Developed by Carl Rogers in the United States roughly between 1940 and 1990, person-centered counselling rests on the belief that humans at their deepest level are essentially positive, growth-oriented (self-actualizing tendency) and trustworthy.

Rogers believed the human personality to be consisting of a few hypothesized psychic structures – organismic experience i.e. the total experience of a human, self-concept i.e. a personal and psychological representation of oneself and the ideal self which is based on conditions of worth. While the organismic experience is “what I am”, the self-concept is “what I think I am” and the ideal self is “what I ought to be”.

At infancy, the organismic experience and self-concept are congruent. As conditions of worth take birth during childhood (psychological representations of “what I must experience to be worthy”), an ideal self emerges which is different from the as-yet congruent self-concept and organismic experience at infancy. With this development, the child alters the self-concept to bring it more in line with the ideal self, thus creating an incongruence between the self-concept and the organismic experience. This degree of incongruence varies within individuals.

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But how do these conditions of worth develop? Rogers believed that a person’s environment played a major role in this. As humans, we all have a need for positive regard. If while growing up, our primary caretakers and close ones provided our inner experience with a complete empathic understanding, acceptance and prizing, what they displayed was unconditional positive regard. But if these very caretakers and close ones were to provide our inner experience with a complete empathic understanding, acceptance and prizing, only if we met certain conditions put forth by them, we would experience conditional positive regard. Someone raised with conditional positive regard is more likely to develop conditions of worth in order to fulfill his/her need for positive regard – “I am a good human being only if I love my mother”, “I am worthy only if I fulfill my father’s wish and become a doctor.”

Rogers believed that the greater the congruence between one’s organismic experience and self-concept, the healthier and fully functioning one is. Here the individual is willing to experience everything as it is – fear, love, jealousy – and is flexible enough to change in the face of all of this. Conversely, a greater degree of incongruence is characteristic of an unhealthy or maladaptive personality. Here, the self-concept is heavily aligned towards the ideal self and so there is a denial of one’s organismic experience, resulting in anxiety and confusion. There is a sense of estrangement from oneself, one no longer knows who he/she is.

Incongruence develops in an environment based on conditional positive regard. And so, congruence can be created in an environment based on unconditional positive regard along with genuineness and empathy. The latter is what a therapeutic environment looks like. To put it more simply, once I perceive my therapist valuing my existence and experience in an unconditional manner, I am able to do so for myself. Feeling no threat of being judged, I begin to trust my organismic experience and eventually use it as a guide to make choices. 

In the process of therapeutic change, the therapist first allows for the incorporation of the organismic experience into one’s awareness so that the self-concept moves towards it. When this happens, the person perceives oneself as one really is. Next, the self-concept and organismic experience alignment pulls the ideal self into aligning with it. Now, the person believes one should be (ideal self) who one thinks of oneself to be (self-concept) and who one really is (organismic experience).