Chapter 22: Rogers: Humanistic Psychology

Part 2: Basic Concepts and Personality Development

Rogers believed that each of us lives in a constantly changing private world, which he called the experiential field.  Everyone exists at the center of their own experiential field, and that field can only be fully understood from the perspective of the individual.  This concept has a number of important implications. The individual’s behavior must be understood as a reaction to their experience and perception of the field.  They react to it as an organized whole, and it is their reality. The problem this presents for the therapist is that only the individual can really understand their experiential field.  This is quite different than the Freudian perspective, in which only the trained and objective psychoanalyst can break through the defense mechanisms and understand the basis of the patient’s unconscious impulses.  One’s perception of the experiential field is limited, however. Rogers believed that certain impulses, or sensations, can only enter into the conscious field of experience under certain circumstances. Thus, the experiential field is not a true reality, but rather an individual’s potential reality (Rogers, 1951).

The one basic tendency and striving of the individual is to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experience of the individual or, in other words, an actualizing tendency.  Rogers borrowed the term self-actualization, a term first used by Kurt Goldstein, to describe this basic striving.  For Rogers, self-actualization was a tendency to move forward, toward greater maturity and independence, or self-responsibility.  This development occurs throughout life, both biologically (the differentiation of a fertilized egg into the many organ systems of the body) and psychologically (self-government, self-regulation, socialization, even to the point of choosing life goals).  A key factor in understanding self-actualization is the experiential field. A person’s needs are defined, as well as limited, by their own potential for experience. Part of this experiential field is an individual’s emotions, feelings, and attitudes. Therefore, who the individual is, their actual self, is critical in determining the nature and course of their self-actualization (Rogers, 1951).  We will examine Maslow’s work on self-actualization in more detail later in the chapter.

What, then, is the self?  In Rogers’ (1951) initial description of his theory of personality, the experiential field is described in four points, the self-actualizing tendency in three points, and the remaining eleven points attempt to define the self.  First and foremost, the self is a differentiated portion of the experiential field.  In other words, the self is that part of our private world that we identify as “me,” “myself,” or “I.”  Beyond that, the self remains somewhat puzzling. Can the self exist in isolation, outside of relationships that provide some context for the self?  Must the self be synonymous with the physical body? As Rogers’ pointed out, when our foot “goes to sleep” from a lack of circulation, we view it as an object, not as a part of our self.  Despite these challenging questions, Rogers tried to define and describe the self.

Rogers believed the self is formed in relation to others; it is an organized, fluid, yet consistent conceptual pattern of our experiential interactions with the environment and the values attached to those experiences.  These experiences are symbolized and incorporated into the structure of the self, and our behavior is guided largely by how well new experiences fit within that structure. We may behave in ways inconsistent with the structure of our self, but when we do, we will not “own” that behavior.  When experiences are so inconsistent that we cannot symbolize them or fit them into the structure of our self, the potential for psychological distress arises. On the other hand, when our concept of self is mature enough to incorporate all of our perceptions and experiences, and we can assimilate those experiences symbolically into our self, our psychological adjustment will be quite healthy.  Individuals who find it difficult to assimilate new and different experiences, those experiences that threaten the structure of the self, will develop an increasingly rigid self-structure.  Healthy individuals, in contrast, will assimilate new experiences, their self-structure will change and continue to grow, and they will become more capable of understanding and accepting others as individuals (Rogers, 1951).

The ability of individuals to make the choices necessary for actualizing their self-structure and to then fulfill those choices is what Rogers called personal power (Rogers, 1977).  He believed there are many self-actualized individuals revolutionizing the world by trusting their own power without feeling a need to have “power over” others.  They are also willing to foster the latent actualizing tendency in others. We can easily see the influence of Alfred Adler here, both in terms of the creative power of the individual and seeking superiority within a healthy context of social interest.  Client-centered therapy was based on making the context of personal power a clear strategy in the therapeutic relationship:

…the client-centered approach is a conscious renunciation and avoidance by the therapist of all control over, or decision-making for, the client.  It is the facilitation of self-ownership by the client and the strategies by which this can be achieved…based on the premise that the human being is basically a trustworthy organism, capable of…making constructive choices as to the next steps in life, and acting on those choices. (pp. 14-15; Rogers, 1977)

Rogers claimed that no one can really understand your experiential field.  Would you agree, or do you sometimes find that close friends or family members seem to understand you better than you understand yourself?  Are these relationships congruent?

Personality Development

Although Rogers described personality within the therapist-client relationship, the focus of his therapeutic approach was based on how he believed the person had arrived at a point in their life where they were suffering from psychological distress.  Therefore, the same issues apply to personality development as in therapy. A very important aspect of personality development, according to Rogers, is the parent-child relationship. The nature of that relationship, and whether it fosters self-actualization or impedes personal growth, determines the nature of the individual’s personality and, consequently, their self-structure and psychological adjustment.

A child begins life with an actualizing tendency.  As they experience life and perceive the world around them, they may be supported in all things by those who care for them, or they may only be supported under certain conditions (e.g., if their behavior complies with strict rules).  As the child becomes self-aware, it develops a need for positive regard.  When the parent(s) offer the child unconditional positive regard, the child continues moving forward in concert with its actualizing tendency.  So, when there is no discrepancy between the child’s self-regard and its positive regard (from the parents), the child will grow up psychologically healthy and well-adjusted.  However, if the parent(s) offer only conditional positive regard, if they only support the child according to the desires and rules of the parents, the child will develop conditions of worth.  As a result of these conditions of worth, the child will begin to perceive their world selectively; they will avoid those experiences that do not fit with its goal of obtaining positive regard.  The child will begin to live the life of those who set the conditions of worth, rather than living its own life.

As the child grows older and becomes more aware of its own condition in the world, their behavior will either fit within their own self-structure or not.  If they have received unconditional positive regard, such that their self-regard and positive regard are closely matched, they will experience congruence.  In other words, their sense of self and their experiences in life will fit together, and the child will be relatively happy and well-adjusted.  But, if their sense of self and their ability to obtain positive regard do not match, the child will develop incongruence.  Consider, for example, children playing sports.  That alone tells us that parents have established guidelines within which the children are expected to “play.”  Then we have some children who are naturally athletic, and other children who are more awkward and/or clumsy. They may become quite athletic later in life, or not, but during childhood there are many different levels of ability as they grow.  If a parent expects their child to be the best player on the team, but the child simply isn’t athletic, how does the parent react? Do they support the child and encourage them to have fun, or do they pressure the child to perform better and belittle them when they can’t?  Children are very good at recognizing who the better athletes are, and they know their place in the hierarchy of athletics, i.e., their athletic self-structure. So if a parent demands dominance from a child who knows they just aren’t that good, the child will develop incongruence.  Rogers believed, quite understandably, that such conditions are threatening to a child and will activate defense mechanisms. Over time, however, excessive or sudden and dramatic incongruence can lead to the breakdown and disorganization of the self-structure. As a result, the individual is likely to experience psychological distress that will continue throughout life (Rogers, 1959/1989).

This is a color image of a young boy leaning on a chain-link fence. He is wearing a red and blue baseball hat and uniform top. The child is gazing out into the field.
Image Source: 858265. Retrieved from Licensed under CCO.

Conditions of worth are typically first established in childhood, based on the relationship between a child and his or her parents.  Think about your relationship with your own parents and, if you have children, think about how you treat them. Are most of the examples that come to mind unconditional positive regard, or conditional positive regard?  How has that affected your relationship with your parents and/or your own children?

Another way in which Rogers approached the idea of congruence and incongruence was based on an individual’s dual concept of self.  There is, of course, the actual self-structure, or real self.  In addition, there is also an ideal self, much like the fictional finalism described by Adler, or the idealized self-image described by Horney.  Incongruence develops when the real self falls far short of the accomplishment expected of the ideal self, or when experience does not match the expectations of the self-structure (Rogers, 1951, 1959/1989).  Once again, the relationship between parents and their children plays an important role in this development. If parents expect too much, such as all A’s every marking period in school, but the child just isn’t academically talented, or if the parents expect their child to be the football team’s quarterback, but the child isn’t a good athlete, then the ideal self will remain out of reach.  Perhaps even worse is when a child is physically or emotionally abused. Such a child’s ideal self may remain at a relatively low standard, but the real self may be so utterly depressed that incongruence is still the result. An important aspect of therapy will be to provide a relationship in which a person in this unfortunate condition can experience the unconditional positive regard necessary to begin reintegrating the self-structure, such that the gap between the real self and the ideal self can begin to close, allowing the person to experience congruence in their life.

What about individuals who have developed congruence, having received unconditional positive regard throughout development or having experienced successful client-centered therapy?  They become, according to Rogers (1961), a fully functioning person.  He also said they lead a good life.  The good life is a process, not a state of being, and a direction, not a destination.  It requires psychological freedom, and it is the natural consequence of being psychologically free to begin with.  Whether or not it develops naturally, thanks to a healthy and supportive environment in the home, or comes about as a result of successful therapy, there are certain characteristics of this process.  The fully functioning person is increasingly open to new experiences, they live fully in each moment, and they trust themselves more and more. They become more able and more willing to experience all of their feelings, they are creative, they trust human nature, and they experience the richness of life.  The fully functioning person is not simply content, or happy, they are alive:

I believe it will become evident why, for me, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful, enjoyable, do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process I have called the good life, even though the person in this process would experience each one of these feelings at appropriate times.  But the adjectives which seem more generally fitting are adjectives such as enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, meaningful. This process…involves the courage to be.…the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming. (pp. 195-196; Rogers, 1961)

Rogers described self-actualized people as fully functioning persons who are living a good life.  Do you know anyone who seems to be a fully functioning person? Are there aspects of their personality that you aspire to for yourself?  Does it seem difficult to be fully functioning, or does it seem to make life both easier and more enjoyable?

Social Relationships and Marriage

Social and personal relationships were very important to Rogers, both in therapy and in everyday life.  During each moment we have our awareness (or consciousness), our experience (our perception of what is happening), and our communication (our relational behavior).  For the fully functioning person, there is congruence between each of these phenomena. Unfortunately, we tend to be a poor judge of our own congruence. For example, if someone becomes angry with another person at a meeting or in a therapy group, they may remain unaware of their anger, even though it may be quite obvious to everyone else in the room.  Thus, our relationship with others can reflect the true nature of our own personality, and the degree to which we are congruent. If others are congruent, and therefore are willing to talk to us openly and honestly, it will encourage us to become more congruent and, consequently, more psychologically healthy (Rogers, 1961, 1980). Curiously, the reason this became so important to Rogers was the lack of such meaningful relationships in his own life.  Because his family followed strict, fundamentalist rules, they discouraged relationships with people outside their family. The consequences were rather disturbing for Rogers:

…the attitudes toward persons outside our large family can be summed up schematically in this way:  “Other persons behave in dubious ways which we do not approve in our family. Many of them play cards, go to movies, smoke, dance, drink, and engage in other activities, some unmentionable.  So the best thing to do is to be tolerant of them, since they may not know better, but to keep away from any close communication with them and to live your life within the family…”

I could sum up these boyhood years by saying that anything I would today regard as a close and communicative interpersonal relationship with another was completely lacking during that period…I was peculiar, a loner, with very little place or opportunity for a place in the world of persons.  I was socially incompetent in any but superficial contacts. My fantasies during this period were definitely bizarre, and probably would be classed as schizoid by a diagnostician, but fortunately I never came in contact with a psychologist. (pp. 28-30; Rogers, 1980)

As noted above, the development of healthy relationships takes place whenever one person in the relationship is congruent.  Their congruence encourages the other person to be more congruent, which supports the continued open communication on behalf of the first person.  This interplay goes back and forth, encouraging continued and growing congruence in the relationship. As we will see below, this is basically the therapeutic situation, in which the therapist is expected to be congruent.  However, it certainly does not require a trained therapist, since it occurs naturally in any situation in which one person is congruent from the beginning of the relationship.

One of the most important, and hopefully meaningful, relationships in anyone’s life is marriage.  Rogers was married for 55 years, and as the end of his wife’s life approached, he poured out his love to her with a depth that astonished him (Rogers, 1980).  As relationships became more and more meaningful to him, he wanted to study the extraordinary relationships that become more than temporary. Although this is not necessarily synonymous with marriage, it most typically is.  So he conducted a series of informal interviews with people who were, or had been, in lengthy relationships (at least 3 years). In comparing the relationships that seemed successful, as compared to those that were unhappy or had already come to an end, Rogers identified four factors that he believed were most important for long-term, healthy relationships: dedication or commitment, communication, the dissolution of roles, and becoming a separate self (Rogers, 1972).

Dedication, Commitment:  Marriage is challenging:  love seems to fade, vows are forgotten or set aside, religious rules are ignored (e.g., “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”;  Matthew 19:6; Holy Bible, 1962). Rogers believed that in order for a relationship to last, each person must be dedicated to their partnership. They must commit themselves to working together throughout the changing process of their relationship, which is enriching their love and their life.

This is a black and white photograph of an elderly couple walking outside on a sidewalk. Their backs are facing their camera. The man is on the left and he is holding a cane in his left hand. The woman is on the right and she is pulling a suitcase with wheels using her right hand.
Image Source: MabelAmber. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Communication:  Communication encompasses much of human behavior, and it can be both subtle and complex.  Communication itself is not a good thing, since many negative and hurtful things can be communicated.  However, Rogers believed that we need to communicate persistent feeling, whether positive or negative, so that they don’t overwhelm us and come out in inappropriate ways.  It is always important to express such communication in terms of your own thoughts and feelings, rather than projecting those feelings onto others (especially in angry and/or accusatory ways).  This process involves risk, but one must be willing to risk the end of a relationship in order to allow it to grow.

Dissolution of Roles:  Culture provides many expectations for the nature of relationships, whether it be dating or something more permanent like marriage.  According to Rogers, obeying the cultural rules seems to contradict the idea of a growing and maturing relationship, a relationship that is moving forward (toward actualization).  However, when individuals make an intentional choice to fulfill cultural expectations, because they want to, then the relationship can certainly be actualizing for them.

Becoming a Separate Self:  Rogers believed that “a living partnership is composed of two people, each of whom owns, respect, and develops his or her own selfhood” (pg. 206; Rogers, 1972).  While it may seem contradictory that becoming an individual should enhance a relationship, as each person becomes more real and more open, they can bring these qualities into the relationship.  As a result, the relationship can contribute to the continued growth of each person.

Supplemental Materials

Carl Rogers Client Centered Therapy

This video [6:35] describes Carl Rogers’ client centered therapy and how it can be used to improve relationships in everyday life.



Theories of Counseling-Person-Centered Therapy

This video [18:02] explains the theory of person-centered therapy as applied to mental health counseling.  A summary of person-centered therapy and opinion on how specific aspects can be used in integrative counseling are reviewed.



Psychojargon: Unconditional Positive Regard

This brief video [1:02] explains unconditional positive regard.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Christopher Bruntsch.  (2018, December 11). Carl Rogers client centered therapy.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Dr. Todd Grande.  (2016, January 9).  Theories of counseling-Person-centered therapy.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

The Counselling Channel.  (2010, March 16). Psychojargon: Unconditional positive regard.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.