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Quest for True Americana,
Part II

Part I
Part III

Natalia J. Garland

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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 security.

Is Rogerian 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 and rigid.

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.

"It is 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 potentialities."

This miniature 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.

[NOTE: This 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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2002 Natalia J. Garland