The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change

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Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
© 1992 by the American Psychological Association
December 1992 Vol. 60, No. 6, 827-832
For personal use only--not for distribution.

The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality
Carl R. Rogers
University of Chicago

Received: June 6, 1956.

For many years I have been engaged in psychotherapy with individuals in distress. In
recent years I have found myself increasingly concerned with the process of abstracting
from that experience the general principles which appear to be involved in it. I have
endeavored to discover any orderliness, any unity which seems to inhere in the subtle,
complex tissue of interpersonal relationship in which I have so constantly been immersed
in therapeutic work. One of the current products of this concern is an attempt to state, in
formal terms, a theory of psychotherapy, of personality, and of interpersonal relationships
which will encompass and contain the phenomena of my experience. 1 What I wish to do
in this paper is to take one very small segment of that theory, spell it out more
completely, and explore its meaning and usefulness.
The Problem
The question to address myself is this: Is it possible to state, in terms which are clearly
definable and measurable, the psychological conditions which are both necessary and
sufficient to bring about constructive personality change? Do we, in other words, know
with any precision those elements which are essential if psychotherapeutic change is to
Before proceeding to the major task let me dispose very briefly of the second portion of
the question. What is meant by such phrases as "psychotherapeutic change,"
"constructive personality change"? This problem also deserves deep and serious
consideration, but for the moment let me suggest a commonsense type of meaning upon
which we can perhaps agree for purposes of this paper. By these phrases is meant: change
in the personality structure of the individual, at both surface and deeper levels, in a
direction which clinicians would agree means greater integration, less internal conflict,
more energy utilizable for effective living; change in behavior away from behaviors
generally regarded as immature and toward behaviors regarded as mature. This brief
description may suffice to indicate the kind of change for which we are considering the
preconditions. It may also suggest the ways in which this criterion of change may be
determined. 2
The Conditions

As I have considered my own clinical experience and that of my colleagues, together
with the pertinent research which is available, I have drawn out several conditions which
seem to me to be necessary to initiate constructive personality change, and which, taken
together, appear to be sufficient to inaugurate that process. As I have worked on this
problem I have found myself surprised at the simplicity of what has emerged. The
statement which follows is not offered with any assurance as to its correctness, but with
the expectation that it will have the value of any theory, namely that it states or implies a
series of hypotheses which are open to proof or disproof, thereby clarifying and
extending our knowledge of the field.
Since I am not, in this paper, trying to achieve suspense, I will state at once, in severely
rigorous and summarized terms, the six conditions which I have come to feel are basic to
the process of personality change. The meaning of a number of the terms is not
immediately evident, but will be clarified in the explanatory sections which follow. It is
hoped that this brief statement will have much more significance to the reader when he
has completed the paper. Without further introduction let me state the basic theoretical
For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist
and continue over a period of time:

Two persons are in psychological contact.

The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being
vulnerable or anxious.

The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated
in the relationship.

The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.

The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client's internal frame
of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.

The communication to the client of the therapist's empathic understanding and
unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.
No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a
period of time, this is sufficient. The process of constructive personality change will
A Relationship
The first condition specifies that a minimal relationship, a psychological contact, must
exist. I am hypothesizing that significant positive personality change does not occur
except in a relationship. This is of course an hypothesis, and it may be disproved.
Conditions 2 through 6 define the characteristics of the relationship which are regarded as
essential by defining the necessary characteristics of each person in the relationship. All
that is intended by this first condition is to specify that the two people are to some degree
in contact, that each makes some perceived difference in the experiential field of the

other. Probably it is sufficient if each makes some "subceived" difference, even though
the individual may not be consciously aware of this impact. Thus it might be difficult to
know whether a catatonic patient perceives a therapist's presence as making a difference
to him–a difference of any kind–but it is almost certain that at some organic level he does
sense this difference.
Except in such a difficult borderline situation as that just mentioned, it would be
relatively easy to define this condition in operational terms and thus determine, from a
hard-boiled research point of view, whether the condition does, or does not, exist. The
simplest method of determination involves simply the awareness of both client and
therapist. If each is aware of being in personal or psychological contact with the other,
then this condition is met.
This first condition of therapeutic change is such a simple one that perhaps it should be
labeled an assumption or a precondition in order to set it apart from those that follow.
Without it, however, the remaining items would have no meaning, and that is the reason
for including it.
The State of the Client
It was specified that it is necessary that the client be "in a state of incongruence, being
vulnerable or anxious." What is the meaning of these terms?
Incongruence is a basic construct in the theory we have been developing. It refers to a
discrepancy between the actual experience of the organism and the self picture of the
individual insofar as it represents that experience. Thus a student may experience, at a
total or organismic level, a fear of the university and of examinations which are given on
the third floor of a certain building, since these may demonstrate a fundamental
inadequacy in him. Since such a fear of his inadequacy is decidedly at odds with his
concept of himself, this experience is represented (distortedly) in his awareness as an
unreasonable fear of climbing stairs in this building, or any building, and soon an
unreasonable fear of crossing the open campus. Thus there is a fundamental discrepancy
between the experienced meaning of the situation as it registers in his organism and the
symbolic representation of that experience in awareness in such a way that it does not
conflict with the picture he has of himself. In this case to admit a fear of inadequacy
would contradict the picture he holds of himself; to admit incomprehensible fears does
not contradict his self concept.
Another instance would be the mother who develops vague illnesses whenever her only
son makes plans to leave home. The actual desire is to hold on to her only source of
satisfaction. To perceive this in awareness would be inconsistent with the picture she
holds of herself as a good mother. Illness, however, is consistent with her self concept,
and the experience is symbolized in this distorted fashion. Thus again there is a basic
incongruence between the self as perceived (in this case as an ill mother needing
attention) and the actual experience (in this case the desire to hold on to her son).

When the individual has no awareness of such incongruence in himself, then he is merely
vulnerable to the possibility of anxiety and disorganization. Some experience might occur
so suddenly or so obviously that the incongruence could not be denied. Therefore, the
person is vulnerable to such a possibility.
If the individual dimly perceives such an incongruence in himself, then a tension state
occurs which is known as anxiety. The incongruence need not be sharply perceived. It is
enough that it is subceived–that is, discriminated as threatening to the self without any
awareness of the content of that threat. Such anxiety is often seen in therapy as the
individual approaches awareness of some element of his experience which is in sharp
contradiction to his self concept.
It is not easy to give precise operational definition to this second of the six conditions, yet
to some degree this has been achieved. Several research workers have defined the self
concept by means of a Q sort by the individual of a list of self-referent items. This gives
us an operational picture of the self. The total experiencing of the individual is more
difficult to capture. Chodorkoff (2) has defined it as a Q sort made by a clinician who
sorts the same self-referent items independently, basing his sorting on the picture he has
obtained of the individual from projective tests. His sort thus includes unconscious as
well as conscious elements of the individual's experience, thus representing (in an
admittedly imperfect way) the totality of the client's experience. The correlation between
these two sortings gives a crude operational measure of incongruence between self and
experience, low or negative correlation representing of course a high degree of
The Therapist's Genuineness in the Relationship
The third condition is that the therapist should be, within the confines of this relationship,
a congruent, genuine, integrated person. It means that within the relationship he is freely
and deeply himself, with his actual experience accurately represented by his awareness of
himself. It is the opposite of presenting a facade, either knowingly or unknowingly.
It is not necessary (nor is it possible) that the therapist be a paragon who exhibits this
degree of integration, of wholeness, in every aspect of his life. It is sufficient that he is
accurately himself in this hour of this relationship, that in this basic sense he is what he
actually is, in this moment of time.
It should be clear that this includes being himself even in ways which are not regarded as
ideal for psychotherapy. His experience may be "I am afraid of this client" or "My
attention is so focused on my own problems that I can scarcely listen to him." If the
therapist is not denying these feelings to awareness, but is able freely to be them (as well
as being his other feelings), then the condition we have stated is met.
It would take us too far afield to consider the puzzling matter as to the degree to which
the therapist overtly communicates this reality in himself to the client. Certainly the aim
is not for the therapist to express or talk out his own feelings, but primarily that he should

not be deceiving the client as to himself. At times he may need to talk out some of his
own feelings (either to the client, or to a colleague or supervisor) if they are standing in
the way of the two following conditions.
It is not too difficult to suggest an operational definition for this third condition. We
resort again to Q technique. If the therapist sorts a series of items relevant to the
relationship (using a list similar to the ones developed by Fiedler [3 , 4] and Bown [1] ),
this will give his perception of his experience in the relationship. If several judges who
have observed the interview or listened to a recording of it (or observed a sound movie of
it) now sort the same items to represent their perception of the relationship, this second
sorting should catch those elements of the therapist's behavior and inferred attitudes of
which he is unaware, as well as those of which he is aware. Thus a high correlation
between the therapist's sort and the observer's sort would represent in crude form an
operational definition of the therapist's congruence or integration in the relationship; and
a low correlation, the opposite.
Unconditional Positive Regard
To the extent that the therapist finds himself experiencing a warm acceptance of each
aspect of the client's experience as being a part of that client, he is experiencing
unconditional positive regard. This concept has been developed by Standal (8) . It means
that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of "I like you only if you are thus
and so." It means a "prizing" of the person, as Dewey has used that term. It is at the
opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude–"You are bad in these ways, good in
those." It involves as much feeling of acceptance for the client's expression of negative,
"bad," painful, fearful, defensive, abnormal feelings as for his expression of "good,"
positive, mature, confident, social feelings, as much acceptance of ways in which he is
inconsistent as of ways in which he is consistent. It means a caring for the client, but not
in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist's own needs. It
means a caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own
feelings, his own experiences. One client describes the therapist as "fostering my
possession of my own experience . . . that [this] is my experience and that I am actually
having it: thinking what I think, feeling what I feel, wanting what I want, fearing what I
fear: no 'ifs,' 'buts,' or 'not reallys.'" This is the type of acceptance which is hypothesized
as being necessary if personality change is to occur.
Like the two previous conditions, this fourth condition is a matter of degree, 3 as
immediately becomes apparent if we attempt to define it in terms of specific research
operations. One such method of giving it definition would be to consider the Q sort for
the relationship as described under Condition 3. To the extent that items expressive of
unconditional positive regard are sorted as characteristic of the relationship by both the
therapist and the observers, unconditional positive regard might be said to exist. Such
items might include statements of this order: "I feel no revulsion at anything the client
says": "I feel neither approval nor disapproval of the client and his statements–simply
acceptance"; "I feel warmly toward the client–toward his weaknesses and problems as
well as his potentialities"; "I am not inclined to pass judgment on what the client tells

me"; "I like the client." To the extent that both therapist and observers perceive these
items as characteristic, or their opposites as uncharacteristic, Condition 4 might be said to
be met.
The fifth condition is that the therapist is experiencing an accurate, empathic
understanding of the client's awareness of his own experience. To sense the client's
private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the "as if" quality–this is
empathy, and this seems essential to therapy. To sense the client's anger, fear, or
confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear, or confusion getting
bound up in it, is the condition we are endeavoring to describe. When the client's world is
this clear to the therapist, and he moves about in it freely, then he can both communicate
his understanding of what is clearly known to the client and can also voice meanings in
the client's experience of which the client is scarcely aware. As one client described this
second aspect: "Every now and again, with me in a tangle of thought and feeling, screwed
up in a web of mutually divergent lines of movement, with impulses from different parts
of me, and me feeling the feeling of its being all too much and suchlike–then whomp, just
like a sunbeam thrusting its way through cloudbanks and tangles of foliage to spread a
circle of light on a tangle of forest paths, came some comment from you. [It was] clarity,
even disentanglement, an additional twist to the picture, a putting in place. Then the
consequence–the sense of moving on, the relaxation. These were sunbeams." That such
penetrating empathy is important for therapy is indicated by Fiedler's research (3) in
which items such as the following placed high in the description of relationships created
by experienced therapists:
The therapist is well able to understand the patient's feelings.
The therapist is never in any doubt about what the patient means.
The therapist's remarks fit in just right with the patient's mood and content.
The therapist's tone of voice conveys the complete ability to share the
patient's feelings.
An operational definition of the therapist's empathy could be provided in different ways.
Use might be made of the Q sort described under Condition 3. To the degree that items
descriptive of accurate empathy were sorted as characteristic by both the therapist and the
observers, this condition would be regarded as existing.
Another way of defining this condition would be for both client and therapist to sort a list
of items descriptive of client feelings. Each would sort independently, the task being to
represent the feelings which the client had experienced during a just completed interview.
If the correlation between client and therapist sortings were high, accurate empathy
would be said to exist, a low correlation indicating the opposite conclusion.

Still another way of measuring empathy would be for trained judges to rate the depth and
accuracy of the therapist's empathy on the basis of listening to recorded interviews.
The Client's Perception of the Therapist
The final condition as stated is that the client perceives, to a minimal degree, the
acceptance and empathy which the therapist experiences for him. Unless some
communication of these attitudes has been achieved, then such attitudes do not exist in
the relationship as far as the client is concerned, and the therapeutic process could not, by
our hypothesis, be initiated.
Since attitudes cannot be directly perceived, it might be somewhat more accurate to state
that therapist behaviors and words are perceived by the client as meaning that to some
degree the therapist accepts and understands him.
An operational definition of this condition would not be difficult. The client might, after
an interview, sort a Q-sort list of items referring to qualities representing the relationship
between himself and the therapist. (The same list could be used as for Condition 3.) If
several items descriptive of acceptance and empathy are sorted by the client as
characteristic of the relationship, then this condition could be regarded as met. In the
present state of our knowledge the meaning of "to a minimal degree" would have to be
Some Comments
Up to this point the effort has been made to present, briefly and factually, the conditions
which I have come to regard as essential for psychotherapeutic change. I have not tried to
give the theoretical context of these conditions nor to explain what seem to me to be the
dynamics of their effectiveness. Such explanatory material will be available, to the reader
who is interested, in the document already mentioned (see footnote 1).
I have, however, given at least one means of defining, in operational terms, each of the
conditions mentioned. I have done this in order to stress the fact that I am not speaking of
vague qualities which ideally should be present if some other vague result is to occur. I
am presenting conditions which are crudely measurable even in the present state of our
technology, and have suggested specific operations in each instance even though I am
sure that more adequate methods of measurement could be devised by a serious
My purpose has been to stress the notion that in my opinion we are dealing with an if-
then phenomenon in which knowledge of the dynamics is not essential to testing the
hypotheses. Thus, to illustrate from another field: if one substance, shown by a series of
operations to be the substance known as hydrochloric acid, is mixed with another
substance, shown by another series of operations to be sodium hydroxide, then salt and
water will be products of this mixture. This is true whether one regards the results as due
to magic, or whether one explains it in the most adequate terms of modern chemical

theory. In the same way it is being postulated here that certain definable conditions
precede certain definable changes and that this fact exists independently of our efforts to
account for it.
The Resulting Hypotheses
The major value of stating any theory in unequivocal terms is that specific hypotheses
may be drawn from it which are capable of proof or disproof. Thus, even if the conditions
which have been postulated as necessary and sufficient conditions are more incorrect than
correct (which I hope they are not), they could still advance science in this field by
providing a base of operations from which fact could be winnowed out from error.
The hypotheses which would follow from the theory given would be of this order: If
these six conditions (as operationally defined) exist, then constructive personality change
(as defined) will occur in the client.
If one or more of these conditions is not present, constructive personality change will not
These hypotheses hold in any situation whether it is or is not labeled "psychotherapy."
Only Condition 1 is dichotomous (it either is present or is not), and the remaining five
occur in varying degree, each on its continuum. Since this is true, another hypothesis
follows, and it is likely that this would be the simplest to test:
If all six conditions are present, then the greater the degree to which Conditions 2 to 6
exist, the more marked will be the constructive personality change in the client.
At the present time the above hypothesis can only be stated in this general form–which
implies that all of the conditions have equal weight. Empirical studies will no doubt make
possible much more refinement of this hypothesis. It may be, for example, that if anxiety
is high in the client, then the other conditions are less important. Or if unconditional
positive regard is high (as in a mother's love for her child), then perhaps a modest degree
of empathy is sufficient. But at the moment we can only speculate on such possibilities.
Some Implications
Significant Omissions
If there is any startling feature in the formulation which has been given as to the
necessary conditions for therapy, it probably lies in the elements which are omitted. In
present-day clinical practice, therapists operate as though there were many other
conditions in addition to those described, which are essential for psychotherapy. To point
this up it may be well to mention a few of the conditions which, after thoughtful
consideration of our research and our experience, are not included.

For example, it is not stated that these conditions apply to one type of client, and that
other conditions are necessary to bring about psychotherapeutic change with other types
of client. Probably no idea is so prevalent in clinical work today as that one works with
neurotics in one way, with psychotics in another; that certain therapeutic conditions must
be provided for compulsives, others for homosexuals, etc. Because of this heavy weight
of clinical opinion to the contrary, it is with some "fear and trembling" that I advance the
concept that the essential conditions of psychotherapy exist in a single configuration,
even though the client or patient may use them very differently. 4
It is not stated that these six conditions are the essential conditions for client-centered
therapy, and that other conditions are essential for other types of psychotherapy. I
certainly am heavily influenced by my own experience, and that experience has led me to
a viewpoint which is termed "client centered." Nevertheless my aim in stating this theory
is to state the conditions which apply to any situation in which constructive personality
change occurs, whether we are thinking of classical psychoanalysis, or any of its modern
offshoots, or Adlerian psychotherapy, or any other. It will be obvious then that in my
judgment much of what is considered to be essential would not be found, empirically, to
be essential. Testing of some of the stated hypotheses would throw light on this
perplexing issue. We may of course find that various therapies produce various types of
personality change, and that for each psychotherapy a separate set of conditions is
necessary. Until and unless this is demonstrated, I am hypothesizing that effective
psychotherapy of any sort produces similar changes in personality and behavior, and that
a single set of preconditions is necessary.
It is not stated that psychotherapy is a special kind of relationship, different in kind from
all others which occur in everyday life. It will be evident instead that for brief moments,
at least, many good friendships fulfill the six conditions. Usually this is only
momentarily, however, and then empathy falters, the positive regard becomes
conditional, or the congruence of the "therapist" friend becomes overlaid by some degree
of facade or defensiveness. Thus the therapeutic relationship is seen as a heightening of
the constructive qualities which often exist in part in other relationships, and an extension
through time of qualities which in other relationships tend at best to be momentary.
It is not stated that special intellectual professional knowledge–psychological,
psychiatric, medical, or religious–is required of the therapist. Conditions 3, 4, and 5,
which apply especially to the therapist, are qualities of experience, not intellectual
information. If they are to be acquired, they must, in my opinion, be acquired through an
experiential training–which may be, but usually is not, a part of professional training. It
troubles me to hold such a radical point of view, but I can draw no other conclusion from
my experience. Intellectual training and the acquiring of information has, I believe, many
valuable results–but becoming a therapist is not one of those results.
It is not stated that it is necessary for psychotherapy that the therapist have an accurate
psychological diagnosis of the client. Here too it troubles me to hold a viewpoint so at
variance with my clinical colleagues. When one thinks of the vast proportion of time
spent in any psychological, psychiatric, or mental hygiene center on the exhaustive

psychological evaluation of the client or patient, it seems as though this must serve a
useful purpose insofar as psychotherapy is concerned. Yet the more I have observed
therapists, and the more closely I have studied research such as that done by Fiedler and
others (4) , the more I am forced to the conclusion that such diagnostic knowledge is not
essential to psychotherapy. 5 It may even be that its defense as a necessary prelude to
psychotherapy is simply a protective alternative to the admission that it is, for the most
part, a colossal waste of time. There is only one useful purpose I have been able to
observe which relates to psychotherapy. Some therapists cannot feel secure in the
relationship with the client unless they possess such diagnostic knowledge. Without it
they feel fearful of him, unable to be empathic, unable to experience unconditional
regard, finding it necessary to put up a pretense in the relationship. If they know in
advance of suicidal impulses they can somehow be more acceptant of them. Thus, for
some therapists, the security they perceive in diagnostic information may be a basis for
permitting themselves to be integrated in the relationship, and to experience empathy and
full acceptance. In these instances a psychological diagnosis would certainly be justified
as adding to the comfort and hence the effectiveness of the therapist. But even here it
does not appear to be a basic precondition for psychotherapy. 6
Perhaps I have given enough illustrations to indicate that the conditions I have
hypothesized as necessary and sufficient for psychotherapy are striking and unusual
primarily by virtue of what they omit. If we were to determine, by a survey of the
behaviors of therapists, those hypotheses which they appear to regard as necessary to
psychotherapy, the list would be a great deal longer and more complex.
Is This Theoretical Formulation Useful?
Aside from the personal satisfaction it gives as a venture in abstraction and
generalization, what is the value of a theoretical statement such as has been offered in this
paper? I should like to spell out more fully the usefulness which I believe it may have.
In the field of research it may give both direction and impetus to investigation. Since it
sees the conditions of constructive personality change as general, it greatly broadens the
opportunities for study. Psychotherapy is not the only situation aimed at constructive
personality change. Programs of training for leadership in industry and programs of
training for military leadership often aim at such change. Educational institutions or
programs frequently aim at development of character and personality as well as at
intellectual skills. Community agencies aim at personality and behavioral change in
delinquents and criminals. Such programs would provide an opportunity for the broad
testing of the hypotheses offered. If it is found that constructive personality change
occurs in such programs when the hypothesized conditions are not fulfilled, then the
theory would have to be revised. If however the hypotheses are upheld, then the results,
both for the planning of such programs and for our knowledge of human dynamics,
would be significant. In the field of psychotherapy itself, the application of consistent
hypotheses to the work of various schools of therapists may prove highly profitable.
Again the disproof of the hypotheses offered would be as important as their confirmation,
either result adding significantly to our knowledge.