Why the Therapist is not Sherlock Holmes and the Beautiful Soul of Carl Rogers

I found an old copy of On Becoming a Person at Encore Books a month or two ago.  It is by Carl Rogers, the founder of client-centered psychotherapy, and I have been reading it slowly ever since.  The first essay "This is Me" is a list of the very humane things Rogers learned over his years working as a therapist and researcher.  Perhaps the central piece, the motto of client-centered psychotherapy is "I have found it highly rewarding when I can accept another person."   Really accepting another person in his or her otherness is at the heart of Rogers' vision of psychotherapy (and humanness as far as he was concerned).  My supervisor and teacher, Sylvia, has been telling me for the last year and a half that the greatest resource a therapist has is the client; I might summarize her teaching to me as, "Be curious.  Ask, ask, ask."  That is very much in the spirit of Rogers.  You may, as a therapist, think you know, but rather than proceed with that assurance, ask.  He describes the experience of the research scientist afraid that the evidence might disprove one's hypothesis;

"... It seems to me that I regarded the facts as potential enemies, as possible bearers of disaster.  I have perhaps been slow to realize that the facts are always friendly... I still hate to readjust my thinking, still hate to give up on old ways of perceiving and and conceptualizing yet... these painful reorganizations are what is know as learning." 

I cannot tell you how many times I have thought that I understood something about a client, some clever idea I had, that when I checked it out in the form of a question turned out to be totally wrong.  Sylvia gave me a great example of this that she had from another therapist;  a client comes in for a first session and announces that her father has just died.  "Oh, how horrible, I am so sorry," says the therapist.  The client has the strength to say, "I hated my father.  He was cruel to me all my life."  I am guessing many clients would not have been so courageous and might have succumbed to the therapist's assumption, really an assertion about how the client ought to feel. 

I imagine it must have been very challenging for Rogers to take such a stance in the nineteen-fifties.  RD Laing of the famed Tavistock clinic critiqued the idea that he saw current at the time that the psychiatrist is the detective who enforces the law of illness.  Even today therapists whether psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or other allied professions, are encouraged to think of therapeutic work as detection, seeking to unmask through superior knowledge and reasoning psychopathology whether within an individual or a system.  Psychiatry and detective novels grew up together.  Freud and Holmes both proceed -- by a bizarre logic apparent only to themselves -- to a conclusion that seems inevitable once announced. 

Alan Arkin (love him but his accent is Vienna by way of Brooklyn) and Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes in the film version of the Seven Percent Solution. 

Alan Arkin (love him but his accent is Vienna by way of Brooklyn) and Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes in the film version of the Seven Percent Solution. 

It is very hard to practice accepting the other when you approach the other as a suspect.  I would say that Rogers' and Sylvia's teachings about client centered-ness have been a great life lesson for me.

Rogers also valued pursuing what "feels right."  In this regard he is very much a part of the existentialism of the mid twentieth century.  He quotes Kiekegaard and Buber, the philosopher of the "I-thou" relationship.  This is one piece of Roger's thought that I don't buy. 

Therapists and therapy are often informed (misinformed, I believe) by the idea that there are deeper more authentic parts of the self which are obscured by less authentic elements of the self.  A good example of this is the idea of primary and secondary emotions (see Greenburg and Safran) which informs many therapies.  Primary emotions are viewed by Greenburg and Safran as more authentic and more somatic, secondary emotions are reactions to these first feelings.  This can be a useful distinction, it can be helpful for therapists and clients to focus on feelings that are outside of the client's usual repertoire.  But I don't know how one can say definitively that one feeling is more authentic than another or distinguish meaningfully between authentic and inauthentic elements of self.  

The homunculus fallacy is the name given to the idea that there is the psychological or neurological equivalent of a little man inside each of our heads - a homunculus - who experiences our experiences and commands our responses, an authentic self buried within our bodies and minds.  The fallacy is that if there is indeed a self within the self, then why not say that within that there is  yet another self and so on.  Self becomes a Russian doll and the pursuit of the authentic self a recursive pursuit at great expense of time and money.  One of the extraordinary cultural shifts that one can see in Rogers book is in the expectation that therapy be a process that goes on for years.  He talks casually of seeing clients for a 48th or 60th session of therapy for what seems to be a therapy of self-knowledge rather than any more focused goal.  (I don't know if these were sessions for which clients paid or not).  This certainly was before the age of HMOs. 

A final piece from Rogers, perhaps his best known quote from the same essay "This is Me," and a truly beautiful bit is the paradox of acceptance and change.

... [T]he paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up. It is a very paradoxical thing — the degree to which each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are changing.


Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers