On Spiritual Mentors: Carl Rogers

In 1970, my new wife and I headed off to Bloomington Indiana where I was to begin my journey toward becoming a helper. I survived the first year (barely!) and entered my second year looking forward to my first course in psychotherapy and my first clients. The course, however, was research-oriented and so I sought out a fourth-year student and asked him to recommend something I could read to help me help my clients. In a grace-filled moment, he recommended On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers.

As I read this book, I resonated to it, in part because I was drawn to Rogers’ gentle, respectful approach, in part because his theory met my darker needs for rebellion. Indiana University at that time was a bastion of behaviorism!

Rogers’ approach taught me the fundamental importance of listening. He taught me the power of meeting someone with respect and an absence of judgment. He taught me to listen with my heart, not just my head.

Being that arrogance was and is one of my character defects, after a time I concluded I’d found a flaw in Rogers’ theory. Rogers said we had to have acceptance yet also be real. Suppose I become angry with my client, I reasoned. Do I express the feeling or withhold it out of positive regard for the client? Clearly I’d uncovered a problem with his theory. So I wrote to Rogers, outlining my discovery.

Can you imagine? What arrogance! Yet even more amazing was the fact that Rogers responded to my letter. Rather than praise my brilliance, however, he suggested that, if I were angry with a client, perhaps I was the one with the problem.

Needless to say, this made me angry. But as time passed and as I faced my own woundedness, I saw the wisdom of his response. As they say in AA, if you’re pointing a finger at someone, the rest of the fingers are pointing back at you. In his own gentle manner, Rogers tried to point me towards looking within before judging, an important lesson for all of us, not just therapists. His response also reminded me that, as I strove to be a good listener, I also had to cultivate a capacity to listen to myself.

Before studying psychology, Carl Rogers considered the ministry. I believe that spiritual foundation informed his psychology. The nature of his psychology also has played an important role in my own quest for a bridge between psychology and spirituality. His psychology provides a path for pursuing the almost universal spiritual directive: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Further Reflections: 1. Have you had the experience of feeling listened to? How did it affect you?

2. Did you ever think you knew more than some wise person in your life? How did that play out for you?

Further Reading: Even now, some 40 years later, I still believe On Becoming a Person is of great value not just to therapists but to anyone on a spiritual quest

Further Viewing: There is a famous series of videos in which the same client was interviewed by 3 different therapists: Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, and Fritz Perls. An excerpt from Rogers’ session can give you a good feel for his approach. It can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=m30jsZx_Ngs