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Fostering Growth & Change in Relationships

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 Carl Rogers is considered by many as the founder of  counseling. His theories of human nature and the process of healing remain fundamental in today’s helping professions.  He drew heavily upon Humanist perspectives of his day, emphasizing that all people from all walks of life are capable of healing, growth, and change. 

He noted that while people are in a constant movement towards change,  relationships ultimately were the greatest source for healing.   But not just any type of relationships, in order for a relationship to truly provide the conditions for growth and healing, such relationships required three things:

1. Empathy:

Empathy means holding space for a perspective of the other in our minds.  When we extend empathy to another, we will have a physiological response in our brain from mirror neurons.  These neurons attune us to the emotional state of the other.  When true empathy arises, similar brain regions will “light up” in both individuals (in other words, if we put both people in a brain scanner, the regions of the brain that are most active would actually be the same or similar regions).

Empathy is different from sympathy.  Sympathy is the experience of “feeling sorry” for another person. Sympathy fosters a sense of shame in the person on the receiving end.  While empathy is a driver for greater and deeper connection, sympathy moves us into isolation and disconnection.   Our sympathy is usually the result of our own personal discomfort with the emotional state of the other.  At times we may use sympathy as a tool to move away from the relationship because of this discomfort.

 2. Congruence or Authenticity

Relationships can provide a context for healing and growth when we are “real”.   Congruence means our internal emotional and cognitive state is congruent (or matches) what we are communicating externally.  While empathy is the foundation, there will be times when we will still disagree with another’s perspective.  In those moments, we communicate our thoughts and emotions.  If we are angry, it’s okay and healthy to verbalize anger.  Better yet, anger is a secondary emotion (meaning it always comes second after a primary emotion), and it is even more helpful to describe the emotional state that came prior to the anger.  Were you sad? Hurt? Afraid? Speaking truth and having difficult conversations allows for opportunities of healing.   When we hold the emotions in, we feel misunderstood.  Over time this sense of feeling misunderstood builds up and causes greater disconnection.

On the other hand, being real about our emotions and thoughts does not give us permission to lash out at the other.  If we are truly practicing empathy, we will understand how our words and actions are impacting the other.  We can be real while still showing kindness and respect.

3. Unconditional Positive Regard

Sometimes Rogers would use the phrase “unconditional positive regard” and “unconditional love” interchangabely.  He believed counselors must maintain a stance of acceptance and non-judgement.

In a relationship that encourages growth and change, we must first “meet the other where they are at” and accept them for who they truly are.  When people feel accepted and loved, it becomes contagious. 

Not feeling loved and accepted can leave us in a state of stagnation.  Shame grows and we become “stuck” in our ways.  We move away from relationships and become more alone in our potentially unhelpful thoughts and habits.  It seems counterintuitive, but when people feel accepted flaws and all, we actually experience greater motivation to make helpful changes in our lives.

To be clear, this does not mean we allow destructive behaviors and words in relationships.  Unconditional positive regard means we accept the person while having the courage to confront the destructive. 

When a relationship - be it among family, friends, co-workers, romantic partners, etc. - is built on empathy, congruence, and positive regard, both people in the relationship are able to heal, grow, and change.