Some people think that this means being very transparent to our clients… In other words, if we are having a ‘bad hair day’ we shouldn’t pretend otherwise to our clients. It is true that we don’t put on a mask for them – to do so would be deception. However, a client doesn’t come to therapy expecting to be confronted by a therapist with all their own stuff on show. That is not what is meant by ‘congruence’ or, for that matter, by ‘authenticity’ (which is a different thing too). This way of thinking is confusing congruence, as a state of being, with a characteristic of the therapist’s presence.
Our client is expecting (and often paying for) an hour in which they will be the main focus. Hence, there’s a general expectation that we spend very little time telling them about ourselves and our lives. For other reasons too, some therapists take this to an extreme, refusing to meet clients other than in a neutral space, using a mailbox address on their contract, saying very little about themselves in any online profile, and so on. It was in this context, prevalent amongst psychoanalytic ‘schools’, that Rogers originally wrote about appropriate self-disclosure.
In the therapy session, this means that we do not generally regail them with our own stories of plumbers, miscreant pets, or the way in which our own psychopathic partner behaved in a divorce. This is inappropriate self-disclosure. They WILL discover bits and pieces and assemble their own picture of us and our lives, but it is not our job to furnish them with the material.
While we all can have a strangely difficult day – the boiler bursts, we wake up in a mood, we have a rare row, or the cat has shredded one of our best cushions – our job, as therapists, often involves providing a safe, ‘holding’ space for our clients, and often too for a relatively long time – months and years sometimes. So, we do NOT use them as a vessel for ourselves. We have the capacity to put such events in context, to shrug our shoulders, to suspend the emotions associated with them, and for the therapeutic hour, at least, not to be processing our own hassles ourselves.
To achieve this, we need to have done quite a lot of work on ourselves in preparation for our work as therapists. This is why most ‘trainings’ require an extensive period of personal therapy alongside the taught activity. Many say that, in order to adequately process the work “in class” students should have weekly therapy throughout, so minimum figures of 60, 90, or 100 hours are often quoted.
This is not to “fix” us. Nobody is ever “fixed”. Different ‘schools’ of psychotherapy will have different terms for the outcome. Person-centred, Rogerian, and Humanistic schools generally, refer to this condition as achieving “congruence”. It is not something that you “do” during a client session. It is a state of being that you return to when you are temporarily knocked off course. If a major life event happens, then it can take a while to return to it, but most times it takes a few breaths, or a telephone call – to the plumber or your supervisor.
As Rogers explained it, if we had had an excellent childhood and were living our ‘dream’ – a life with everything as we’d like it to be, then we would be our real self’. The ‘real self’ is what we could be… what our potential represents… what we might, at any time, be working towards.
Because the world isn’t like that, people aren’t perfect, and we have been the recipients of rotten, introjected values, we create an image in our minds of what life COULD be like, and how we would be in it – an ‘ideal self’ – this image is false, it will never be realised. It is also a ‘dream’ but it is one based on the phantasies of the not-so-ideal person that we have become so far.
The gap between the ‘ideal self’ and the ‘real self’ is one of congruence – if the two are very close, then we are said to be ‘congruent’ and if not then we are ‘incongruent’. According to Rogers, therapists MUST be congruent (‘necessary and sufficient’ condition #3), and their clients must be INCONGRUENT (‘necessary and sufficient’ condition #2).
In later life, Rogers also observed that the ‘real self’ is also continuously evolving – it isn’t a ‘steady state’ – and the two – the ‘real self’ and the ‘ideal self’ – play a kind of ongoing game of ‘catch-up’. Being able to engage in this process, and feel comfortable doing so, even if there are occasional challenges, is what is meant by being in a state of ‘self-actualisation’.