Carl Rogers preached a sermon of unconditional positive self acceptance. As he saw it, neurosis and even psychosis is caused by our efforts to become idealized self concepts and defending those false selves with the various ego defenses. If folk lighten up and just be themselves they would live more peaceful, happy and productive lives. Rogers influenced the clinical practice of psychotherapy. I doubt that there is a clinician out there who does not practice an aspect of Rogers ’client centered, or as he later called it, person centered, therapy. He is considered one of the top ten psychologists of all time.
MEN OF IDEAS #8 CARL ROGERS
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
Carl Ransom Rogers (1902-1987) was an American psychologist who was primarily concerned with how to get the individual to function optimally. He noted the obstacles to the individual functioning optimally, being who he could be, and set out to help him be the best that he could become. His “Client Centered Therapy” (a book that he wrote in 1951) and later called “Person Centered Therapy” was preoccupied with understanding what makes the individual not actualize his potential and how to enable him do so. By generalization what are the forces that prevent human beings from being their best and how can we get society as a whole to function optimally?
Carl was born in the American Mid-West to a very rigidly Christian family. He was socialized to America’s unique brand of Christianity and its rigid morality. He was headed for the priesthood (he was a seminarian) when he began to question his upbringing and made career changes.
The Christian upbringing he was exposed to is one that posited several “should nots” that human beings are supposed to live up. Thou should not do this, this and this.
Any one who tried to meet all the should nots of Christianity would be so restricted in his affect, thinking and behavior that he would become a neurotic. He would become a neurotic because the same Christian religion having told him what he should not become told him what he should do: love and forgive his enemies, impossibility.
Can any human being love and forgive his enemies and still be on this earth? Jesus Christ, the protagonist of the Christian Bible, apparently, loved and forgave his enemies; look what it got him! They killed him!
If you love and forgave your enemies they would kill you and you, like your alleged savior, Jesus, would die.
The idea of total forgiveness is an ideal. Any one who tried to actualize that ideal would either die or become neurotic in the sense that he is seeking to do the impossible in this world.
A neurotic is a person, as Karen Horney pointed out; who rejected his real self and the real world and attempts to live up to the ideals of his mentally constructed ideal self.
Christianity gives people ideals that aren’t compatible with this world and those who take those ideals seriously must either die or become neurotic. As Nietzsche pointed out, the last true Christian, Jesus, who tried to actualize Christian ideals, died on a cross at Golgotha/Calvary. The rest of the folk who call themselves Christian obviously do not practice the ideals of Christianity or else they would, like their savior die. The few who try to take the ideals of Christianity seriously become neurotic.
Rogers was one of those few who took Christianity seriously, became neurotic and realized that he could not live up to its ideals. He gave up the pursuit of those ideals and lived as his real self.
Rogers was interested in figuring out how to make the neurotic who quests for impossible ideals to give them up and, instead, try actualizing his real self. How do you structure families and societies so that they do not produce neurotic children, children who seek ideals but instead seek what is real? How does one become ones real self?
By the way what is ones real self, as opposed to the mental constructs we call our ideal selves?
Rogers delineated the social forces that prevent the individual from being his real self and from actualizing his true potential; he described what we do in our efforts to actualize our imaginary ideal selves.
The ideal self is a mental construct, a fiction of how one ought to become and is not who one is, in fact. The ideal self is a false self and cannot be actualized. Yet the neurotic feels an inner pressure to actualize that false self concept and its self image.
Those who seek the ideal self must defend the ideal self, for the unreal needs defense to make it seem real.
The real does not need defense to be real; it is the false that needs constant defense to make it seem real.
The neurotic who wants to be a false, ideal self is a very defensive person; he is defending a false self (and experiencing anxiety from doing so).
The false, ideal self must be defended with the various ego defense mechanisms that psychoanalysts described. Defense of the false ideal self makes the neurotic rigid, inflexible and prevents him from living fully, from being happy and peaceful. Pursuit of the ideal self makes the neurotic anxious, depressed, paranoid etc.
The neurotic is anxious because he is afraid of not becoming his ideal self. Since the ideal self was constructed to be a self that other people and society would accept, it is the self that to one seems acceptable to society, the person is afraid of not becoming his ideal self least society reject him.
The neurotic feels that society has already rejected his real self and would only accept his ideal self, so if he does not become his ideal self society would not accept him. He is scared of social rejection.
To be accepted by other people, the neurotic must seem like the ideal self that the imaginary “they” would accept. In the process he is tense and anxious.
What a way to live! A society that makes people to so live must be a pathological society; such a society is as sick as the neurotic is.
So how do you heal individual and social pathology? Rogers set out to find the answers. In his famous book, Client Centered Therapy, Rogers talked about the need for parents to accept their children in an unconditionally positive manner and the need for society to accept people in an unconditionally positive manner and for the therapist to provide an environment where the client feels that he is accepted no matter what he thinks or does. Rogers feels that such an environment would enable the neurotic client to let down his guards and truly become who he is, grow and transform his warped personality.
Extant society, parents, people are conditionally accepting of people and the result is the production of neurotic persons of our time: folk who are restricted and are trying to actualize ideal selves.
The desire to become a fictional ideal self is actually a desire to become insane since the ideal self is a false self and whoever is tying to become who he is not is insane. The psychotic is a person who takes the neurotic process to its logical conclusion and pretends that he is the ideal person he is not, in fact.
The neurotic wishes to be an ideal person; unlike the neurotic who still knows that he is not ideal though he wishes for it, the psychotic claims to be ideal. The normal-neurotic person wants to seem important but knows that he is not but the psychotic believes that he is as important as god himself. Of course, the psychotic is not important; he is merely living in fantasy land.
So how do you make society sane and how do you make people sane, that is, be their real selves and give up the quest for fictional importance?
Rogers thinks that one way to accomplish this goal is to provide people with an accepting and nurturing environment; he wants parents to cherish children. In Rogers view if children are accepted in an unconditionally positive manner they would develop healthy personalities.
Rogers wants to produce fully functioning, spontaneous, authentic persons who are themselves. Neurotics are not themselves; they are incongruent with their real selves.
What is psychopathology? Psychopathology is not being congruent with ones real self.
What is mental health? Mental health, as Roger sees it, is being congruent with ones real self.
What is the function of psychotherapy? The role of psychotherapists is to help those who are incongruent with their real selves to become congruent with their real selves, to help folk let go their pursuit of ideal selves and the defenses they employ in defending the ideal self and become themselves.
Rogers wants people to become free to try whatever life requires of them in the present moment.
The neurotic behaves as if he is obeying an inner pressure that says “thou should be the ideal self”.
The healthy person says: I must be me, not what other people want me to be.
Clearly, if a person is his real self he tends to be successful in interpersonal situations, in learning situations (the neurotic child is so afraid of making mistakes that he is afraid of learning for to learn is to make mistakes hence we can say that neurosis stifles learning; neurosis reduces learning by, at least, fifty percent). If you can get the neurotic child to let go of his defenses and pursuit of the ideal self and be who he is you could increase his learning speed. Of course you would also make him happier. All that energy spent protecting a false self concept could be channeled to learning and being happy.
Rogers considered himself a phenomenologist. That is, he looked at human experience in the here and now not in the abstract. He did not talk about God this or that but talked about the real person experiencing the real world he found himself in.
In the real world, each of us finds himself in a field (gestalt) that is characterized by certain parameters and responds to it accordingly.
If the child finds himself in a family that is conditional in accepting him, that is, accept him only when he conforms to their idea of success and reject and or criticize him when he tries to be himself he would respond accordingly.
As Rogers sees it, the self is a social construct. The child interacts with other people and over time develops a sense of self. The self of the child is always a social variable, a product of his interaction with other people.
The self is not an abstraction; it is a product of social experience. If the social world the individual finds himself in is pathological he would develop pathological propensities.
The African tribe this observer belongs to accepts children mostly only when they seem successful and rejects those who seem failures. The result is that virtually all members of that tribe are neurotic. They pursue ego ideals and those who do not meet them pretend to be them and tell fabulous lies about their imaginary success. These people are afraid to be themselves. In fact, they are so alienated from their real sleeves that they no longer know who they are. They want to become who they are not and want other people to collude with them and see them as the imaginary important persons that they think that they ought to become. Those who have taken the philosophy of let us pretend that we are important persons too seriously develop delusion disorder/paranoia; they posit imaginary important selves and defend them with the various ego defenses and pretend to be them and want other people to collude with them and see them as if they are those imaginary important selves, and feel demeaned and angry if seen as who they are, in fact, ordinary human beings.
Carl Rogers was a clinician, a therapist before he became a professor. His writings are useful for therapists. However, when he tried writing in academic jargon he actually said very little of significance. It would have been better if he limited himself to the down to earth, practical language of clinicians.
Another criticism that can be made of Rogers is this: is it really possible to accept ones self and other people in an unconditionally positive manner? His recommendation is sort of like the saying that one should not judge ones self and other people. It is true that judgment makes people uncomfortable but is it possible to be non-judgmental and be in this world? Everything we do is a judgment, even perception is a judgment; we judge what to see and what not to see. Without judgment there can be no perception. We accept certain behaviors and not others. If one were totally unconditional in accepting people one would also accept murderers, wouldn’t one?
There seems a limit to unconditional positive acceptance; pursuit of it leads to today’s political correctness that disposes people to close their eyes as folk live self destructive existence. Not all behaviors are conducive to life.
Human beings are conditionally accepting and judgmental creatures. The thing to do is to inject balance into these approaches to people. Whether people can be totally unconditionally accepting and non-judgmental remain to be seen.
Rogers, Carl. (1951) Client Centered Therapy. London : Constable.
Rogers, Carl (1961) On Becoming a Person. London : Constable.