Quest for True Americana,
Natalia J. Garland
There is much terminology which social workers can take for
granted nowadays, thanks to the hard work of Carl Rogers who
lived 1902-1987. Rogers was born in Illinois, lived on a
farm from age 12, got his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and
earned his living as a professor, psychotherapist and author.
Now, see if any of these terms sound familiar: acceptance,
empathy, unconditional positive regard, non-directive therapy,
client-centered therapy, optimism, process, and the
therapist's active presence as opposed to a blank screen.
Each of the
above terms represents a departure from classic psychoanalysis.
Rogers helped to pioneer the humanistic school of psychology.
Looking back on humanism from the painful vantage point of
post-September 11th, Rogerian thought seems almost naive and
simplistic. Today we grapple with definitions of a very
different terminology: terrorism, evil, holy war, homeland
thought applicable to our new struggles? Rogers regarded his
ideas as transferable across various forms of counselling:
from psychotherapy to school guidance and onward to
organizational administration. Let's go back and read
"What It Means to Become a Person" and "The
Characteristics of a Helping Relationship" to see if we
can further transfer his ideas to our troubled times.
Rogers says of a
patient, "He discovers how much of his life is guided by
what he thinks he should be, not by what he is. Often
he discovers that he exists only in response to the demands of
others, that he seems to have no self of his own, that he is
only trying to think, and feel, and behave in the way that
others believe he ought to think, and feel and
behave." This might describe a follower of a religious
cult as well as someone unhappy with his family or job. It
must be emphasized, however, that the patient about whom Rogers
is talking has a reached a certain level of self-awareness.
The process of
becoming might include a spiritual experience or affiliation.
A Rogerian approach would automatically rule out the
worthiness of any religious doctrine that promotes conditions
of physical and psychological fears among others who might
think, feel or behave outside the prescribed code. Rogerian
thought exposes such attitudes and behavioral codes as false
Perhaps it is
easier, though less satisfying, to conform to a rigid code
than to blossom forth as "....a separate and distinct
and unique person...." To become a genuine person,
according to Rogers, we must have an awareness of our
feelings, an ability to assess the reality around us, and the
confidence to make our own decisions and choices.
that the individual seems to become more content to be a
process rather than a product." Extremist
groups generate human products capable of mass murder. Both
the human followers and the human targets are objects to be
controlled by a distant, perhaps psychotic, perhaps evil,
self-proclaimed authority. This would be anti-Rogerianism.
And, it is also anti-Americana and ultimately anti-life.
It is not
surprising that, in a terrorist infiltrated country, we begin
to ask individually and nationally: Who am I? What are we as
a nation? Or perhaps: Who am I now? Am I someone who can
survive or thrive despite the activity of terrorists in our
midst? What am I becoming? Questions like these seem
Rogerian à la post-9/11 Americana. If, in response to
terrorism, we open ourselves to new personal strengths and a
renewed national vision, then terrorism is already defeated.
Can we likewise
help our patients to become who they are now? Rogers states
that the most essential characteristic we bring to a helping
relationship is the desire to understand. This also seems
to be an ingredient in true Americana. After the September
11th attack, Americans strove to understand why. And perhaps
this is where Rogerian thought begins to clash with our
21st-century situation. Can a terrorist be given unconditional
positive regard? Does he even want to be understood? Or are
we dealing with behavior that can only be understood as
hateful and beyond the realm of relationship. Rogers believed
that society had the right to set limits. An interesting area
for further study would be to explore the crossroads between
positive regard and limit-setting.
Let us focus
again on those who come to us wanting to be understood and
helped. Rogers did not treat his patients as diagnostic
objects. He emphasized the therapeutic relationship with its
qualities of warmth, respect, facilitation, clarification,
and genuine caring. He believed that the therapist should be
real, honest, expressive. "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
essay on Carl Rogers cannot pretend to unlock the
potentialities of Rogerian therapy for the next generations.
Rogerian terminology may feel like second nature for some
therapists. However, Rogers also offers profound
philosophical themes and an intuitive and logical style that
need somehow to be grafted from the original tree and onto our
rebuilding process. A Rogerian approach would permit us to
take terrorism seriously while giving us the support we need
to fearlessly become who we are now.
essay focuses only on Rogerian psychotherapeutic concepts.
Rogers also wrote on education, culture, government and
politics: some of his other ideas might not be regarded as
standards of Americana. However, his positive contributions
to American psychotherapy are both historically and currently
significant in the daily practice of our profession.]
(Written 09/09/02: bibliography available.)
Until we meet