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The Rogerian Approach to Counselling Theory

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.

The Journey Home With Therapeutic Massage and Body-Work

When I learned massage on my first professional training in 1990 I certainly wasn’t taught what I know now about its value and transformational qualities. Even if I had been it would probably have sounded like Russian to me at the time. Working as a massage therapist for the last six years has been a very enlightening and personal journey for me and I can share with you my viewpoint as to what massage and bodywork are about.

There are many different levels at which massage can take place, and with each of my clients, I aim to negotiate and review that contract. Just what is it you want from coming to see me? How will you know if we have been successful? What specific changes, if any, would you like to make?

I am really clear that I am not the fixer or the healer, and that my role is to be a facilitator, someone to explore with, and someone to be supported by. I cannot make anyone relax but more importantly, I can help them notice where in their bodies they may be holding tension. By increasing my awareness of where I hold tension in my own body I can then begin to notice more and more quickly than I am doing so and relax that area.

However, I believe that just as we developed intricate belief systems and patterns as forms of protection, we do the same on a body level. In fact, it is the body that manifests for us much of our subconscious and unexpressed feelings, and beliefs. These cannot be dropped overnight, and with each client, we undertake a process of unraveling their story and feelings held in their body as tension.

From my own@ experience, I know that I was not safe to express fears and anxieties as a child. I know that I didn’t stop those feelings as a child but learned how to deal with them, for me that was putting a lid on them and storing them in my stomach and lower back area. I didn’t know that before I started receiving massage and it has been like a slow piecing together of a jigsaw.

The Journey Home With Therapeutic Massage and Body-Work

When someone is ready to release the held emotions in the body, they will do so. I cannot make that happen. My approach is on allowing the body to release and to heal us and when the person feels safe and ready. As with any form of therapy I am also working with many layers of protection and defense, many of which may be hiding considerable amounts of pain and anger. So the journey home is always taken at the client’s pace, building up safety and trust along the way.

On a very simple level massage is about the positive affirmation of who we are, our essence. And this is done physically which may bypass long-held mental beliefs such as “I am not lovable”. A positive message is communicated through the touch which can reach into the subconscious and thus be part of increasing someone’s sense of well-being and self-confidence.

One thing that I do know is that I may be consciously aware of some to the changes that occur during a massage, that I either give or receive, but also that much may be happening that neither the client nor myself are aware of the body has a natural desire and commitment to self-heal. And I also know from my own experience, and my clients an equally strong desire to “work it out” in my mind as to what this means or why that happens.

For many, being “in the head” is a safer place than “in the body” where the whole range of feelings resides. Through massage we may travel that road home to the body and our feelings, taking it one step at a time, however big it doesn’t matter. I have every respect for anybody’s history and where they are in their life journey, and I applaud the courage I witness of people who are willing to take those steps towards feelings and realizing the limitations they have been living with physically and mentally.

Working with the body can be powerful and life-changing because of its potential I treat myself and my clients, with great respect. I fulfill this commitment by not only having regular individual and peer-group supervision but also being in ongoing weekly therapy. Massage as yet does not have the same professional requirements as psychotherapy, but with The British Massage Therapy Council on the case, I hope it will not be too long before having supervision and therapy are a requirement to running a practice.

As massage can bring light to many issues previously hidden I sometimes work with clients who are also in counseling or psychotherapy. The two can go very well together. On the one hand, massage can be very supportive and affirming to someone who is working through painful or traumatic experiences and on the other, massage can produce many awarenesses that can then be taken to therapy to be understood on a deeper level if necessary, though much can change through awareness alone. For example, issues that may arise are Why do I exhaust myself physically looking after others … ?”

“Why do I find it so scary to say when I am experiencing the pressure of the massage too much, or too little … ?”

Our bodies never lie. My job is to help someone listen and to hear their truth.

At present, the world of therapy appears split between the head and the body. I find this very interesting as, to me, it reflects a very common split within the individual, between what we think and what we feel. I experienced this split myself very markedly when I did my advanced massage training and realized that I didn’t comprehend that there was a difference between thoughts and feelings. I thought I just had to reflect on the journey of many of my clients. The journey home to feeling and safe expression those feelings.

However, the therapy arena is appearing to undergo changes too, by combining the mind and body processes and recognizing that they are not two separate identities and that one affects the other. The body speaks your mind. I am currently on a very exciting three-year body psychotherapy training where the body is used as the main resource of awareness and self-discovery.

‘This work is based on Reich’s work of body armoring, developmental issues, and character types. The process is one of exploring and transforming physical, emotional, and psychological “blocks “or patterns of holding. To me, this is not another new-age fandangled therapy coming out soon, but an integrated approach to personal transformation. In my own experience of this body-focused work, I have uncovered patterns of behavior and feelings that I had no idea about, and that was ‘by following and exploring some tiny movements I was making with my body.

And can massage be relaxing? All that I have written so far may indicate that massage is a pure process and awareness orientated. Again, what is received or revealed from the massage will depend upon the original contract made, but massage can still be relaxing to receive, it can be fun. My advanced massage training was based on the elements. Earth, fire, air, and water. A process of change can be initiated by working elementally to awaken underutilized aspects of the individual. For example, Earth is still, grounded, self-accepting. Fire … spontaneity, movement, expression. Air … lightness, expansiveness. Water going with the flow, ease.

So when working with the body, the work may represent the elements; still, lively, light, or flowing, thus trying to help the clients simulate that element within themselves so they feel more balanced and whole. I find this work very exciting, and really enjoy the uniqueness of each session and of each client on their journey. It is from this training that I began to use the term body-work, which is broader than massage and may include techniques that are different from standard massage, and unique to that client on that day.

I have written from my experience and that of my clients. The following is from one client about her experience of coming to receive massage/bodywork from me. I leave you with her words

“Massage is time for me; time to get in touch with my body and how it feels, time to grow in awareness as to what messages my body is telling me; time to realize that I too am important and have needs. I thought massage was an indulgence; it’s now a necessity as I journey along the road to self-awareness and self-understanding.” Read about Contact-in-Relationship by clicking here.


This short article outlines one dimension of the therapeutic relationship that has emerged from a qualitative evaluation of the practice of therapy conducted at the Institute for Integrative Therapy in New York City.

A major premise of relationship-oriented psychotherapy is that the need for relationships constitutes a primary motivation of human behavior. Contact is the means by which the need for a relationship is met. In colloquial language, “contact” refers to the quality of the transactions between two people: the awareness of both one’s self and the other, a sensitive meeting of the other, and an authentic acknowledgment of one’s self.

In a more theoretically exact meaning, “contact” refers to the full awareness of sensations, feelings, needs, sensorimotor processes, thought, and memories that occur within the individual and a shift to full awareness of external events as registered by each sensory organ. With the capacity to oscillate between internal and external contact experiences are continually integrated into a sense of self.

When contact is disrupted, needs are not satisfied. If the experience of need arousal is not satisfied or closed naturally, it must find an artificial closure that distracts from the discomfort of unmet needs. These artificial closures are the substance of survival reactions that become fixated defensive patterns, or habitual behaviors that result from rigidly held beliefs about self, others, or the quality of life.

They are evident in the disavowal of effect, the loss of either internal or external awareness, neurological inhibitions within the body, or a lack of spontaneity and flexibility in problem-solving, health maintenance, or relating to people. The defensive interruptions to contact impede the fulfillment of current needs. The literature on human development -also leads to the understanding that the sense of self and self-esteem emerge out of contact-in-relationship. Erik Eriksen’s (1950) stages of development over the entire life cycle describe the formation of identity as an outgrowth of interpersonal relations (trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, etc.).


Mahler’s (1968; Mahler, Pine & Bergmann, 1975) descriptions of the stages of early child development place importance on the relationship between mother and infant. Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) has emphasized the significance of early as well as prolonged physical bonding in the creation of a visceral core from which all experiences of self and others emerge.

When such contact does not occur in accordance with the child’s relational needs, there is a physiological defense against the loss of contact, poignantly described by Fraiberg in ‘Pathological Defenses of Infancy’ (1982). These developmental perspectives foster a deep appreciation of the need for interpersonal connection and active construction of meaning that is so much a part of who the client is. In relationship-oriented psychotherapy, the psychotherapist’s self is used in a directed, involved way to assist the client’s process of developing and integrating full contact and the satisfaction of relational needs.

Of central significance is the process of attunement, not just to discreet thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or physical sensations, but also to what Stern terms “vitality affects,” such that an experience of unbroken feeling-connectedness is created (1985, p. 156). The client’s sense of self and sense of relatedness that develops is crucial to the process of healing and growth, particularly when there have been specific traumas in the client’s life and when aspects of the self have been disavowed or denied because of the cumulative failure of contact-in-relationship.

Attunement is a process of communion and unity of interpersonal contact. It is a two-part process that begins with empathy – being sensitive to and identifying with the other person’s sensations, needs, or feelings; and includes the communication of that sensitivity to the other person.

More than just understanding (Rogers, 1951) or vicarious introspection (Kohut, 1971), attunement is kinaesthetic and emotional sensing of others – knowing their rhythm, affect, and experience by metaphorically being in their skin, and going beyond empathy to create a two-person experience of unbroken feeling connectedness by providing a reciprocal effect and/or resonating response.

Attunement is communicated by what is said as well as by the therapist’s facial or body movements that signal to the client that his or her effect and needs are perceived, are significant, and make an impact on the therapist. It is facilitated by the therapist’s capacity to anticipate and observe the effects of his or her behavior on the client and to de-center from his or her own experience to extensively focus on the client’s process. Yet, effective attunement also requires that the therapist simultaneously remain aware of the boundary between client and therapist as well as his or her own internal processes.

The communication of attunement validates the client’s needs and feelings and lays the foundation for repairing the failures of previous relationships. Affective attunement, for example, provides an interpersonal contact essential to human relationships. it involves the resonance of one person’s effect to the other’s effect. Affective attunement begins with valuing the other person’s effect as an extremely important form of communication, being willing to be effectively aroused by the other person, and responding with reciprocal effect. When a client feels sad, the therapist’s reciprocal effect of compassion and compassionate acts complete the interpersonal contact.

Relationally, anger requires the reciprocal effects related to attentiveness, seriousness, and responsibility, with possible acts of correction. The client who is afraid requires that the therapist responds with effect and action that convey security and protection. When clients express joy the response from the therapist that completes the unity of interpersonal contact is the reciprocal vitality and expression of pleasure. Symbolically, attunement may be pictured as one person’s yin to the other’s yang that together forms a unity in the relationship.

Attunement is often experienced by the client as the therapist gently moves through the defenses that have prevented the awareness of relationship failures and related needs and feelings. Over time this results in a lessening of internal interruptions to contact and a corresponding dissolving of external defenses.

Needs and feelings can increasingly be expressed with.’ comfort and assurance that they will receive a connecting and caring response. Frequently the process of attunement provides a sense of safety and stability that enables the client to begin to remember and endure regressing into childhood experiences and receive the therapeutic involvement so essential to emotional healing. It is through the psychotherapist’s sustained contact presence and attunement that the cumulative trauma (Khan, 1963; Lourie, 1996) of the lack of need satisfaction can now be addressed and the needs responded to within the therapeutic relationship.


  1. Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss, Vol. I: Attachment New York: Basic Books.
  2. Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss, Vol. II: Separation: Anxiety and. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Bowlby, J (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. III: Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Erikson, E (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
  5. Fraiberg, S (1982). ‘Pathological defenses in infancy’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol.51, pp. 612-635.
  6. Khan, MMR (1963). ‘The concept of cumulative trauma’, in RS Eissier, A Freud, H Hartman, & M Kris (Eds), Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. XVIII, (pp. 286-301).
  7. Kohut, H (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.
  8. Lourie, 3 (1996). Cumulative trauma: The non-problem problem. Transactional Analysis Journal, vol. 26, pp. 276-283. 2001 ITA Conference
  9. Mahler, M (1968). On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation. New York: International Universities Press.
  10.   Mahler, M, Pine, F, & Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: symbiosis and individuation. New York: Basic Books.
  11.   Rogers, CR (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  12.   Stern, D (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.

Author Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D. is Training Director of the Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy, New York, NY and Visiting Professor of Psychotherapy, University of Derby, UK.

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