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Person centred/humanistic therapeutic theory

The theory behind Carl Rogers‘ person-centred counselling is based on the humanistic philosophy that every person has the potential to grow and achieve their full Self-actualization. Rogers believed that this process of Self-actualization is innate and natural, but it can be hindered by the conditions of worth and introjected values that are imposed by others or by society. Therefore, he proposed that the role of the counsellor is not to direct or advise the client, but to provide a supportive and facilitative environment where the client can explore their own feelings and experiences without judgement or pressure.

Rogers identified six conditions that are necessary and sufficient for therapeutic change to occur. Three of these conditions are known as the core conditions, which are empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. Empathy means that the counsellor tries to understand the client’s perspective and feelings as accurately as possible. Congruence means that the counsellor is genuine and authentic, and does not hide behind a professional facade. Unconditional positive regard means that the counsellor accepts and values the client as a person, regardless of their actions or behaviours.

The theory behind person-centred counselling assumes that when these six conditions are met, the client will be able to access their own organismic self, which is their true and authentic self. The organismic self is guided by an innate valuing process, which helps the client to make choices that are congruent with their needs and values. The counsellor’s role is to facilitate this process by providing a safe and supportive space for the client to express themselves freely and honestly, and by reflecting on their feelings and meanings. The goal of person-centred counselling is not to solve problems or change behaviours, but to help the client achieve greater self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-direction.

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Rogers six conditions for therapeutic change

Rogers‘ six conditions for therapeutic change are a set of criteria that he proposed as necessary and sufficient for effective psychotherapy. According to Rogers, if these six conditions are met, then constructive personality change will occur in the client. The six conditions are:

  1. Psychological contact: The client and the therapist must be in a relationship where they can communicate with each other and influence each other.
  2. Client incongruence: The client must experience some degree of discrepancy between their self-concept and their actual experience, which causes them to feel vulnerable or anxious.
  3. therapist congruence: The therapist must be authentic and genuine in the relationship, expressing their thoughts and feelings honestly and transparently.
  4. therapist unconditional positive regard: The therapist must accept and value the client as a person, without judging or evaluating them based on their behaviour or characteristics.
  5. therapist empathy: The therapist must understand and share the client’s subjective perspective, without imposing their own views or interpretations.
  6. Client perception: The client must perceive, at least to a minimal degree, the therapist’s congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy.

These six conditions are also known as the core conditions or the facilitative conditions because they create a safe and supportive environment for the client to explore and resolve their issues.

Three core conditions

Carl Rogers initially proposed six conditions that are necessary and sufficient for therapeutic personality change to occur. However, over time, Rogers and his followers realized that not all of these conditions are equally important or essential for therapeutic change. They argued that the first two conditions (psychological contact and client incongruence) are preconditions for therapy to begin, but not sufficient for change to happen. They also suggested that the last condition (client perception) is a consequence of the other conditions, rather than a cause of change. Therefore, they reduced the six conditions to three core conditions: therapist congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. These three conditions are seen as the most crucial and influential factors that facilitate change in the client. They are also considered to be interrelated and mutually reinforcing, creating a climate of growth and healing for the client.

Empathy is the ability to sense and communicate the feelings and thoughts of another person. It involves not only listening to what the client says, but also noticing their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. Empathy allows the counsellor to enter the client’s world and see things from their point of view. By doing so, the counsellor can validate the client’s emotions and help them feel understood and accepted.

Congruence is the quality of being genuine and authentic in the counselling relationship. It means that the counsellor is honest and transparent with the client, and does not hide behind a professional mask or role. Congruence also implies that the counsellor is aware of their own feelings and reactions, and does not let them interfere with their work. By being congruent, the counsellor can build trust and rapport with the client, and show them that they are respected as a unique individual.

Unconditional positive regard is the attitude of accepting and valuing the client as a person, regardless of their behaviour, beliefs, values or circumstances. It means that the counsellor does not judge, criticize, blame or reject the client, but rather supports them unconditionally. Unconditional positive regard does not imply that the counsellor agrees with everything the client says or does, but rather that they respect their right to be themselves. By offering unconditional positive regard, the counsellor can help the client develop a positive self-image and a sense of worthiness.

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For an interesting discussion on how a therapists life position may impact their ability to maintain UPR within a counselling session, see our article on The dark side of life positions.

In summary, empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard are essential elements of person-centred counselling. They enable the counsellor to create a therapeutic alliance with the client, where they can feel safe, understood and valued. This in turn can facilitate the client’s growth and change process.

The organismic self

The organismic self is a term used in person-centred counselling, which was developed by Carl Rogers. It refers to the true and authentic self that is present at birth and strives for growth, maturity and Self-actualization. The organismic self is the source of our feelings and desires, and it knows what it needs from the environment and other people to fulfil its potential. However, the organismic self can be distorted or denied by the influence of external factors, such as the conditions of worth imposed by others or the introjected values that we adopt without questioning. The aim of person-centred therapy is to help clients reconnect with their organismic self and trust their own organismic valuing process, which is the internal guide for evaluating their experiences. By doing so, clients can become more congruent, integrated and fully functioning.


Related to this is Rogers’ theories relating to self-concept and human behaviour. These are explored in detail in our self-concept page.

Locus of evaluation

The locus of evaluation is a concept that refers to the source of a person’s judgements and values. It can be either internal or external. An internal locus of evaluation means that a person trusts their own feelings and experiences as the basis for making decisions and evaluating themselves. An external locus of evaluation means that a person relies on the opinions and expectations of others, such as parents, teachers, peers or society, to determine their worth and actions.

By offering the core conditions, person-centred therapy helps clients to feel valued, understood and free to explore their own thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement or rejection. This facilitates the process of Self-actualization, which is the tendency of every human being to grow and fulfil their potential. As clients become more aware of their true selves, they can also become more confident in their own evaluations and choices, rather than depending on external sources of approval or validation.

True Self

One of the key concepts in person-centred therapy is the true self. The true self is the innate tendency of a person to reach their full potential and become their authentic self. Rogers called this process Self-actualization. The true self is not influenced by external factors, such as social expectations, norms, or pressures. It is the expression of one’s inner values, beliefs, and desires.

However, many people are not aware of their true self or do not act in accordance with it. This is because they have developed a false self or a self-concept that is based on how they think they should be or how others want them to be. The false self can lead to incongruence, which is the mismatch between one’s true self and one’s actual experience. Incongruence can cause psychological distress, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or dissatisfaction.

The goal of person-centred therapy is to help the client discover and embrace their true self by providing them with the three core conditions: unconditional positive regard, congruence, and empathic understanding. Unconditional positive regard means that the therapist accepts and values the client without any judgement or conditions. Congruence means that the therapist is honest and transparent in how they experience the client and their world. Empathic understanding means that the therapist sees the client’s viewpoint as if they were them.

By offering these core conditions, the therapist creates a safe and supportive environment where the client can explore their own feelings, thoughts, and experiences without fear of rejection or criticism. The therapist does not direct or advise the client, but rather follows their lead and reflects what they hear and sense. This helps the client to become more aware of their true self and to express it more freely and confidently. As a result, the client can reduce their incongruence and achieve greater psychological well-being and personal growth.

Fully functioning individual

The fully functioning individual is a concept developed by Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred therapy. It refers to a person who is in touch with their innermost feelings and desires, and who is continually working towards Self-actualization.

According to Rogers, a fully functioning individual has received unconditional positive regard from others and does not place conditions on their own worth. They are also capable of expressing their feelings and are fully open to life’s many experiences. They live in the present moment, with a sense of inner freedom and creativity. Furthermore, they are flexible and adaptable, and they constantly learn from new information and experiences.

The fully functioning individual is a person who has achieved a high level of congruence between their self-concept and their organismic experience. They can trust their own instincts and emotions, and they pursue their goals and interests with passion and curiosity. They are also open to feedback and change, and they have a positive attitude towards themselves and others.

Here are some quotes about the fully functioning individual:

  • “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” – Carl Rogers
  • “The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain and enhance the experiencing organism.” – Carl Rogers
  • “When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.” – Carl Rogers
  • “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers
  • “The fully functioning person is one who has embraced ‘existential living.'” – Carl Rogers
  • “The fully functioning person lives freely, subjectively, in an existential confrontation of this moment in life.” – Carl Rogers
  • “The fully functioning person is one who has received unconditional positive regard from others and does not place conditions on their own worth.” – Kendra Cherry
  • “The fully functioning person is one who is continually working toward becoming self-actualized.” – Kendra Cherry
  • “The fully functioning person is one who is capable of expressing feelings and is fully open to life’s many experiences.” – Kendra Cherry
Features of a fully functioning person

According to Carl Rogers, a fully functioning individual is someone who has achieved Self-actualization, which means they have reached their full potential and are living authentically and congruently. A fully functioning individual has the following main characteristics :

  • They are open to experience, meaning they are curious, flexible and willing to try new things. They do not avoid or distort reality, but embrace it as it is.
  • Furthermore, they live in an existential fashion, meaning they are aware of the present moment and their choices. They do not dwell on the past or worry about the future, but focus on what is happening now.
  • They trust their organism, meaning they listen to their feelings and instincts. Furthermore, they do not rely on external authority or approval, but on their own judgement and values.
  • Trust in their decision-making and do not have self-doubt.
  • Has an accessible source of wisdom deep within and are free to draw on this with ease.

Rogers believed that a fully functioning individual can cope with the challenges and opportunities of life in a positive and creative way. They are not afraid of failure or criticism, but see them as opportunities for growth and learning. They are not threatened by others who are different from them, but respect and appreciate diversity. Likewise, they are not selfish or egocentric, but compassionate and empathic towards others.

Carl Rogers view of self-actualisation

According to Carl Rogers, self-actualisation is the continuous, lifelong process of becoming the best possible version of oneself. It involves maintaining and enhancing one’s self-concept through reflection and reinterpretation of various experiences, which enable the individual to recover, change and develop. Rogers believed that every person has an innate drive to achieve their potential and self-actualise, but they need an environment that provides them with genuineness, acceptance and empathy. Self-actualisation occurs when a person’s ideal self (who they would like to be) is congruent with their actual behaviour (self-image). Self-actualised people have an acceptance of who they are despite their faults and limitations, and experience the drive to be creative in all aspects of their lives. They can also cultivate deep and loving relationships with others.

According to Carl Rogers, a self-actualized individual is one who can live fully in the present moment, embrace creativity and challenge, and have a sense of inner freedom. They also have high self-worth, cope with difficulties, tolerate failures and sadness, and are open with people. Some of the characteristics of a self-actualized person, as described by Rogers, are:

  • Being open to new experiences
  • Being centred in the present without dwelling on the past or thinking too much about the future
  • Having trust in one’s own organism and intuition
  • Having an internal locus of evaluation rather than seeking external approval
  • Being able to express one’s feelings and emotions freely and appropriately
  • Being able to form deep and meaningful relationships with others based on unconditional positive regard
  • Having a creative and flexible approach to problem-solving
  • Having a balance between polarities such as rationality and intuition, autonomy and interdependence, self and others

In comparison, Abraham Maslow, another humanistic psychologist, also proposed a theory of Self-actualization, which he placed at the top of his hierarchy of needs. Maslow defined Self-actualization as “the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

Maslow identified some of the characteristics of self-actualized people, such as:

  • Having a realistic perception of oneself and the world
  • Accepting oneself and others as they are
  • Having a sense of wonder and appreciation for life
  • Being spontaneous and natural
  • Having a need for privacy and solitude
  • Being autonomous and independent
  • Having a democratic attitude and respect for human diversity
  • Being able to transcend conventional norms and values
  • Having a mission or purpose in life
  • Having peak experiences or moments of intense joy, ecstasy, or harmony

Comparing the two theories, we can see that both Rogers and Maslow emphasize the importance of personal growth, potential, and fulfilment. They also share some common characteristics of self-actualized people, such as being present-oriented, creative, authentic, and having positive relationships. However, there are also some differences between them, such as:

  • Rogers focused more on the process of becoming self-actualized, while Maslow focused more on the outcome or state of being self-actualized.
  • Rogers viewed Self-actualization as an innate tendency that is always present in every person, while Maslow viewed it as a higher need that emerges only after lower needs are satisfied.
  • Rogers stressed the role of unconditional positive regard from others in facilitating Self-actualization, while Maslow stressed the role of peak experiences in triggering Self-actualization.
  • Rogers did not provide a clear list or hierarchy of characteristics of self-actualized people, while Maslow did so based on his biographical studies of eminent individuals.
Person-centred counselling in action

An example of person-centred counselling in action is when a client comes to see a counsellor because they are feeling depressed and unhappy with their life. The counsellor does not diagnose the client or tell them what to do, but instead listens attentively and reflects what the client says, to show that they understand and accept them. The counsellor also encourages the client to explore their own feelings and values, and to discover what is meaningful and important for them. The counsellor does not give advice or suggestions, but trusts that the client has the inner resources and potential to find their own way forward. The counsellor’s role is to facilitate the client’s self-awareness and self-acceptance, which can lead to positive change and growth.

Seven stages of process

The person-centred approach to counselling is based on the idea that people can move from a state of rigidity to a state of fluidity, from being stuck to being free, if they are provided with a supportive and accepting therapeutic relationship. One way to understand this process of change is to use the seven stages of process model developed by Carl Rogers. The seven stages of process describe the marked phases that clients pass through as they become more aware of their feelings, take more responsibility for themselves, and experience effective choices of new ways of being. The seven stages of process are:

1. Remoteness from experiencing: The client is not in touch with their feelings and blames others for their problems.
2. Slight loosening: The client begins to question their rigid views and wonder if they have some role in their situation.
3. Taking stock: The client starts to consider accepting responsibility for themselves, but still generalizes and focuses on the past.
4. Acknowledging current feelings: The client expresses their own here-and-now feelings, but may be critical or guilty about having them.
5. Owning feelings: The client sees things more clearly, takes ownership of their situation, and is ready to act.
6. Process awareness: The client recognizes their own and others’ potential for growth and change, and accepts their pain as part of their process.
7. Experiencing flow: The client is fully functioning, living in the present, and experiencing a sense of harmony and congruence.

This model can help counsellors to assess where their clients are in their process of change, and to offer them the appropriate level of empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard that will facilitate their movement towards greater Self-actualization.

Evidence of success

One of the challenges of evaluating the effectiveness of person-centred counselling is that it does not follow a fixed or standardized protocol, but rather adapts to the needs and preferences of each individual client. Therefore, it is difficult to compare it with other forms of therapy that have more specific and measurable goals and outcomes. However, there have been some studies that have attempted to measure the evidence of success of person-centred counselling using various methods and criteria.

One method is to use client feedback and satisfaction as indicators of success. This method assumes that clients are the best judges of their own progress and well-being, and that their opinions are more important than those of the therapist or other external observers. Some studies have used questionnaires, interviews or rating scales to collect client feedback and satisfaction data before, during and after therapy. These studies have generally found that clients report high levels of satisfaction with person-centred counselling, and that they perceive positive changes in their self-esteem, self-acceptance, coping skills, relationships and quality of life.

Another method is to use outcome measures that assess the changes in clients’ symptoms, functioning or wellbeing as a result of therapy. These measures can be either standardized or tailored to the specific issues or goals of each client. Some studies have used outcome measures such as depression scales, anxiety scales, stress scales, quality of life scales or global functioning scales to evaluate the effects of person-centred counselling on clients’ mental health and well-being. These studies have generally found that person-centred counselling leads to significant reductions in clients’ symptoms and improvements in their functioning and wellbeing, compared to control groups or other forms of therapy.

A third method is to use process measures that examine the quality and characteristics of the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist. This method assumes that the therapeutic relationship is the key factor that facilitates change and growth in person-centred counselling, and that it can be measured by observing or rating the presence and degree of the core conditions: empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. Some studies have used process measures such as observation scales, rating scales or audio/video recordings to assess the quality and characteristics of the therapeutic relationship in person-centred counselling. These studies have generally found that person-centred counsellors demonstrate high levels of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard towards their clients, and that these core conditions are positively associated with client outcomes.


In conclusion, person-centred counselling is a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes the client’s autonomy, self-determination and potential for growth. It does not have a fixed or standardized protocol, but rather adapts to the needs and preferences of each individual client. Therefore, it is challenging to evaluate its effectiveness using conventional methods and criteria. However, there have been some studies that have used different methods and criteria to measure the evidence of success of person-centred counselling, such as client feedback and satisfaction, outcome measures and process measures. These studies have generally found positive results for person-centred counselling in terms of client satisfaction, symptom reduction, functioning improvement and therapeutic relationship quality.

Further reading

Here is a summary list of weblinks that give further reading on person-centred counselling:

Person-Centred Approach to counsellingcounselling Tutor: This website provides an overview of the person-centred approach, its key features and concepts, and recent developments. It also offers a free handout on person-centred theory and a podcast on Carl Rogers, the founder of the approach.

British Association for counselling and Psychotherapy: This website explains what person-centred counselling is, what you can expect from your therapist, and how to find a qualified person-centred counsellor. It also provides links to other types of therapy and resources for clients and practitioners.

What is person-centred counselling? | Patient: This website gives a brief introduction to person-centred counselling, its benefits and limitations, and how it differs from other forms of therapy. It also provides some tips on how to prepare for your first session and what to look for in a therapist.

Person-centred therapy – Wikipedia: This website provides a comprehensive article on person-centred therapy, its history, theory, practice, applications, criticisms, and research. It also includes references and further reading for more information.

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