According to Carl Rogers’s theory of personality, the self-actualizing tendency is an inner drive to experience oneself in a way that is consistent with one’s conscious view of who one is. The therapeutic process is largely about expressing oneself in life and relationships from a place of authenticity, rather than from one of conformity and a need for approval. Whereas most people grow up trying to please others in order to be accepted, self-exploration empowers the individual to seek acceptance within themselves. Individuals start to define who they are by exploring new possibilities within a non-judgemental, safe and supportive therapeutic environment.
As a counsellor, I sometimes walk the fine line between identifying with what a client brings, whilst also honouring the uniqueness of their experience. It is a balancing act, whereby I feel immersed in the relationship without losing the objectivity needed to continue seeing things from their perspective. I endeavour to work phenomenologically whilst acknowledging the shared humanity between us. I resort to the later to ‘tune in’ and convey an advanced level of empathy thereby nurturing a climate of acceptance and trust.
In addition, I strive to create a therapeutic environment which supports a client’s process of self-acceptance and reduces their sense of isolation by adopting an accepting, non-judgemental and empathic attitude. Rogers maintained that these core conditions create a climate where one feels loved in the relationship with the therapist. “Loved’ has here perhaps its deepest and most general meaning – that of being deeply understood and deeply accepted’. This way of being together in turn offers the potential of being extended into one’s relationship to their community.
To love always implies a transcendence of the dual-unity. Hence, plural is essential for encounter: it transcends the duality and is open for a Third One, for the group, for the community which itself offers space for encounter (Schmid 2001, p.60).
In the therapeutic relationship, both people in the room cease to be isolated beings and begin to create a connection whereby one is invited to communicate their thoughts, feelings and experiences and the other to understand by opening up to what is being communicated and revealed to them. In both humanistic and existential theories there has been a great deal written about how the self is constructed in interaction with others. Schmid (2001) writes:
(…) the other is the power which liberates the I from oneself. The foundation of self-confidence is not the reflection on oneself but the relationship to the other. This overcomes the limits of the self and opens up infinity. The self is born in the relationship to another person (pp 53-54).
The concept of the self-being formed in relation to others is especially relevant here, in the context of the therapeutic relationship. Jordan(1991) talks about episodes of real contact and connection in therapy in which:
One is both affecting the other and being affected by the other; one extends oneself out to the other and is also receptive to the impact of the other. There is openness to influence, emotional availability, and a constant changing pattern of responding to and affecting the other’s state. There is both receptivity and active initiative toward the other (p.82).
The personal connection between client and therapist can only evolve when clients are free to define their experience in their own terms, without an awareness of pre-existing assumptions. Yet, this personal connection is reliant on the authenticity of the relationship, which is achieved by the therapist showing himself as a real person: therein lies the rub. The Gestalt therapists, Erwin and Miriam Polster describe beautifully how transformation and growth happen in a ‘real relationship’:
Contact is not just togetherness or joining. It can only happen between separate beings, always requiring independence and always risking capture in the union. At the moment of union, one’s fullest sense of his own person is swept along into a new creation. I am no longer only me, but me and thee make we. Although me and thee become we in name only, through this naming we gamble with the dissolution of either me or thee. Unless I am experienced in knowing full contact, when I meet you full-eyed, full-bodied, and full-minded, you may become irresistible and engulfing. In contacting you, I wager my independent existence, but only through the contact function can the realization of identities fully develop (Polster & Polster, 1973 p.99).
Laing, R. D. (1977). Self and Others (2nd Edn.,). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mearns, D. & Cooper, M. (2005). Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.
Polster, E. & Polster, M. (1973). Gestalt Therapy Integrated: Contours of Theory and Practice. New York Random House.
Rogers, C. (1961): On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Schmid, P. F. (2001). Acknowledgement: the art of responding. Dialogical and ethical perspectives on the challenge of unconditional relationships in therapy and beyond. In Bozarth, D. J. & Wilkins, P. (Ed.): Roger’s Therapeutic Conditions: Evolution, Theory and Practice, pp.49-64.