In order to outline and explain the Rogerian approach to counselling theory, I will first look at how Rogers came to research. his approach. with reference to his background and interests; I will then go on to trace the development of his theory from the motivational drives in man through to the cause of psychological tension, covering his theory of personality development, and on to how he researched and developed a therapeutic environment in which this tension can be dissolved.

Carl Rogers was a psychologist in America. He was part of the Human Potential Movement that happened around the middle of this century, and the founder of humanistic psychology.

The Human Potential Movement was greatly influenced by the Existential approach believing that “Man’s wholeness is to be sought through direct experience rather than analytical reflection” (Kovel 199.1:154), and so was in opposition to the psychoanalytical view that man was at the mercy of his unconscious drives and instincts; and also in opposition to the view of the behaviourists, which suggested that man was at the mercy of his environment and learned behaviours.

Their belief was that man has his own potential for growth and thereby an ability to use what is, available to his consciousness as a way to the truth. Rogers also believed “that the innermost core of a man’s nature, is positive in nature”, and that man “is basically socialized, forward-moving, rational and realistic” (Rogers 1974), and, therefore not destructive as suggested by Freud.

Throughout his development of humanistic psychology, Rogers was not only influenced by existentialism but also by others in the Human Potential Movement, including Maslow, Combs and Snygg, and it is important to note that he came from an academic background in which he had been concerned with research; this was why he was not only keen to develop his theory but was also able to test it and record his findings.

The system he developed was not a closed system and he was always open to criticism, sometimes updating his work following further investigation. He also applied his ideas to his own personal development.

Through his work as a psychologist, he became interested in the communication between two people within a relationship and this lead him to research what motivates a human being.

He discovered an actualising tendency that’ is inherent in all organisms – this is the basic drive towards wholeness of the organism and actualisation of its potentialities – and that “The organism is self-controlled. In its normal state, it moves toward its own enhancement and toward independence from external control.”

The Rogerian Approach to Counselling Theory

One example for his evidence of the existence of an actualising tendency came from the work of Driesch, a biologist, who separated the two cells formed by the first division of a fertilised egg of a sea urchin and placed them in an environment conducive to growth to see if they could develop into two complete sea urchins even though they came from one egg.

The result was that each cell did develop into a complete sea urchin, thus proving that each organism had the potential to grow.

The conclusion that Rogers took from this, as well as other evidence and observations, was that given the right conditions the tendency for, and direction of, growth comes from within the organism; that the tendency is operative at all times; that it is indicative of life, and it responds in a fluid and changing manner to a variety of stimuli, both internal and external, as they come into the awareness of the organism.

Therefore, the locus of evaluation of stimuli lies within the organism and the organism in its drive toward wholeness chooses how to respond to a stimulus by deciding whether or not it will be enhanced by the experience on offer. So, the response to a stimulus is not fixed but changeable, as it is determined by the needs of the organism. at that moment.

The organism is also able to retain the feedback of its experiences and so learn from its mistakes – this process is known as the organismic valuing process.

So, if the organism is motivated by its actualising tendency to enhance itself and it functions efficiently by learning from its mistakes, why then do we see people who appear to be stuck in self-destructive routines or appear to be in conflict with themselves?

If we now take an example of a person who is usually quiet and compliant but occasionally has a tantrum which takes him by surprise and he then disowns the tantrum as out of character, we can see that he must be working towards both behaviours.

However, he is only aware of the drive to be compliant and seems to be unaware of the other drive which is working at cross purposes to this. Rogers concluded that there must be a second motivational drive in humans that is conflicting with the organism’s actualising tendency, and to find this second drive he turned his attention to the place and function of awareness in life.

Rogers likened human awareness to the small peak of a pyramid: The small peak represents our conscious attention, or awareness, and capacity to symbolise our experiences; the vast remainder of the pyramid represents our non-conscious organismic functioning being that which we do automatically but do not have to be constantly aware of. such as blinking.

There is a flow of information from the non-conscious organismic functioning into awareness and a person who is functioning efficiently will be open to this flow and hence aware of his organism, and, therefore, himself.

However, when a person senses conflict between his internal information and that of the external environment, he might use conscious thought as a barrier to stem the flow of information into awareness in order to eliminate the conflict. In doing this he is going against the fluidity of his organism, blocking his actualising tendency, and holding his consciousness as rigid.

So, we can now see that apart from a motivation to actualise the organism, man has a motivation to direct his conscious life and that this drive is in response to an external influence.

Rogers explained the reason for barriers to our organismic valuing process by looking at personality development.

At first, a baby is driven by his actualising tendency and he trusts his organismic valuing process to guide his behaviour, such as when to cry or sleep. As he experiences himself and his relationship to his surroundings he also defines himself from his experiences, thus forming a self-concept while still trusting his organism. Part of the core of his self-concept is that he is loved and is lovable whatever behaviour he exhibits.

However, as the infant grows, his parents intimate or tell him that they only love him when he expresses the behaviour of which they approve – this is a condition of his worth to them and is a serious threat to the core of his self-concept.

As the infant cannot ‘survive without his parents’ love and approval he complies with the condition of worth and uses it as a conscious thought to stem or modify the behaviour that his organism has deemed satisfying and enhancing, thus maintaining parental approval and his self-concept.

The condition of worth has come from a locus of evaluation external to the infant’s organism, so the value applied to this experience is not his own and he has no way of knowing how the value was arrived at. Therefore, he cannot challenge the value but is obliged to accept it as a fixed rule.

To accept, or introject, this value the child must first deny the experience of his organism and distort his perception of the experience so that it fits in with both the new value and his self- concept. For example – if I hit mum I’m not lovable, therefore it is not possible for me to want to hit mum. In other words, the child makes as much sense of the situation as he is able. This process is called a subscription.

The effects of conditions of worth on a child, therefore, are: to fix his self-concept whereas before it was fluid, changeable, and in line with his organism; to stem the flow of non-conscious organismic functioning into awareness, thereby blocking his motivation to actualise his organism; and to create a drive to direct conscious life in order to maintain his self-concept.

So it is conditions of worth that cause a rift between the organism and the self-concept, creating the need for a second motivational drive and thereby causing people to function less efficiently as they deny, and lose touch with their organism in favour of maintaining their self-concept.

As the organism’s motivation to actualise itself is operative at all times it is bound to come into conflict with the second drive when its behaviour is deemed threatening to the self-concept. This creates a state of incongruence between internal experience and the actual choice of behaviour and results in psychological tension as the drives pull in different directions. The degree of tension depends on how estranged the self-concept has become from the organism.

Now that Rogers had discovered the reason for an organism to function inefficiently he researched how functioning could be improved. Referring back to the work of Driesch, Rogers thought “if I can supply a psychological amniotic fluid, forward movement of a constructive sort will occur.”

Meaning, given the right environment, the actualising tendency will once more take precedence and conditions of worth would dissolve in favour of an organismic value, thereby re-aligning the self-concept with the organism and relieving tension.

Influenced by Fiedler’s research into the ideal therapeutic relationship, Rogers then stated that “the following conditions had to exist and continue over a period of time for constructive personality change to occur:

  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 endeavours to communicate this 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. (Rogers 1957)” (Nelson-Jones 1991:211)

As we can see, Rogers placed great significance. the relationship between the therapist and client, with emphasis on the therapist’s ability to:

  1. be congruent, to be herself with the client and, when appropriate, communicate her feelings to him
  2. have unconditional positive regard for the client, accept him for who he is and not what he does, have respect for him and his views
  3. be empathic, experience the client’s subjective frame of reference as if it were her own and communicate this to him, sometimes bringing his feelings into focus from the edge of his awareness, thus enabling him to symbolise them.

The therapist creates an environment, or relationship, hitherto denied to the client, that is conducive to growth; she facilitates change using personal skills, communication of understanding, and by modelling another way of being.

Further to the core conditions of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy – which Rogers emphasised were a very special way of being with another person – he later considered the fourth condition of tenderness. It was also his experience that sometimes purely his presence had a positive effect on a client, which he related to intuition and the touching of their inner spirits.

So, in this environment, the client can feel accepted, not feel judged, and so reduce the need to defend his self-concept and begin to accept and value himself. He is able to re-evaluate himself, dissolve conditions of worth and reduce tension.

He is motivated to actualise his organ-ism rather than maintain self-concept, thereby reducing conflict and restoring psychological health. The process of therapy is focused on the present and the client learns to be existential and make use of current resources, and information by listening to his organism instead of blocking it.

The aim of the Rogerian approach to counselling is towards becoming a fully functioning person. We have already explored how a person may function well (by responding to his organism) and we also know that Rogers believed the man to be “socially constructive”, so by releasing man’s individual potential, chaos does not ensue; what does ensue is a responsible individual who cares about and seeks the enhancement of himself, his environment, and that of other people. These are goals for living, pursued by the therapist as well as the client.

It is also important to note that from Rogers’ research he did not only develop a theory of personality and an approach to counselling, but he also did much to remove the “imbalance in the power relationship” between counsellor and client, and much to open up training in counselling “to all who showed talent and not be restricted to those with professional or university degrees” (Masson 1992:231), thereby opening up possibilities previously denied in the field of psychotherapy.

Finally, I would like to add that in keeping with his belief in the fluidity of response, Rogers said that although he believed that his theory held good, he also hoped that his work would be a “stimulation to the significant study of the deeper dynamics of human behaviour”, a stimulus for further creative thinking, not a dogma of truth.


  1. Kovel, Joel. A complete Guide to Therapy. (Penguin, 1991)
  2. Nelson-Jones, Richard. The Theory and Practice of Counselling Psychology. (Holt, Rinehart and Winston Ltd, 1991)
  3. Rogers, Carl R. Client Centred Therapy. (Constable, 1991)
  4. Rogers, Carl R. Carl Rogers on Personal Power. (Constable, 1986)
  5. Rogers, Carl R. On Becoming a Person. (Constable, 1974)

You can read about The Journey Home With Therapeutic Massage and Body-Work by clicking here.