Person-Centered Therapy Against Existentialism

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This paper discusses Person Centered Theory and Existentialism and the importance these theories have contributed to psychology, as well as compares and contrasts the similarities and differences between the two. Person Centered Therapy, also known as PCT, focuses on understanding and empathy rather than a diagnosis. It is all about acceptance of the client and their experiences. Existentialism’s emphasis is on people and their self-awareness. It focuses on important life themes. It is about an individual’s attitude towards life. This paper will also detail the people who influenced and created these theories. PCT was created by psychologist Carl Rogers and Existentialism was shaped and influenced by a number of different psychologists, writers, and philosophers.

All through out history different types of theories have been created. It is truly amazing how many diverse therapies there are to counsel a person and what those theories involve. It is extremely important to understand all of the counseling theories and where they came from to better assist our clients in achieving happiness. Being knowledgeable about how to use different techniques with our clients will further aid them in reaching their goals. There are three main ways to classify counseling theories; Affective (feeling), Behavioral (acting/behaving), and Cognitive (thinking). (Sharf) I have chosen two theories, Person Centered Theory or PCT by Carl Rogers and Existentialism by Soren Kierkegaard, Freidrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although these therapies are relatively similar, they also hold many differences. It is in my opinion, that a combination of different therapies is the most effective when helping a client. While this is my belief, I feel as though Person-Centered Theory is the most similar therapy to my style of helping individuals and Existentialism is the theory, I am least comfortable using.

Person-Centered Therapy was created by Carl Rogers. Rogers was born in the suburbs of Chicago called Oak Park in 1902. He shared his home with five other siblings and had loving intelligent parents. When he was 12 years old, he moved out to a farm setting with his family. In the summers, he would spend his days working on the family farm. He attended three different high schools. He spent much of his free time reading and learning about farming. Although he was heavily influenced by religion, he studied agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating, he married the love of his life, Helen Elliot. He later migrated to New York to study ministry and completed two years there. He then found himself at Columbia University and earned his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1931. In the early 1940’s, he created Person Centered Therapy (PCT). It was first referred to as nondirective therapy, then client-centered therapy, and lastly what it is known as today. (Sharf)

Person Centered Therapy is classified as an affective or feeling counseling theory. It can be broken into four stages; Developmental stage, Nondirective Stage, Client-Centered, and Person-Centered. The first stage involves Roger’s early professional years. The second stage, “begins the theoretical development and understanding of client and how to talk about that understanding” (Sharf). The third stage includes more of the theoretical development of personality and psychotherapeutic change. It also focuses on who the person is rather than counseling techniques. The last stage goes beyond individual psychotherapy to include different types of therapy. PCT is a form of psychotherapy used with the understanding that a person is more than their diagnosis. (Sharf, R) It focuses on building trust with a client through the understanding of the client’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and ideas. It is important that the therapist express genuine concern for their client and actually care about what that person is feeling. When this trust is built, it creates a better understanding for the therapist. It is the responsibility of the client to create positive changes in their own lives. (Sharf, R) PCT can really change the lives of people who suffer from depression, anxiety and personality disorders.

Person-Centered Therapy breaks down psychological development into three different categories; infancy, children, and older children. When in the infant stage, individuals monitor what they find enjoyable and unenjoyable in situations. There is a determination between bodily sensations, for example being cold and hungry. If a parent disrupts the child’s understanding of their circumstances, for example eating when not hungry, then it causes problems with the child developing their “orgasmic sensing.” They then have trouble trusting themselves and their environment. In the children stage, they learn how to trust their feelings about their environment. Lastly, the older children become more self-aware. They discover their need for positive regard from others and learn to manage physical needs so that they are more able to receive this positive regard from others. The effect of receiving this increases the child’s own self-regard. If a child believes their parents see their worth, then they are likely to develop good self-esteem.

Existentialism was created from the ideas of many different people. The main people who influenced this therapy where Soren Kierkegaard, Freidrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Jean-Paul Sartre. Soren Kierkegaard was born in 1813. He was a Danish philosopher who was considered the “grandfather of existentialism.” He wrote mostly about the anxieties and worries of life with an emphasis on the “will to power”. His book “The Concept of Dread,” was about the issues with human’s existence. Kierkegaard saw people as dealing with the fact that a person is only here for a short time, but has an obsession with being eternal or godlike. He theorized that at any given time, people forget their temporary time on earth to deal with less important issues of being alive. “Kierkegaard believed that in adolescence individuals have an awareness of finiteness and must deal with the torment, angst, dread and issues of philosophical and personal interest.” (Sharf) When this is not done, people just “go through the motions of living” and do not challenge problems like choice and freedom.

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Freidrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Germany. His main focus was on the importance of subjectivity in people. He thought that to really get to know someone, one must take a look at their irrational aspects, as rational aspects of a person are deceptive. “He emphasized the dynamics of resentment, guilt and hostility that individuals attempt to repress.” (Sharf) Nietzsche was worried people would turn to self-hatred and violence if they repressed their instincts. When people are able to develop their “will to power”, they become creative and can attain leadership positions. This was his superman concept. The “will to power” is when people discover their true potential and live out their lives bravely.

Martin Heidegger had the most direct impact of the development of existential therapy. He was born in 1889 and was the chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg. His book “Being and Time” was important to existentialism, because it emphasizes the awareness of existence. He called Dasein, which translates to “being-in-the-world”. “Dasein refers to attempting to attain high levels of consciousness and uniqueness by examining oneself, others and the world---the ability of individuals to be able to think about and reflect on events and to attribute meaning to them.” (Sharf)

Lastly, Karl Jaspers and Jean-Paul Sartre who also influenced the development of Existentialism. Jaspers was born in 1883. He viewed humanity as being perpetually confronted with life events like death, suffering, struggles, and guilt. He thought that humans could “transcend” those situations by being themselves. To be oneself, a person much be self-aware and assert themselves through choices and decisions. He also focused on being-there, which is how one observes and experiments in the world to get to know it. Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger created a more sophisticated system for Existentialism. Lastly, Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905. He was a writer who frequently discussed the problems dealing with the meaning of human existence. He found that the answer to this question was that there is no explanation why humanity exists, and that people need to find a purpose. His view of existence was more on the pessimistic side. “Sartre emphasizes that, no matter what a person has been, he can choose to be different.” (Sharf)

Existentialism psychology “deals with the dynamic or ever-changing transitions that individuals encounter as they emerge, evolve and become.” It talks about how to actually be a person; one must know about their own being-in-the-world. Humanity needs to ask questions such as; Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I do? Where do I come from? People are responsible for their own plans, purpose, and fate. This therapy puts an emphasis on one’s own self-awareness of time, past, present, but mostly future, and how important it is. Existentialism has Four Ways of Being; Unwelt (environment), Mitwelt (human relations), Uberwelt (spiritualty), and Eigenwelt (self-awareness). Unwelt is the biological work or environment. It is a person’s drives and instincts. Unwelt follows a person sleeping, waking, living and dying cycles and the factors that are unable to be controlled, such as natural disasters. Mitwelt is about the relationships meant only for a person. It is about the measurement of how much of ourselves we put into a relationship and how both people are changed from it. Uberwelt is about how one’s spiritual or religious beliefs are important to them. Lastly, Eigenwelt is how a person sees the world in their perspective. The four modes of being-in-the-world are always interconnected. Also, a big part of existentialism is Dasein meaning being-in-the-world and how people are able to conceive their own ideas about what events mean to them. We are responsible for our own existence. When a person is their true selves, they exist in harmony. It is when a person has to decide in a world that is seen as volatile and uncaring, that anxiety takes over.

I chose Person Centered Therapy as the therapy that fits who I am, because I feel like it most relates to me as a person. I am really passionate about active listening and how important it is to really understand people. If one does not understand how someone is feeling in a situation how can they expect to help them? In my opinion, empathy is one of the most important traits a person can have and that is the main emphasis of Person-Centered Therapy. I also agree with PCT’s philosophy about being present in the now. Although I do think that past trauma can attribute to present pain, I feel as though it is important to work through it in a productive way and not let it consume an individual. I definitely have a hard time with the understanding of Existentialism. I can relate to feeling out of place, but do not think that “where do I belong,” personally affects me on a daily basis. I do also realize how this could contribute a lot of anxiety to an individual and that others may feel this way every day. I do agree with existentialism that us as human beings are constantly changing. I do not agree that living, death, and morality should be a main focus of an individual’s therapy. In my opinion, there is so much more to life than dealing with one’s own understanding of why we as human beings exist. Isn’t it more important to learn how to be happy with ourselves?

Person Centered Theory and Existentialism are similar in a degree of ways. Both consist of humanistic approaches. (Essays) Each approach exposes weaknesses in each other, but also offers direct ways to add or make therapeutic practice greater. Both theories emphasis achievement of goals through personal responsibility and free will. (Richert) They both focus on the present and where a person is at in their daily lives. The ability of people to make choices and lead their own lives is an important value of both therapies. They both focus on subjectively viewing an individual’s experiences. It is important to understand where the client is manifesting these feelings from and how they perceived the situation. PCT and Existentialism both discuss that fact that human beings are inherently good and want to make moral decisions, but outside factors lead them to create chaos in their lives. These therapies view people as whole, complete and ever changing.

Although Person-Centered Therapy and Existentialism are indeed similar, they also have many different characteristics. Even though both focus mainly on the present, PCT emphasizes the here and now, while Existentialism also takes a look at the present and future. In PCT it is important for the client to make their own goals, but in Existentialism the client and counselor decide on goals together. PCT views individuals as being motivated by natural growth, while Existentialism believes people are motivated to change by angst. (Corey) PCT believes that disorganization, defensiveness, and incompatible situations lead people from their natural path to fulfillment, but in existentialism it is believed that a psychological challenge occurs when a person is not true with themselves. (Corey) The main themes of PCT are understanding one’s personal power and self-actualization. Existentialism’s main themes are living and dying and finding the meaning of one’s life.

In Conclusion, Person-Centered Therapy and Existentialism have many similarities and differences. Despite these similarities, I would still prefer to use Rogerian Techniques with my clients. In my opinion, there are many parts of PCT that are very useful, such as Rogers explanation of the theories of personality and the fully functioning person. The Fully Functioning Person is when a person achieves their optimal levels of functioning by meeting their need for positive regard from other people and in turn having a positive regard for themselves. I think this model is such an excellent way to explain to children or adolescents the need to feel included and loved. It is my believe that through empath and understanding that Person-Centered Therapy will really help the students know, that we as counselors, really care and are here to listen to them.

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