Person-centred therapy

Written by Ellen Lees
Ellen Lees
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 14th February 2024 | Next update due 13th February 2027

Person-centred therapy, also known as person-centred or client-centred counselling, is a humanistic approach. It explores the ways individuals perceive themselves consciously, rather than how a counsellor can interpret their unconscious thoughts or ideas.

What is person-centred counselling?

Created in the 1950s by psychologist Carl Rogers, the person-centred approach sees humans as having a tendency to develop towards their full potential. However, this ability can become blocked or distorted by certain life experiences, particularly those which affect our sense of value. 

In this video, Rhianan Lowes explains more about person-centred therapy.

The therapist in this approach works to understand an individual’s experience from their perspective. The therapist must value the client as a whole person while being open and genuine. This is vital in helping the client feel accepted, and better able to understand their own feelings. The approach can help the client reconnect with their values and sense of self-worth, enabling them to find their own way to move forward.

The core purpose of person-centred therapy is to help us self-actualise (fulfil our potential and do what we're capable of). This approach facilitates the personal growth and relationships of a client by allowing them to explore and utilise their own strengths. The counsellor helps by providing vital support to the client as they make their way through this journey.

The person-centred counsellor is not an expert; rather the client is seen as an expert on themselves and the person-centred counsellor encourages the client to explore and understand themselves and their troubles.

- Counsellor Mary-Claire Wilson MBACP, UKCP Reg, Ad. Dip/MA Psychotherapy, Dip Couns

An important part of the self-actualising theory is that in a particular psychological environment, the fulfilment of personal potentials includes:

  • sociability (the need to be with other people)
  • being open to experience
  • being trusting and trustworthy
  • being curious, creative and compassionate

This psychological environment is one where a person feels both physically and emotionally free from threat. There are three conditions believed to help achieve this environment, particularly in the therapy room.  

  • Congruence: The therapist must be completely genuine.
  • Empathy: The therapist must strive to understand the client's experience.
  • Unconditional positive regard: The therapist must be non-judgemental and valuing.

Different things can affect a person’s ability to flourish, including low self-esteem, a lack of self-reliance and little openness to new experiences. The person-centred approach recognises that a person’s social environment can impact these, so therapy is offered in a neutral and comfortable setting, where a client can feel at ease, authentic and open to learning about themselves.

By offering a safe, comforting environment, the client can understand the past experiences that have impacted the way they feel about themselves and take the steps to positive change. The person-centred approach can also help the client to:

  • find closer agreement between an idealised self and actual self
  • achieve better self-understanding and awareness
  • release feelings of defensiveness, insecurity and guilt
  • have a greater ability to trust themselves
  • develop healthier relationships
  • see improvement in self-expression
  • achieve a healthy sense of change overall

Benefits of person-centred therapy

Generally, person-centred counselling can help individuals of all ages, with a range of personal issues. Many people find it appealing because they can maintain control over the content and pace of sessions, and there is no worry that they are being evaluated or assessed in any way.

The non-direct style of person-centred counselling is thought to be more beneficial to those who have a strong urge to explore themselves and those who want to address specific psychological habits.

The approach is said to be particularly effective in helping people overcome specific problems such as depression, anxiety, stress and grief. These issues can have a significant impact on self-esteem, self-reliance and self-awareness, and person-centred therapy can help people reconnect with their inner self to transcend any limitations.

While person-centred counselling was originally developed as an approach to psychotherapy, it is often transferred to other areas where people are required to build strong relationships, such as teaching, childcare and patient care. This approach is not limited to qualified counsellors, many people will use the approach in some form to help guide them through day-to-day work and relationships.

The theory behind the approach

In some psychotherapeutic approaches, the therapist and their observations are deemed ‘expert’. The person-centred approach moves away from this idea and instead trusts that we have an innate tendency to find fulfilment. By facilitating this, the approach helps the client recognise their own capacity for self-healing and personal growth.

Another key factor in this theory is the notion of self-concept. Self-concept refers to the set of beliefs and perceptions a person has about themselves. These form a core component of our total experience and influence our perception of the world. Person-centred counselling recognises that our self-concept can become displaced if we are striving too hard to be accepted by those around us.

If those around us accept us conditionally, we may internalise these conditions. This can lead us to develop a self-concept that includes these conditions, fitting into a particular 'type' of person.

Because we generally want positive regard from others, it is often easier to be this accepted, simplified ‘type’ of person. To be anything else, or to be different, could see us losing that positive regard. 

Over time, our identity can become lost amongst the ideals of others. This is why person-centred counselling aims to help clients self-actualise and achieve personal growth. This is cultivated through a supportive environment where clients can expand on their own identity and begin to separate themselves from their developed notions of how they should be.

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