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Rogers onion theory
One of the models of personality development is Carl Rogers‘ onion theory, which explains how people form their self-concept and self-worth (Rogers, 1959). The self-concept is “the organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself” (Rogers, 1959, p. 200). It consists of three layers: the self-image, the ideal self, and the true-self.
However, Carl Rogers, himself, never proposed any theory that included the word onion. So what’s it all about?
Rogers’ onion theory is a framework for understanding human factors in cross-cultural design, based on the idea that human needs and preferences are influenced by different layers of factors, such as motivation, values, identity, cognition, language and behaviour . The theory is named after Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist who proposed the concept of self-image, which is the view we have of ourselves and how we relate to others. However, Rogers did not use the term onion to describe his theory. The metaphor of onion peeling comes from another branch of psychology, called insight-focused theories, which aim to peel back the layers of experience to reach understanding and awareness. Therefore, there is no direct source reference for Rogers’ onion theory, as it is a combination of different theories and models. A possible theory for how the onion theory came about is that it was inspired by the cultural onion and iceberg models, which are used to illustrate the visible and hidden aspects of culture.
The cultural onion model is one of the models that inspired the onion theory. It is a way of visualizing the different levels of culture, from the most superficial to the most deep-rooted. The outer layer of the onion represents the artefacts and symbols of culture, such as clothing, food, music and language. The next layer represents the norms and values of culture, such as beliefs, attitudes and customs. The innermost layer represents the assumptions and world-views of culture, such as religion, philosophy and identity. The cultural onion model helps us to understand that culture is not only what we see on the surface, but also what we feel and think on a deeper level.
The iceberg model of culture is another way of illustrating the visible and invisible aspects of culture. It compares culture to an iceberg that has a small portion above the water and a large portion below the water. The part above the water represents the observable behaviours and practices of culture, such as language, gestures, rituals and artefacts. The part below the water represents the hidden values and beliefs of culture, such as norms, assumptions, attitudes and world-views. The iceberg model of culture helps us to realize that culture is more than what meets the eye, and that we need to explore the underlying meanings and motivations behind cultural expressions.
Certainly, Rogers agreed with the general idea that his concept of becoming true to self was a process similar to peeling the layers of an onion, to reveal the true core of self. “A colleague of mine has told me that “I peel my own onion.” That is, that I express continuously deeper layers of feeling as I become aware of them in a group.” (Rogers, n.a.).
Just as this theory of Rogers has no true origin, there are also several descriptions of it going around, for example, one description suggests that there are four layers of self: the public self, the blind self, the hidden self, and the unknown self. The public self is the part of ourselves that we show to others, such as our appearance, behaviour, and opinions. The blind self is the part of ourselves that others see, but we are unaware of, such as our habits, biases, and flaws. The hidden self is the part of ourselves that we keep private from others, such as our feelings, fears, and secrets. The unknown self is the part of ourselves that neither we nor others know, such as our potential, talents, and unconscious motives.
Another description describes the theory as a humanistic approach to personality that views the self as a layered structure, with each layer representing a different aspect of the person’s identity, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, roles, emotions, and behaviours (Guo et al., 2022).
The core layer represents the most fundamental and stable part of one’s self-concept, such as motivation and preference. The surface layers are more changeable and influenced by external factors, such as language and behaviour patterns. Emotion is an element that interacts across all layers and affects how one feels about oneself and others (Guo et al., 2022).
Although it has an uncertain origin, and various interpretations, Rogers’ onion theory can be useful for understanding how people from different cultures may have different self-concepts and how they may communicate differently. For example, Rogers (1959) distinguished between the independent self and the interdependent self, which reflect different ways of defining oneself in relation to others. People from individualistic cultures tend to have an independent self, which means they see themselves as separate and unique from others. They value autonomy, self-expression, and personal achievement. People from collectivistic cultures tend to have an interdependent self, which means they see themselves as connected and interdependent with others. They value harmony, cooperation, and group identity (Guo et al., 2022).
These differences in self-concept may influence how people communicate their needs, preferences, and emotions to others. For instance, people with an independent self may be more direct, assertive, and explicit in expressing their opinions and feelings. They may use more “I” statements and personal references. People with an interdependent self may be more indirect, polite, and implicit in expressing their opinions and feelings. They may use more “we” statements and contextual cues (Guo et al., 2022).
Rogers’ onion theory can help us appreciate the diversity and complexity of human self-concept and communication. By understanding the different layers of one’s own and others’ self-concept, we can develop more empathy, respect, and tolerance for different perspectives and styles of interaction.
According to Rogers (1959), the core layer of the self is the organismic self, which is the innate potential for growth and fulfilment. The organismic self is influenced by the person’s perception of reality, which forms the self-concept.
The self-concept is the conscious awareness of who one is and how one relates to others and the world. The self-concept can be congruent or incongruent with the organismic self. Congruence means that the self-concept is consistent with the organismic self, while incongruence means that there is a discrepancy between them. Rogers (1959) believed that incongruence leads to psychological distress and maladjustment, while congruence leads to psychological well-being and Self-actualization. Self-actualization is the process of realizing one’s full potential and becoming a fully functioning person.
To resolve this incongruence, Rogers (1959) proposed that people need a facilitative environment that provides them with three core conditions: genuineness, acceptance, and empathy. Genuineness refers to being authentic and transparent in one’s feelings and thoughts, both with oneself and with others. Acceptance refers to being valued and respected as a person, regardless of one’s flaws or shortcomings. Empathy refers to being understood and appreciated from another’s point of view, without imposing one’s own judgments or expectations. Rogers (1959) called this type of acceptance unconditional positive regard, which is essential for healthy personality development. He argued that when these three conditions are present, people can experience congruence between their organism, self, and ideal self, and thus achieve their full potential as human beings.
However, many people do not receive unconditional positive regard from their significant others, such as parents, teachers, or peers. Instead, they receive conditional positive regard, which means they are only valued and respected if they meet certain expectations or standards. This leads to incongruence between the self-image and the true self, as people try to please others rather than follow their own inner compass. Incongruence causes psychological distress and prevents people from reaching their full potential.
Rogers (1959) proposed that person-centred therapy can help people overcome incongruence and achieve congruence between the self-image and the true self. Person-centred therapy is a non-directive approach that allows clients to explore their own issues and feelings at their own pace, without being judged or advised by the therapist. The therapist’s role is to provide a supportive and empathic environment that facilitates the client’s growth and Self-actualization.
Influence of the onion theory
Rogers’ onion theory has been applied to various fields of psychology, such as counselling, education, and organizational development. For example, in counselling, Rogers (1959) developed a client-centred approach that emphasizes the role of the therapist as a facilitator of change, rather than an expert or a director. The therapist provides the client with genuineness, acceptance, and empathy, and helps the client explore their own feelings and meanings. This allows the client to develop a more positive and realistic self-concept, and to make choices that are congruent with their true self.
In education, Rogers (1959) advocated for a student-centred approach that fosters creativity, curiosity, and autonomy in learning. The teacher provides the students with genuineness, acceptance, and empathy, and encourages them to pursue their own interests and goals. This allows the students to develop a more positive and confident attitude toward learning, and to acquire skills that are relevant for their future.
In organizational development, Rogers (1959) suggested that leaders should create a climate of trust, openness, and collaboration in their teams. The leader provides the team members with genuineness, acceptance, and empathy, and supports them to express their ideas and opinions. This allows the team members to develop a more positive and cooperative relationship with each other, and to achieve higher levels of performance and satisfaction.
Rogers’ onion theory remains influential and relevant in psychology today. It offers a comprehensive and holistic view of human personality that emphasizes the potential for growth and change in every person. It also provides a framework for creating positive and supportive relationships that foster personal well-being and social harmony and has been influential in the fields of humanistic psychology, counselling, education, and social work. Furthermore, it has also inspired many other theories and approaches that emphasize the importance of the self-concept and the therapeutic relationship (McLeod, 2014).
Criticism of the onion theory
Rogers’ onion theory has been criticized for being too optimistic and idealistic about human nature. Some critics argue that Rogers (1959) underestimated the role of biological factors, social influences, and cultural differences in shaping human personality. For instance, diffusion of innovations theory suggests that new ideas and technologies spread through social systems over time, affecting people’s attitudes and behaviours (Rogers, 1962). Therefore, personality is not only a product of individual experience, but also a result of social interaction and communication. Moreover, some critics question the validity and reliability of his methods of measuring congruence and Self-actualization. For example, Rogers (1959) used Q-sort technique to assess how people rate themselves on various traits or statements. However, this technique relies on subjective judgments and may not capture the complexity and diversity of human personality (Bohart & Greenberg, 1997).
Furthermore, some critics contend that Rogers (1959) overemphasized the importance of individualism and autonomy in human development. They claim that Rogers (1959) neglected the value of social responsibility and interdependence in human functioning. For example, onion-peeling theories suggest that human personality is influenced by multiple layers of factors, such as needs, preferences, motivation, values, beliefs, attitudes, identity, cognition, language, and behaviour patterns (Guo et al., 2022). These factors are not only expressions of the self, but also reflections of the social context in which the person lives. Therefore, human development requires not only self-awareness but also social awareness and engagement.
Proposed development of the theory
Therefore, some researchers have proposed developments to Roger’s theory to address these limitations and to incorporate new findings from psychology and neuroscience.
For example, Joseph and Worsley (2005) suggested that Roger’s theory can be enriched by adding a layer of “spirituality” to the self-concept, which reflects the person’s sense of meaning, purpose, and connection with a higher power or reality. They argued that spirituality is an important dimension of human experience that can enhance well-being and facilitate Self-actualization. They defined spirituality as “a way of being and experiencing that comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and that is characterized by certain identifiable values regarding self, others, nature, life, and whatever one considers to be the Ultimate” (p. 3). Furthermore, they also proposed a model of spiritual development that consists of four stages: pre-awareness, awakening, integration, and service. They claimed that this model can help people achieve a higher level of congruence and fulfilment.
Another example is Greenberg (2015), who proposed that Roger’s theory can be integrated with emotion-focused therapy, which emphasizes the role of emotions in personality change and growth. He argued that emotions are not only expressions of the self, but also sources of information and motivation that can help people access their core needs, values, and goals. He also suggested that emotions can be regulated through awareness, expression, and transformation, and that these processes can be fostered by a therapeutic relationship that provides empathy, validation, and compassion. Furthermore, he defined emotion-focused therapy as “an empirically supported humanistic treatment that views emotions as centrally important in human functioning and therapeutic change” (p. 3). He also proposed a model of emotion regulation that consists of three phases: primary adaptive emotions, secondary reactive emotions, and instrumental emotions. He claimed that this model can help people achieve a higher level of emotional intelligence and resilience.
Using the onion layer analogy of self in practice
The individual and the therapist can use Rogers’ onion theory to help with self-awareness and welfare improvement by exploring each layer of self and identifying the gaps or incongruences between them. The therapist can provide a safe and supportive environment for the individual to express their thoughts and emotions without judgment or criticism. The therapist can also give feedback and mirror back what they observe from the individual’s public and blind selves. The individual can then reflect on their own perceptions and experiences and compare them with the feedback from the therapist. The individual can also share their hidden self with the therapist and reveal their inner conflicts and needs. The therapist can then help the individual to discover their unknown self and unlock their potential and growth.
The practicalities of using Rogers’ onion theory in therapy include establishing a trusting and empathic relationship between the individual and the therapist, using active listening and open-ended questions to facilitate communication, using reflection and clarification to enhance understanding, using encouragement and affirmation to foster acceptance and confidence, and using goal-setting and action-planning to promote change and progress.
An example of using Rogers’ onion theory in therapy is as follows:
therapist: So you are feeling anxious about your upcoming presentation at work?
Individual: Yes, I am. I don’t think I can do it well. I’m afraid I will mess up and embarrass myself in front of everyone.
therapist: I see. How do you usually prepare for a presentation?
Individual: Well, I try to research as much as I can about the topic, write down the main points, rehearse several times, and make sure I have all the materials ready.
therapist: That sounds like a very thorough preparation. How do you feel when you are doing these steps?
Individual: I feel nervous and stressed. I keep thinking that I might miss something important or forget what to say.
therapist: So even though you are doing your best to prepare, you still feel anxious about your performance?
Individual: Yes, exactly.
therapist: What do you think is causing this anxiety?
Individual: I don’t know…maybe I’m just not good enough at public speaking. Perhaps I don’t have enough knowledge or skills. Perhaps people will judge me or laugh at me.
therapist: So you are worried about how others will perceive you and your abilities?
Individual: Yes, I guess so.
therapist: Do you have any evidence that supports these worries? Have you ever received negative feedback or criticism from your colleagues or supervisors after a presentation?
Individual: No, not really. In fact, most of them have complimented me on my work and said that I did a good job.
therapist: So you have received positive feedback from others about your presentations in the past?
Individual: Yes, I have.
therapist: How does that make you feel?
Individual: Well, it makes me feel happy and proud for a moment, but then I think that maybe they are just being nice or polite. Perhaps they don’t really mean it.
therapist: So you doubt the sincerity of their compliments?
Individual: Yes, sometimes.
therapist: Why do you think that is?
Individual: I don’t know…perhaps because I don’t believe in myself. Maybe because I have low self-esteem.
In this example, the therapist helps the individual to explore their public self (how they present themselves to others), their blind self (how others see them differently from how they see themselves), their hidden self (how they feel insecure and doubtful about themselves), and their unknown self (how they have low self-esteem that affects their anxiety). The therapist also uses quotes from the individual’s own words to reflect their feelings and thoughts.
Bohart, A. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (1997). Empathy reconsidered: New directions in psychotherapy. American Psychological Association.
Greenberg, L. S. (2015). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association.
Guo, Z., Rau, P.-L. P., & Heimgärtner, R. (2022). The “onion model of human factors”: A theoretical framework for cross-cultural design. In M. Kurosu (Ed.), Culture and computing (pp. 20–33). Springer.
Joseph, S., & Worsley, R. (2005). Person-centred psychopathology: A positive psychology of mental health. PCCS Books.
McLeod, S. (2014). Carl Rogers. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/carl-rogers.html
Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships: As developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science (Vol. 3, pp. 184–256). McGraw-Hill.
Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations (1st ed.). Free Press.