Existential vs. Person-Centred Counselling: A Critical Engagement, Page 5

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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.

The Client’s Frame of Reference

Questions of how closely one should adopt the client’s frame of reference attract subtle discussion within the existential approach. This subtlety may be of some use to person-centred practitioners, some of whom uncritically adopt the notion that it is necessary to take up the client’s frame of reference without apparently considering whether there could be anything more to the story (much like adopting congruence without complementary consideration of the therapeutic quality of congruent responses).

As van Deurzen describes:

The therapist’s aim is to be able to consider the client’s issues and dilemmas from a fundamentally open stance. She never assumes that she knows or understands the client’s point of view completely. She will need to elicit clarification of many concepts that the client seems to take for granted and on which she appears to expect agreement with the therapist. When the client realizes that the practitioner does not automatically assume understanding, agreement or disagreement, she becomes free to investigate her own assumptions more carefully. (van Deurzen 2002a, p. 98)

In other words, the therapist does not operate uncritically from within the client’s frame of reference, automatically adopting, even temporarily, all of the client’s own assumptions. Obviously the existential counsellor still makes every attempt to understand exactly what the client means; but the counsellor does not automatically operate from within that position herself. Crucially, while Rogers himself has written eloquently about adopting the client’s frame of reference, this notion is not implicit in the core conditions: I can see no reason whatsoever why it should be necessary to adopt the client’s frame of reference oneself in order to demonstrate to the client acceptance, congruence, and most relevantly, empathy. It may make it easier to do so, for those who have difficulty holding within their minds and bodies two frames of reference simultaneously, but it should by no means be taken as a person-centred requirement!11

In my own practice, I fairly frequently experience exchanges like the following, where I find myself responding to a client’s seemingly rhetorical question in a fashion which proves facilitative:12

Client A: Of course he would say that, wouldn’t he, because it was my fault, wasn’t it?
Counsellor: I don’t know. Was it your fault?
Client A: Well, yeah! I mean, I don’t know. Well, I guess maybe not…

Or alternatively:

Client B: Needless to say, it feels weird not to be looking after him, because that’s what’s expected, isn’t it –for a wife to look after her ill husband?
Counsellor: Is it?
Client B: Well, yes, that’s what people assume. It’s just that they don’t understand the situation. It isn’t normal. I think that’s what bothers me: they just don’t understand. Sometimes I don’t even want people to know about it, because I know they won’t understand, and they”ll judge me.

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This sort of exchange ordinarily takes place only within the context of a long string of client expressions with which I directly express empathy, so clients are well aware that I am capable of actively grasping their own point of view and that I am not merely challenging them gratuitously. In this context, my questions can be understood in the spirit they are intended: genuine open-mindedness. Naturally, I do not wish to imply that any person-centred therapist might not make exactly the same kinds of replies, and I can think of many reasons for asking the questions apart from open-mindedness, such as a desire for clarification. Nonetheless, these brief exchanges illustrate the potential value, within a context of overall understanding, of refraining from adopting client assumptions unquestioned. And they differ noticeably from the sort of direct empathic response one might make, for example empathizing with client A’s feeling of being at fault or with client B’s feeling of weirdness.

Van Deurzen provides another example illustrating the existential approach’s broad perspective, contrasted with wholly in-the-moment empathy and its reinforcing side effects:

Take, for instance, a client who starts out complaining about the constraints imposed by her family life. …She may be ready to file for divorce because her feelings of extreme dissatisfaction tell her that she cannot bear this any longer. …One could implicitly encourage her to go ahead with divorce proceedings simply by consistent (and probably quite genuine) empathy. …Detaching oneself from the situation rather than evaluating it from the client’s position clearly reveals how one-sided and erroneous such an approach would be. (van Deurzen 2002a, pp. 51-52)

Of course, from a person-centred perspective, one could reply that a congruent counsellor might remind the client of the repercussions of her contemplated course of action; i.e., a good person-centred therapist wouldn’t just offer empathy. The difference is that existential counselling makes this type of feedback an explicit consideration, rather than merely hoping the counsellor will have some good sense!


Both existential and person-centred approaches emphasize the therapist’s self-awareness about assumptions and judgements. In the existential context, for instance:

The existential approach assumes the importance of the client’s capacity for making well-informed choices about her own life and her attitudes towards it. This places great emphasis on the need for the practitioner to be acutely aware of her professional and personal assumptions. (van Deurzen 2002a, p. 2)

What fascinates me, however, is that existential practice is entirely symmetric in emphasizing self-awareness for the client as well, whereas person-centred practice is asymmetric: trainee counsellors are inculcated with messages to self-question and to value self-awareness, but the importance of acquiring self-awareness is not explicitly promoted to the client. In a sense, existential counselling is a little like person-centred counselling training.13 This curious asymmetry may yield different underlying messages delivered to clients. The existential message is something along the lines of, “the two of us, you and me, we are involved in the very same undertaking, coming to grips with the vagaries of life and meaning and death, although today we shall focus entirely on your undertaking and not mine”. The person-centred message is something along the lines of, “the two of us, you and me, we are involved in very different undertakings, and what matters is just that I will be here with you to understand and accept you and to reflect congruently on your undertaking and not mine”.

There seems to me a further difference in terms of the nature of self-awareness itself. In particular, my experience of person-centred counselling training suggests that the primary region onto which the light of self-awareness is directed is present emotion. The other two areas of feeling (divided by psychologists into emotion, mood, and desire) receive significantly less explicit attention, while broader questions about life, professional values and ideals, critical evaluations of particular aspects of counselling theory, and so forth receive less still. (When such topics are addressed, I sometimes get the impression they are judged as ‘all in the head’ and are somehow less important than present emotions.) My own personal experience of person-centred training is that ‘self-awareness’ is narrow ‘part-of-self-awareness’, and it clashes significantly with my own view of what it means to be self-aware. A frequent refrain of person-centred training is to embrace the ‘whole person’, but my own experience suggests the person-centred approach sometimes comes up short of its own aspirations. There are many potential explanations for this, but one might be that it represents an (erroneous, in my view) inference about overall self-awareness from Rogers’s descriptions of therapeutic movement as coinciding with clients” discussing emotions in the present –i.e., that if clients in therapy move toward discussing emotions in the present, then that is what we should do in counselling training in an effort to become self-aware.

The existential concept of self-exploration, much more akin to my own view of self-awareness, has been nicely captured:

It involves deep thinking about one’s way of being so as to reach to an inwardness, which will become the core of one’s actions and outward relations. This thinking is not the thinking of cerebral analysis, but the thinking of reflective attention to what is already there; it bears great similarity with meditation… Bringing to light in oneself what is already there is a matter of paying attention and respect to oneself and it is not dependent on having a high IQ. (van Deurzen 2002a, pp. 168-169)


It is in identifying areas of weakness highlighted in each approach by the other, as well as areas strengthened in each by a careful consideration of the insights of the other, that I find personal value in terms of developing my own therapeutic practice. The primary question for me at this stage centres on the extent to which, having located these areas, one can enhance therapeutic practice without diluting one’s theoretical commitments into some kind of mushy middle ground. In some instances, the answer is straightforward: there seems no harm at all, for example, in jettisoning ‘part-of-self-awareness’ in favour of an existential concept of self-awareness. Likewise for the client’s frame of reference: I believe therapeutic effectiveness is enahnced by taking an open stance rather than the client’s stance, and I can see no reason why this should necessarily conflict with person-centred theory or any therapist’s ability to deliver the core conditions (although clearly it could, if approached incompetently).

In other areas, such as the actualizing tendency and the role of over-arching theories of personality, matters are less clear. Here the question is less whether therapeutic practice can be enhanced by paying attention to the ideas of a different tradition; it is more a matter of evaluating underlying theory and clarifying a position which consistently integrates that theory with personal philosophy. In my view, person-centred theory development has long suffered from neglect, in part due to a tendency to infer (erroneously) that empirical support for relationships factors as predictors of therapeutic outcome translates directly into empirical support for underlying person-centred theory. And while existentialism itself provides a huge body of philosophical literature, existential counselling hardly fares any better than the person-centred approach in terms of offering a robust theory of counselling. I am left feeling that both are wanting and that a great deal more work will need to be done by individual practitioners evaluating their own engagement with either.


1 And for one view on the importance of meaning specifically within the therapeutic setting, see Clarke (1989).

2 An appealing analogy — and only an analogy — comes from the case of mathematical incompleteness. The mathematician is aware that many statements within formal systems are true but unprovable and that by beginning with statements that are known to be true, one can never reach all the truth of the system. By beginning with the space of all true statements, however, those which are provable are seen as a subset of the overall truth of the system. Analogously (did I mention it is only an analogy?), the existential counsellor attempts to begin with an awareness of all the aspects of a client’s life which might be there (like the set of all true propositions), whether or not the client ever takes a direct path to exploring them (like proving true propositions). Readers interested in incompleteness will find further notes on it from my previous work on the Mulhauser.net Research Pages.

3 I am thinking, for instance, of Mearns and Thorne’s glowing endorsements of a 1986 paper by Bozarth and Brodley, setting out many additional assumptions, over and above those articulated by Rogers, which they take to be fundamental to the person-centred approach (Mearns and Thorne 1999, pp. 16-19); it is, in my view, regrettable that these additional assumptions should be incorporated into person-centred thought in such a simultaneously authoritative yet uncritical way.

4 This actually is a footnote: it is notable that the anti-authoritarian Carl Rogers frequently appeals to authorities well outside his own field without any discussion that might enable the critical reader to evaluate the ostensible connections with Rogers’s thought. Examples include Kierkegaard as well as Capra (on transcendence, in Rogers 1986) and Szent-Gyorgyi (on the actualizing tendency, in Rogers 1959).

5 Barkham (2002, pp. 384) notes that research on the core conditions effectively ceased by the late 1970s.

6 Many existentialists reject the notion of a ‘self’ as being at all useful, except in the context of such relationships. See, for instance, Buber (1923, p. 54): “There is no I as such but only the I of the basic word I-You and the I of the basic word I-It. When a man says I, he means one or the other”.

7 In this context, I keep ‘authenticity’ and ‘full functioning’ as analogues; the person-centred meaning of ‘authenticity’ as congruence is set aside for the sake of clarity.

8 And contrariwise, “Inauthentic living is characterized by a sense of imposed duty or the experience of discontentment with one’s fate…Living this way means that people do what they imagine is expected of them” (van Deurzen 2002a, p. 45).

9 This refers to Rogers’s celebrated analogy about potatoes kept in darkness striving toward even the tiniest ray of sunshine as they fulfil their biological potential to grow.

10 This extrapolation is, in my view, grounded solely in the fact that both evolved under phylogenetic pressures to display ontogenetic characteristics conducive to furthering the expression of the individual’s genes in subsequent generations.

11 Indeed, truly adopting the client’s frame of reference could be viewed not just as a lazy way out, but as an impediment to a genuine encounter. Reflecting on the famous dialogue between Rogers and Martin Buber, and Buber’s views on the I-Thou relationship and the necessity of opening up oneself, van Deurzen-Smith (1997, p. 76) suggest that “it is possible to be unavailable and unquestioned by a relationship whilst one thinks that one is listening and responding to the best of one’s abilities with attention and kindness”.

12 These examples are, of course, thoroughly anonymized.

13 This is not because the existential counsellor hounds the client to develop self-awareness, but because she sets out, as described previously, to facilitate the client’s own encounter with himself.

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