 247; Rogers & Stevens, 1967/1971, pp. 10–11.)


Experiences that serve as a threatening reminder of the incongruence between the self-concept and organismic experience are likely to be defended against by distorting them, or (less frequently) by blocking them from consciousness. When the aforementioned little girl next sees her brother, she has a problem: her true (organismic) experience is that hitting him is pleasurable, yet she must believe that hitting him is unpleasant in order to protect her self-concept and preserve some positive self-regard. To defend against this threatening incongruence, she may decide that she feels nothing but love and would not dream of hurting him.

Even such positive feelings as love or success may be defended against if they fail to agree with the self-concept. A college undergraduate who thinks he is a poor student may attribute a high grade to luck or an error by the professor, whereas a woman with a negative self-concept may refuse to believe that others regard her as intelligent or likable. (See Rogers, 1951, pp. 503–520; 1959, pp. 202–205, 227–228; Rogers & Wood, 1974, p. 218.)


Rogers posits no specific developmental stages. Instead, he emphasizes the desirability of responding to the child with unconditional positive regard. This should begin as soon as the infant leaves the womb, with soft lights, stroking, and immersion in warm water preferable to the usual method of loud noises, harsh lights, and slaps. The growing child should be allowed to evaluate experience in his or her own way, and to make the choices indicated by the organismic valuing process. The parents are also entitled to respect, and to have rights that cannot be overridden by the child.

In the all too common authoritarian family, the parents make every decision and issue various orders (“You must be neat! Clean up your room at once!”). The children resort to devious strategies for gaining some power of their own, such as sulking, pleading, setting one parent against the other, and complaining (“You’re mean! Johnny’s parents let him be sloppy!”). In contrast, the person-centered family emphasizes the sharing of nonjudgmental feelings. The mother may say, “I feel badly when the house is messy, and would like some help resolving this”—and find to her amazement that her children devise ingenious and effective ways of keeping the house neat, now that this is clearly and honestly defined as her problem rather than theirs. (See Rogers, 1977, pp. 29–41.)

Establishing a person-centered family is not an easy task, but Rogers argues that it is well worth the effort. It permits children to grow up with a minimum of pathogenic conditions of worth, and enables them to pursue their own path toward actualization.

The Fully Functioning Person

Rogers has formulated a list of criteria that define mental health. The fully functioning person is characterized by the absence of any conditions of worth. Since this person does not have to satisfy the introjected standards of other people, he or she is guided entirely by the organismic valuing process and enjoys total

self-acceptance (unconditional positive self-regard). There is no incongruence, and no need for defense. Because of this openness to experience, any choices that work out poorly are soon corrected, since these errors are perceived openly and accurately. So the actualizing and self-actualizing tendencies work in unison toward the fulfillment of the person’s healthy innate potentials.

For example, such creative individuals as El Greco, Hemingway, and Einstein knew that their work and thought were idiosyncratic. Rather than misguidedly accepting the prevailing standards, and hiding their true feelings behind a socially acceptable façade, they trusted their inner experience and persisted in the difficult but essential task of being themselves. “It was as though [El Greco] could say, good artists do not paint like this, but paint like this” (Rogers, 1961, p. 175).

Fully functioning persons feel that they are worthy of being liked by other people and that they can care deeply for others, and they satisfy their need for positive regard by forming successful interpersonal relationships. They demonstrate unconditional positive regard for others, as well as toward themselves. Finally, such individuals live wholly and freely in each moment. They respond spontaneously to their experiences, and they regard happiness not as some fixed utopia but as an ever-changing journey. “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination” (Rogers, 1961, p. 186; see also Rogers, 1959, pp. 234–235; 1961, pp. 163–196).



The fully functioning person represents an ideal that is rarely if ever achieved. No parent is perfect, so every child encounters at least some conditional positive regard and develops some conditions of worth. Thus there is no sharp dividing line between normality and psychopathology, but rather a difference in degree.

The self-concept of the more pathological individual is burdened by powerful conditions of worth. Instead of being guided by the organismic valuing process, the sufferer tries to achieve positive self-regard by satisfying these introjected parental standards. This brings the self-actualizing tendency into conflict with the actualizing tendency. To conceal this painful incongruence, the sufferer resorts to various forms of defense. But this only increases the inner confusion, and leads to such complaints as “I feel I’m not being my real self,” “I wonder who I really am,” “I don’t know what I want,” and “I can’t decide on any- thing.” (See Rogers, 1951, pp. 509–511; 1959, p. 201; compare also with the similar views of Horney.)

Rogers prefers to avoid formal diagnostic categories. He argues that such labels depict the client as a dependent object, rather than as the only person who can identify his or her proper direction in life. “[If] the client perceives the locus of judgment and responsibility as clearly resting in the hands of the clinician, he is … further from therapeutic progress than when he came in” (Rogers, 1951, p. 223; see also Rogers, 1951, pp. 219–225; 1959, pp. 228–230; Rogers, cited by Evans, 1975, pp. 92–101). Even the so-called psychotic is simply an individual who has been badly hurt by life, and who desperately needs the corrective influence of an understanding and caring interpersonal relationship—the hallmark of Rogerian psychotherapy.


Theoretical Foundation. The goal of Rogerian psychotherapy is to help clients abandon the introjected conditions of worth that seem so necessary for positive self-regard, and replace them with their own true needs and wishes. In the safety of the therapeutic situation, clients are able to tear down the defenses that protect the incongruent self-concept, cope with the resulting anxiety, and recognize that this false view of themselves is responsible for their painful problems. They revise their self-concept

appropriately, as by concluding: “I don’t have to think and feel the way other people want me to in order to be loved, and to love myself. I can open myself to experience, and be who I really am.” This enables them to end the estrangement between the self-actualizing and actualizing tendencies, reclaim the ability to heed the organismic valuing process, and become more fully functioning persons.

For example, a client who has steadfastly claimed to have only positive feelings for her parents may conclude: “I have thought that I must feel only love for my parents in order to regard myself as a good person, but I find that I experience both love and resentment. Perhaps I can be that person who freely experiences both of these feelings.” Or a client whose self-concept has been primarily negative, and who has therefore blocked feelings of self-acceptance from awareness, may learn: “I have thought that in some deep way I was bad, that the most basic elements in me must be dire and awful. I don’t experience that badness, but rather a positive desire to live and let live. Perhaps I can be that person who is, at heart, positive” (Rogers, 1961, p. 104).3 Since the deepest levels of personality are entirely positive, the client finds true self-knowledge to be far more satisfying than painful. The resulting inner harmony is evidenced by feelings like “I’ve never been quite so close to myself,” and by increased positive self-regard that is expressed through a quiet pleasure in being oneself (Rogers, 1961, p. 78; see also Rogers, 1951, pp. 72–83; 1959, pp. 212–221, 226–227; 1961, pp. 36, 63–64, 85–87, 125–159, 185).

Therapeutic Procedures. Except for the use of tape recordings and verbatim transcripts, aids to research that Rogers helped to pioneer, person-centered therapy excludes virtually all formal procedures. There is no couch, no use of interpretation by the therapist, no discussion of the client’s childhood, no dream analysis, no analysis of resistances and transferences. According to Rogers, positive therapeutic change can be accomplished in only one way: by providing a healthy and constructive relationship with another person, which the client uses to recover the actualizing tendency. For this to occur, the client must perceive the therapist as having three characteristics that Rogers regards as essential to any successful human relationship: genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard.

A therapist who is genuine is in touch with his or her own inner experience, and is able to share it when appropriate. This does not mean that therapists should burden their clients with their own personal problems, or impulsively blurt out whatever comes to mind. It does imply that the therapist should reject defensive façades and professional jargon, maintain an openness to experience, and achieve congruence. This encourages a similar trusting genuineness on the part of the client, thereby reducing the barriers to open and honest communication:

To withhold one’s self as a person and to deal with the [client] as an object does not have a high probability of being helpful.… It does not help to act calm and pleasant when actually I am angry and critical. It does not help to act as though I know the answers when I do not. It does not help … to try to maintain [any] façade, to act in one way on the surface when I am experiencing something quite different underneath.… [Instead,] I have found that the more that I can be genuine in the relationship, the more helpful it will be. This means that I need to be aware of my own feelings, in so far as possible … [and willing to express them]. (Rogers, 1961, pp. 16–17, 33, 47. See also Rogers, 1965; 1977, pp. 9–10; Rogers & Wood, 1974, pp. 226–229.)

In addition to genuineness, the therapist must be perceived as empathic to the client’s feelings and beliefs. The therapist remains closely attuned to the client’s verbal and nonverbal messages, including tones of voice and bodily movements, and reflects back the perceived meaning. If a client observes that “for the first time in months I am not thinking about my problems, not actually working on them,” the therapist might respond: “I get the impression that you don’t sort of sit down to work on ‘my problems.’ It isn’t that feeling at all.” If the therapist’s view is accurate, the client is likely to reply: “Perhaps that is what I’ve been trying to say. I haven’t realized it, but yes, that’s how I do feel!” (Rogers, 1961, p. 78; 1977, p. 11). Conversely, disagreement by the client indicates a flaw in the therapist’s understanding, rather than Achieving unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness is by no means an easy task, and the therapist is not expected to do so all of the time. But the frequent expression of these three qualities, duly perceived by the patient, is to Rogers necessary—and sufficient— for therapeutic progress to occur.

Encounter Groups. Becoming a fully functioning person is a lifelong quest. Therefore, even people who are relatively well adjusted are likely to seek ways of achieving further personal growth.

One method for meeting this need is the encounter group (or T group—for “training”), devised by Kurt Lewin and further developed by Rogers (1970/1973a). Perhaps a dozen people meet with one or two facilitators for a relatively brief period of time, often a single weekend but sometimes a few weeks. The facilitator uses genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard to establish a psychological cli- mate of safety and trust. There are no rules or formal procedures, hence the title “facilitator” rather than “leader.” Ideally, group members gradually reduce their defensive distortions, bring out their true feelings toward each other and themselves, learn about their real impact on others, share deep emotional relation- ships with one another, and devise new goals and directions for themselves. To Rogers, encounter groups fill a major void in our impersonal and technological society:

The psychological need that draws people into encounter groups … is a hunger for something the person does not find in his work environment, in his church, certainly not in his school or college, and sadly enough, not even in modern family life. It is a hunger for relationships which are close and real; in which feelings and emotions can be spontaneously expressed without first being carefully censored or bottled up; where deep experiences—disappointments and joys—can be shared; where new ways of behaving can be risked and tried out; where, in a word, he approaches the state where all is known and all accepted, and thus further growth becomes possible. (Rogers, 1970/1973a, p. 11. See also M. H. Hall, 1967c, p. 20; Rogers, 1977, pp. 143–185.)

Although Rogers has found encounter groups to be generally successful in promoting personal growth, a cautionary note must be sounded regarding their use with relatively unskilled facilitators. Emotional sessions of such short duration may prove to be more than some members can handle, especially if there is little prior screening and more maladjusted persons are permitted to participate, resulting in psychological “casualties” of various kinds (Yalom & Lieberman, 1971).

Psychotherapy and Social Reform. As with several of the theorists discussed thus far, Rogers regards our society as very sick indeed. For example, he characterizes Watergate as blatant official contempt for the rights of the individual. The vast discrepancy in wealth between the “haves” and “have-nots” of the world sows the seeds of hatred, evidenced in part by terrorist groups who wreak their violence on innocent people. The resulting specter of nuclear war leaves humanity in mortal danger, teetering on the knife edge between survival and destruction. (See Rogers, 1961, pp. ix, 61; 1973b, p. 379; 1977, pp. 115–116, 255–260; Rogers, cited by Evans, 1975, p. 65.)

Rogers does conclude that we have achieved some significant social advances in just a few decades, such as improved civil rights and increased efforts toward population control. He also argues that the per- son-centered approach offers us the means for living together in harmony: rather than trying to seize and hold power, the peoples of the world can treat one another with genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard, and work together toward the common goal of helping to actualize humankind’s benign potentials. (See Rogers, 1951, p. 224; 1972, pp. 71–72; 1977, pp. 115–140; 1982.)


Rogers is highly critical of the authoritarian and coercive philosophy that pervades our educational system. All too often, the teacher assumes the mantle of power and directs the activities of passive, subservient students. Grades are based primarily on examinations, which require students to parrot back specific facts that the teacher considers important. Pronounced distrust is evidenced by the teacher constantly checking up on the students’ progress, and by students remaining on guard against trick questions and unfair grading practices. And there is a total emphasis on thinking, with the emotional aspects of experience regarded as irrelevant and nonscholarly. The unfortunate result is that many potentially outstanding students develop negative attitudes toward further learning, which they perceive as an unpleasant obligation rather than a golden opportunity. “Our schools are more damaging than helpful to personality development, and are a negative influence on creative thinking. They are primarily institutions for incarcerating or taking care of the young, to keep them out of the adult world” (Rogers, 1977, p. 256; see also Rogers, 1951, pp. 384–428; 1961, pp. 37, 273–313; 1969; 1977, pp. 69–89; 1980, pp. 263–335; Rogers, cited by Evans, 1975, pp. 38–48).

The person-centered teacher seeks to create a psychological climate that facilitates the students’ capacity to think and learn for themselves. The teacher demonstrates empathy and unconditional positive regard for the students’ feelings and interests, and genuineness concerning his or her own inner experience. Decision making is a shared process, with students helping to devise their own program of learning. Class periods are unstructured, with no lectures or formal procedures, so that students may form and express their own opinions. The teacher serves as an optional resource, and provides comments or suggested readings only when asked to do so. And grades are mutually agreed upon, with the student providing evidence as to the amount of personal and educational growth that has been achieved during the course. This primarily self-directed approach enables students to enjoy the process of learning, and to discover and develop directions that are truly rewarding. (See Rogers, 1969; 1983.)

The person-centered approach to education often arouses initial resistance and hostility, since students expect to be told what to do. “Students who have been clamoring for freedom are definitely frightened when they realize that it also means responsibility.” However, Rogers concludes that this approach typically leads to more rapid and thorough learning at all educational levels—and to such positive student evaluations as “I was surprised to find out how well I can study and learn when I’m not forced to do it,” “It was like I was an adult—not supervised and guided all the time,” and “I’ve never read so much in my life” (Rogers, 1977, pp. 76–78).

Rogerian Theory and Empirical Research

Rogers has a strong interest in empirical research, which he attributes to his need to make sense and order out of psychological phenomena. Rogers cautions that psychologists are too fearful and defensive about appearing unscientific, so they concentrate on methodologically precise but trivial research top- ics. He argues that a truly human science must deal with subjective experience and pursue innovative directions—especially a fledgling discipline like psychology, where it is difficult to achieve the precise measurements that are found in more mature sciences.

Like Kelly, therefore, Rogers concludes that any theory must be regarded as expendable in the light of new discoveries. “If a theory could be seen for what it is—a fallible, changing attempt to construct a network of gossamer threads which will contain the solid facts—then a theory would serve as it should, as a stimulus to further creative thinking” (Rogers, 1959, p. 191; see also M. H. Hall, 1967c, pp. 20–21; Rogers, 1959, pp. 188–190; Rogers, cited by Evans, 1975, pp. 88–90; Rogers & Skinner, 1956).


Criticisms and Controversies

Like Adler, Rogers has been criticized for an overly optimistic and simplified view of human nature. Actualizing all of our innermost potentials is desirable only if the deepest levels of personality are healthy and constructive. Yet it seems doubtful that an inherently peaceful and cooperative species would so frequently engage in war, crime, and other destructive behaviors solely because of parental pathogenic behaviors and introjected conditions of worth.

Psychotherapists of different theoretical persuasions do not agree that positive change can be achieved by relying entirely on genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. It now appears that Rogers may well have gone too far in this respect, and that at least some interpretation, discussion of childhood causes, and other standard procedures are also necessary. Except for a few brief references, Rogers ignores important similarities between his theory and those of Horney, Sullivan, and Jung. In spite of Rogers’s contention that theories are readily expendable in the light of new discoveries, his own approach changed relatively little during the last 20 years of his life—except perhaps for a greater acceptance of unconscious processes, which raises doubts as to the validity of defining the self-concept as entirely available to aware- ness and measuring it through the client’s self-reports.

Empirical Research

Rogerian Psychotherapy. A substantial amount of research has dealt with the characteristics of genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. These studies have used rating scales of and by psychotherapists, and analyses of transcripts of tape-recorded therapy sessions (of course, with the client’s permission). As is common in the challenging field of psychotherapy research, the results have been equivocal: Numerous studies have found these variables to be significantly related to constructive change, whereas other findings have been negative.

For example, some studies suggest that unconditional positive regard is not sufficient for clients to improve; more active interventions, such as interpretations and/or training in the desired new behaviors, are also necessary. Other researchers caution that genuineness may be damaging in some instances, as by telling a narcissistic but vulnerable client that such constant self-preoccupation is causing the therapist to feel bored and angry. Still others prefer to replace the construct of genuineness with a broader concept, such as the “working alliance” or “therapeutic relationship.” (See for example Bachelor & Horvath, 1999; Boy & Pine, 1999; Cain & Seeman, 2002; Epstein, 1980, pp. 122–127; Kahn, 1985, p. 901; Rogers, 1961, pp. 41–50; Rogers & Dymond, 1954; Rogers et al., 1967.)

The Self-Concept. Another popular research topic is the self-concept, which can readily be investigated through direct inquiry since it is defined as entirely conscious. One common procedure is the Q-sort (Stephenson, 1950; 1953), which uses a number of cards that contain a single descriptive phrase (“I set high standards for myself,” “I make friends easily,” “I often seek reassurance from other people”). The client sorts the cards into a 9-point scale with an approximately normal distribution, ranging from those items that are most self-descriptive to those that are least self-descriptive. A specific number of cards must be placed in each of the nine categories, with the smallest number at the extremes (1, or least descriptive; 9, or most descriptive) and the greatest number at the center (5).

An alternative method is to present self-descriptive phrases in the form of a written questionnaire, with clients asked whether they strongly agree, agree, are undecided, disagree, or strongly disagree with each item. Or the questionnaire may contain a series of adjectives (“friendly,” “honest,” “suspicious”), with clients asked to check the ones that are applicable to them. Various well-regarded measures of the self-concept have been devised by different researchers (e.g., Coopersmith, 1984; Harter, 1982; Hattie, 1992; Marsh, 1990; Piers, 1984; Rold & Fitts, 1988; Wylie, 1989).

One finding of interest is that improvement during psychotherapy is usually related to increased self- acceptance, which leads to a greater acceptance of other people. It also appears that the self-concept is a more complicated construct than might be imagined. Some self-descriptions may apply only under certain circumstances (e.g., “I’m a patient father except when I have a headache.”). The social self-concept, or how we think others perceive us, may differ from the personal self-concept, or how we see ourselves. Different social self-concepts may be used when dealing with different individuals or groups. And there are also ideal personal and social self-concepts, or what we want to be like and how we would like to be perceived by others. (See for example Rogers, 1961, pp. 199–270; Wylie, 1974; 1979; 1989.)

Self-Esteem. Do you think of yourself as attractive or unattractive? A superior or an average student? A worthy friend or someone few people would like? In general, do you approve or disapprove of yourself? Such an evaluation of your self-concept is referred to as self-esteem. As with most aspects of personality, self-esteem is a continuous variable; a person’s score may fall anywhere from low through average to high.

Although self-esteem is perhaps the most widely studied aspect of the self-concept, research in this area has been hindered by methodological problems. Most investigators have focused on the conscious aspects of self-esteem, in accordance with Rogers’s definition of the self-concept, and have ignored the role played by unconscious processes and intrapsychic conflicts. Furthermore, various psychologists have devised their own constructs to define feelings of self-worth, for example:

  • Self-Esteem: How you evaluate yourself; your sense of personal worth.
  • Positive Self-Regard (Rogers): Accepting and respecting yourself, even in the absence of receiving positive regard from other people.
  • Perceived Self-Efficacy (Bandura): The extent to which you believe that you can cope with the demands of a given situation. 
  • An Inferiority Complex (Adler): The belief that you cannot overcome your problems through appropriate effort.
  • Self-Contempt (Horney): Hatred for your true abilities and personal qualities, because they fall far short of the unrealistic idealized image. 

A common theme underlies all of these definitions: Having a low opinion of yourself is pathological, and prevents personality development from proceeding to a successful conclusion. They appear to be very similar, if not identical. Yet each theorist has focused on his or her own constructs, without relating them to those of other theorists. As a result, much of the data that have been obtained in this area are disorganized, fragmented, and often inconsistent. (See Hattie, 1992; Marsh, 1992.)

One finding of interest which has emerged is that self-esteem influences our response to failure. Those with low self-esteem lack confidence in their ability, pay little attention to any successes that they may achieve, and regard their failures as confirmation that they are incapable (“I knew I couldn’t do that”). Those who are high in self-esteem expect to do well, and take their failures more or less in stride because they view them as rare exceptions (“I usually succeed, so I know I’ll get it right next time”). Therefore, failure is more discouraging to those who suffer from low self-esteem. (See, for example, Brown & Gallagher, 1992; Brown & Smart, 1991; Kernis et al., 1989; Leary, 1999; Tafarodi & Vu, 1997.)

According to Rogers, we all need to receive positive regard from significant others. However, those who are low in self-esteem are less likely to behave in ways that will earn admiration and respect. They are motivated primarily by the desire to protect their fragile self-concept against criticism and embarrassment. Rather than risking failure, they often prefer to do nothing, attempt only the easiest of tasks, or refuse to try very hard so that they will have a ready-made excuse in case of failure. People with high self- esteem expect to succeed, so they are willing to undertake difficult projects and risk criticism in order to obtain positive regard. (See, for example, Baumeister et al., 1989; Baumeister & Tice, 1990; Tice, 1991.)

Whereas Rogers focuses primarily on overall feelings of self-worth, research has shown that self- esteem is multidimensional. That is, how you feel about yourself is likely to vary in different situations (e.g., academic, social, athletic). Both of these views have merit: Some patients suffer from intense feel- ings of inadequacy and self-contempt that pervade most aspects of their lives, whereas some individuals lack confidence in certain areas but are more self-assured in others.

The Real Versus Ideal Self. One procedure devised by Rogers to measure self-esteem is to compare an individual’s self-concept with what he or she would like to be. Suppose that a college student describes herself as shy, not very likable, rather disorganized, and intelligent. When asked how she would like to regard herself, her answer is outgoing, likable, organized, and intelligent. Her actual self-concept differs from her ideal self in three respects: shy versus outgoing, not very likable versus likable, and disorganized versus organized. This suggests that she has not yet become the person whom she would like to be, and that her self-esteem is in need of improvement. In Rogerian terminology, there is substantial incongruence between her real and ideal selves.

The ideal self may be measured by using the Q-sort procedure, with the client asked to sort the cards into a scale ranging from “least like my ideal self to “most like my ideal self.” The results are then com- pared to the Q-sort used to measure the client’s real self. Or the client may be asked to respond twice to a series of 7-point scales, such as good–bad, friendly–unfriendly, and conscientious–lazy, with one trial describing “myself” and the second trial describing “my ideal self.” A greater discrepancy between scores on the two trials is assumed to reflect lower self-esteem.

Rogers’s approach suffers from an important conceptual problem: It is desirable to be aware of our weaknesses. Most personality theorists, including Freud, Jung, Adler, Allport, and Maslow, regard accurate self-knowledge as an important criterion of mental health. A very close correspondence between the real and ideal selves may mean that the person is using defenses to conceal painful weaknesses, whereas a moderate discrepancy may indicate a more self-perceptive and mature individual. Therefore, greater agreement between the real and ideal selves may not indicate a higher level of self-esteem. Studies have found that people who were high in maturity and competence had less congruence between their real and ideal selves than did participants who were less mature and competent, as would be expected from

the preceding argument. (See, for example, Leahy, 1981; Leahy & Huard, 1976.) These results suggest that the relationship between self-esteem and the discrepancy between one’s real and ideal selves is more complicated (and more curvilinear) than Rogers believed.


Rogers was a sensitive and effective psychotherapist, and he has called attention to important aspects of the client–therapist relationship. He was among the first to unveil the mysteries of the therapy session by using tape recordings and publishing verbatim transcripts, which has stimulated a substantial amount of empirical research. Rogers has added to our understanding of parental pathogenic behaviors and how they lead to psychopathology. The self has proved to be an important, widely studied construct. To some psychologists, Rogers’s emphasis on healthy inner potentials represents an important alternative (or “third force”) to psychoanalysis (with its emphasis on the illicit aspects of personality) and behaviorism (which concentrates on observable behaviors, as we will see in Chapter 14).

Rogers has offered a challenging and provocative extension of the democratic principles on which our society is based. Rather than being directed by an expert who presumes to know what is best for us (such as a teacher, parent, or psychotherapist), Rogers advises us to treat one another as equals and derive our satisfactions from freeing others to pursue their own path toward actualization. Not surprisingly, this approach has proved more than a little threatening to those accustomed to striving for higher positions in the social pecking order and passing judgment on others. The expert authority is an idea that is widely accepted, and has advantages as well as disadvantages. And it may be possible to carry the principle of equality too far, as when children need the security of dependency and inequality to their parents in order to explore and learn. Although Rogers would seem to have taken too favorable a view of human nature, his humanistic approach makes an important point: To be psychologically healthy, each of us must heed those positive inner potentials that are uniquely our own.‌

Suggested Reading

Rogerian theory is clearly described in On Becoming a Person (1961) and Carl Rogers on Personal Power (1977). A rather tedious but thorough discussion of person-centered definitions and theory may be found in an article (Rogers, 1959). Rogers’s views on education are presented in Freedom to Learn (1969), and his thoughts on encounter groups appear in Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups (1970/1973a).


  1. The basic nature of human beingsActualization: The primary motive underlying all human behavior is an innate tendency to develop our constructive, healthy capacities (actualization). Among the aspects of the actualizing tendency are creativity, curiosity, and the willingness to undergo even painful learning experiences in order to become more effective and independent. The Need for Positive Regard: Pathogenic parental behaviors may cause us to behave in ways that belie our benign inner nature. This is likely to happen because we have a powerful need for positive regard, especially from such significant others as our parents. Teleology: We are oriented toward future goals, rather than driven by prior causes.
  2. The structure of personality. Experience and the Organismic Valuing Process: Each of us exists at the center of our own private, ever-changing world of inner experience. Experience is largely nonconscious, though it is potentially available to awareness. It includes an innate ability to value positively (or negatively) that which we perceive as actualizing (or nonactualizing), which is called the organismic valuing process. The nonconscious aspects of experience are trustworthy and invaluable additions to our conscious thoughts and plans, and only we can know what is good for us (actualizing) and what is not. The Self-Concept (Self) and Self-Actualization: Personality also includes a conscious conception of oneself as a separate and distinct entity. Some of the actualizing tendency is directed toward an effort to reach the goals represented by this self-concept. If significant others make their positive regard conditional on meeting their standards, the child will try to preserve their love by introjecting these standards into the self-concept and behaving accordingly. Such introjected conditions of worth supersede the innate organismic valuing process as an inner guide to behavior. This results in a painful inner schism, since the attempts to satisfy the conditions of worth fail to actualize the individual’s true needs and potentials. Defense: This incongruence leads to defensive attempts to protect the self-concept by distorting or denying the real needs and feelings, furthering the schism between the actualizing and self-actualizing tendencies.

  3. The development of personalityRogers posits no specific developmental stages, criteria, or types. He emphasizes the desirability of treating children with unconditional positive regard, and enumerates various characteristics that define the optimally adjusted (“fully functioning”) person.

  4. Further applications. Psychopathology: The self-concept of the more pathological person includes powerful conditions of worth. The sufferer therefore abandons the healthy quest for actualization in order to satisfy these introjected standards and keep the (conditional) positive regard of significant others. This makes it impossible to satisfy his or her true needs, and leads to such feelings of profound confusion as “I don’t know who I am or what I really want.” Psychotherapy: Positive therapeutic change is accomplished solely by establishing a constructive interpersonal relationship between therapist and client. A climate conducive to personal growth is created through the use of genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. Genuineness encourages a similar trusting genuineness on the part of the client, empathy provides the client with a deep sense of being understood, and unconditional positive regard provides an unqualified acceptance that enables the client to explore those feelings and beliefs that were too threatening to admit to awareness. Education: Genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard are also advisable in the educational setting, as by devising unstructured classes that involve shared decision making.

  5. Evaluation. Rogers has been criticized for an overly optimistic and simplified view of human nature, ignoring important similarities between his theoretical constructs and those of such predecessors as Horney and Sullivan, failing to update and revise his theory, relying solely on genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard to produce positive therapeutic change, and devoting insufficient attention to the unconscious aspects of the self-concept. Yet he is also credited with calling attention to significant aspects of the client–therapist relationship, emphasizing the importance of the self-concept, stimulating a substantial amount of empirical research, helping to establish a major theoretical alternative to psychoanalysis and behaviorism, and stressing that each of us must heed our own unique positive potentials in order to be psychologically healthy.