In one of my earlier articles, I wrote about Carl Rogers and his sometimes 'terrifying theories' which stood in stark contrast to Rogers the man.
One of the barriers to understanding the 19 propositions is the language used. The reason usually given for using precise language is because it allows understanding of complex ideas. However, precise language also serves as a barrier, preventing people, who haven't followed the prescribed professional pathway, from understanding what is being talked about.
What I want to do in this article is to demystify this piece of theory - to take the complex language Rogers uses and offer a translation.
What ultimately emerges in Propositions 1 to 9 is an explanation of how Rogers believed identity is created. Each proposition is a carefully constructed block which is built on top of the ones preceding it.
The actualising tendency is key
Proposition 4 is a central idea in the 19 propositions, and this is how Rogers puts it.
Proposition 4. The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain and enhance the experiencing organism.
Re-writing this in something closer to everyday language, I get, "life has one basic drive - to survive, grow and develop". Although it now sounds like life has three basic tendencies!
What Rogers is referring to is something known as the actualising tendency, and the potato story is perhaps his most vivid description of this mysterious process.
He often describes this tendency as a 'striving', which leads me to my first question, "What am I striving towards?" and then my second and essentially unanswerable question is, "During a typical day, I have lots of impulses, which are often contradictory, how do I know which one is this basic drive?" The actualising tendency is a matter of belief, which Rogers also makes clear in his potato story.
Striving, or driving, implies a direction, it's taking us somewhere, and Rogers himself calls it a 'directional force'. And this leads me to a question, a very big question, "Is there a purpose to life? A place we are supposed to be heading?"
Rogers' answer to this question seems to be Proposition 19, his final proposition. However, from my experience as a counsellor, I am acutely aware that this big question is answered in a multitude of different ways. The questions, "Where are you going? What is your purpose? How do you choose?" do not always lead to proposition 19.
Identity and the self-structure
A key theme in counselling is looking at how we choose, and then perhaps making different ones, or perhaps seeing the choices that we made in the past in a new light. How we choose is also central to the 19 Propositions.
Rogers explains choice as arising from something he calls a 'self-structure', and he sets up the framework for this 'self-structure' with proposition 2,
Proposition 2. The organism reacts to the field as it is experienced and perceived. This perceptual field is for the individual, "reality."
Translating this I get, "People create an understanding of the world based on their experiences. This understanding becomes 'reality' for that person."
Really, Rogers is talking about infants here. He then suggests that as they grow and develop, something starts happening to this understanding of reality, as outlined in Proposition 8,
Proposition 8. A portion of the total perceptual field gradually becomes differentiated as the self.
I might also write this as, "A part of the child's understanding gets called 'me', and is separated out from 'other' ".
As an infant I might reach out and grasp a bit of blanket in my hand. I start to become aware that the sense of how my hand is positioned belongs to me, and the sense of the material in my hand belongs to other. And in Proposition 9, Rogers adds in how 'other' can alter the perception of self,
Proposition 9. As a result of interaction with the environment, and particularly as a result of evaluational interaction with others, the structure of the self is formed - an organised, fluid but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the "I" or the "me", together with values attached to these concepts.
This is quite a complex statement, and it's also quite slippery. I find myself understanding it as I read it, and then once I have read it, I find myself thinking "What did it say again?" What Rogers seems to be writing about here, is how identity is formed. When he talks about 'self-structure' I can substitute 'identity', and it means more or less the same thing.
Doing that I get, "a child's identity develops in a consistent way over time; happens mostly through relationships with other people; and is also made up of value judgements about different parts of their identity."
Tying it together
Putting all three propositions together I get a story about identity, which goes something like this,
A person's sense of self begins forming during infancy. Initially the infant develops an understanding of the world around it through experience.
Even the above is still a fairly complex way of talking about something that is in everybody's experience, so I might also describe this process of developing identity as,
Growing up we learn that we are an individual in a family - we belong and we are also separate. The values we carry into adulthood we mostly learnt from our parents, or the people in our lives who acted as our parents.
Counselling is about change. Sometimes it's about learning some new techniques to cope with something, such as how to calm oneself down when feeling anxious. Other times it's about making deeper changes - changing not so much who we are, rather changing how we see ourselves - a shift in the organisation of what Rogers calls the self-structure. What the counsellor trusts in is that somehow, somewhere there is a part of you that knows where you need to go, and it is this that directs the therapy.
Part two looks at how Rogers believed that the values people learn from their parents can harm them, and how therapy can help.
main picture by Ben Earwicker Garrison Photography
Rogers, C. R., (1951). Client-Centered Therapy. London: Constable
The 19 Propositions (wiki link)
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I am an experienced counsellor in private practice in the Southampton area of England, UK. I specialise in offering personal therapy to counselling students as part of their course requirement.