Carl Rogers: A Way of Being

Reviewed by John Cowan

I was in my last three years of post-graduate work in a Roman Catholic seminary, about to be released on unsuspecting parishioners with tons of hours spent on theology, scripture, philosophy, history, and absolutely none on counseling. Since most of my contacts from ordination on out would be seeking counseling and would have little interest in the other topics I decided maybe I should at least read a book. I picked one called Counseling the Catholic by a priest, Charles Curran. He was presenting the theories and practices of Carl Rogers, by then a noted psychologist with an international reputation. Counseling the Catholic gave me a rudimentary knowledge of Carl’s approach, and presented a defense of the appropriateness of using Carl’s theory and practice when counseling Catholics. There was a general assumption, Carl himself among others assuming it, that you cannot use his method in a Catholic setting, since his method relies on the inner wisdom of the individual and a good Catholic, and certainly a good Catholic priest relies on the wisdom of the church, at least on certain critical occasions.

So I read several books by Carl and at ordination without any more work than that, none being available to me, began my sort of Rogerian non-directive counseling practice. Was I very good at it? I doubt it. The real thing had years of training including feedback on his or her skills. I just read some books. Nevertheless, people I saw reported feeling helped. Not as good as I would have been with the training, better than I would have been without the books, and much better than I would have been spouting truisms derived from the Catholic faith as provided by my seminary training.

As Carl predicted, that would set off daily internal conflicts for me. For instance, she says, “I want a divorce.” And I say something like, “You want to be done with this marriage” in an empathetic tone of voice. Knowing full well that the Catholic answer was, “No way. We don’t do stuff like that.” To be truthful, while it wore on me a little, I lost no sleep worrying about it. Sometimes she got the divorce and sometimes she changed what she did and influenced her partner and improved the situation. And of course sometimes the whole process went plop.

This is Carl’s theory: The person has the internal resources to move ahead. The counselor assists by hearing what the person is expressing and by accurately and empathetically presenting it back to him or her. The clarity of hearing back what you feel and the support of a caring person makes it possible for the client to move forward to the next step. No attempt is made to direct them. Over time they will get to where they need to go. Not always of course, the method is not infallible and even non-directive therapists make mistakes.

In this book Carl tells of conference where he and four other world renowned psychologists were given a case study of a young woman. She had been written up thoroughly starting in her early twenties during a period she was hospitalized off and on and saw several therapists.

The other four saw many hints of the beginning of breakdown in her early life. Carl saw none. She was a little chubbier than most, but far from despair about it. Had normal ins and outs to relationships. Did both well and poorly in school. A regular kid, according to Carl. A fragile network of confusion and seething but buried impulses said the other four. I rather think both statements correct. Different ways of describing the same thing, a teen-age girl, except the other guys thought that pathological. I counseled many teen-age girls. There are easier paths than being one, but most survive it without collapsing later in life because of it..

In her mid-twenties she began to fall apart. Helpless. Confused. Depressed. There was an incident when she was twenty-two that Carl, but none of the others, fastened on as the critical moment. She fell deeply in love with the man she knew she should marry and spend the rest of her life with. Her father, whom she also loved deeply, convinced her that that would be a mistake. She left her boy friend, moved on with her life, and began to fall apart.

Carl’s diagnosis was that in believing her father, giving up what her soul required of her, she lost confidence in her inner truth. Then as she began to disintegrate the helping professions moved in to tell her what that inner truth should be and drowned the seed of her being. They were so confident of their judgment and so dismissive of hers that when she said she was suicidal, they, knowing better, discharged her from the hospital. She killed herself, of course.

If Carl had been the counselor there would have been minimal tests, no labels, just two people in a room one doing most of the speaking, the other supporting her in the journey to find her deepest self.

(In describing this case Carl warns us that he is so angry he is about to use strong language. In fact, I did not even notice a harsh word. Even in a rage he remains gentle Carl. A motto he offers is “To move gently through life.”.)

In A Way of Being, Carl at the end of his life takes the reader over all the hills and valleys of his career. Sometimes he writes new text and sometimes he pulls in pieces he wrote at the time. We have here a great and honest mind putting his cards on the table. He writes not only of counseling but about his work applying his theories and practices to classroom learning, school management, government work, large and huge group meetings for a variety of purposes. With straightforward reporting of success and failure.

There is here little speculation, but some. He outlines the potential for humanity if we but learn to accept the present moment as a springboard for the future. There are here breathtaking possibilities.

This is not simply a technique. As the title of the book says, this is “a way of being.” Carl looks upon others and instead of seeing helplessness, evil, invincible ignorance he sees strength, goodness, potential and in all aspects of life he supports life’s flowering. (His hobby was gardening.)

In the winter that Beau was about two years old my daughter-in-law would bundle him in a snowsuit and I would take him out to the sidewalk to trudge around among the drifts. My son told me that after one such safari she said to him that she found my behavior puzzling. “He just follows the kid around.” When Ben told me this I told him to tell her, “You are observing Rogerian non-directive baby-walking!”

Perhaps you would enjoy being a Rogerian non-directive baby-walker?Try A Way of Being !