Therapist Self-Acceptance as a Basis for Client Self-Acceptance: A visceral experience not an intellectual idea

Starting in the 1950s Carl Rogers brought Pers...
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‘Yet perhaps we should look beyond acceptance. At a recent workshop I engaged in conversation with {this author RA} (i), another person-centred therapist on this issue, following a comment she had made about the need to move beyond self-acceptance to a place of ‘self-embracing’. In other words, acceptance of ourselves is one thing, yet there remains the division of that which accepts and that which is accepted. The point of self-embracing is reached where the client truly takes into themselves that which they may not like, or which they feel uncomfortable with. The process of self-embracing might be considered as one of integration, a merging with the possibility of moving on. We discussed this in the context of depression, and of the need to embrace the depression as a reality, as a genuine part of the person that is focusing a reaction to particular experiences and circumstances.’ (Richard Bryant Jeffries, email communication 4 Oct 02)

‘Im not clear yet whether Im advocating a move beyond acceptance, or whether we just need to really understand what is meant by acceptance’. (R Arden (i) email communication, Oct 2002)

The concept of self-acceptance (unconditional positive self-regard) as the basis for the person-centred theory of change (Bozarth 1998) seems in danger of becoming limited or misunderstood. The widespread dismissal of unconditional positive regard or acceptance as basic, obvious, even trite, ‘oh yes of course we need to accept our client, our selves, but is it sufficient?’ is widespread even among some who identify themselves as person-centred practitioners. Having explored this issue recently I argue that self acceptance is a sufficient condition in person-centred theory, provided that we truly understand the depth and extent of its meaning.

In relation to my own experiences of ‘depression’, I know that it took me years of fighting before i was able to reach a place of sufficient self acceptance in myself that i could truly, viscerally experience my acceptance of my ‘depressed’ state as an aspect of me, as an unloved aspect of me, as an attribute which I could only be free of through the deep act of loving, embracing my depression, absorbing it within myself, welcoming it in to my life, holding it, embracing it, feeling the pain of it, the hurt of it, the fear of it, the terror of it. Only when i could truly accept, –embrace – this dimension into my self concept instead of fighting and refusing to accept that i was like ‘this’, could I move through the experience and emerge more whole.  Then i could be free to participate in life almost for the first time.

Chapters 3 and 4 of Client – Centred Therapy (1951) are significant in looking at these concepts more fully. Rogers says: (p 148),

‘It would also appear that the release of ‘repressions’ or the bringing into awareness of denied experiences, is not simply a matter of probing for these, either by the client or the therapist. It is not until the concept of self is sufficiently revised to accept them, that they can be openly symbolised. The change in self precedes, rather than follows, the recovery of denied or repressed material.’

There is something important about the difference between knowing at a cognitive level that one is depressed, -I knew very well my experience, i was aware of my self as depressed- and yet this knowing, this level of understanding and accepting my experience was not the acceptance Rogers refers to, when one merges with ones’ experience at a visceral level. As Ollie Bown says,  ibid; p. 165) …’acceptance is an emotional phenomenon, not an intellectual one.’

Yielding is another way of thinking about this concept. In the Miss Cam interview, (ibid; p 95), Miss Cam says ‘Yet how odd that I should think of finding peace by yielding to what seems chaos and disorder.’ Rogers follows, (ibid; p. 97),

”The theoretical terms in which we shall later try and describe this experience are that the organised concept of the self and the self-in-relationship, are congruent with the sensory and visceral experiences of the organism. ……When the self ”owns” experience, assimilates it, but has no need to deny or distort it, then there is naturally a feeling of freedom and of unity connected with the experience.”

It is clear then that (self) acceptance in person-centred theory is an embodied experience rather than an intellectual concept. Is this where the confusion in understanding lies? I often think that the contributions of many of the worlds’ great philosophies and religions are understood intellectually and their deeper meanings are lost to our visceral engagement. This is not surprising in cultures where we have been encouraged to deny our bodily felt sensing with layers of intellectual veneer, so that we lose contact and trust in our primary experiencing. This estrangement from our selves creates the tensions which prompt us to seek help from therapy or other means. Rogers said

‘[P]sychotherapy is a process whereby man becomes his organism – without self-deception, without distortion … [It] seems to mean a getting back to basic sensory and visceral experience. (Rogers, 1961, p. 103), cited in Fernald, 2001).

In relation to acceptance then, this is not an intellectual ‘I accept myself as I am’ idea, rather ‘I live all of my organismic experience without denial or distortion’.

If this is an accurate take on acceptance and self-acceptance, then it is important to understand in the development of the acceptant presence of the therapist. For Rogers it requires that

“I let myself go into the immediacy of the relationship where it is my total organism which takes over and is sensitive to the relationship, not simply my consciousness” (ibid; p. 202).

The implication then is that the extent of the therapists’ own self acceptance and integration of organismic experience will be a measure of the acceptance they can offer to clients. So perhaps we can conclude that therapist self acceptance is a basis for acceptance of clients and the development of their own self acceptance.


i) This author was previously know as Lee Field


Bozarth, J, person-Centred Therapy, PCCS Books, 1998

Rogers, C.R., Client – Centred Therapy, Constable, London (1951)

Fernald, P. S., Carl Rogers: Body-Centered Counsellor,  Journal of Counseling & Development, Spring 2000, Vol. 78 Issue 2

Copyright Rosalind Arden

UPR Therapist self acceptance 2007

You may reproduce or quote freely from this article provided you include full reference to the author and source.


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