Existential and Person-Centred Theory Applications

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Discuss Person-Centred and Existential ideas and a range of key figures with a particular in-depth analysis of Person-Centred thinking and its application to self and others.

Within this essay, I am going to discuss person-centred and existential ideas with a particular emphasis on person-centred thinking and its application to myself and others. I will demonstrate a knowledge of key, influential figures and the distinctive features of the person-centred and existential modalities.

With a background in Greek philosophy, existential philosophy is attributed primarily to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, in the 19th century. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard disagreed with the collectivist thinking of the time and developed the idea that only in freeing one’s mind to consider personal experience and individuality, could one begin actually to live. As such, Kierkegaard is often thought of as the father of existentialism.

Shortly after Nietzsche’s death in 1855, Edmund Husserl, the principal founder of phenomenology, proposed practical application methods to gain a better understanding of the world and our experience of it. He proposed that we practice ‘epoché’, withholding all pre-existing judgement of the world, ‘bracketing’ off our own experiences and, initially, through ‘horizontalization’, acknowledge equal importance of all information received (Beyer, 2018). In short, Husserl suggested we try to experience the world in the first person (IBID).

It is the combination of existential philosophy and phenomenology in the 20th century that we recognise as contemporary existential psychotherapy. It is collaborative and forms a theoretical base for other approaches. Mick Cooper states that existential therapy is, “a rich tapestry of intersecting therapeutic practices, all of which originate themselves around a shared concern: ‘human lived-existence’” (2003, p. 1).

A philosophical approach, existentialism does not see humans as having an essential self but as continually evolving in relation to our experiences and environment. As such, there is no existential personality theory treating the individual as a sum of parts. Instead, it is a holistic approach that considers the individual as a thinking, feeling, acting, living individual, with free will, and inherently capable of choice (McLeod, 2014). Existential psychotherapy facilitates a gradual process that aims to bring the client closer to their authentic self and away from superficiality. Past experience is relevant in informing future choices, but the onus is on living in the present. Existential therapy invites us to question the quality of our very existence (McLeod, 2014), something Martin Heidegger described as “not inside of us but something between us and the world” (Cooper, cited in Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation, 2016, p. 138).

Existential psychotherapy is a dynamic therapeutic approach that focuses on concerns rooted in existence” (Yalom, 2001, p. xvi). American existentialist, Irvin Yalom’s, use of the word ‘dynamic’ is in the technical sense; referring to the internal conflict in humans that dictates thoughts and behaviours. Yalom (1980) attributes this conflict to the conscious or unconscious inability to reconcile, what he terms, the ‘four ultimate concerns of existence’, death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.

Heidegger described the existential given of death as the “possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all” (Ettema et al., 2015). Essentially death is our motivation to live, to exist entirely in every moment available to us because life is finite. Freedom is the existential choice to live our lives as we wish; to self-determine. With freedom comes responsibility; we may make any existential choice but must accept responsibility for potential consequences. Isolation comes with the human need to be an individual and yet part of a group. Existentially we are alone but are relational creatures. One aim of existentialist therapy is to help the client learn to communicate and relate more effectively. Meaninglessness is the lack of ultimate purpose. As humans, we construct our own, personal meaning of existence, our drive. Nietzsche said, “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how”; meaning in life makes us stronger (1988, p. 6).

Each of the four ultimate concerns will give rise to existential anxiety, a phenomenon existentialists believe is an essential part of growth (May, 1950). Rollo May believed that if the anxiety is proportionate to the threat, it is healthy and can be constructive. Existential therapists consider a large part of their role to be helping the client to come to terms with their anxiety.

The idea of existential anxiety resonates with me. I experience nervousness and anxiety in unfamiliar or high-pressure situations, and in the moment, I abhor the manifestation of these feelings. However, after the fact, I am reminded that these feelings validate my existence; they remind me that I am alive. They do not maim or incapacitate me but serve to illustrate the fact that I am a thinking, feeling human. 

Two existential givens resonate particularly with me. Death itself I do not fear per se. I accept Epicurus’ philosophy of the ‘argument of symmetry’, whereby the state of death is akin to that of pre-birth; something we do not remember and cannot perceive (Yalom, 2013). What I fear is life not lived, not seeing my children reach adulthood; missing potential existential touchstones. But the anxiety this feeling incites reminds me of how much I adore life. Meaninglessness for me has been a transitory experience. When my children were younger, with the benefit of hindsight, I see that I existed to raise and nurture them. As they and I have grown, I have found a purpose beyond them. I now prioritise myself and my needs alongside those of my children.

In my case study client, I am aware of a strong sense of existential isolation, both literally and figuratively; inflicted and selected. At home, she is isolated as the only child and feels that isolation keenly. She craves connection but makes the existential choice to avoid social situations due to a lack of self-confidence and anxiety. This feeling of isolation was the main focus of our work together.

Ludwig Binswanger (1963) proposed three existential dimensions in the world that characterise human existence and can help people to understand the context of their issues. The Umwelt, or natural world, encompasses biological needs and instincts. The Mitwelt is the human relational world, both individually and in groups. The Eigenwelt is the ‘own’ world, unique to humans and positing self-awareness. Emmy Van Duerzen added the Überwelt, the spiritual world or dimension where individuals relate to the unknown, creating a sense of ideology (2006). The four dimensions are interlinked and assist in charting the map of human existence.

Emmy Van-Deurzen has been instrumental in the development of contemporary existential therapy. In 1988, she founded the Society for Existential Analysis, bringing together psychotherapists and philosophers alike to work together from an existential perspective (2006). She also implemented existentially-based courses in several London-based academic institutions, giving the approach more weight in contemporary society (IBID). Other contemporary existential theorists include Irvin Yalom, Rollo May, Ronald Laing and Mick Cooper.

In 1940, Carl Rogers gave a talk, New Concepts in Psychotherapy at the University of Minnesota (Rogers, 1942). Later published in Counseling and Psychotherapy (IBID), this talk is widely considered to have been the birth of the person-centred approach (Barrett-Lennard, 1979).

A respected psychologist, Rogers diverged from the traditional psychodynamic thinking of the time primarily due to a feeling that the treatment options available were ineffective and too directive. He believed that,

It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried…unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process (Rogers, 1967, p. 11).

What Rogers was proposing was a client-led therapeutic experience, in which the therapist would work with the client as a means of empowering them to navigate their process, as opposed to offering diagnosis from an expert position. The person-centred approach does not follow the medical model. Diagnosis is considered only in terms of any medical diagnosis that the client may have received either before or during therapy. (Merry, cited in Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation, 2016).

The person-centred approach is a fundamentally optimistic approach “which begins and ends with experiencing” (McLeod, 2014, p. 171). It is a fluid process that requires little technical skill from the therapist, as it is the therapeutic relationship that provides the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions for change’ (Rogers, 1957). “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination” (Rogers, 1967, p. 186). As a client-led approach, person-centred therapy encourages self-exploration, resulting in greater self-awareness and autonomy than other approaches (McLeod, 2014). Like existentialism, the person-centred approach is holistic, and thus the conscious and subconscious, emotions and behaviours are all thought to be interlinked and not considered separately (McLeod, 2014).

Rogers (1967) believed that humans are essentially born good, each with an ‘organismic self’, the most authentic and raw version of ourselves. The organismic self has an internal locus of evaluation, a trusting of the organismic valuing process. The organismic self intrinsically evaluates what it needs from people and its environment, in order to survive. (Mearns, 1996). However, throughout childhood, we develop a need to please and be accepted, which supersedes the basic instincts of our organismic self. This need for approval stems from the introjected values and beliefs others impose upon us. Rogers described the breakdown of the organismic self as a result of “evaluational interaction with others” (1951, p. 498). Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne (2013) developed this idea further and coined the term ‘conditions of worth’. A relatively simple concept, conditions of worth represent the entirety of the child development theory of the person-centred approach; emphasis is on these internalised values, not formative figures (McLeod, 2014). Person-centred theorists believe that we are born with an authentic, organismic self and conditions of worth are placed upon us, leading to incongruence and contributing to the development of a ‘self-concept’ (Mearns & Thorne, 2013). Incongruence derives from a disparity between the organismic self and self-concept. The organismic self, conditions of worth and self-concept together constitute the person-centred ‘theory of self’ (Mearns & Thorne, 2013).

The self-concept develops over time and is dependent on the attitudes of those around us (Merry, cited in The Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation, 2016). “Where this feedback is positive and constructive, our self-concept will enable us positively to value our self-worth” (Mearns & Thorne, 2013, p. 28). However, reinforcement of the idea that one must be strong, for example, will be internalised as part of the self-concept, and the individual will adopt this expectation of themselves, meaning they are not their authentic self. The individual is now working from an external locus of evaluation; relying on guidance from others as they no longer trust in their own organismic valuing.

I can see that my self-concept is removed from my organismic self, although the dissonance between the two is lessening. I was told, as a child, that I was ‘fine’, an introjected belief that I internalised. Consequently, I grew up believing that I never had cause to complain or feel self-pity. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to cope, whatever the circumstance, I always had to be able. As a mother myself now, and as a direct result of new knowledge, I am acutely aware of imposing my values and beliefs onto my children. I strive to ensure that the primary weight of expectation they feel is their own. I have been working through conditions of worth placed upon me in therapy and am learning to trust my organismic valuing process. While independent and capable, and proud of the fact, I now appreciate that I am human and am no longer ashamed to ask for help. My self-concept is growing closer to my organismic self.

Rogers went on to develop person-centred theory with reference to Abraham Maslow’s (1954) theory of self-actualization, the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. Maslow, speaking about the self-actualized person said,

Their ease of penetration to reality,…acceptance and spontaneity imply a superior awareness of their own impulses, their own desires, opinions, and subjective reactions in general (1954, p. 210).

From this, Rogers derived his theory of the fully functioning person. “The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers, 1951, p. 487). Rogers called this the ‘actualizing tendency’, which he believed is inherent, present and functioning at all times. The actualizing tendency is the drive to achieve one’s full potential; to be the best possible version of oneself. In the right conditions and unencumbered by conditions of worth, an individual may realise the actualizing tendency and become what Rogers termed ‘fully functioning’ (Rogers, 1967). A fully functioning person “…lives freely, subjectively, in an existential confrontation of this moment in life” (Rogers, 1962: 21-33). Characteristically, the fully functioning person is “his own sifter of evidence” (Rogers, 1967, p. 191); they trust in their organismic valuing process and are open to experience and living in alignment with their ideal self. It is important to note that Rogers suggested that the fully functioning person is an aspirational ideal and not necessarily achievable (Rogers, 1967).

What Rogers’ theory of the fully functioning person lacks in a contemporary context, Mearns and Thorne have considered and theorised. The actualizing tendency has always been concerned with the enhancement of the individual specifically. However, they have advanced this theory by suggesting that the actualizing tendency must be “balanced by a positive, socially mediated motivational drive” (Mearns & Thorne, cited in Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation, 2016, p. 18). Societies are increasingly diverse, and consideration of culture and societal restrictions on the actualizing tendency is essential. Roseanne Knox states that,

It is undoubtedly the case that Rogers developed his theories within a wider context of a generally individualistic viewpoint (Cited in Tribes of the Person-Centred nation, 2016, p. 213).

An essential concept of person-centred theory is the idea that humans are relational, and one must, therefore, consider the implications of cultural influence. Van Kolmthout proposes that “A balanced theory of personality change should recognise both our need for autonomy and our need for belongingness” (1998, p. 55). Modern systems theory would suggest that the concept of the actualizing tendency is outdated, individualistic and does not meet the needs of collectivist cultures (Wang, 2003).

Throughout our case study sessions, I was conscious of the dissonance between my client’s organismic self and her self-concept. From a very young age, she had conditions of worth thrust upon her, and this has continued into adulthood. Even now, her parents tell her she cannot cope and will never be independent of them. Although my client argues vehemently that this is not so, these conditions of worth have been absorbed into her self-concept. As such, I can identify that my client is not a fully functioning person, in Rogers’ terms, and yet her determination to gain independence suggests her actualizing tendency is present and functioning. Over the six weeks that we worked together, I was able to see a progression in my client’s process towards regaining an internal locus of evaluation. I felt I was able to offer, experience and identify the six necessary and sufficient conditions for change in order to facilitate this.

Theory of self, the fully functioning person and configuration theory make up the person-centred ‘theory of personality’ (Mearns & Thorne, 2000). Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne began to develop their theory of ‘configurations of self’ in the mid-1900s, in alignment with Roger’s person-centred approach. They hypothesised that it is normal for individuals to experience different personalities, or configurations, within themselves. Mearns and Thorne define these configurations as,

A hypothetical construct denoting a pattern of feelings, thoughts and behaviour symbolised as reflective of a dimension of existence within the self (2000, p. 102).

Configurations function independently and have their own, individual characteristics. They often surface as a means of protecting the self-concept, and Mearns and Thorne (2013) state that it is essential that a therapist treats all configurations equally as they are all intrinsic parts of the individual.

Throughout my case study, I have become increasingly aware of the reality of configurations both in my client and myself. My client heard as a child that crying is a sign of weakness. This condition of worth placed upon her adversely affected her self-concept. As an adult, my client is unable to cry through personal sadness and is only openly emotional at what she terms ‘superficial issues’. In therapy, this manifested as a childlike need to be coddled and looked after. This configuration in my client resonated with me as an aspect of my own self-concept. I was expected to be strong and independent as a child, a role I dutifully fulfilled, for fear of rejection. However, as an adult, I can admit to weakness and fallibility and therefore, invite an almost parental, nurturing response at times.  I was able to see this configuration in both my client and me and thus apply theory to both my personal and professional development.

Existential philosopher, Martin Büber is thought to have influenced person-centred therapy in terms of interrelatedness (Cooper, cited in Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation, 2016). Büber (1958) developed what he called the ‘I-Thou’ attitude to ‘Others’. The I-Thou way of relating is in stark contrast to dehumanising ‘I-It’ reductionism. I-Thou relating is characterised by an acceptance of the whole of the client and engaging with them with the whole of one’s own being, in return. At this level of relating, the organismic self is in relative equilibrium with the self-concept, and there is genuine respect and warmth between parties (Büber, 1958).

Büber’s idea of relating at such a deep level was instrumental in the development of the notion of contact at ‘relational depth’ (Mearns, 1996). Mearns and Schmidt (2006) claimed that therapeutically speaking, Buber’s theory would be better ordered as ‘Thou-I’, thus prioritising the client, or ‘Other’. In 2005, Dave Mearns collaborated with Mick Cooper, developing the concept of relational depth, describing it as,

A feeling of profound contact and engagement with a client, in which one simultaneously experiences high and consistent levels of empathy and acceptance towards the Other, and relates to them in a highly transparent way… the client is experienced as acknowledging one’s empathy, acceptance and congruence…and is experienced as fully congruent in that moment (p. 36).

This idea bears relevance to a phenomenon within counselling that Rogers described as an experiencing of ‘presence’. (1986). However, Rogers was referring only to his own, individual experiencing, whereas relational depth is a perceived mutuality in experiencing between the therapist and client, a profound connectedness or meeting at a primal level. It consists of emotional qualities such as trust, intimacy and mutuality, signifying depth progression (Wiggins et al., 2012). Studies show that relational depth is more likely to be achieved by therapists who have spent considerable time working on themselves and are psychologically sound enough to be authentic, open and potentially vulnerable with the client (Cooper, 2013).

I hoped to achieve relational depth with my client during our case study experience. Initially, it seemed to elude us, which I found frustrating. My client was shy and private by nature, and I felt we might never engage at any depth. I spent some time reflecting on this and deduced that I was actively trying to achieve relational depth and thus finding myself lacking as a counsellor. I chose to move forward in a more relaxed and authentic manner and to consider that, perhaps within this particular therapeutic alliance, I may not experience relational depth. This relieved the pressure I had been feeling. Later there was a noticeable shift in the relationship between my client and me, and I felt a brief moment of what I can only describe as relational depth. It was fleeting but real. I must assume that my client felt it too because thereafter, I became aware of a feeling of total engagement and authenticity on both sides. As a result, my client spoke freely, and our work together seemed more productive. Her body language was more open and relaxed; she smiled more, and I felt a genuine warmth between us. Our meeting at relational depth had allowed her to recognise that I was experiencing empathy, and unconditional positive regard and being congruent. Thus, she felt safe and accepted and was able to look deeper into herself. Achieving relational depth was useful in giving me an insight into personality change. The following excerpt perfectly describes my perception of the fragility and worth of relational depth:

This viewpoint is captured by a humanistic trainee interviewed by Connelly (2009), who said: “I’m quite happy for it [relational depth] to be elusive … There’s a fear of, you know – it’s like kind of butterfly catching, isn’t it? – there’s a fear of catching something very beautiful and trying to define what it is. And then, and in that process, losing what it is” (Cooper, 2013, p. 62).

In conjunction with the six necessary and sufficient conditions for change, the ‘seven stages of process’ and ‘nineteen propositions’ form the three pillars of person-centred theory (Rogers, 1967). The proposition I most relate to my client is, “The best vantage point for understanding behavior is from the internal frame of reference of the individual himself” (Rogers, 1951, p. 494). I felt at times that my client believed her thought processes unique and only understandable from her frame of reference. I also felt that perhaps this was a justification for what she considered weak responses. Concerning the seven stages of process, stage three resonates most, reflecting on our work together. Here the client begins to accept responsibility for herself but generalises and concentrates on the past rather than the present (Rogers, 1967). I noticed that my client moved fluidly in and out of this stage.

With a good knowledge of the existential and person-centred theories and their application, has come a vast improvement in me professionally. I can identify elements of theory more proficiently and understand their relevance in practice. Through personal therapy and self-reflection, my self-awareness has increased radically. Carl Rogers suggested that a therapist should never take a client further than they are willing to go themselves (1967). I believe that only through continued self-awareness and understanding can a counsellor offer their client unconditional positive regard, remain congruent and empathise authentically; thus, facilitating narrowing the gap between their self-concept and organismic self.


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