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Person-centered Theory: Real Self and Ideal Self

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Carl Rogers was an influential American psychologist and was one of the founders of humanistic psychology and looks at the whole person and the development of potential within that person. Rogers focuses his work on understanding the idea of self and human personality. Humanistic psychology focused on the individual being active, living in the present moment and responding to the stimuli around them. Rogers highlighted free will and believed that humans have a desire and determination within them to become the best person they can be. From this, Rogers developed the term ‘actualising tendency’ this is a person’s basic instinct, a motivational driver, to succeed and be the best possible person they can be.

Rogers is credited as the founder of person-centred therapy. The core idea of person-centred approach is that everyone has ‘vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behaviour’ (Rogers, 1986), meaning that clients have an innate ability to find their solutions to problems. However, Rogers also stated that ‘these resources can be tapped only if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided’ (Rogers, 1986) stating that although people possess the skills to self-direct and alter themselves, they are only able to do so with the help and climate established by the support of a professional.

The purpose of person-centred therapy is for the benefit of the client, this means the counsellor needs to aim to understand how the client is feeling, get into their frame of reference. The frame of reference (internal reference) is a key skill in counselling and means the counsellor understands what the client is feeling, and they perceive the experiences in the same way that the client does. This ensures that the counsellor can accept the experience the client has had despite whether they agree with the way the client has acted. This ensures that the client does not feel judge and the counsellor is being open and honest with helping and responding to the client. By using these counselling skills, the client should be able to understand more about their feelings and values, their real self, and look at ways in which they can develop and continue their progression.

The person-centred counsellor does not act as an expert in their client’s life i.e. they do not appear to know more or better of what is best for the client. The client is seen as the expert on themselves and the counsellor only supports, encourages and facilitates this process. The role of the counsellor is to be understanding and help the client, for this to happen there needs to be an environment in which the client feels they can grow. This environment needs to be compliant with the three core conditions:

  • Congruence – this means the counsellor needs to be genuine and honest with the client bout how they perceive them.
  • Empathy – this means the counsellor needs to be understanding of the client’s feelings, thoughts and point of view without feeling sorry for them (as this would be sympathy)
  • UPR – this is unconditional positive regard, meaning the counsellor needs to not judge the client and value them. There are not be any conditions for the client to fulfil to feel worthy and respected.

Along with the environment in which a helping relationship should take place, the self-actualising theory also looks at how a counselling relationship should ensure the client feels accepted by the counsellor, they trust them and their skills, there is a desire to grow and develop from the client and that the counsellor offers understanding and acceptance to the client.

To establish a safe environment for the client, a counsellor needs to deal with things in their own life, through personal development or learning how to not judge someone for things that they have done or how they live their lives, how can they deal with the personal thoughts and feelings of a person that will be brought to a counselling session. Rogers believed that therapists and counsellors should display a set of values and attitudes towards their clients which would then support their innate ability to heal themselves.

Rogers also felt that people are constantly reacting to their surroundings, such as their thoughts, experience, feelings, their environment and other people within it. These stimuli change continuously providing new things for a person to react to therefore Rogers suggested that over time a person develops a self-concept. Self-concept is one’s knowledge of who they are and according to Rogers, it is made up of three components; self-image, self-esteem and the ideal self. Rogers thought that the self-concept that humans have is active and malleable therefore it can be influenced by our surroundings, such as social situations. It develops as we grow up however it continues to form and change over time as we learn more about ourselves and our stimuli changes. Self-concept encompasses all of our thoughts and feelings and our knowledge of ourselves; it also includes the judgements we have towards ourselves.

As previously discussed, Rogers believed that self-concept was made up of three components. Self-image, the way we see ourselves for example what we know about how we look, our position in society and our personality. Self-image does not always match reality though and humans can perceive themselves in a more positive or negative light. Self-esteem was another of the components to make up self-concept and is the value humans place upon themselves. Humans compare themselves to others and depending on if this is favourable or not, depends on whether their self-esteem grows. Humans can have high self-esteem about some aspects of their life, for example, they may view themselves as a good worker whilst simultaneously having low self-esteem in other areas of their life such as viewing themselves as a bad friend.

The third component of self-concept is the ideal self. The ideal self is a perfect representation of who we are, what we want to be like for example successful, wealthy, charitable, beautiful etc. Our ideal self is not who we are though and humans develop an ideal self and a real self; these are often different from one another. How closely a person’s real self and ideal self matches up is call congruity. If a human’s real self and ideal self-match up and overlap, then it would be deemed congruence between the two. Should a person have a difference between the two then there would be an incongruence. Incongruence can then lead to a negative impact on one’s self-esteem and lead to cognitive dissonance and prevent someone from self-actualisation.

Positive regard is considered a key element in the development of self-concept. Unconditional positive regard is the practice of showing non-judgemental acceptance towards a client. Therapists and counsellors create an environment that is free from judgement, where clients feel accepted and understood. When clients feel this way, Rogers believes they are more equipped to improve their lives and views about themselves. For there to be unconditional positive regard there must be an environment where there are no preconceived conditions of worth or ‘conditions’ that need to be met to received positive regard. Those within a conditional positive regard environment are surrounded by conditions and is dependent on behaviour or achievements. Humans in this type of environment are aware that to receive positive regard or love then they are subject to one or more requirements being met. This results in their ideal self being determined by these requirements and can, therefore, go on to create an incongruence and create further distance between their ideal self and their real self.

Rogers believed that we should aim to live ‘the good life’. We as humans should strive to be who we are and Rogers found that by observing the following principles, humans could lead a higher-functioning and more satisfying life. These principles, however, are fluid and that should one achieve them Rogers believed they would be living ‘the good life’. 

  1. A growing openness to experience
  2. An increasingly existential lifestyle
  3. Increasing organismic trust
  4. Freedom of choice
  5. Higher levels of creativity
  6. Reliability and constructiveness
  7. A rich full life 

Rogers stated that ‘The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.’ (Rogers, 1953). The principles were not a checklist to ensure that a human achieves a good life but that they can experience all of their emotions, they can achieve self-actualisation and become themselves.

Person-centred therapy varies from other types of therapy in that it does not work with a particular problem exclusively such as substance abuse or anxiety, but it works with the client. This can be beneficial for a client as it doesn’t restrict them and allows them to cover a variety of content within their counselling session. They don’t have to focus on a particular mental health problem, but they can look at things which could be deemed smaller or more trivial within their lives. This doesn’t mean to say that person-centred counselling is not appropriate for dealing with mental health issues as it can be helpful in all aspects of a person’s life. The skills use in counselling are so diverse and adaptable that they are not only used by counsellors but other professionals such as teachers, doctors and advisors. The key factor in successful person-centred counselling is the relationship between the client and counsellor. This needs to be secure and the client needs to feel they are accepted and respected as during counselling they may share information that is personal and sensitive, which they may not have discussed previously.


Rogers theory was not without its criticisms though. Other psychologists criticised the lack of evidence and research, despite Rogers writing numerous books on the topic, there were very few other writers who contributed to the debate. Rogers theory was also based upon the hypothesis that all humans are good and there was no evidence to support this key idea. Critics also felt it person-centred therapy relies heavily on the therapist personal qualities and if the client is unable to make that bond with the therapist it could result in the therapy being less successful. Holistic approaches of humanism also allow for a considerable amount of variation and can be difficult to measure the outcomes. 

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Person-Centered Theory: Real Self and Ideal Self. (2023, February 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from
“Person-Centered Theory: Real Self and Ideal Self.” GradesFixer, 09 Feb. 2023,
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