Everyone knows Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers) and his gentle, enticing way with people, but it’s mostly those who study psychology and social work who are just as familiar with the wisdom of Carl Rogers (no relation). If you’ve ever been in a counselor’s office and suddenly felt pure joy and the sweet relief of being completely understood, chances are, you’ve experienced the transformative effect of Carl Rogers’ theories. In short, it feels awesome! Not only that, but his approach is amazingly effective.
Carl Rogers taught the importance of reflective listening, empathy, and unconditional positive regard within therapeutic relationships, and indeed, in all relationships. This humanistic approach, eerily similar to the wise manner of Fred Rogers, provides a space for self-reflection and learning.
People often wonder how psychotherapists are able to witness daily emotional suffering. For me, the answer is Carl Rogers. He taught that every client embodies a unique strength. Trust them. Honor them. Listen and seek to understand them fully. Through reflection, clients begin to understand the obstacles to their own improvement. On the days that I do this right, everything else fades away, the present moment is alive with energy, and I am in “the flow.” This is a shelter. It is a safe space of understanding, validation, and presence for my clients. For me, it is a shelter from the swift pace and daily worries of my own everyday life.
When we are fully present with another human being, our child, our spouse, a stranger on the bus, amazing things happen! When was the last time you’ve had the pleasure of losing yourself in conversation? I recall the surprise I felt many years ago building a block tower with my 3-year-old twin sons and realizing that we were so immersed in this world of play, that 25 minutes had passed. Have you been able to slow down lately long enough to really see your spouse and feel the familiar affection that helped bring the two of you together years ago? Every so often I find myself in meaningful conversation with my 17-year-old daughter. I can’t predict or force such events, but I try to perk up and stay present when opportunity knocks. For me, it is akin to the moment that artists and musicians describe when all things in the outside world fall away, and there is only the present moment, a connection, a puzzle, and ultimately a new understanding.
Anyone who has ever been to therapy, however, knows that within the shelter of meaningful conversation can be a shadow. Shadows, in our life, casting darkness, are easily overlooked, and the work of counseling is to face our shadows, accept ourselves, forgive ourselves, forgive others, and ultimately, grow. It is a mighty endeavor!
Shelters and shadows exist outside of the therapist’s office, as well. Where is your shelter? Where do you turn for safety, belonging, or flow? Some shelters go beyond protection; they are such a force in our lives that we don’t know where we would be without them! Family, religion, friendships, the arts, spirituality. They sustain us.
Yet the yin and the yang coexist. God gave us free will to sin. What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the oneness of life. The shelter can also encompass the shadow. Our family, our religion, our friends, our country: the shadow exists. The first question is whether or not we can see the darkness? More often than not, the shadow becomes part of the landscape, and we fail to notice it. Every so often, things sometimes look murky, and we feel lost. Then, we can decide if we will seek to understand. Can we stay present, learn, and grow in the midst of the shadow? Can we forgive? Can change occur?
The process is unsettling. It’s hard. It’s sad. The pain involved explains the temptation to ignore or minimize the effects of darkness in our lives.
Much of Freud’s original theories have not stood the test of time and research. However, his descriptions of defense mechanisms (including denial and projection) are one facet of his work that has been proven to be accurate. Many of us do become defensive when challenged. It is easier to believe that we are good and to project “them” as the cause of pain. We cling to the comfort of the old shelter. We deny facts. Polarized positions arise and, if gone unchecked, dominate.
Whenever I feel pessimistic about group-think and the polarization in our lives, it is helpful for me to return to the stance of Carl Rogers. When I shift my focus away from groups, to the person in front of me, face to face, in real-time, I see our humanity. I see our common concerns, our human struggles, and our shared fears. Our present is here now. Our histories are intertwined and brought us to this place.
Facing the shadow is difficult, but it turns out that it can all be worth it. In the end, this is the perfect fertile ground for understanding ourselves and experiencing real change in our lives. Drawing on the compassionate wisdom of Carl Rogers, (as well as Fred Rogers,) we can approach ourselves gently, with empathy and with a stance of positive regard for oneself. It is a beautiful place to begin.
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.