A Discussion and Critical Evaluation on How Person-centred Theorists View Concepts of the Self Introduction As children grow they start to learn about themselves through their relationships with others and psychologists have evidenced how their ideas of themselves are significantly influenced by other people’s ideas and reactions to them.
Dowling (2008) suggests that a child’s level of confidence is affected by their early experiences, successes and failures and it is recognised that a child’s confidence is linked closely to three factors: becoming aware of the self (self concept), developing one’s identity (self esteem) and learning about one’s own strengths and weaknesses (self knowledge).
Psychologists refer to how, during early childhood, the self concept undergoes a major change and sees the start of the lifelong process of self-discovery. From childhood to adolescence many changes take place both physically and mentally. These changes involve continuing increases in the complexity of sensorimotor skills and substantial body changes and the self concept shifts from self-centred to an increasing awareness of others (Dowling, 2008).
The emergence of a coherent and positive self-concept is undeniably a critical aspect of social and emotional development (Dowling, 2008) and for Rogers, the theory of the self was central in his theory of personality. From a counselling perspective, person-centred theorists support this notion and believe that many of the successes and failures that people experience in life are closely related to the ways they have learned to view themselves and their relationships with others and the idea of the self concept is fundamental to person centred theory.
This essay will discuss Rogers’ theory of personality and critically evaluate how person-centred theorists view concepts of the self and how my own self concept has been formed through childhood experiences. Critically Evaluating Concepts of the Self Since Rogers introduced his concept of what is now known as Person Centred theory during the 1950s, it has formed the basis for many counselling approaches (Mearns and Thorne, 2007).
Carl Rogers believed that humans have an inherent drive to know and express the self (McLeod, 2000) which results in the development of an idea of who are they are (self concept) and an idea of who they want to be (the core self). Most of us are never aware of our self-concept until it is pointed out to us but as we grow and develop, it is argued that our self-concept changes and develops itself over time as it shapes itself as a result of the environment we are in.
Rogers discovered that the self concept can become distorted or damaged depending on whether the environment is of a positive or negative influence. Franken (1994) states that the self concept is the basis for all behaviour. By recognising how susceptible the self concept is to change, it is understandable why person centered therapists view it as being a fundamental aspect of the therapeutic relationship as it focuses solely on the needs of the client.
According to human psychologists, such as Rogers and Abraham Maslow, humans have an inherent drive to know and express the self, resulting in the development of a self concept (an idea or picture we have of ourselves), it is the way we see ourselves and affects our levels of self-esteem and confidence depending on whether we have a negative or positive view of ourselves (Nelson-Jones, 1995). Rogers’ personality theory describes the self concept as being in three parts.
Firstly, the view we have of ourselves (self image); secondly, how much value we place on ourselves (self esteem) and thirdly, the ideal self as the personality we would like to be. Our self concept is often developed in relation to others as it is closely related to the way in which we act and communicate with them. If an individual has a high level of self esteem, they would need to have a positive view of themselves and vice versa. A negative image of the self will lower an individual’s self esteem as they will focus on their failings and insecurities which in turn will lead to a low level of self confidence.
It is evident that the majority of individuals who seek counselling have often experienced problems in their relationships, either with others or themselves and whilst person centred therapy does not psychoanlyse a clients past to determine the present problems it does look at how the conditions of worth which others have imposed on them have influenced the way their self-concept has been shaped by the people who have played an important role in their life (Mearns and Thorne, 2008). Both the ideal self and the self concept can be profoundly influenced by what a person has been told or earned about themselves as a child. These conditions of worth refer to how negative and critical messages can influence the way a person acts and reacts to certain situations. If we consider the developmental stages of a child, it is evident how they strive for parental approval and praise from an early age and if shown consistent positive regard as according to Rogers, they will go on to develop a healthy self concept – not only believing and valuing themselves but also trusting in the value of their opinions as well as their own judgements.
However, a child who has conditions of worth imposed on them will often grow up to have a low self-image and self-esteem as they strive to live up to others expectations and values. Therefore this would suggest that a person who has been fortunate to have experienced supportive relationships and congruence throughout their lives may find themselves needing to be loved and valued by others (McLeod, 1998:95). The person centered approach states that when significant others provide positive regard that is conditional, the person introjects those desired values and their self-concept becomes based on these standards (McLeod, 1998).
Purkey (1988) referred to the self concept as the cognitive or thinking aspect of the self and how it is “comprised of a complex, organised and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence” and in comparison person centred theorists view it has having 3 major qualities of interest: i) it is learned, ii) its is organised, and iii) it is dynamic - we will now look at each of these in turn. Much of the literature would appear to support Rogers’ belief that our self concept is not instinctive (Mearns and Thorne, 2007; Nelson-Jones, 1995; Mcleod, 1998).
It suggests that it is learned and that no-one is born with a self concept, instead it gradually emerges in early childhood and is shaped and reshaped through repeated perceived experiences particularly through the relationships with significant others i. e. parents or siblings. It is due to the notion that the self concept is the result of a social product developed through experience and interaction with others, that person-centred theorists view it as having boundless potential for development and actualisation.
Individual’s may perceive their self concept differently to how others see them due to their previous experiences and interaction with others as well as the varying positive and negative values attached to their own self perception (Nelson-Jones, 1995). Experiences which are inconsistent with one’s own self-concept could be seen as a threat so the more a person enters a state of incongruence between the self concept and experience, the more rigid the self concept becomes as it protects itself within its own safety mechanisms (Nelson-Jones, 1995).
Rogers thought that people experience anxiety when their self-concepts are threatened and to protect themselves they distort their experiences so that they can hold on to their self-concept (Nelson-Jones, 1995). Therefore, people who have a high degree of incongruence are likely to feel very anxious because reality continually threatens their self-concepts although there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this. The learned self concept can also be as a result of faulty thinking patterns where an individual has overgeneralised a situation and made an assumption based on minimal information.
Much of the literature I have researched suggests that the self concept is organised and it can be resistant to change as it maintains a consistent and stabilising quality characterised by orderliness and harmony. It is therefore proposed that if this were to change readily, then the individual would lack a consistent and dependable personality so to adapt the self concept takes time. But as it has already been highlighted, the evidence shows the self-concept is dynamic by nature and its development is a continuous process as it is constantly changing.
Referring back to my own personal experience, I can identify how my self concept has changed over time and at times has become distorted and damaged as a result of the behaviour I have experienced from significant persons in my life. Throughout my childhood I experienced unconditional positive regard with few conditions of worth allowing me to become what Rogers’ termed as a fully functioning person (Nelson-Jones, 1995). Rogers proposed that each of us has an ideal self, which is our own conception of the kind of person we would like to be (Mearns and Thorne, 2007).
The closer the ideal self is to the real self, the more fulfilled and happy we are as individuals. My own personal self-concept has undergone considerable change when I experienced a period of incongruence between my own self concept (confident in myself and my abilities) and conflict with my superior at work who displayed aggressive and bullying behaviour and claimed that my work was below standard. This negative influence had a profound effect on my own self esteem as it was difficult to deal with this sudden inconsistency of how I was being perceived by a significant figure.
As a result, my whole personality changed as I experienced what I perceived to be a failure to perform in an area where I had always been highly regarded and one which I had strived to be successful (more importantly I perceived my self to be successful and to have made significant achievements in my career). Following this experience, I became more withdrawn, lost confidence in my ability and self belief and lost trust in my own judgement of my whole being.
As Rogers’ would describe it, the gap between the self and reality had shifted and allowed for a period of maladjustment (Smith et al. , 2003). It was following a period of counselling that I began to reshape the perception I had created of myself but as I continued to struggle to make sense of what I had experienced I felt driven to find a positive outcome from which I could learn and develop. Rogers referred to this as the actualising tendency, whereby each person has a basic desire to realise their own potential (Sanders, 2008).
Conclusion This paper has discussed and critically evaluated how person-centred theorists view concepts of the self. To consolidate the theory held in the literature, consideration has also been given to my personal development of ‘self-awareness’ and how my self-concept has been formed by childhood experiences. This combination of my extensive research and as a result of my own personal experiences leads me to support Rogers’ person centered approach.
The robustness and applicability of Rogers’ concept of the self is evidently clear, as he first introduced his theory over 50 years ago and since has had little challenge amongst practitioners and theorists. In addition, his theory on the concept of the self and notion that everyone can overcome distorted, damaged or faulty thinking patterns arising from childhood is encouraging and would suggest further empirical studies should be encouraging on the whole as it indicates that it is not simply a therapeutic conscript for the chosen few.
There are however, those that have attempted to critique his theory largely due to is lack of empirical evidence in support of humanistic claims (e. g. Smith et al. , 2003). Another criticism of Rogers’ work suggests that the person centered approach is not suitable to some psychological disorders i. e. ‘psychopathy’. Yet the literature would strongly suggest that Rogers’ approach is by far the most influential and valuable contribution that has been made towards the study of human behaviour (Nelson-Jones, 1995; Palmer et al. 1996). The two primary personal experiences outlined in this paper are a series of early childhood experiences, which could have influenced my recently experienced work related issues. Although I have never considered this to be the case in the past, my experiences certainly agree with Rogers’ theory, where my self concept was developed in relation to my parents, especially in the way in which I acted and communicated with them.
I managed to gain acceptance at an early stage and then continued to do so throughout my childhood, which resulted me introjecting these desired values. My self-concept is now based on these standards, where I have a need to be loved and valued by others but growing up I was never aware of how much importance I had put on experiencing these conditions until I became more aware of counselling practices.
However, I am still unsure how Rogers’ findings in relation to the development of my early self awareness can be related in anyway to the emotional upset I experienced as an adult as not enough evidence is given in the literature to explain how this can develop over time but it has changed significantly over time as a result of my experiences and I would agree with Rogers that it will continue to change as it assimilates new experiences and ideas.
References McLeod, J. (1998) An Introduction to Counselling, Second Edition, Buckingham: Open University Press. Mearns, D. and Thorne, B. (2007) Person-Centred Counselling in Action, Third Edition, London: Sage Publications. Mearns, D. , Thorne, B. , Lambers, E. (2005 Person Centred Therapy Today: New Frontiers in Theory and Practice, London: Sage Publications Nelson-Jones, R. , (1995) The Theory and Practice of Counselling, Second Edition, London: Cassell
Palmer, S. Dainow, S. and Milner P (1996) Counselling: The BAC Counselling Reader, First Edition, London: Sage Publications. Sanders, P. (2008) First Steps in Counselling: A Students’ Companion for Basic Introductory Courses, Third Edition, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books. Smith, E. , Nolen-Hoeksema, S. , Fredrickson, B. , Loftus, G. (2003) Atkinson & Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology, Fourteenth Edition, London: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.