Client-centered therapy, also known as person-centered therapy, is a non-directive form of talk therapy that was developed by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers during the 1940s and 1950s. Today, it is one of the most widely used approaches in psychotherapy.
The History of Client-Centered Therapy
Carl Rogers was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th-century. He was a humanist thinker and believed that people are fundamentally good. He also believed that people have an actualizing tendency, or a desire to fulfill their potential and become the best people they can be.
Rogers initially started out calling his technique non-directive therapy. While his goal was to be as non-directive as possible, he eventually realized that therapists guide clients even in subtle ways. He also found that clients often do look to their therapists for some type of guidance or direction. Eventually, the technique came to be known as client-centered therapy. Today, Rogers' approach to therapy is often referred to by either of these two names, but it is also frequently known simply as Rogerian therapy.
It is also important to note that Rogers was deliberate in his use of the term client rather than patient. He believed that the term patient implied that the individual was sick and seeking a cure from a therapist. By using the term client instead, Rogers emphasized the importance of the individual in seeking assistance, controlling their destiny and overcoming their difficulties. Self-direction plays a vital part of client-centered therapy.
Much like psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Rogers believed that the therapeutic relationship could lead to insights and lasting changes in a client. While Freud focused on offering interpretations of what he believed were the unconscious conflicts that led to a client's troubles, Rogers believed that the therapist should remain non-directive. That is to say, the therapist should not direct the client, should not pass judgments on the client's feelings and should not offer suggestions or solutions. Instead, the client should be the one in control.
How Does Client-Centered Therapy Work?
Mental health professionals who utilize this approach strive to create a therapeutic environment that is conformable, non-judgmental and empathetic. Two of the key elements of client-centered therapy are that it:
- Is non-directive. Therapists allow clients to lead the discussion and do not try to steer the client in a particular direction.
- Emphasizes unconditional positive regard. Therapists show complete acceptance and support for their clients.
According to Carl Rogers, a client-centered therapist needs three key qualities:
The therapist needs to share his or her feelings honestly. By modeling this behavior, the therapist can help teach the client to also develop this important skill.
Unconditional Positive Regard:
The therapist must accept the client for who they are and display support and care no matter what the client is facing or experiencing. Rogers believed that people often develop problems because they are used to only receiving conditional support; acceptance that is only offered if the person conforms to certain expectations. By creating a climate of unconditional positive regard, the client feels able to express his or her emotions without fear of rejection.
"Unconditional positive regard means that when the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely. It involves the therapist's willingness for the client to be whatever feeling is going on at that moment - confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love, or pride…The therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way."
The therapist needs to be reflective, acting as a mirror of the client's feelings, thoughts. The goal of this is to allow the client to gain a clearer understanding of their own inner thought, perceptions and emotions.
By exhibiting these three characteristics, therapists can help clients grow psychologically, become more self-aware and change their behavior via self-direction. In this type of environment, a client feels safe and free from judgment. Rogers believed that this type of atmosphere allows clients to develop a healthier view of the world and a less distorted view of themselves.
Client-Centered Therapy in Popular Culture
Actor Bob Newhart portrayed a therapist who utilized client-centered therapy on The Bob Newhart Show which aired from 1972 to 1978.
How Effective Is Client-Centered Therapy?
Several large-scale studies have shown that the three qualities that Rogers emphasized, genuineness, unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding, are all beneficial. However, some studies have found that these factors alone are not necessarily enough to promote lasting change in clients.
Boeree, C. G. (2006) Carl Rogers: 1902-1987. Retrieved from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/rogers.html
Cooper, M., Watson, J. C., & Hoeldampf, D. (2010). Person-centered and experiential therapies work: A review of the research on counseling, psychotherapy and related practices. Ross-on-Wye, UK: PCCS Books.
Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Rogers, C. (1977). Carl Rogers on personal power: Inner strength and its revolutionary impact. New York: Delacorte Press.
Rogers, C. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Sachse, R., & Elliott, R. (2002). Process-outcome research on humanistic therapy variables. In David J. Cain & Jules Seeman (Eds.). Humanistic psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.