Therapize Yourself! Part 2: Person-Centered Therapy

In the first installment of Therapize Yourself I gave a quick-n-dirty run down of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (or REBT if you’re in a rush). Now I’d like to tell you about a completely different (but equally awesome) theory of psychotherapy: Carl Roger’s Person Centered Therapy.
4143908_f260Carl Rogers’ style of therapy is based on his own philosophy of human nature. The premise of this philosophy being that we as humans have a natural drive to grow and fulfill our potential. He calls this “self-actualizing tendency”.

“Gradually my experience has forced me to conclude that the individual had within himself the capacity and tendency, lateen if not evident, to move forward toward maturity. In a suitable psychological climate this tendency is released, and becomes actual rather than potential.”
– Carl Rogers

From the time we’re born, we feel naturally gratified by behaviors that contribute to our personal and unique development. At some point, as profound philosophical little babies we become aware that we have a “self” that’s separate from other people and things. Simultaneously, we develop a need to have a positive image of that “self”, or as Rogers would say: a positive self-regard.

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At first, following our self-actualizing tendency and listening to our internal guides for behavior satisfies our need for positive self-regard. “I like it. That’s good enough for me!” However, we soon realize that most other people judge our worth conditionally. Some things make mommy and daddy pleased with us, while other things make mommy and daddy displeased with us. How we assess our own worth gradually comes to depend on how others view us (or more accurately, our perception of how others view us).
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Therefore our behaviors start to become more driven towards wanting to please/impress others, and less driven towards our unique personal development. Our behaviors are guided by what we think will earn us positive regard from others, and we begin to need positive feedback from others in order to feel good about ourselves. Thus our own self-regard becomes conditional. When our own self-regard is conditional, our self-actualizing tendency is further impeded. We hold back. We’re less likely to take risks. We’re not as genuine, because we are constantly trying to maintain a positive view of ourselves that’s dependent on pleasing others.

This causes incongruence, or conflicts between our true selves and the way we are living. When we live in accordance to the expectations of others, we are not living authentically. We begin to feel a discrepancy between our ideal selves (the person we could/should/would be) and our real self (the person we are being). This can cause all sorts of psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, etc.
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 What’s the solution?

Carl Rogers rejected the idea of trying to help people by explaining their problems to them (either rationally or through psychoanalytic interpretation), and he rejected the idea of helping people through formal techniques or assignments.

 “I cannot be of help to this troubled person by means of any intellectual or training procedure. The most they accomplish is some temporary change, which soon disappears, leaving the individual more than ever convinced of his inadequacy.”
– Carl Rogers

Instead Rogers believed that the most healing aspect of therapy was the relationship between the therapist and the client. Through the relationship a therapist can create an environment that allows the client to feel safe to be himself or herself, thus helping them live more authentically and progress towards self-actualization. It’s not about imposing your own ideas on the client of how you think they should change, or what you think they should do. Rogers would warn that this will only increase the client’s dependency on meeting the expectations of others, thus further inhibiting them from fulfilling their unique potential. According to Rogers, the client knows what is best for them, they have an innate ability to discern what to do and where to go with life. The therapist’s duty is creating an environment that makes them feel safe to explore that part of themselves.

 So what’s with this environment?

According to Rogers, 3 therapeutic factors contribute to the client’s ability to move towards self-actualization.

1) Unconditional Positive Regard.

While most other people in their lives likely express approval or disapproval of the person based on certain behaviors, a person-centered therapist tries to convey that they accept and approve of the client regardless of their behavior, simply because they are a person and thus innately deserving of being accepted. This doesn’t mean that you have to approve of all the behavior of the client, but rather you do not view the client’s behavior as representing the person as a whole. In other words, as a therapist I can dislike something you do without rejecting you as a person. Feeling secure that you’ll be unconditionally accepted and warmly regarded by another person frees you to be more open and genuine with that person.

The experience of being authentic in a relationship builds the ability to be authentic outside of therapy. By unconditionally accepting the client, the therapist also teaches them how to treat themselves. It helps the client resist making global judgments about themselves as a whole person when they fail or feel ashamed of a specific behavior. i.e. “I messed up in this one particular instance, but that doesn’t make me a bad person or a failure”.

 “By acceptance I mean warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth – of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings. This acceptance of each fluctuating aspect of this other person makes it for him a relationship of warmth and safety, and the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.”
– Carl Rogers

2) Empathy.

When we listen to other people, we tend to focus on making judgments and assessments of what they are saying: “That’s true or untrue”, “I agree with that, or I disagree” instead of focusing on understanding exactly what the other person is communicating. Empathy is about truly understanding where another person is in the present moment, and meeting them there. It’s relatively easy to give someone sympathy or to think about how you would feel in their situation, but it’s more of a challenge to enter into another person’s perspective, feel their feeling with them, not try to change it, but simply keep them company in their subjective experience. This is particularly difficult when what they are feeling is painful. Especially when it’s someone we care about that’s hurting. We want to stop their pain, “fix” their mood, and change their experience. But it is a great gift when someone has the psychological and emotional strength to join you in your experience, and support you in the full experiencing of it. This is empathy, and this is one of the things that a person-centered therapist strives to give their clients.

Below is a beautiful video description of empathy:

3) Congruence

To be congruent, the therapist attempts to be their genuine self with the client and communicate him or herself as authentically as possible. According to Rogers, a relationship can only grow and develop to the extent that you are being real, and because the relationship is the main mechanism for change in client-centered therapy, congruence is very important. This also models for the client how to be authentic in a relationship with another person.
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By accepting themselves, and unconditionally accepting the client, the therapist paves the way for the client to accept himself or herself. It is this self-acceptance that allows change to happen.

“we cannot change, cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”
– Carl Rogers

When we can accept our selves unconditionally, we can live congruently (or authentically). We feel safer to take the risks we want to, we know that making mistakes doesn’t make us less valuable as people, and we no longer feel as afraid of disappointing other people. Therefore we regain the ability to chose our behaviors based on what we feel will help us grow, not what we feel will please others. We are back in tune with our self-actualizing tendency.

 So if it’s all about the relationship, how can I help myself?

Well as a psychologist in training, I’m obviously a big advocate for therapy. However, I do think that it is possible to apply Rogers’ theory to your own life. While it’s much harder to do alone (especially if you are already in a psychologically unhealthy place), I think that you can have a therapeutic relationship with yourself. Ideally, you would be providing yourself with unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence.

How do you just start doing that? Well you don’t. Like anything else worthwhile, it takes hard work, and doesn’t happen over night. If you follow my blog regularly, you’re probably getting tired of me pushing Mindfulness… but seriously, just do it. Of all the techniques I’ve learned, therapies I’ve studied, and self-help books I’ve read, this is the most effective thing I feel I can suggest (from my experience) for training your brain to stop fucking itself over. I also highly recommend reading up more on Carl Rogers’ theories. He was one of the unassuming geniuses, that seemed like he was doing nothing spectacular but was actually breaking ground. Here’s a video of him explaining his ideas about therapy and demonstrating it:

And here’s a link to his book “On Becoming A Person” which I highly recommend.

Happy therapizing!

Success and the Fundamental Need for Love

I was watching a Conan O’Brien interview with Jud Apatow (writer/director/producer connected to pretty much every huge comedy blockbuster of the last 10 years) and they were discussing the “neediness” behind their talent. Conan mentioned that when he was young he realized that making people laugh was one thing he had going for him to get people to like him, so from then on he put all his effort and energy into developing that skill. To this day he says his self esteem hangs on every joke, and when he doesn’t feel like he did well, he goes to a “very very dark place”. Jud Apatow related to Conan’s experience of desperately needing to be able to make people laugh and the underlying anxiety that no one would give a shit. And then Conan posed a great question – Would you change it, if it could make you happier?

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I believe behind Conan’s question is the assumption that, while his insecurity and desperation often torture him, it’s also given him the motivation needed to acquire his level of success. Conan was referring to this conflict specifically with comedians, but I think that it’s so much farther reaching. In fact, I might argue that anyone who has found great success in one area or another, got there by trying to compensate for some insecurity. I think at the core of us all is a fundamental need for love and connection, and along with that comes a fundamental fear/insecurity we all share – the fear of not being loved and accepted.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow came to a similar conclusion after studying some of the most accomplished people in history in an attempt to understand human motivation. From his research, Maslow developed his famous hierarchy of needs which includes physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

According to Maslow, the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be met before a person can move on to feel motivated in meeting higher level needs. While I agree with Maslow’s hierarchy, I think that the need to love and be loved might have a particular dominance in human psychology. After all, there are many examples of people who sacrifice their basic needs for love, and research has shown that deprivation from loving connection leads to an unmatched level of psychological disturbance. In fact it was  Maslow’s colleague, psychologist Harry Harlow, who conducted the famous studies on the effects of isolation on monkeys. He found that when monkeys were raised without connection to other monkeys, they exhibited severe disturbances in basically every area of functioning.

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Similarly, studies of over crowded and understaffed orphanages found that infants who were deprived of loving connection early in life were also prone to serious social dysfunction. Now over 50 years later, neurobiology is validating that healthy development of the brain is literally dependent upon loving connection with others (for more on this look into the work of Daniel J. Siegel).

I believe that because our need to love/be loved is so vital to our happiness and healthy development, that we also have a deep fundamental fear of not being loved and accepted. I think our desire to fill this need and our fear of being deprived from it might be the single most motivating factor in people’s lives (whether conscious or unconscious). From this core need/fear springs all of our strengths and our weaknesses. Just as Conan realized that being funny might be his ticket to love/acceptance, someone else might think it’s their ability to earn money, their looks, their athleticism, or their intellectual ability.

It’s easy to believe that the more successful a person is, the more sure of themselves and confident they must be, but I think there’s often a positive correlation between a person’s success and their insecurities. The more insecure they are, the more motivated they are to protect themselves from that feeling of being unloved. However, I think that these insecurities can simultaneously be someones biggest ally and biggest enemy. On the one hand they are propelling us forward, and motivating us to do our absolute best. On the other hand, they are also always getting in the way, paralyzing us in some ways, and holding us back -because we’re operating from a place of fear.

Take Conan for example: His strong need for acceptance motivated him to work on his comedic skill to an extent that propelled him to great success. But if his self-esteem still hangs on every joke, how can he perform his best with that much anxiety involved? If he could let go of the fear, I would imagine he would gain the confidence, freedom, and courage to take risks comedically that might bring his performance to the next level. Hence Maslow making love/belonging and self esteem necessary steps towards self-actualization.

While fear is an excellent motivator, I don’t think anyone can reach their fullest potential when operating from a place of fear. I think that when we are motivated by warding off this fear of being unloved/ not accepted, we sometimes go so far that we forget what we really wanted in the first place. I would imagine that if Conan desperately needs to make people laugh in order to feel loved and accepted, he might be one of those people that’s “on” all the time (and from some of the stories they were sharing in the interview that seems accurate). However, that type of personality can quickly exhaust people and soon turn them off. So even though the original purpose of developing the skill of making people laugh was to gain love and acceptance, too much focus on the skill can come at the cost of the original purpose. Another example would be someone who is motivated to develop financial success because they think money will be their key to securing love and acceptance, but then they get so caught up in earning money that they neglect their personal relationships and drive people away.

The fact that Conan even has to ask the question “Would you blank, if it would make you happier?” is interesting to me. Shouldn’t it be obvious? Isn’t happiness the whole point? Is there any thing else that trumps happiness? And yet I know the answer doesn’t feel that simple. Why is that?

I guess the take home point is that we all share an important need to feel loved and accepted, and with that comes natural fear and insecurity. True self-actualization and true success requires conquering this fear, but I think very few actually achieve this. I wish I had the secret for overcoming this fear myself… but unfortunately I do not. Maybe it has to do with spirituality, realizing a higher purpose, becoming more altruistic and less self-involved, etc.
Maybe that’s another post for another day 🙂