The Process of Change

The process of change through the helping relationship is guided by the presence of three basic conditions: genuineness, acceptance and caring, and empathic understanding. As Rogers (1961) wrote,

Studies with a variety of clients show that when these three conditions occur in the therapist, and when they are to some degree perceived by the client, therapeutic movement ensues, the client finds himself painfully but definitely learning and growing, and both he and his counselor regard the outcome as successful. . . . It seems from our studies that it is attitudes such as these rather than the therapist's technical knowledge and skill, which are primarily responsible for therapeutic change, (p. 63)

Over the past five decades, this perspective on the significance of the relationship to the process of change has been integrated within virtually all schools of counseling (Goldfried, 2007; Hazier & Barwick, 2001; Kirschenbaum, 2009).

The first of these three conditions is the genuineness of the counselor. Clients must perceive that the counselor is a real person who has feelings, thoughts, and beliefs that are not hidden behind facades. This genuine nature allows clients to trust that whatever specifics of the relationship emerge, they can be recognized as both personal and honest. It also allows the client to see that being open and genuine, which includes revealing one's fallibility, is not a condition from which competent human beings must shrink. Most people's daily relationships are not highly genuine but are instead controlled by facades and roles that cause people to doubt the information they receive from others.

The second condition is acceptance and caring provided by the counselor, which allows clients to be less anxious about their perceived weaknesses and the prospect of taking risks. People try to hide their weaknesses, which often results in limited success, various degrees of embarrassment, and an accompanying tendency to work even harder at hiding them. Acceptance and caring consistently felt by the client as unconditional positive regard reduces the degree of stress caused by these fears in the relationship. This in turn will increase the chance that the client can recognize, discuss, and work on these problem areas rather than hiding from them.

The third condition for change is the counselor's empathic understanding of the client. This deep recognition of the client's internal frame of reference must be successfully communicated to the client in order to be effective. Neither counselor nor client can ever fully understand the client, but the degree to which they effectively explore the client's world together to arrive at a common understanding will improve the client's abilities to understand and, therefore, take positive action on his or her life.

These three basic conditions provide the necessary environment that allows individuals to implement their actualizing tendencies. Clients arrive in counseling questioning their abilities and ideas, afraid of the weaknesses they recognize, and even more afraid of those that they expect are unknown to them. They have been seeking answers from other people whom they believe "must clearly have better answers." All of these conditions make clients fearful of letting their true selves be seen by others or even themselves, so they wear a variety of masks to present a better picture. Providing the basic therapeutic conditions allows clients to explore fears and experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving in a safe and growth-oriented environment.

Receiving attention and support from a genuine individual who can be trusted allows clients to explore themselves in areas and ways they cannot in less therapeutic situations. Having another person listen closely and consistently helps clients begin observing and listening to themselves better: "You're right, I am angry. And now that I say it out loud, I realize I've been angry for a long time." They begin to drop masks as they recognize aspects of themselves to be not quite as bad as they thought: "I do have the right to be angry even when someone else doesn't want me to be that way. I'm not comfortable with that idea, but it is there for now." Self-recognition and self-acceptance are key first steps in the growth process.

As individuals become open to their true experiences and more trusting of their own organism, they begin to see the blocks to growth that have burdened them. They also gain the confidence needed to both recognize and deal with their problems on their own. These new levels of self-confidence allow for the dropping of protective masks and for accepting strengths and weaknesses as aspects that are both real and changeable over time. An internal locus of control develops as clients direct their lives rather than following the direction of others.

A major part of the development process in clients is recognition that they are fallible human beings who are always in a growth process. This is very different from the belief that one must be perfect in order to be good or loved. Acceptance of this position allows clients to view themselves as continuing to learn and grow throughout their lives and to see success as regular improvement rather than perfection.

Clients' confidence in their own ability to evaluate themselves, decide how to change, actually change, and accept their errors as learning steps thereby reduces anxiety and the dependence on others for directing their lives. An accurate perception of the real world and their part in it will continue to give importance to the reactions and beliefs of others, but this information will now be seen as more equal in significance to their own views. Consequently, clients will take more responsibility for their own existence and need less external intervention.

 
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