Brian Thorne on the legacy of Carl Rogers

Last week Focus Counselling hosted Brian Thorne’s “last public speaking event on the circuit” at St. Michael’s Church on Broad Street, Bath.

I was excited. I had “discovered” Brian Thorne, the much-admired torch-holder of the Person-centred tradition in the UK, two years ago when my new supervisor pointed me towards his work. The clarity, courage and heart in his writing spoke to me of an approach to counselling that I had hitherto been unable to find, yet felt called to employ. I was grappling with the division between my experience of working in fairly directive environments (addiction rehabilitation centres) and my yearning to bring a softer, more permissive, yet more authentic aspect to the therapeutic encounter. Here, it seemed, was a man who was willing to throw caution – and perhaps the security of specific techniques or targets – to the wind: to uncompromisingly meet his clients’ relational needs. Using Carl Rogers’ triumvirate of core conditions as his watchword he shone light upon a legitimate way forwards in my ideological impasse! I admired, too, his willingness to fly in the face of convention, take risks and challenge a discipline in which it is easy to allow caution to overwhelm creative clinical integrity.

Thorne began with the impact Rogers has had on psychotherapy. He spoke with conviction about the Rogerian approach in which “what mattered was the kind of relationship he offered his clients – nothing less, nothing more.”  He touched on the actualizing tendency – the underpinning assumption of his approach -, which espouses that, if met with the right conditions, people will grow, develop and realize their full potential. He praised Rogers’ refusal to assert power within the therapeutic relationship, and noted that this commitment followed through into his work as an international peacemaker towards the end of his life.

He spoke of Rogers as “The Quiet Revolutionary”. In many ways Rogers’ impact on western society is so great that it is invisible: his ideas about the value of listening, of the transformative power of self-expression in safe conditions has become almost ubiquitous. Our society’s narcissism has, of course, taken this individualizing impulse to an extreme in which many foster a self-centredness, expressed by the need to share intimate details to all and sundry in the form of reality television, social media etc. (The irony of my posting this critique on a blog is not lost on me!). However, the cultural shift from a position of excessive emotional containment to one of increasingly widespread emotional tolerance remains a sign of progress towards a more balanced way of being.

Thorne touched on the core conditions of Unconditional Positive Regard (acceptance), Empathy (understanding) and Congruence (authenticity), which have been so influential in the development of counselling. I would have loved to hear more of his thinking around these admittedly widely discussed attitudes. But Thorne was on polemic form and seemed more interested to address some of the more contentious and portentous issues on his mind!

Thorne chose to focus on Rogers’ final book A Way of Being (1980), which came to acknowledge the transcendent, the mysterious, and the spiritual in the therapeutic encounter. In the world of psychology this unquantifiable language, let alone concept, was not welcome. Indeed, Thorne was saying that many within the person-centred tradition had actively avoided and ignored the implications of Rogers’ later writings, preferring to focus on the more accessible aspects of his early philosophy. Thorne seemed to be admirably supporting a more transparent acknowledgement of these elements within psychotherapy, and was at pains to communicate the failure of contemporary psychotherapy and society to integrate spirituality into its value systems. He did not address the issue of how this might be embodied on a practical level within counselling, or how to prevent therapists imposing, however subtly, their own belief systems on clients.

Thorne spoke as if a lone voice in the wilderness. But is he really so unusual in championing the transparency of the spiritual in therapy? Did not Jung turn to alchemy, mystery schools and eastern esoterica in his penetrating search for meaning? What about Transpersonal Psychotherapy – a whole psychological tradition that acknowledges the presence and importance of the soul life? More recently, with the fruitful incorporation of mindfulness and eastern awareness traditions into mainstream psychology, there seems to be increasing tolerance for the dogma-free techniques and tools of contemplative religion in therapeutic systems. Moreover, there are numerous openly Buddhist psychotherapists in practice and broadly held esteem. To my mind the position that Thorne was taking was aimed more at policy-makers than practicing therapists.

It was Thorne’s contention that the current climate of service provision, with its focus on outcomes and interventions, rather than the quality of human relationship, sanitizes and stultifies therapy. The current system encourages us to become “psychological technicians that tinker around with the psychological mechanisms of the human mind”. He felt that this represents more than the simple mistake of overemphasizing form over substance. For him it is evidence of the field of psychotherapy becoming infected by the shadow aspects of our society – namely an obsession with achievement over experience, productivity over provision, and consumption over everything. The increasingly litigious environment, he feels, is contributing to the crushing of therapeutic creativity – and thus we therapists are losing the ability to model a creative, spirited self to our clients for fear of judgement and condemnation. His concern was communicated with an oppressive solemnity and extended out from the therapeutic world to the challenges facing humanity in general, from continued human atrocities to global warming.

Many of his concerns I emphatically share. I’d consider myself a poor therapist indeed if my observations of societal ills did not extend into the restrictions and challenges of the context in which our clients are living. I was somewhat baffled, then, by his focus on these woes because my very being a therapist is born from a keen awareness of these massive challenges, and the instinctive desire to therefore facilitate meaningful individual and collective change. I admire his willingness to take on denial and break our seeming indifference towards the challenges we face. But in this case he was preaching to the converted, and rather than offering constructive insight, dwelt on hopelessness, whereas I see progress in many areas of human development.

He did observe that, while support for the traditional faiths of the world is dwindling in this country, the contemplative orders are flourishing and that an authentic individual search for spiritual connection is flowering. He also noted that the quality of relationship, although not yet at the centre of psychological policy in the UK, is becoming increasingly recognized. But he didn’t seem to join the dots of these significant shifts towards a brighter future. To me the growth in partisan spirituality is evidence of a cultural development that seems to embody the person-centred ethos of allowing organic, rather than imposed, evolution to take hold.

During question and answer time at the end he softened. Having sounded the clarion call of doom he was perhaps ready to acknowledge hope! Interesting questions were raised which prompted the observation that in order for things to change a crisis often needs to be reached – a scenario I’m sure many of us are familiar with in our personal and professional lives.

Near the beginning of the talk Thorne threw down the person-centred gauntlet: “I am challenged to trust my client as a person designed for wholeness and possessed of the inner resources to achieve wholeness.” I am endeavouring to extend this trust to humanity as a whole, as well as my clients. My challenge to Brian Thorne is to do the same.

As I observe clients grow I see the changes they make radiate out across the constellations of their relationships, like ripples in a pond. So, as each of us progresses along our own growth towards our potential I believe we make a microscopic, yet meaningful, contribution to the evolution of the systems to which we belong. For anyone who feels discouraged by the task ahead, be it in response to a personal or the global situation, I offer you these illuminatingly paradoxical words from Gandhi, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

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