What is person-centred counselling?
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Welcome to Part 2 of my "Counselling Basics" series. As promised, this post will focus on my primary modality: person-centred counselling. In this post, I'll briefly explain what person-centred counselling is, what it involves, how it works, and what things it can help with. I'll also highlight what it's not, and what it generally isn't used for.
The history & theory bit
Person-centred counselling (also known as client-centred therapy) was first developed in the 1940s and 50s by an American humanistic psychologist called Carl Rogers. He argued that people are the experts of their own lives, and should be supported to explore their values and challenges to empower them to make their own choices.
Rogers argued that a lot of distress we experience is caused by what he referred to as "conditions of worth" and "introjected values". Conditions of worth are the conditions we believe we need to live by in order to be accepted by others. As children, we learn that behaving a certain way or doing particular things will please people around us - for example, we might work hard at maths at school to please our parents or teachers, even though we hate maths and would rather be doing art instead. Or we might be taught to do what people in authority tell us to do, even if we think it's wrong or don't agree with them.
Over time, these conditions become internalised, and turn into introjected values - we start to believe that being a certain way or pursuing particular goals is the "right" way to live. And when these introjected values clash with how we, at our core, actually want to live our lives (what Rogers referred to as "incongruence"), it can lead to distress and unhappiness. For example, we might have an introjected value that "real men like football", but if you're a man who hates football or finds it boring, trying to force yourself into being a football fan is not going to make for a very fulfilling life!
So how does person-centred counselling help us to identify these conditions of worth, overcome introjected values, and live more fulfilling lives?
How does person-centred counselling work?
Rogers emphasised that it is the counselling relationship that is the most important factor - not any particular intervention or advice - that helps clients to grow and change. This view was radically different to earlier therapeutic approaches, where the therapist was seen as the "expert", directing the therapeutic process and telling clients what they should do to resolve their problems.
Unlike your friends or family, who have history with you and their own opinions on how you should live your life or what you should do to "solve the problem", a person-centred counsellor is a neutral person who can ask questions to help you explore your values and support you to challenge what you've been told by other people is "right" or "good" to do. Because person-centred counsellors hold you as the expert of your life, they can't tell you what to do, because they don't know what it's really like to be you. Instead, they aim to achieve "empathic understanding" - exploring and reflecting on what you bring, to better understand what your experience of the world is like (and in the process, support you to better understand yourself).
Person-centred counsellors should offer what Rogers referred to as "unconditional positive regard" - unlike authority figures in your life, you don't need to act a certain way or do any particular things to please your counsellor. Person-centred counsellors should offer an accepting, non-judgemental
and confidential space in which you feel safe to speak honestly about what motivates you, what you're thinking and feeling, and explore your options going forwards. The therapeutic space might even be a place where you can safely explore different aspects of your identity and see how you feel "living" this, before taking it into the "real world".
But surely all counsellors should be non-judgemental and empathic?
Certainly! And many other therapeutic approaches have adopted the "core conditions" of person-centred counselling as givens in their work with counselling clients.
That said, it's important to remember that counsellors are still human beings - they will have their own views and life experiences, and that will shape how they see the world and understand your experiences. However, we are trained to be reflective, and should be engaging in regular supervision and continuing professional development to continually develop our skills and understanding of experiences outside our own. If you ever feel judged by your counsellor, you can highlight this to them directly (if you feel safe and able to do so), or you can choose to stop working with them. You are never under any obligation to continue working with any one counsellor (and I will explore your rights as a client in a future post!)
What can person-centred counselling help with?
Because of its no-fixed-agenda exploratory nature, person-centred counselling can help a broad range of people with a broad range of challenges. People often go to person-centred counsellors to work through grief and bereavement, low mood and depression, stress and anxiety, major life events or decisions, sense of identity... the list goes on. I specialise in life transitions, meaning and identity (which are topics also well-supported in existential therapy - I'll explore that in a future post!)
Person-centred counselling is particularly well-suited to people who want space to explore their thoughts, feelings and challenges openly, without being given specific tasks, techniques or advice to "solve" their problems. Which feeds in neatly to...
What person-centred counselling isn't
Person-centred counselling isn't a structured intervention with prescribed exercises or "homework" - you might have heard, read about, or experienced approaches like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) which does use some of these techniques. Some person-centred counsellors might complement their practice with techniques from other practices (such as using journaling or role-playing), but this isn't part of their core person-centred training.
But person-centred counselling isn't just a conversation either, or simply a "tell me how you feel" approach. Counsellors trained in the approach use reflective listening techniques to better understand your lived experiences, explore your circumstances, and in doing so, help you to better understand yourself. Unlike approaches which provide specific strategies to deal with a specific issue, person-centred counselling is aimed to help you to work out what it is that you can and want to do, in your specific life circumstances, to lead a life that is meaningful to you.
How long does person-centred counselling take?
Sorry, there's no fixed answer for this! Like so many things in counselling and psychotherapy, this is a hotly debated topic - some researchers and practitioners argue that 12-16 sessions is typically how long most therapeutic relationships need to last to have a meaningful effect, but this depends on so many factors. Every person is different, and as a result, every therapeutic relationship will be different.
Some people find just one session is all they need to openly explore something very specific; other people choose to stay with their counsellor long-term, as they find the confidential, non-judgemental environment a safe place to explore many different aspects of their lives. But whatever your aims, your counsellor should regularly review the process with you - are you finding the process useful? Do you think the process has been helpful for you so far - in what ways? They should never pressure you into continuing indefinitely (or stop before you feel ready!)
In my practice, in a first session with a new client, we will explore their reasons for seeking counselling and their aims, goals, or hopes for the process. If we decide to work together, I suggest contracting for six sessions initially (but I emphasise that if they wish to stop sooner, for whatever reason, this is fine); after six sessions, we'll discuss together how things are progressing, and negotiate from there. But it is what it says on the tin: person-centred. I'm led by what the client feels is right for them, whether that's another six sessions, or another six months, or more.
What can't person-centred counselling do?
This feels like another evasive answer, but really it depends on you and the counsellor - because in person-centred counselling, it's the relationship that matters. If you don't feel like you "click" with a counsellor or don't feel able to be honest and open with them, then their specialisms and years of experience are almost irrelevant.
That's why, before that initial full session, I offer a free consultation - it's an opportunity for clients to speak to me, ask me questions about my experience or the way that I work, and get a feel for me as a person. After all, if you don't feel comfortable talking honestly with a potential therapist in a short consultation, you may find it difficult to be open and honest with them regardless of how many sessions you have with them in future.
Many counsellors offer similar consultations, and I encourage any potential client to "shop around" - if you don't feel like you "click" with a counsellor - that's totally fine! It's not a reflection on them, or on you. With this in mind, in next week's post I'll be answering the question: How do I find the right counsellor?
Did you enjoy this post? Did you find it helpful? Want to know something about counselling I haven't talked about yet? Please leave me a comment below, or email me at email@example.com!