On Becoming A Person Summary
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A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy
Have you ever heard of client-centered therapy?
Well, Carl Rogers invented that!
And this is his best-known book:
Who Should Read “On Becoming A Person”? And Why?
On Becoming a Person is one of the ultimate psychology classics, and though written in a somewhat outdated style and a bit long (more than 400 pages) it’s certainly a must for everyone who wants to understand better human beings and psychotherapeutic practice.
The book has been a bestseller for about six decades – so, we’re pretty sure that it’s more than just another book on how to live a more fulfilled life.
It’s one of those which can actually help you attain it.
About Carl Rogers
Carl R. Rogers was an American psychologist, one of the founders of the client-centered approach to psychology and one of the most influential psychologists in American history.
Unsurprisingly, he received quite a few honors for his work, including the inaugural Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 1956 and the Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Psychology n 1972, both bestowed upon him by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Though revolutionary in his time, many of his ideas are nowadays widely accepted by psychologists worldwide.
In a recent study, Rogers was rated by colleagues to be both the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th century and the second most respected clinician, only to Sigmund Freud.
“On Becoming A Person PDF Summary”
One of Carl Rogers best-known books, On Becoming A Person is, arguably, one of the most important volumes on human psychology and psychotherapy ever written.
It’s also probably one of the very first psychology bestsellers: when it appeared in 1961 – Peter D. Kramer, M.D., writes in an “Introduction” to one of the newer editions of the book – it brought Rogers “unexpected national recognition.”
On Becoming a Person – Kramer goes on – “sold millions of copies when million was a rare number in publishing. Rogers was, for the decade that followed, the Psychologist of America, likely to be consulted by the press on any issue that concerned the mind, from creativity to self-knowledge to the national character.”
With that being said, it should be noted that Rogers didn’t expect such a thing; in fact, On Becoming a Person is not even a monograph, but a collection of articles penned by Rogers during a whole decade.
However, he did compile (and edited) them after he had discovered that he wasn’t writing for psychotherapists, but for “people – nurses, housewives, people in the business world, priests, ministers, teachers, youth.”
This doesn’t mean that he didn’t consider psychotherapists to be people; on the contrary, in fact. And that is one of the main ideas of this book.
Let’s start with that one.
A New Type of Psychology: Humanistic Psychology
Let us guess:
As far as you and everyone you know is concerned, psychotherapy is all about smart-looking men or women sitting in a chair opposite you and asking you questions until they can help you reach a solution to your problems – or, even better, offer you one.
Well, Carl Rogers thought otherwise.
You see, he realized, after a pretty long career as both a researcher and a clinician, that he – or anyone else for that matter – is simply not competent enough to solve other people’s problems. After all, everyone has them and what really puts one human being in a position above another one?
And then Rogers realized something else: whenever he had come across a problem in his life, what helped and healed him wasn’t a talk with someone acting from an above-position, but a conversation with one who is a peer in every sense of the word.
Even without trying really hard, we guess that you can easily recall a situation in which a long talk with a friend made you feel better, or, to use the wrong word for the sake of simplicity, normal.
That’s it, Rogers realized: all we need to live a more fulfilled life is to feel that our desires and actions are normal!
And the job of a psychotherapist should be that: to listen attentively and pass no judgment over his patients, thus creating a safe environment wherein one can really get in touch with his true self.
If that sounds like something every psychotherapist ever has said to you at least a couple of times, consider it Rogers’ fault.
“Certain ideas that Rogers championed,” writes Kramer, “have become so widely accepted that it is difficult to recall how fresh, even revolutionary, they were in their time.”
Rogers’ Influences: Humanist Psychology Is Existentialist Psychology
As is the case with all ideas, it’s not like Rogers’ fell from Mars; on the contrary: they are deeply rooted within the philosophy of existentialism which emerged from the ashes of the two great wars; especially the second one.
Let’s have a look at them, so you can understand Rogers’ U-turn better.
We’ve already told you a thing or two about existentialism’s fundamental tenets while summarizing Being and Nothingness, the central work by, arguably, the greatest existentialist philosopher of the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre.
If you remember well, Sartre’s main idea was rather simply formulated: in humans, “existence precedes essence,” i.e., there is no blueprint on how a human should look like (essence), so we are in charge of the meaning of our own lives (existence).
In other words, we are “condemned to be free” (we can be whatever we want to), but we cage ourselves to exist according to certain principles (usually thrown at us by others), and we cage others by thinking that we know how they should live their lives.
Because it’s easier for us to find excuses than to find ways; even though the former brings frustration, it is much more comfortable than the latter which always comes with a bit of fear.
Now, Sartre’s ideas were themselves inspired by the work of a great 19th-century Danish philosopher with a complicated name, Søren Kierkegaard.
In Kierkegaard’s eyes – recaps Rogers – because we can choose to be what we want to, “the most common despair is to be in despair at not choosing, or willing, to be oneself.” And you can do even worse: “the deepest form of despair is to choose ‘to be another than himself.’”
Consequently, “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair,” and (Rogers adds) “this choice is the deepest responsibility of man.”
In other words (because Kierkegaard’s and Rogers’ are somewhat unnecessarily complicated), you can be whatever you want to be, but only if you choose to be yourself, you will not feel despair at your choice.
How does this help a psychotherapist who wants to help a patient?
To understand that, we should probably introduce you to the idea of “confirming the other” developed by Martin Buber, an existentialist philosopher and mystic from the University of Jerusalem.
Buber says in a paragraph quoted (and edited) by Carl Rogers: “Confirming means… accepting the whole potentiality of the other… I can recognize in him, know in him, the person he has been… created to become… I confirm him in myself, and then in him, in relation to this potentiality that … can now be developed, can evolve.”
Once again – unnecessarily complicated; let us rephrase it in Rogers’ words: “If I accept the other person as something fixed, already diagnosed and classified, already shaped by his past, then I am doing my part to confirm this limited hypothesis. If I accept him as a process of becoming, then I am doing what I can to confirm or make real his potentialities.”
In other words, if you can be whatever you want to be, what you are at the moment is exactly what you are not (statistically, let’s say that’s only about 1% of your potential realized and you still have 99% to go).
And a psychotherapist needs to start from there.
He/she needs to see you as someone in the process of becoming, and not as a finished product; in that way, only he can help you: not by dealing with your past problems, but by dealing with the possibilities that lie in your future; and they are all but endless.
The Laws of Human Nature: Rogers’ Shift
We guess that you can already understand what kind of a shift Rogers introduced in the world of psychology; but one can understand this better if we compare his approach to the approach practiced by his predecessors.
And, of course, most of them were influenced either by Jung’s or Freud’s theories.
And, according to the fathers of psychology, there’s something disturbing deep within each and every one of us; and it is a psychotherapist’s job to help an individual either to do away with these dark impulses (Freud) or to embrace them and incorporate them in a healthier way in his being (Jung).
“On the whole,” writes Rogers, “the viewpoint of the professional worker as well as the layman is that man as he is, in his basic nature, had best be kept under control or under cover or both.”
However, during his practice, Rogers discovered something so “foreign to our present culture” that even he was aware that it would probably never be accepted by the mainstream practice.
Namely, that “the innermost core of man’s nature, the deepest layers of his personality, the base of his ‘animal nature,’ is positive in nature – is basically socialized, forward-moving, rational and realistic.”
Rogers quotes two authors – Abraham Maslow and Ashley Montagu – as the “solitary voices” of protest against the widely accepted notion that “man is irrational, unsocialized, destructive of others and self.”
Because according to Montagu, “cooperation, rather than struggle, is the basic law of human life;” and according to Maslow, “the anti-social emotions – hostility, jealousy, etc. – result from frustration of more basic impulses for love and security and belonging, which are in themselves desirable.”
Rogers’ model of dealing with patients stems from these findings.
Let the Patient Lead
Now, if men are essentially good, then it’s not your job as a psychotherapist to fix them but to understand them.
And understanding does mean – almost always – not judging, even if some things seem to you wrong or stupid.
This is how the famous (and now widely practiced) client-centered approach came to be.
“I become less and less inclined,” writes Rogers, “to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself.”
And Rogers went even a step further: the idea that the therapist should stay calm no matter what was a foreign one to him, because honesty is possible only in good relationships and good relationships are always about two honest people – and not about a person spilling his guts out and a doll bereaved of feelings nodding opposite him.
Rogers’ If/Then Hypothesis for a Good Consultant/Client Relationship
At one place in the book, Rogers sums up most of his ideas about how a good consultant/client relationship looks like and what it does “into one statement.”
We believe it deserves to be quoted in full:
If I can create a relationship characterized on my part:
• by a genuineness and transparency, in which I am my real feelings;
• by a warm acceptance of and prizing of the other person as a separate individual;
• by a sensitive ability to see his world and himself as he sees them;
Then the other individual in the relationship:
• will experience and understand aspects of himself which previously he has repressed;
• will find himself becoming better integrated, more able to function effectively;
• will become more similar to the person he would like to be;
• will be more self-directing and self-confident;
• will become more of a person, more unique and more self-expressive;
• will be more understanding, more acceptant of others;
• will be able to cope with the problems of life more adequately and more comfortably.
“I believe,” concludes Rogers, “that this statement holds whether I am speaking of my relationship with a client, with a group of students or staff members, with my family or children. It seems to me that we have here a general hypothesis which offers exciting possibilities for the development of creative, adaptive, autonomous persons.”
Becoming a Person
What Rogers realized in his years of treating patients was that the real problem with each and every one of them was always one and the same: they weren’t living in a way which expresses who they are.
All of them locked themselves within the confines of an existence which is both foreign to them, and, even worse, final.
The trick is to realize that you have never become, but you are always becoming; and that, like every other process, becoming is messy, filled with contradictory feelings and beliefs that must be freely analyzed through and not forcefully controlled by someone on the outside.
In a way, the latter is the real source for the problem:
I have been trying to suggest what happens in the warmth and understanding of a facilitating relationship with a therapist. It seems that gradually, painfully, the individual explores what is behind the masks he presents to the world, and even behind the masks with which he has been deceiving himself. Deeply and often vividly he experiences the various elements of himself which have been hidden within. Thus to an increasing degree, he becomes himself – not a façade of conformity to others, not a cynical denial of all feeling, nor a front of intellectual rationality, but a living, breathing, feeling, fluctuating process – in short, he becomes a person.
Key Lessons from “On Becoming A Person”
1. Humanist Psychology Is Existentialist Psychology
2. Good Relationships Breed Good People
3. The Good Life Is About Becoming, and Becoming Is About Fulfilling Your Potential
Humanist Psychology Is Existentialist Psychology
Carl Rogers is widely credited as one of the founders of the humanist (client-centered approach) to psychology.
The idea behind it is deeply rooted within the philosophy of existentialism (Kierkegaard, Buber, Sartre): namely, that we are free to choose to become whoever we want to, but are frustrated because we are trapped in an existence which doesn’t express us.
Consequently, it’s the job of a psychotherapist to listen to his/her patient, rather than trying to fix him/her.
Because only in the first case the psychotherapist truly believes that the person sitting next to him is a person, someone in the process of becoming something, and not someone whose existence is already fixed.
By doing the latter, regular psychotherapists don’t understand the main of people’s problems: their inauthentic lives.
Good Relationships Breed Good People
So as to help a patient (or a lover or a child or a friend), it is the job of a psychotherapist (or a partner or a parent or a colleague) to create a safe environment.
And the safe environment can be created only within the “genuineness and transparency” of a good and trusting relationship.
This means, among other things, not acting, listening attentively, refrain from judging, being as honest as possible; or, in a sentence, it means being yourself and letting the others be themselves as well.
Even if you are a psychotherapist.
The Good Life Is About Becoming, and Becoming Is About Fulfilling Your Potential
There’s another quote from this book we thought we shouldn’t omit, especially having in mind the fact that one of the most influential Western intellectuals at the moment is Jordan Peterson.
Well, in a way, Rogers was Peterson before Peterson – even though he expressed this in much kinder words:
I believe it will have become evident why, for me, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful, enjoyable, do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process I have called the good life, even though the person in this process would experience each one of these at the appropriate times. But adjectives which seem more generally fitting are adjectives such as enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, meaningful. This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-fainthearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. Yet the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming.
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“On Becoming A Person Quotes”The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. Click To Tweet What is most personal is most universal. Click To Tweet The degree to which I can create relationships, which facilitate the growth of others as separate persons, is a measure of the growth I have achieved in myself. Click To Tweet If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change. So, as I say, it is not an easy thing to permit oneself to understand an individual. Click To Tweet I have learned that my total organismic sensing of a situation is more trustworthy than my intellect. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person is one of the essential psychology books not only of the past century but of all time.
We can’t recommend it enough.
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