If I can only recommend one book in my entire life till now, it would be Carl Rogers’ “On Becoming a person“. Every book has its flaws and will never be complete in its purpose, but for me this is one of the best resources I’ve ever come across on how to be whole as a human being.
I discovered this book by accident. A friend on facebook had posted this:
Involved in this process of becoming himself is a profound experience of personal choice. He realizes that he can choose to continue to hide behind a façade, or that he can take the risks involved in being himself; that he is a free agent who has it within his power to destroy another, or himself, and also the power to enhance himself and others. Faced with this naked reality of decision, he chooses to move in the direction of being himself.
At that moment in time I was a few months along into my sabbatical, and everyday it was a struggle with the profound loneliness that comes with disowning what society has conditioned upon us and trying to walk on a path out of my own authentic choices. In this society, attempting to live authentically often means resigning to a lifelong experience of never belonging. The quote continued:
But being himself doesn’t “solve problems.” It simply opens up a new way of living in which there is more depth and more height in the experience of his feelings; more breadth and more range. He feels more unique and hence more alone, but he is so much more real that his relationships with others lose their artificial quality, become deeper, more satisfying, and draw more of the realness of the other person into the relationship.
My memory may be flawed, but at that point of time I wanted to try to live authentically simply because I was tired of living otherwise. It came out of fatigue and illness, not because of an aspiration. Yet according to Carl Rogers, being true to oneself is necessary if one aspires to experience life in a wider, richer way.
The core ideas
I was relatively new to the whole realm of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy when I started reading Carl Rogers. I was already reading Jung, whose brand of psychoanalysis was a lot more human-centered than Freud, whom unfortunately I never took seriously because he unfamously attributed all human problems to sexual angst.
People often mix up psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (which are both different from counselling), and they may be used interchangeably, but their intentions were very different. Psychoanalysts are meant to be uncaring and neutral, they believe this is necessary for the true content of your subconscious to surface.
It may seem ludicrous now, but before Carl Rogers therapists didn’t really care about people’s feelings. People were like scientific objects in therapy, they were viewed suspiciously and borderline negatively by their therapists, because they are seen as always conspiring to delude their therapists and themselves, or they are seen as overgrown-children whose lives are often unconsciously directed by their childhood wounds.
These views in my opinon, are not wrong, but Carl Rogers was the first (at least the first known) therapist to center his therapy based on the idea that the clients know themselves the best,
it is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried.
and hence all it required was an “unconditional positive regard” from the therapist – an unconditional listening and acceptance – to establish an environment safe enough for the client to discover themselves and self-direct their own growth:
If I can create a relationship characterized on my part: by a genuineness and transparency, in which I am my real feelings; by a warm acceptance of and prizing of the other person as a separate individual; by a sensitive ability to see his world and himself as he sees them; Then the other individual in the relationship: will experience and understand aspects of himself which previously he has repressed; will find himself becoming better integrated, more able to function effectively; will become more similar to the person he would like to be; will be more self-directing and self-confident; will become more of a person, more unique and more self-expressive; will be more understanding, more acceptant of others; will be able to cope with the problems of life more adequately and more comfortably.
Therapy as a means to self-actualisation
This idea was revolutionary for me. I had viewed therapy as fixing: people go to therapy because they are broken and they need therapists to heal them, but for Rogers, everyone should go for therapy to become a person – to know who we truly are so we can become the best of who we are:
The effect on the individual as he apprehends this attitude, is to sense a climate of safety. He gradually learns that he can be whatever he is, without sham or façade, since he seems to be regarded as of worth no matter what he does. Hence he has less need of rigidity, can discover what it means to be himself, can try to actualize himself in new and spontaneous ways. He is, in other words, moving toward creativity.
What it means to be whole
I was obsessed with being good. My idea of being good meant a lot of repression of my true feelings, and there were probably plenty of emotions I avoided having because they were perceived to be bad, such as anger. But it was through reading Rogers and other psychology books with a sprinkle of Zen and Taoism that taught me the importance of balance and integration:
He finds that gradually he can be his anger, when anger is his real reaction, but that such accepted or transparent anger is not destructive. He finds that he can be his fear, but that knowingly to be his fear does not dissolve him. He finds that he can be self-pitying, and it is not “bad.” He can feel and be his sexual feelings, or his “lazy” feelings, or his hostile feelings, and the roof of the world does not fall in. The reason seems to be that the more he is able to permit these feelings to flow and to be in him, the more they take their appropriate place in a total harmony of his feelings. He discovers that he has other feelings with which these mingle and find a balance. He feels loving and tender and considerate and cooperative, as well as hostile or lustful or angry. He feels interest and zest and curiosity, as well as laziness or apathy. He feels courageous and venturesome, as well as fearful. His feelings, when he lives closely and acceptingly with their complexity, operate in a constructive harmony rather than sweeping him into some uncontrollably evil path.
Anger not being destructive? What an idea! That every spectrum of feelings can have a place in me? Wow. I gradually learned that if I stopped rejecting and repressing these feelings in me I could possibly find healthy ways to express them, that I would stop letting them accumulate unconsciously. I often had unwanted, destructive explosions of my anger which resulted in irreparable situations. Who knew being “nice” had a price to pay?
On the paradox of acceptance and change
People are ambitious and hence seek improvement, so we often try to change people and ourselves, often by force and manipulation. Yet for Rogers, the paradox is change only arrives upon acceptance:
Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up. It is a very paradoxical thing—that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing.
I have experienced this phenomenon myself. There seems to be this defensive defiance of the psyche: the more we exert change by will, the more resistant it becomes (and I never fail to be amazed by the wonders and tricks of the psyche). What it seems to need is the space to be acknowledged that it exists. This seems to be related to the inner-child theory. That the moment I grow the capacity to really see, hold and accept the wounded child in me, to tell her that it is okay to be sad and angry, it is okay to resent, it is okay to not be nice – there is a sense of release, like a ghost who was waiting forever to be seen, and the ghost can now leave peacefully. Otherwise, our psyches are like springs, the more we push, the harder it springs back.
This happens in our relationships to others as well:
The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in to “fix things.” As I try to listen to myself and the experiencing going on in me, and the more I try to extend that same listening attitude to another person, the more respect I feel for the complex processes of life. So I become less and less inclined to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself.
Later in his book he relates this to the way we raise children:
This concept of trusting the individual to be himself has come to have a great deal of meaning to me. I sometimes fantasy about what it would mean if a child were treated in this fashion from the first. Suppose a child were permitted to have his own unique feelings—suppose he never had to disown his feelings in order to be loved…He would, I believe, be a responsible and self-directing individual, who would never need to conceal his feelings from himself, who would never need to live behind a façade. He would be relatively free of the maladjustments which cripple so many of us.
The above sentiment breaks my heart. Considering this book was published in 1961, I wonder how much have we evolved since. I believe the reverse is true too: the more we seek to control ourselves, the more we seek to control others, the more others will seek to control themselves and others. It is just a sad, tragic loop.
On self-direction, freedom and responsibility
To be responsibly self-directing means that one chooses—and then learns from the consequences. So clients find this a sobering but exciting kind of experience. As one client says—“I feel frightened, and vulnerable, and cut loose from support, but I also feel a sort of surging up or force or strength in me.” This is a common kind of reaction as the client takes over the self-direction of his own life and behavior.
Here he explains that with freedom, comes responsibility. We often think if we’re able to do whatever we want, we will be happy and fulfilled. But what we neglect is that the freedom to choose means our choices are freely taken by ourselves and hence there is no one else to blame if there are negative consequences from our actions. We have to bear the responsibility that comes with the freedom of our choices, and for many people, this is a responsibility that can be frightening, at least on a subconscious level.
I used to seek out advice a lot. While seeking the wisdom of others can be a good thing if sought for in balance with our own inner-wisdom, it is often a disguised attempt to seek validation for our own choices and distribute the responsibility of that choice. It also betrays a lack of trust in ourselves. If something goes wrong, we can easily tell ourselves: well, we listened to those people, and look what happened! I should have never listened to them. Less often we think: I made that choice to seek these people’s opinions so I bear that responsibility.
a sort of surging up or force or strength in me…his client describes. Each time we make a choice and learn to bear the consequences, the reward is that we develop the capacity to endure and recover from mistakes. Half the time we may realise it is not as bad as we imagine, the other half we may develop the fortitude to deal with more. What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, as they say. Part of the learning experience is to learn what we can actually manage on our own and what we need others for support. I do think there are experiences that may break us with irrecoverable damage, and this is when hopefully the support of other people will tide us through. Nevertheless, there will always be risks in embarking on a quest:
it is only as I see them as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience. This freedom is an important condition of the relationship. There is implied here a freedom to explore oneself at both conscious and unconscious levels, as rapidly as one can dare to embark on this dangerous quest.
What it means to become a person
Stringing it all together, Rogers describes a person who has gone through therapy successfully:
The client has now incorporated the quality of motion, of flow, of changingness, into every aspect of his psychological life, and this becomes its outstanding characteristic. He lives in his feelings, knowingly and with basic trust in them and acceptance of them. The ways in which he construes experience are continually changing as his personal constructs are modified by each new living event. His experiencing is process in nature, feeling the new in each situation and interpreting it anew, interpreting in terms of the past only to the extent that the now is identical with the past. He experiences with a quality of immediacy, knowing at the same time that he experiences. He values exactness in differentiation of his feelings and of the personal meanings of his experience. His internal communication between various aspects of himself is free and unblocked. He communicates himself freely in relationships with others, and these relationships are not stereotyped, but person to person. He is aware of himself, but not as an object. Rather it is a reflexive awareness, a subjective living in himself in motion. He perceives himself as responsibly related to his problems. Indeed, he feels a fully responsible relationship to his life in all its fluid aspects. He lives fully in himself as a constantly changing flow of process.
In another part of the book, he describes this process in the form of an internal dialogue:
Thus they often follow the schematic pattern, “I am thus and so, but I experience this feeling which is very inconsistent with what I am”; “I love my parents, but I experience some surprising bitterness toward them at times”; “I am really no good, but sometimes I seem to feel that I’m better than everyone else.” Thus at first the expression is that “I am a self which is different from a part of my experience.” Later this changes to the tentative pattern, “Perhaps I am several quite different selves, or perhaps my self contains more contradictions than I had dreamed.” Still later the pattern changes to some such pattern as this: “I was sure that I could not be my experience—it was too contradictory—but now I am beginning to believe that I can be all of my experience.”
His view on humanity
Unlike some schools of psychoanalysis which regarded people as ignorant unconscious creatures directed by their primitive desires, Rogers had a very idealistic and positive view of human beings:
when one is truly and deeply a unique member of the human species, this is not something which should excite horror. It means instead that one lives fully and openly the complex process of being one of the most widely sensitive, responsive, and creative creatures on this planet.
I consider myself a misanthrope most of the time, but upon re-reading this quote, there seems to be an undeniable truth in his statement. Yes, we are often self-destructive, violent and awfully stupidly short-sighted, yet we are equipped with a consciousness that has the potential to be widely sensitive, responsive and creative as per his description. We wouldn’t have made so much humanistic progress otherwise.
Based on my regular outlook on humanity, most of us should still be warring and killing each other openly, living like savages. It would not be surprising to me. But there is something in some of us that aspires to be just, to be kind, or we wouldn’t even be having the struggles we have today. Because if violence and oppression is the accepted norm, there wouldn’t even be a struggle, there will be a resignation. But we don’t resign, we continue to aspire.
How this book has changed me
I speed read books, and most of the time I don’t really remember what I’ve read. But the subconscious works in miraculous ways, so the ideas I’ve come across in books often influence profoundly me on a subconscious level. However, this is a book which core ideas continue to impact me on a conscious level. I have to emphasise again how revolutionary it is for me to think of becoming a person the way Carl Rogers has written about. There are countless books on self-improvement, so much ideology on becoming a better human, but how often do we come across an idea that all we need to do, is to facilitate the process of letting people become themselves? Carl Rogers may not know it, but he is very Taoist in his beliefs – the idea that the use of excessive force often backfires towards its original intention.
Reading this book has gradually made me into a more expansive person, in the sense that I am a lot more accepting of my previously unwanted emotions and those of other people. It has also made me think a lot more of the power of space and presence – how transformative it can be to genuinely listen, empathise and accept, whether towards other people or ourselves:
I am now an advocate for therapy (with a good therapist) for everybody and anybody. Even the most well-adjusted person would benefit from a therapist’s capacity to contain a safe and unbiased environment for them to understand and connect with themselves. Everyone inevitably has blind spots.
For me this book is not just a book explaining the ideas and process of psychotherapy, but it is a cornerstone of my own personal philosophy (when I am not being a misanthrope) and belief system. That if everyone has the space to confront the false selves that society has conditioned onto them, discover their own nature and learn to understand and accept their shadow selves, they will function at a higher, more creative level and contribute more to their society, more human potential will realised, and there will be less destruction in this world.
Since this is one of my favourite books I wish to share how I feel about it in a manner that it deserves, but like all my other writing the more I wish to write something well, the less I am able to write it, so my desire to share something so that other people may experience the similar benefits to what I’ve gotten out of it often never comes to fruition. So here I publish something that is probably not very coherent as a whole, but still I hope someone out there would get something out of it even in its most iterative form, rather than absolutely nothing if it didn’t at all exist.