Client-centered therapy, also known as person-centered therapy, is a therapeutic approach developed by psychologist Carl Rogers around 70 years ago. Freudian psychoanalytic therapies were the dominant approaches at the time.
However, the client-centered approach created a new focus in therapy: an emphasis on the importance of the relationship between the client and therapist. This recognition of the effect of the therapeutic relationship on a person’s growth in therapy was influential. It continues to shape the way many mental health professionals help people today.
Client-centered therapy is one of the most common types of humanistic therapy. This group of therapies is built on the idea that humans are inherently good and have the potential to grow in positive ways.
Client-centered therapy is not necessarily a structured therapy protocol. It is an approach to therapy that many mental health professionals integrate into their sessions. It can be applied to children and adults in individual, couples, family or group therapy settings, to help people heal, grow, and fulfill their potential.
Effectiveness of client-centered therapy
That said, more research is needed to help to establish firmer conclusions about the effect of client-centered therapy.
Mental health conditions that client-centered therapy can help with
Although client-centered therapists tend not to think about people in terms of symptoms and diagnosis, this type of therapy can be applied to help with an array of issues, including:
- Relationship challenges
- Family difficulties
- Grief or bereavement
- Eating disorders
- Communication problems
- Identity issues
- Existential crises
- Problems at school or work
How client-centered therapy works
Client-centered therapists believe that all people have the natural ability to choose their own direction and find their own solutions. This is called ‘self-actualizing’. This individual autonomy and personal choice are respected and valued in the client-centered approach.
Because therapists believe in each person’s natural tendency towards growth and healing, the therapist tends to be less directive. They tend not to offer regular ‘interpretations’ of your experience, or provide lots of advice. They tend not to ask lots of questions, express their opinions, provide assurances or blame (2). It is not a therapy that tends to teach you strategies and tools for changing your thoughts and feelings, as other therapies might.
Instead, therapists aim to empower you to grow, find solutions and develop your sense of self.
As such, the role of the therapist is to create an open environment in which you feel understood and able to express yourself without judgment. The therapist focuses on the quality of the relationship between you both, moment-to-moment, adjusting it to ensure that you have a supportive relationship that helps you to grow. This is key to progress in client-centered therapy.
Frequency and length of client-centered therapy
As client-centered therapy is more an approach, and less a structured protocol for therapy, the frequency and length of treatment can vary widely.
Structure of client-centered therapy
Progress in client-centered therapy can be summarized in three stages: (3)
- Catharsis: The therapist helps you to develop an increased awareness of your problems and attitudes on a deeper level.
- Insight: Reality is faced more adequately. Your therapist helps you to develop a better understanding of your patterns of behavior, become aware of how your problems relate to each other, become more accepting of yourself, and reformulate your sense of who you are.
- Positive choice and action: New goals are developed and you start to behave differently, in ways that align with your reshaped sense of self.
What happens in a typical client-centered therapy session
The psychologist who developed this therapy himself said that there is a great deal of room for interpretation when it comes to client-centered therapy (2). This means that sessions can vary widely, depending on the particular therapist’s approach.
That said, there are some aims that are common to all client-centered sessions. In any session, the therapist aims to create a warm environment and build a strong therapeutic relationship that will enable you to:
- Freely explore your attitudes and feelings
- Discover and amplify your strengths and resources
- Develop self-acceptance
- Develop new goals and behaviors
To help you to develop greater self-awareness, the therapist might (4):
- Reflect your feelings back to you
- Use open-ended questions like, “how did you feel when that happened?”
- Focus on you, rather than learning or practicing strategies or tools to help manage symptoms
- Say things to show you that they understand how you are thinking or feeling
- Create a non-judgemental and caring atmosphere, where you can feel comfortable saying anything
What to look for in a client-centered therapist
The best-fitting therapist for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms, your location and finances. There are a number of additional important factors to consider in your search for a client-centered therapist:
Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that our therapists have already been vetted.
Check that your prospective therapist has completed specialized training in client-centered therapy. It can be helpful to take a look at therapists’ biographies. This is often where they note their experience and specializations.
The American Psychological Association has a division for psychologists interested in humanistic therapies. If you want to work with a psychologist, look for a member of this Society for Humanistic Psychology.
Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship between you and your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.
The therapeutic alliance is considered to be a particularly important aspect of client-centered therapy, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for the key client-centered characteristics in your prospective therapists:
- Empathy: the therapist understands how you feel and think, and is able to show you this by accurately summarizing your thoughts back to you.
- Unconditional positive regard: the therapist shows you warmth and helps you to feel worthwhile and valued.
- Congruence: the therapist is genuine and honest about what they are thinking and feeling. (2)
Talk in advance
The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:
- Education and qualifications
- Training in the client-centered approach
- Experience treating people with similar concerns to your own
- What therapy with them will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Sources and references
- Effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural, person-centred and psychodynamic therapies as practised in UK National Health Service settings
- Harvard Health Publishing, “Client-centered therapy"
- Significant Aspects of Client-Centered Therapy
- Person-Centered Therapy (PDF)
- The Association for the Development of the Person Centered Approach