THE PSYCHOTHERAPY OF CARL ROGERS:
BY WILL STILLWELL
Presence – an idea that’s become more pronounced in the last one hundred years, and which has retained a wide variety of connotations. Presence is “being called into being by another being.” In his explorations of therapeutic dialogue, Peter Schmid relates a person’s presence to her integral immediacy, to her quality of confidently taking part in the present moment. And, I would add, her being “Here, with me.” For presence is a spatial concept, an iconic marking by locating being in an extension of time 16 Presence is an idea or experience with deep roots in Western society. Presence is truth unconcealed and embodied more than truth believed as an idea. It is allied to our culture’s primordial premise “being” – which is how we frame a world of existence. “Presence pervaded with absence”, observes philosopher Mark Taylor, is a constant theme for all of Western history. Presence of God – conceived as “Being” Himself, and an ultimate, coherent That Which Is – is one of our civilization’s long-term primary concerns. God is the ultimate unconditional loving Other, but does God continue presence among us? His questing people often find Him absent — Nothing. This cultural perplexity and ambivalence informs our experiences of being-here in our lives.
Realization of lack of presence between us — what he called ‘mis-meetings’ – inspired the work of another philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber. Buber said even as God remains invisible He is calling to each of us, “Where are you?” Our faithful answer would be, “Here I am, responsible to you.” For Buber, God’s presence manifests where one person truly turns to meet another. “I become I in my uniqueness” where I am met in full moral responsibility by another. Carl Rogers was strongly attracted to and influenced by Buber’s thinking, and made key secular appropriations from Buber’s sense of full meeting with Other. With Buber as a reference, in some essential ways Rogers’ practice with these clients embodies a “two-person psychology”
Clients seek psychotherapy, Rogers understands, because they sense their own crisis in a kind of separation or alienation from living: cut off somehow from life in other beings but especially apart from the vivacity within themselves. The client’s ideas, beliefs and hopes of who he is do not harmonize into coherence with his life experiences. He may have a sense that he lives falsely, his daily actions seeming absent of his real self. His absence or avoidance does not allow him to be here present. Rogers’ manner of being himself with a client, he believes, helps the client realize his or her own ethical presence.
The four psychotherapeutic interviews of our focus are first-interview demonstration meetings of these volunteer clients and Rogers in his final six years of life. They are presentations before mostly appreciative audiences in service to the individual clients and to audience learning.
At this time Rogers liked this format for his client-centered work. At some point in each recording, each of the clients notes awareness of himself and of the audience.
Steve grapples with his relations to himself and others that seem to both connect and alienate him. He moves from what he calls his ‘intellectualizations’ to his deep pain.
Dadisi arrives determined to find his own way and achieve rewards appropriate to his abilities. He brings forward his distrust of Rogers.
Both Ritchie and Philip come to experience their respective interviews as microcosms of their presenting concerns. Richie presents self-doubt as to his competences, and Philip pursues his own maturity through handling his deep feelings. Each of the clients seems intent to “pull himself together:” to attain greater awareness, influence over his own life happenings, to gain ethical clarity and order.
Perhaps, as well, Rogers’ intention of responsivity for himself is what Rogers’ clients seek for themselves.
I have long-liked how Rogers’ therapist colleague Norman Chambers frames the therapeutic invitation: “Welcome to the dance.” Perhaps the therapist will be a partner you can trust to accompany you, a person who will not cut you off (or step on your toes), one with whom you may trust your own experiences. The “dance” to me brings associations of Rogers’ terms “organismic wisdom” and “organismic functioning”: movement in rhythmic, coordinated relationship.
The client and Rogers sit face-to-face, body-to-body. This posture allows both Rogers and the client to participate into the living other. Their open embodiment makes easier a kind of rapport, a kind of bringing-self-forward-again – that is the hallmark also of Rogers’ verbal messages to his clients.
“The essence of therapy is the meeting of two persons…freely and acceptingly entering into the world of the other.” This is the partnership of presence offered by Carl Rogers. And Rogers says to Philip, “You’re with someone…with someone beside you.”
Clearly in their physical orientation, no one is beside Philip. I believe this is the way Rogers expresses his ideal of himself: partner-as-companion.