Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Deforestation, global warming, extinction of species, intensive livestock farming, depletion of natural resources – There is sufficient evidence to conclude that we are facing a severe ecological crisis. Now, if we listened to the planet’s desperate exclamations as attentively and thoroughly as we listen to our clients, we would understand the message it conveys and would try our utmost best to facilitate its process of self-recuperation and healing. Sadly (as well as paradoxically), there appears to me an only conditional ability to experience unconditional care and empathy outside the therapy room.
As a person-centred therapist, I am dedicated to offer the facilitation of unconditional positive regard, empathic understanding and high levels of genuineness to my clients, also known as the therapeutic core conditions. Carl Rogers, psychologist and founder of the person-centred approach, was clear about those core conditions to not exclusively be experienced by the therapist but by the person her/himself. In attributing a holistic and universal quality to those facilitative conditions, they are not restrained to the therapy room but can also be experienced outside of it. Consequently, as a person-centred therapist, I do not take on a facilitative “role” but consistently live those facilitative conditions as a person regardless of the environment I find myself in.
Now, how does this theoretical statement play out in reality? – Well, it doesn’t really, since Rogers’ theory is widely and mistakenly ‘applied’ as therapeutic method rather than ‘lived’ as an ideology of being. This is tragic and comes to a loss of great potentials offered by the approach, e.g. to contribute to political global debates on peace-making, to foster equality or successful intercultural collaborations and to promote ecological behaviour. If the person-centred approach was indeed understood and lived as a way of being, then it could be argued that therapists who root their approach on a person-centred foundation would care considerably more about the wellbeing of the social as well as ecological context they find themselves in. Unfortunately, the deeply universal and life philosophical stance expressed in Rogers’ theory has been largely neglected by the person-centred community.
Although Rogers was not explicit with this, I argue that for him, a person who is person-centred shares similar or the same qualities that he attributes to his notion of the ‘person of tomorrow’.1 Such a person is authentic, sceptical, ecologically sensitive, spiritual and is continuously open to change and become the “self that one truly is”.2 Moreover, these people feel interconnected with the world they live in, ask critical questions; take an ethical as well as political stance in life; do not interpret the world based on judgment and hold a holistic rather than hegemonic view on their own stance within their social and ecological system. Inevitably, the person-centred person is not only a humanist, but also an environmentalist.
So, glancing around in the person-centred community I find myself in, I wonder where all the voices are that genuinely and courageously express their frustration and scepticism with issues such as accelerated deforestation, animal exploitation, the melting of the polar ice caps, extinction of species, lack of political interest in the ecological crisis etc. Gradually, I have come to realise that Rogers’ vision on a transformed world, populated by people who are in touch with the rhythm of the world has vastly been disregarded. Person-centred practitioners have failed to catapult their therapeutic and facilitative qualities outside the walls of their therapy room.
Now, despite the potential impression given here, the aim of this article is not to criticise the individual but to claim the person-centred community at large to break their silence on pressing ecological issues. The person-centred way of being holds an incredible potential to contribute to the healing process of this planet, if only this potential was fully acknowledged by its community. Therefore, in this article I strive to highlight Rogers’ valuable vision on the ‘good life’ and his attempt to contribute to solutions that respond to contemporary challenges.
Especially Rogers’ thoughts on the human-nature relationship and ecological responsibility will in particular be pointed out here. The reason for this is that psychologists have widely been criticised to not contribute enough to the global debate on ecological issues.3 On the one hand, I agree with this statement and the fact that the psychological discipline and research have indeed not yet started to operate effectively on the planetary emergency. On the other hand, I disagree with the allegation made against psychologists and their accused ignorance of the ecological crisis. The reality is that already in the 1950s, Rogers had presented a solution to promote a more symbiotic and sustainable human-nature relationship. Regrettably, his rather implicit suggestions did not receive much attention, not by his followers nor environmentalists. Equally little attention has yet been paid to many other psychotherapists like Manu Bazzano4, James L. Kuhn5, Bernie Neville6 or Keith Tudor7 who tried to take a stance on the ecological crisis and our challenging human-nature relationship. This lack of acknowledgment of offered psychological perspectives on environmental issues is surprising as human wellbeing is directly tied to the wellbeing of the planet and vis versa.
Yet, WHAT IF we properly tried to understand and practically lived Rogers’ theoretical contributions to create a better, more sustainable and caring world? WHAT IF the person-centred core conditions were indeed understood as a formula for a wholesome life that is lived in harmony with our planet? To be more specific, how would a person-centred person live life in relationship with the natural environment?
Let’s for a moment hypothesise a person whose empathy, unconditional caring and genuineness is lived consequently. With ‘consequently’, I am referring to the experience of the core conditions not solely as a therapist but as citizens of the planet we live on. Hereby, being consequently or completely person-centred (or to use Rogers’ term ‘fully functioning’) is not an easy thing to accomplish at all. Rogers was aware of this challenge and accordingly described the fully functioning person as an ideal rather than an achievable option. In doing so, Rogers placed the strength of his theory on the human striving towards this ideal. Thus, the power in attempting to live in a person-centred way lays in our ‘striving to be’ consistently and whole-heartedly empathic, authentic, caring, self-responsible and ecological-minded.
So, WHAT IF we were indeed striving towards a person-centred way of being? How would a consistent person-centred life hypothetically look like in reality?
Let’s be exaggeratedly creative. - It’s a random Monday morning for Harry...
“…the alarm goes off. Instead of rushing to work, I have set my alarm clock a little earlier. This gives me enough time to spend some quality time with myself and go in my own pace. I’ve learnt to listen to my needs and realised that how I start the day impacts my mood and energy level of the entire day. I leave the flat and ride my electric scooter to work. I decided to no longer commute in my own car. I care about the environment to which I feel a closeness and connectedness to. It’s my home in which I am fully embedded in. It really hurts within to see how much deconstruction we have already caused as an industrialised civilisation. Hence, the e-scooter. I am on my way to my bike workshop in town. I own it with four of my previous employees (now co-owners). Having been carefully listening to and learning from my employees in the past years, I came to realise that it was the know-how and passion shared among the entire team that was catalyst for the shop’s success and growth. We should all have an equal saying. The bike shop has been run as a cooperative for three years now. I wouldn’t want to change a thing. Everyone is even more motivated, happy and eager to see how our business is flourishing. My parents always wanted me to become an academic. I thought so too. But I had to realise that when I really listened to myself and not to what others expected me to do that I wanted to design and use my hands to make and fix bikes. I feel a responsibility to contribute to this planet and with my shop I am convinced to strive towards my potential. Thus, for no money I’d swap with the lawyer’s office again. I feel as if know myself much more and am able to truly own myself and my visions. I feel more myself and look forward to work – even on a Monday morning (especially when the sun is out, so – for once – I don’t arrive soaking wet at work). For the lunch break I usually grab a snack from a little veggie place close by. I stopped consuming animal products a couple of years ago. I was no longer able to attribute less worth to an animal trapped in a factory farm than to my dog. Why would I, just because we judge and label them differently? They are emotional, curious and smart beings with own worth and I respect their otherness and wisdom. I even became quite vocal and political about livestock farming despite the rather limited initial support of my friends. Also, from an environmental perspective livestock farming is heavily intoxicating for our ecological system and main cause for the vast losses of primary rain forest all over the globe. Let’s not even start on palm oil. So, how could I possibly ignore all of that authentically and claim myself to be a caring person? I don’t know how – so, I simply changed my nutrition plan. – The most accessible and easiest adjustment I could have made that comes with a major impact on the planet, I find. After work, I do different stuff. Feeling connected to nature around me, I often spend time outside observing the natural happenings, the weather and wildlife. Like nature (and in particular the English weather above me), I have – as a consequence – begun to be more changeable and spontaneous myself. I’ve started to allow myself to be more fluid and open to adjust my plans to my current likes and desires that arise from the present moment. I think my friends find that quite annoying at times, because it’s quite often the case that I spontaneously pull back from social gatherings due to present needs that have risen during the span of the day. I understand their annoyance. Nevertheless, I have also observed that they have started to do the same. They said to actually find it quite refreshing to not need to stick to something they actually don’t feel like doing in the moment. I call it ‘self-care’. They do too – now. Before, they called it ‘selfish’. Tonight, I do feel like meeting up and spending some hours of volunteering with them though. We’re going to do some trash collecting in the forest bit adjacent to our neighbourhood. Great fun predicted as always (again, especially when the sun is out).”
Now, does this fictitious, seemingly annoying exaggeration of example truly represent an ecologically sensitive “person-centred lifestyle”? – I genuinely don’t know. But this random example does indeed present a person who seems to live up to Rogers’ description of a more authentic, ecologically minded ‘person of tomorrow’ – a person who is more declined to act upon internal rather than external authorities; who takes self-responsibility; who is aware of his/her actions and open to change own behaviours in order to live in a more symbiotic and life-enhancing manner. Consequently, this person-centred person understands her/himself as part of the web of life and therefore strives to not only maintain and enhance oneself but also her/his lively, organismic surroundings. Finally, this way of being no longer enhances well-being and pleasure in the conquest of nature but in the alignment with the forces of nature.
1. Rogers, C. R. (1980). A Way of Being. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
2. Rogers, C.R. (1961/1995). On Becoming a Person. New York, USA: Houghton Mifflin.
3. Kidner, D. (2001). Nature and psyche: Radial environmentalism and the politics of subjectivity. New York: State University of New York Press.
4. Bazzano, M. (2013). One more step: from person-centred to eco-centred therapy. Person-Centred & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12(4), 344-354.
5. Kuhn, J. L. (2001). Toward an Ecological Humanistic Psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, (41)2, 9-24.
6. Neville, B. (2012). The Life of Things: Therapy and the Soul of the World. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
7. Tudor, K. (2013). Person-centered psychology and therapy, ecopsychology and ecotherapy, Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12(4), 315-329.