The Foundation of Person-Centered Therapy
by
Jerold D. Bozarth, PhD

    The foundation block of person-centered therapy is the actualizing tendency. Rogers stated:
Practice, theory and research make it clear that the person-centered approach is built on a basic trust in the person . . . (It) depends on the actualizing tendency present in every living organism’s tendency to grow, to develop, to realize its full potential. This way of being trusts the constructive directional flow of the human being toward a more complex and complete development. It is this directional flow that we aim to release.(Rogers, 1986b, p. 198)  Rogers’ construct of the actualizing tendency is an organismic theory wherein the fundamental qualities in human nature are viewed as those of growth, process and change. In Rogers’ theory,"Man is an actualizing process" (Van Belle, 1980, p. 70). Actualization is the motivational construct in organismic theory and, thus, is embedded in the organismic growth process and is the motive for change. The organism/person is the basic unit of inquiry in Rogers’ conceptualizations. Although Rogers focused on the self-concept in earlier writings and brings in the concept of the formative tendency of the universe in later writings, the construct of the actualizing tendency for the human being is the clear foundation block in individual therapy.

    The person-centered therapist operates on a number of assumptions associated with the actualizing tendency. These assumptions include the orientation that emphasizes the world of the whole person wherein the therapist eschews knowledge ‘about’ the client, relates as an equal to the client, and trusts and respects the client’s perceptions as the authority about him/herself.  The basic client/person-centered value is that the authority of the person rests in the person rather than in an outside expert. This value emphasizes the internal (i.e., the client’s) rather than the external (i.e., the therapist’s) view. Clients are viewed as going in their own ways, allowed to go at their own pace, and to pursue their growth in their unique ways. The external view is
meaningless in the therapy process since the only function of the therapist is to facilitate the client’s actualizing process. This process is a directional,growth directed process that includes movement towards realization, fulfillment and perfection of inherent capabilities and potentialities of the individual (Rogers, 1963). It is a selective process in that it is directional and constructive. It tends to enhance and maintain the whole organism/person. A summary of the theory can be stated as follows:

(1)There is one motivating force in a client; i.e., the actualizing tendency.

(2) There is one directive to the therapist; i.e. to embody the attitudinal quality of genuineness and to experience empathic understanding from the client’s internal frame of reference and to
experience unconditional positive regard towards the client.

(3) When the client perceives the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional
positive regard, the actualizing tendency of the client is promoted.

         Necessary and Sufficient Conditions Person-centered theory posits the presence of a client who is incongruent, vulnerable and anxious but who is also in psychological contact with an attentive, empathic therapist. The therapist experiences and manifests three basic attitudes in the relationship. These attitudes are labeled as (1) congruence, (2) unconditional positive regard, and (3) empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference (Rogers, 1957; 1959). Rogers’ most explicit statements about these attitudes were in his 1957 statement that hypothesized the necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change in all therapies and constructive interpersonal relationships that have constructive personality change as a goal. These conditions are also presented with a slightly different slant in his 1959 theoretical statement on psychotherapy, personality theory and interpersonal relations from the Client-Centered frame of reference. In the integration statement of 1957, he stated:

       1. Two persons are in psychological contact.

       2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.

       3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.

       4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.

       5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.

       6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and
       unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved. (p. 96)

    There are slight but perhaps important differences between the 1957 and 1959
statements. In the 1959 statement, Rogers does not mention that the therapist should ‘ . ..endeavor to communicate . . .’ the experiences of empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard to the client. He continued to emphasize the importance of the client perceiving these two attitudinal experiences of the therapist.  Also, the 1959 theory statement refers to the first condition (the pre-condition) simply as ‘contact’between the client and therapist rather than ‘psychological’ contact.      Rogers’ (1957) definitions of the three attitudinal conditions are the following:

       Congruency (or genuineness): ‘ . . .within the relationship (the therapist) is freely and deeply himself, with his actual experience accurately represented by his wareness of himself . . .’ and ‘ . . .he is what he actually is in this moment of time . . .

       Unconditional Positive Regard: ‘ . . .the extent that the therapist finds himself
       experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience as being a part of that client . . .’

       Empathic Understanding: ‘To sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality . . .’

The particular manifestations or implementation of these attitudes are variable, within limits,  depending upon the personal characteristics of both the therapist and the client. Rogers, in his classic delineation of a theory of psychotherapy, personality and interpersonal relationships imn 1959, hypothesized that in the psychotherapeutic relationship that the more fully and consistently the therapeutic attitudes are provided by the therapist and perceived by the client, the greater the constructive movement that will occur in the client. Rogers’ hypothesis can be generally stated in the following way:

    When the therapist can consistently be a certain way (i.e., embodying the attitudinal
qualities) towards the client while trusting the client’s natural growth process, the forward growth tendency (the actualizing tendency) of the client will be promoted.
The natural growth process of the individual is promoted when the therapist can be a certain way by embodying certain attitudinal qualities. The therapist strives to be congruent, to experience unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding toward the client. It is interesting to note that Rogers’ message is that the therapist experience empathic understanding of the client’s frame of reference and experience unconditional positive regard towards the client. He adds that the client must perceive these two conditions, at least, to a minimal degree. In therapy, the foundation block of the theory is the actualizing tendency; i.e., the tendency of the organism to grow in a positive and constructive direction; for the person ‘ . . .to become all of his/her
potentialities.’ (Bozarth & Brodley, 1991). Put another way: when the therapist can be a certain way by embodying certain attitudinal qualities, then the client’s actualizing tendency is promoted. In addition, the self-actualizing tendency is promoted in a way that is harmonious with the experiencing of the actualizing organism.
 
 

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