Person-Centered Theory and Its Application


Person-centered theory (PCT) entails an approach to human nature and development that is considered to be the most strength-oriented and optimistic than any other theory. It is focused on the client and entails a humanistic approach associated with the various ways in which individuals consciously see themselves. Therefore, the theory presupposes that a counselor or another professional working with a client does not have to interpret their unconscious ideas or thoughts. PCT was formulated by Carl Rogers, an American psychologist and the founder of the humanistic approach, in the 1940s (Walsh, 2013). It was included in his four major works: The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child, Counseling and Psychotherapy: New Concepts in Practice, Client-Centered Therapy, and Psychotherapy and Personality. Since then, the approach has been accepted and followed by direct practitioners as well as theorists who used the theory to further their research. Thus, this paper aims to provide an overview of person-centered theory, discuss its application in practice, and evaluate its outcomes and implications.

Practice Model Overview

Derived from person-centered therapy, PCT suggests that people have an innate tendency to develop to their complete potential. However, the such potential may be disrupted or distorted by specific life experiences, especially those negatively affecting one’s sense of value (Walsh, 2013). Thus, when using the approach, a counselor aims to understand the experiences of an individual from their standpoint, valuing the client as a person in all aspects of their humanity while also trying to be genuine and open. Within the approach, the key focus is placed on facilitating the ability of the client to self-actualize, which entails personal growth and fulfillment by helping them to explore and use their individual strengths and personal identity.

There are several vital concepts driving person-centered theory, which include two categories – the concepts related to therapeutic interventions and concepts pertaining to the theory of human behavior. The latter is important to discuss for the justification of PCT and the understanding of how the theory approaches human behavior. The concepts related to the actualizing tendency include self-actualization, unconditional and conditional positive regard, and conditions of worth. According to Rogers (1951), every individual aims to develop into a full-functioning and creative being and reach full potential, which denotes the process of self-actualization. Suggesting that every human, from the time of being born, has two basic needs, positive regard from others ad self-worth, the theorist divided positive regard into conditional and unconditional. Conditional positive regard refers to any praise or approval depending upon the person (Rogers, 1951). Unconditional positive regard refers to the love and acceptance that others show to the person. Finally, conditions of worth refer to the ideas and concepts that individuals think that they must meet for other people to see them as worthy of their positive regard and love.

Concepts related to the self include self-concept, positive regard, and positive self-regard. As suggested by Rogers (1951), self-concept is a person’s knowledge of who they are, which includes such components as self-image, self-esteem, and the ideal self. Positive regard is defined as the manner in which others assess and judge people in social interactions, while positive self-regard denotes individuals’ need for a person to receive love, affection, and respect from others. Thus, self-concept is highly dynamic, flexible, and dynamic and can be influenced by various social interactions.

Congruence and the fully-functioning person are concepts experienced when the self-concept can embrace the entire potential that a person has. In a congruent state, individuals have respect for themselves and value everything about them, and are open to new experiences and possibilities to get to know themselves better. A fully functioning person, therefore, is the one that could achieve their goal and is in touch with themselves through existential living, feelings of trust and creativity, living a fulfilled life, and being open to experiences. In terms of the concepts related to PCT interventions, they include empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence, or genuineness.

The goal of applying PCT in practice is to enhance the congruence of a client in relation to the challenge being presented. The theory can be effectively combined with the person-in-environment social work approach and applied to clients who need support addressing they’re presenting behavioral or emotional difficulties (Walsh, 2013). Thus, PCT will be used to facilitate clients’ ability to self-actualize, a belief that they will grow to reach their full potential. Within the approach, counselors will cultivate a relationship with a client conducive to their personal growth, which will then allow them to explore and use their personal strengths and identity.

Person-centered theory entails establishing a positive relationship between a therapist and the client in order for the latter to achieve positive personal change. A counselor is expected to exhibit congruence and genuineness when interacting with the client. While it is not expected that the therapist presents a perfect image, they should stay true to themselves in the therapeutic relationship (Walsh, 2013). The unconditional positive regard exhibited by the therapist is necessary for showing acceptance of clients’ experiences, both positive and negative. By achieving this, a counselor can get their subjects to share experiences without the fear of being judged (Rogers, 1951). Therapists should also show empathy to let their clients know that they understand their emotional experiences. The client should perceive unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding on the part of their therapist.

When it comes to specific techniques, practitioners using PCT do not incorporate certain interventions. However, by establishing empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence, they create a facilitative setting in which clients can engage in a more honest and genuine reflection. The first step in PCT interventions is the client and social worker coming together with the purpose of addressing clients’ concerns. In the interactions that take place, the social worker does not take a directive role, nor do they dominate interactions verbally. Therefore, in such conditions, the client has more freedom to express their thoughts and feelings, with the most powerful feelings being expressed about themselves in relation to others. Notably, the client should be able to discuss the emotions that have been denied or distorted in the past, and bringing them to attend is necessary to bring awareness of the potential and dichotomy between themselves and their self-concept. As the client becomes more congruent, they get more open to experiences, get less defensive, and become more objective (Walsh, 2013). While there is no specific protocol for ending person-centered therapy interventions, they usually end when a client feels satisfied with their current state of affairs and suggests to the counselor that therapy can end.

Application to Diverse Populations

PCT is applicable to working with individuals that require counselors’ help in dealing with their behavioral or emotional issues. It is unlikely to be appropriate for working with persons that are only looking for some physical or material assistance, although they may also experience psychological incongruity. Moreover, PCT is not a solution for clients that are not intellectually capable of receiving the conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence exhibited by a practitioner.

While PCT was established as a tool to provide efficient and meaningful therapy to individuals, the focus on human nature and its positive traits make it possible to apply to the social work profession and its dedication to addressing issues of social justice (Quinn, 2021). Using PCT for social justice issues is possible because it allows drawing on the natural desire of people to live in congruence with their social environments and recognizing the limitations imposed by such environments. The theory can also have a significant impact on issues in the fields of education, medicine, business, politics, and other areas.

In the multicultural counseling context, person-centered counseling can be applied in instances when practitioners have the necessary competencies to do so. Specifically, the multicultural competence model entails a therapist’s ability to recognize their membership in one or more dominant cultural groups and acknowledge the potential effects of this membership (Quinn, 2012). As suggested by Sue (1992), “a major obstacle in getting our profession to understand the negative implications of monoculturalism is that White culture is such a dominant norm that it acts as an invisible veil that prevents people from seeing counseling as a potentially biased system” (p. 480). Therefore, when dealing with culturally diverse groups, counselors must be culturally aware and act based on critical analysis and understanding of their own condition, their clients’ conditioning, and the sociopolitical systems in which they live.

The person-centered approach has been used in multicultural settings. As reported by Quinn (2012), PCT was provided to children and adolescents and children in Southern Brazil living in either residential shelters or undergoing day treatment. While the intervention did not set a particular goal of symptom reduction, the findings indicated that the client-centered therapy contributed to the decrease in anxiety symptoms using other mechanisms. The flexibility of the approach allows it to be implemented in various contexts and the diverse needs of clients.


Clients that undergo person-centered therapy tend to reach positive outcomes in terms of their motivation, engagement, and involvement (Backham et al., 2021). Besides, the relationship between the client and practitioner, combined with client resources, has been shown to account for around three-fourths of the variance in successful interventions, while specific techniques have accounted for only 15% (Walsh, 2013). As a humanistic and experiential type of therapy, the person-centered approach has been shown to significantly reduce psychological distress in clients, suggesting its efficacy in promoting mindfulness, self-acceptance, and personal development (Elliot et al., 2013). In addition, research findings showed that unconditional positive regard exhibited by practitioners resulted in a significant therapeutic change in the improved social adjustment of clients (Traynor et al., 2011). Thus, if implemented effectively, PCT can bring positive results in different areas of life. The overall contribution of PCT entails the possibility of developing positive therapeutic relationships conducive to healing and demystifying the psychotherapeutic processes, which, although involving encounters between people, do not require significant mastery or specific techniques. Besides, PCT allows conducting a further scientific exploration of the outcomes and processes of therapy.

When it comes to the limitations of PCT, the central area of criticism is the lack of possibility to test its core assumption that all people have the tendency to self-actualize. Moreover, critics have mentioned that the arguments for self-actualization have the tendency to involve circular reasoning (Maddi, 1996). There is an assumption that inherent potential presupposes behavior, while the existence of such an unfolding process can only be determined by observing a person’s behaviors over time. In addition, PCT has been criticized for its simplicity, especially in terms of the relationship between clients and therapists. A PCT-focused practitioner does not consider related factors such as transference, countertransference, and the part that the unconscious plays (Walsh, 2013). Overall, PCT has been approached as a non-directive type of therapy that may be confusing to some clients.

In generalist social practice, PCT has the full potential to be applied, especially when combined with other approaches. Such principles as congruence, empathy and positive unconditional regard can strengthen the relationships between clients and their counselor and establish an environment where there is the freedom to discuss feelings and emotions. Since social work generalists use a broad range of intervention and prevention tactics, integrating PCT principles is possible in combination with other methods. Overall, it is crucial not to overlook the person-centered approach because of its value of being applied to marginalized groups, such as older adults. Practitioners applying PCT will apply different approaches to the individual needs of their clients, which makes the theory highly valuable.


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