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The philosophy underpinning person centred counselling.

This approach has three distinctive philosophical beliefs: Humanism, existentialism and phenomenology.  To generalise, they assume that people have within themselves the capacity for truth and goodness, and have the fundamental human motivation for self fulfilment or self actualisation.  People have free will, and since there are no universal guide lines or rules to live by or make decisions, life is seen as a series of choices.  The only important meaning which can be put on life is that which is put on it by the individual living it.   Lastly, there is a belief that in counselling the only important reality is the one that each of us experiences.

Carl Rogers' Main Ideas

The person centred approach originated from the research and experiences of Carl Rogers,  like Freud, Rogers drew on clinical case studies to come up with his theory. He also drew from the ideas of Maslow and others. In Rogers’s view, the self-concept is the most important feature of personality, and it includes all the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs people have about themselves. Rogers believed that people are aware of their self-concepts and that these can change.

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was a humanistic psychologist who agreed with the main assumptions of Abraham Maslow, but added that for a person to "grow", they need an environment that provides them with genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and empathy (being listened to and understood). These are often called the 'core conditions'. Without these, relationships and healthy personalities will not develop as they should, much like a tree will not grow without sunlight and water.

Rogers believed that every person can achieve their goals, wishes and desires in life. When, or rather if they do so, self actualization can take place.  This was one of Carl Rogers most important contributions to psychology and for a person to reach their potential, a number of factors must be satisfied. There are many themes in person centred counselling, arguably the most important themes alongside the core conditions are 'Self Actualisation', 'The Fully Functioning Person' and 'The Stages of Process', and these are introduced below.

Self Actualization

"The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” Carl Rogers

Rogers rejected the deterministic nature of both psychoanalysis and behaviourism and maintained that we behave as we do because of the way we perceive our situation. He said, "As no one else can know how we perceive, we are the best experts on ourselves."

Carl Rogers believed that humans have one basic motive, that is the tendency to self-actualize - i.e. to fulfill one's potential and achieve the highest level of 'human-beingness' we can.  Like a flower that will grow to its full potential if the conditions are right, but which is constrained by its environment, so people will flourish and reach their potential if their environment is good enough.

However, unlike a flower, the potential of the individual human is unique, and we are meant to develop in different ways according to our personality.  Rogers believed that people are inherently good and creative.  They become destructive only when a poor self-concept or external constraints override the valuing process.  Carl Rogers believed that for a person to achieve self-actualization they must be in a state of congruence.

This means that self-actualization occurs when a person’s “ideal self” (i.e. who they would like to be) is congruent with their actual behaviour (self-image).  Rogers describes an individual who is actualizing as a "fully functioning person". The main determinant of whether we will become self-actualized is childhood experience.

The Fully Functioning Person

Rogers believed that every person could achieve their goals, wishes, and desires in life. When they did so self-actualization took place. For Rogers people who are able to self-actualize, and that is not all of us, are called fully functioning persons. This means that the person is in touch with the here and now, his or her subjective experiences and feelings, continually growing and changing.

In many ways Rogers regarded the fully functioning person as an ideal and one that people do not ultimately achieve. It is wrong to think of this as an end or completion of life’s journey; rather it is a process of always becoming and changing.

Rogers identified five characteristics of the fully functioning person:

1.    Open to experience: both positive and negative emotions accepted. Negative feelings are not denied, but worked through (rather than resort to ego defence mechanisms).

2.    Existential living: in touch with different experiences as they occur in life, avoiding prejudging and preconceptions. Being able to live and fully appreciate the present, not always looking back to the past or forward to the future (i.e. living for the moment).

3.    Trust feelings: feeling, instincts and gut-reactions are paid attention to and trusted. People’s own decisions are the right ones and we should trust ourselves to make the right choices.

4.    Creativity: creative thinking and risk taking are features of a person’s life. A person does not play safe all the time. This involves the ability to adjust and change and seek new experiences.

5.    Fulfilled life: A person is happy and satisfied with life, and always looking for new challenges and experiences.

The Stages of Process

Rogers wanted to find a way to describe the process which takes place in the counselling relationship. He saw these stages as a flowing continuum rather than seven isolated and fixed stages. These stages point to the kind of processes that a client might experience, but it is not a rigid model and it is important to emphasise that everyone is different and people will flow backwards and forwards along the continuum and real life is often not as neat and tidy as these stages suggest. The description of the stages is not meant to be judgemental, they are descriptive only and a counsellor will meet a client at the stage thay are at with empathy and understanding.

Stage One: The client is very defensive and extremely resistant to change.

Stage Two: The client becomes slightly less rigid and will talk about external events or other people.

Stage Three: The client talks about him/self, but as an object and avoids discussion of present events.

Stage Four: The client begins to talk about deep feelings and develops a relationship with the counsellor.

Stage Five: The client can express present emotions and is beginning to rely more on his/her own decision-making abilities and increasingly accepts more responsibility for his/her actions.

Stage Six: The client shows rapid growth towards congruence and begins to develop unconditional positive regards for others. This stage signals the end of the need for formal therapy.

Stage Seven: The client is a fully functioning, self-actualising individual who is empathic and shows unconditional positive regard for others. This individual can relate their previous therapy to present-day real-life situations.

The Relationship is the Therapy

Alongside the development of theory, core concepts and themes there has been the development of the practice itself and research based on this practice indicates that above everything, it is the relationship between client and counsellor that is most likely to influence therapeutic outcome. The counsellor strives to be fully present and encourage a significant depth of relationship that is built on trust and a working alliance that helps facilitate and welcome the whole person of the client. 

For more information on the psychology of counselling and its way of working, there are many books on counselling. A core text book for Person Centred Counselling is;

Mearns, David & Thorne, Brian (1999) Person-Centred Counselling in Action. Sage Publications.

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