A colleague recently asked me who my favorite learning theorist is.
“Rogers,” I told him. “Carl Rogers.”
I talk quite a bit about Rogerian pedagogy and its application to libraries here, so in this post I thought I’d focus more directly about Rogers’s views about … life. To me, part of what makes Rogers so interesting (aside from getting so much right) is that he’s a Socratic moral philosopher – in that his central question is How Should I Live My Life – and that his “philosophical” views about the good life are actually grounded in his therapeutic experience with his clients. This makes him very unique, I think, in the history of thought, and he’s certainly been the theorist who has most influenced me.
Instead of articulating his views, I thought I’d let the man speak for himself. Here’s a few quotes I put together on various topics from a selection of Rogers’s writings:
On the Goal of Life:
The best way I can state this aim of life, as I see it coming to light in my relationship with my clients, is to use the words of Soren Kierkegaard – “to be the self which one truly is.”
So one may say that in a somewhat negative way, clients define their goal, their purpose, by discovering, in the freedom and safety of an understanding relationship, some of the directions they do not wish to move. They prefer not to hide themselves and their feelings from themselves, or even from significant others. They do not wish to be what they “ought” to be, whether that imperative is set by parents, or by the culture, whether it is defined positively or negatively. They do not wish to mold themselves and their behavior in a form which would be merely pleasing to others. They do not, in other words, choose to be anything which is artificial, anything which is imposed, anything which is defined from without. They realize that they do not value such purposes or goals even though they may have lived by them all their lives up to this point ….
But what is involved positively in the experience of these clients … the client moves toward being autonomous. By this I mean that gradually he chooses the goals toward which he wants to move. He becomes responsible for himself. He decides what activities and ways of behaving have meaning for him, and what do not.
“To Be That Self Which One Truly Is,” On Becoming a Person, pp. 166-170.
On Accepting Other People As They Are:
When a person comes to me, troubled by his unique combination of difficulties, I have found it worth while to try to create a relationship with him in which he is safe and free. It is my purpose to understand the way he feels in his own inner world, to accept him as he is, to create an atmosphere of freedom in which he can move in his thinking and freedom and being, in any direction he desires. How does he use that freedom?
It is my experience that he uses it to become more and more himself. He begins to drop the false fronts, or the masks, or the roles, which which he has faced life … He discovers how much of his life is guided by what he thinks he should be, not by what he is. Often he discovers that he exists only in response to the demands of others, that he seems to have no self of his own, that he is only trying to think, and feel, and behave in the way that others believe he ought to think, and feel and behave …
Less and less does he look to others for approval or disapproval; for standards to live by; for decisions and choices. He recognizes that it rests within himself to choose; that the only question which matters is, “Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which expresses me?” That is perhaps the most important question.
“What it Means to Become a Person,” in On Becoming a Person, pp. 108-109, 113.
A … consequence of empathetic understanding [of others] is that the recipient feels valued, cared for, accepted as the person that he or she is … It is impossible to accurately sense the perceptual world of another person unless you value that person and his or her world – unless you, in some sense, care. Hence, the message comes through to the recipient that “this other individual trusts me, thinks I’m worthwhile. Perhaps I am worth something. Perhaps I could value myself. Perhaps I could care for myself.
“Empathetic: An Unappreciated Way of Being,” in A Way of Being, pp. 152-153 .
… true empathy is always free of any evaluative or diagnostic quality. The recipient perceives this with some surprise: “If I am not being judged, perhaps I am not so evil or abnormal as I have thought. Perhaps I don’t have to judge myself so harshly.” Thus, the possibility of self-acceptance is gradually increased.
“Empathetic: An Unappreciated Way of Being,” in A Way of Being, p. 154.
We can say that when persons find themselves sensitively and accurately understood, they develop a set of growth-promoting or therapeutic attitudes toward themselves. Let me explain:
1. The non-evaluative and acceptant quality of the empathic climate enables persons, as we’ve seen, to take a prizing, caring attitude toward themselves.
2. Being listened to by someone who understands makes it possible for persons to listen more accurately to themselves, with greater empathy toward their own … experiencing.
3. The individuals’ greater understanding of and prizing of themselves opens to them new facets of experience which become part of a more accurately based self-concept.
Consequently, whether we are functioning as therapists … as teachers, or as parents, we have in our hands, if we are able to take an empathetic stance, a powerful force for change and growth. Its strength needs to be appreciated.
“Empathetic: An Unappreciated Way of Being,” in A Way of Being, pp. 159-160 .
I feel that over the years I have learned to become more adequate in listening to myself and … what I am feeling at any given moment – to be able to realize that I am angry, or that I do feel rejecting toward this person; or that I am bored and uninterested in what is going on; or that I am eager to understand this individual or that I am anxious and fearful in my relationship to this person …
One way of putting it is that I feel I have become more adequate in letting myself be what I am. It becomes easier for me to accept myself as a decidedly imperfect person, who by no means functions at all times in the way in which I would like to function …
… the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.
“This is Me,” in On Becoming a Person, p. 17.
In my relationships with other persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not … I have not found it helpful or effective in my relationships with other people to try to maintain a facade; to act in one way on the surface when I am experiencing something quite different underneath … In fact, it seems to me that most of the mistakes I make in personal relationships … can be accounted for in terms of the fact that I have, for some defensive reason, behaved in one way at a surface level, while in reality my feelings run in a contrary direction.
“This is Me,” in On Becoming a Person, pp. 16-17.
In the ordinary interactions of life – between marital and sex partners, between teacher and student, employer and employee, or between colleagues or friends – congruence is probably the most important element. Congruence, or genuineness, involves letting the other person know “Where you are” emotionally. It may involve confrontation and the straightforward expression or personally owned feelings – both negative and positive. Thus, congruence is a basis for living together in a climate of realness.
“Empathetic: An Unappreciated Way of Being,” in A Way of Being, p. 160 .
Watching my clients, I have come to a much better understanding of creative people. El Greco, for example, must have realized as he looked at some of his early work, that “good artists do not paint like that.” But somehow he trusted his own experiencing of life, the process of himself, sufficiently that he could go on expressing his own unique perceptions. It was as though he could say, “Good artists do not paint like this, but I paint like this.” Or to move to another field, Ernest Hemingway was surely aware that “good writers do not write like this.” But fortunately he moved toward being Hemingway, being himself, rather than toward someone else’s conception of a good writer … Time and again in my clients, I have seen simple people become significant and creative in their own spheres, as they developed more trust of … themselves, and have dared to feel their own feelings, live by values which they discover within, and express themselves in their unique ways.
“To Be That Self Which One Truly Is,” On Becoming a Person, p. 175.
Perhaps the most fundamental condition of creativity is that the source or locus of evaluative judgment is internal. The value of the product is, for the creative person, established not by the praise or criticism of others, but by himself. Have I created something satisfying to me? Does it express a part of me – my feeling or my thought, my pain or my ecstasy? These are the only questions which really matter to the creative person, or to any person when he is being creative.
“Toward a Theory of Creativity,” in On Becoming a Person, p. 354.
On the Rigidity of Institutions:
Over and against these pressures for conformity, I find that when clients are free to be any way they wish, they tend to resent and to question the tendency of the organization, the college or the culture to mold them to any given form. One of my clients says with considerable heat: “I’ve been so long trying to live according to what was meaningful to other people, and what made no sense at all to me, really. I somehow felt so much more than that, at some level.”
“To Be the Self-Which One Truly Is,” in On Becoming a Person, p. 169.
On Being Human:
I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal, and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.
“This is Me,” in On Becoming a Person
If you’d like to see Rogerian therapy in action, check out this absolutely amazing videoof a therapy session where Rogers and a woman named Gloria meet for the first time. These videos are very famous and popular amongst counselors in training. I used to show them when I did a unit on Rogers in some of my philosophy classes. Students found them deeply moving as will, I suggest, (to borrow a phrase from Dani Brecher) anyone with a beating heart.