American psychologist Carl Rogers pioneered the person‑centred approach in the 1940’s, as a response to the prevailing medical model that was obsessed with diagnosing pathologies in people who sought help.
In the therapy room, the person-centred approach shows itself in the therapist’s efforts to get a full understanding of the client’s world. This helps them stay alongside the client, as a much-needed companion for a journey that stretches over past and present problems, with the client leading the way and the therapist being there when help is needed.
Carl Rogers began to refer to patients as “clients”, in an attempt to establish equality where there had been hierarchy. His approach is by definition egalitarian and progressive, as this video demonstrates. It was made in the 1970s, when segregation was still a topic in the US.
Nowadays, research suggests that the quality of the relationship between therapist and client is an excellent predictor of change and healing, whatever the therapist’s theoretical approach.
In addition, with its shift away from concepts of diagnosis and disease, and towards the importance of understanding clients’ experiences, the person-centred approach began to spread into other professions such as teaching and social care professions, where it solidly remains.
One of Rogers’ insights was that, starting from a very early age, most people distort and deny aspects of themselves, to try to get other people’s approval. But this has heavy emotional costs.
Therapy, then, is about undoing of this estrangement from ourselves, giving more weight to our real responses and learning to live more fully in line with who we really are.
Person-centred therapists work to help clients feel sufficiently understood, valued and safe from judgement by the therapist to start exploring feelings, thoughts and memories that have previously felt too difficult.
The person-centred approach holds that when we can allow more of our actual experience into awareness like this, then it can release a lot of tension and new energy, and help us to live more satisfying lives.
Person-centred therapy is not a “soft” option. Indeed, it is precisely because the therapist works to help clients feel understood, accepted and safe enough in sessions, that clients feel able to go into territory that feels difficult, dangerous and perhaps almost unbearable.
Since Rogers’ early work, the approach has been developed and diversified by many other therapists, including Eugene Gendlin, Margaret Warner, Gillian Proctor and Garry Prouty.
Person-centred work contrasts most sharply with the medical model that remains powerful today, in which doctors and psychiatrists are the experts who diagnose people’s problems and decide the best treatments.
Person-centred therapists each have their own individual ways of working. Many supplement their person-centred trainings with knowledge, perspectives and techniques taken from other therapeutic approaches.
The therapist and theorist Margaret Warner, for instance, has argued for an expansion of Rogers’ theory, with insights from research about how neglectful or abusive parenting can affect people’s ability to manage their emotions.