Though Carl Rogers does not enjoy the same degree of name recognition as Sigmund Freud, many psychologists agree that he has had far more influence over American culture, especially in the last half century.
Our objective in this post is to provide a brief overview of his theory.
Rogers speculates that each human being possesses an internal guidance system, which he refers to as the self-actualizing tendency. If followed, the self-actualizing tendency will lead the individual to become a fully functioning (psychologically healthy) person.
Rogers also postulated that all of us need acceptance from significant others. If that acceptance is given conditionally (I will accept you if you live a certain way) then the individual will only be able to accept himself if he follows those conditions of acceptance. Consequently, rather than following his self-actualizing tendency so as to achieve personal fulfillment, the individual will be guided by these conditions of acceptance, which will lead to psychological problems and failure. We might diagram this concept as follows:
For example, a boy might be gifted academically and enjoy academic pursuits. However, his father, who had a reputation for his athletic prowess back in the day conveys that his acceptance of his son is conditioned on his son excelling in sports. Therefore, rather than following his natural bent toward academics, in pursuit of his father’s acceptance the boy joins the football team, though he has little ability or interest in this area. This leads to failure, the psychological and social problems related to failure, and a lack of fulfillment because he has not pursued his own desires and dreams. It might be noted that even if he had succeeded in football, this would still have not brought the fulfillment needed for psychological health and growth because this pursuit is not compatible with who his is as a human being.
On the other hand, Rogers theorized that if significant others extended unconditional acceptance, the individual will be able to accept himself unconditionally, which in turn will free him to follow his self-actualizing tendency and thus to become the person he was meant to be. Here is what this would look like:
If the same boy’s father would convey, “Son, when I was your age I excelled in sports. It seems that your inclinations are toward academics. I just want you to know that regardless of what you pursue and the level of success you achieve I will be proud of you.” Receiving this unconditional acceptance, this boy will be able to accept himself unconditionally, which will allow him to be guided by his self-actualizing tendency, in his case leading him to focus on his studies. This will not only allow him to succeed and thus enjoy all the psychological and social benefits of success, but also it will guide him into the area of interest in which he feels at home and finds fulfillment.
Therefore, psychological health and success is realized through unconditional acceptance, while all of the various maladies people experience, such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, failure in school, inability to establish good relationships, all forms of inappropriate behavior, etc. can be traced to conditional acceptance.
Therefore, unconditional acceptance not only holds the key to the individual becoming the person he was meant to be, but also it provides the foundation for effective parenting, successful education, and a wholesome society.
The psychologist enables a person to deal with his pathologies by developing a relationship that enables him to fulfill the role of significant other. Within the context of that relationship he conveys unconditional acceptance, which enables the client to accept himself unconditionally, and this unconditional self-acceptance consequently frees him to follow his self-actualizing tendency, allowing him to overcome emotional problems and inappropriate behaviors, and to become a fully functioning person.
Likewise, if parents, teachers, and others in our society would work on conveying unconditional acceptance, not only would this produce psychologically healthy individuals, but also it would provide academic and societal success.
This theory as described above seems reasonable and intuitive. In addition, it seems like a healthy and friendly way to live. How much better to accept people for who they are than to force them into a mold we have made for them. In addition, if a leading psychologist gives us assurance that doing so will produce wholesome individuals and a healthy society, it seems that reasonable people should adopt and implement this approach.
In fact, our society has fully embraced this theory to the extent that it has become the foundational concept of contemporary American culture.
However, this presentation puts this theory in the most favorable light. But further analysis reveals a hidden dark side that wreaks disaster on individuals and society. That malignant quality is the topic for our next post.