While roughly in agreement in many areas, existential and person-centred approaches to counselling each reveal weaknesses in the other as well as offering straightforward ways to augment therapeutic practice.
Personality Theory and Disturbance
Rogers’s major theoretical treatise sets out an over-arching view of personality development and of the creation and maintenance of psychological disturbance which informs essentially all of person-centred practice. Existential counselling, by contrast, eschews over-arching theories of personality, and it is significant that so, too, does virtually all of modern psychology. Psychologist Charles Legg, after observing that half a century ago, Carl Rogers was at the forefront of empirical research in psychology, notes that “Rogers’ approach reflects the intellectual roots of psychology in ‘modernism’, the belief that it is possible to have all-encompassing theories of the physical and social world that would permit ‘technological’ fixes to a wide range of social problems” (Legg 1998, p. 3). He goes on:
Counselling’s initial concern with comprehensive theories fitted with the intellectual ethos of its day but, since then, mainstream psychology has become more modest while counselling has retained its commitment to theories, thus staying rooted in the psychology of the 1940s and 1950s. By the middle of the twentieth century, academic psychologists had begun to lose faith in universal models as they collapsed under the weight of contradictory evidence and conceptual analysis. (Legg 1998, p. 3)
In this respect, psychology has moved on, while counselling has not. The empirical foundations of person-centred personality theory are virtually never discussed in the modern literature: even research on the core conditions as predictors of therapeutic outcome5 virtually never addresses the underlying personality theory itself. In my view, were Rogers at the peak of his career today, he would appeal to current empirical research in psychology to overhaul radically the received wisdom of the person-centred mainstream. It is ironic that some followers of one of the last century’s greatest empiricists have, in this respect, become just that — followers — and have shied away from thawing out the icy innards of frozen theory.
This does not mean that the person-centred approach is just wrong about personality theory. But it does mean, in my view, that person-centred personality theory should be taken only as a useful background heuristic and not by any means as the bedrock of the person-centred approach.
Certainly the existential approach escapes the criticisms above levelled at person-centred theory, but it does so only at the cost of avoiding the engagement in the first place: there is no personality theory to question! What does it have to offer instead, and what does it have to say about disturbance? The most important point for present purposes is that whereas the ‘self-concept” occupies a central theoretical niche for the person-centred approach, the existential approach focuses on the relationships a person has both with himself and with the world around him. While the person-centred approach focuses on the development of the self under more or less hospitable conditions (correlating, roughly, with the relative availability of positive regard), the existential approach focuses on the individual’s relationships.6 When the individual does not manage to navigate those relationships effectively — or when the truths embodied in those relationships are avoided — disturbance occurs. Effective navigation means being open to whatever life brings, both good and bad. This recognition and determination to integrate diametrically opposed poles runs throughout existential thought and in this context leads van Deurzen to comment:
It is only in facing both positive and negative poles of existence that we generate the necessary power to move ahead. Thus well-being is not the naive enjoyment of a state of total balance given to one by Mother Nature and perfect parents. It can only be negotiated gradually by coming to terms with life, the world and oneself. (van Deurzen 2002b, 184)
Here van Deurzen’s allusion to “life, the world and oneself” also serves as a reminder that for the existential approach, disturbance may not be just about impaired openness to current experience; it may be about existence, meaning and temporality. The existential counsellor readily acknowledges that someone might be relatively free of the kinds of distortions, denials, conditions of worth and other hallmarks of disturbance which populate person-centred theory and yet still experience existential angst. One might enjoy relatively healthy psychological functioning with respect to present experience and yet fail to apprehend one’s own life’s meaning. In the person-centred framework, the (usually unstated) assumption seems to be that once a person has overcome their psychological challenges, such difficulties automatically disappear.
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