Mental Health

Person Centered Approach: A Brief Introduction

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therapy

More often than not, we all just need to feel heard and empathized with.

Life can throw human beings with all sorts of obstacles: unqualified parents, harsh mentors, loss of loved ones, toxic relationships, overwhelming demands, and scarce resources. But regardless, most of us still can survive and thrive in spite of these obstacles.

Each of us is stronger, more resourceful, and more flexible than we are often led to believe. We are all works in progress, capable of constantly changing and growing towards our ideals just by trusting our selves.

Unfortunately, we are often led to believe otherwise. One way or the other, our minds are bombarded with unhealthy ideas of needing to achieve certain things or become a certain person in order to be worthy of respect and love. Our worldview becomes distorted because reality seems too difficult. Our relationship with the world becomes conditional. Conditions imposed by the world accumulated over time becomes too overwhelming for us and becomes all sorts of psychological difficulties.

That is why more often than not, we all just need to be authentically heard, empathized with, and given positive regards without having to be anything. Even in difficult situations, these often surprisingly turn out to be enough.

This is the premise of the Person-Centered Approach to therapy. Clients don’t need the direction or guidance of the therapist or counselor but require them to show unconditional positive regard, empathy, and behaving in a congruent manner.

The Person-Centered Approach (PCA) to therapy (or ‘client-centered’, ‘non-directive’) is not a foreign idea to those who studied the psychology of personality or counseling approaches. It consists of a series of ideas about interpersonal connection across generations of researchers and practitioners beginning with the works of the legendary psychologist Carl Rogers and his colleagues, where they attempted to provide an alternative approach to the deterministic therapies that dominated that era, which eventually grew into the widely known theory it is today.

If only one idea is allowed to define the Person-Centered Approach, that would be ‘trust in the self-actualizing tendency of persons’. This means believing that every human being has their own inherent organic tendency to grow into better persons. This also means that the therapist has to believe that the client does not need them to be smart, wise, or knowledgeable. That the person as the therapist, does not need to use force or techniques on the client, or intentionally educate or train the client in any way. Because the client is good enough on their own.

Why do they even come to see a therapist to begin with if they are good enough? The answer is simple: one way or another, they have been led to believe they are not good enough to handle life as themselves the way they are. The role of the therapist is to:

  1. genuinely try to understand them and imagine how is it like to be like them through emphatically asking questions and reflecting the client’s responses.
  2. indirectly sooth and encourage them through giving unconditional positive regard.
  3. Be as open and authentic as they can be in their interactions with the client.

As simplistic as it seems, the Person-Centered Approach to therapy is very often misunderstood. Most practitioners believe they understand PCA to some extent as it is very frequently mentioned and it sets the foundations for most if not all approaches to therapy. In practice, it can be in fact very difficult and challenging. This is because PCA is grounded on one’s attitude rather than technique. Being an authentic person-centered therapist means undertaking a lifelong journey to develop a congruent attitude, emphatic tendency, and belief in every person’s innate qualities that they don’t have to impose conditions of worth of others. This also means the therapist also needs to stop believing that ‘they need to be of use’ to be worthy as a person themselves!

This approach is a stark contrast from the other more directive approaches, which require clients to do homework, perform intense imaginative exercises guided by the counselor, and be taught various self-help techniques.

The Person-Centered Approach has its own share of critics and advocates. Critics dismiss it as naive and simplistic, and not as effective compared to other manualized approaches in modern psychological literature. Many educators, supervisors, and trainers stress its importance for new practitioners to learn as ‘basics’, but also claim it to be impotent for complex cases. On the other hand, advocates see it as the most potent theory in sustaining a quality therapeutic relationship. Take away empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard, and all relationships will become not conducive for therapeutic change. All walks of psychotherapy will fail if the relationship is devoid of all the conditions of the PCA.

I hope this piece provides a meaningful but brief glimpse into what it means to be ‘person-centered’. Perhaps the questions can go from is ‘Person-Centered Therapy effective’ to ‘how Person Centered am I as a human being?’.

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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