Trstenik, Croatia

One of Carl Roger’s three [most] core conditions is ‘congruence’. I’ve come across quite a few people using this term in ways that don’t really seem quite right, and have been trying to understand why and to think of ways of explaining it differently.

Some courses are more closely linked from one year to the next. When I did my diploma I studied at two different institutions and that was challenging, so for people who study their 4, 5, 6, or even 7, “levels” at different places and with different tutors I can see how easy it is for this to lose ‘integration’. When that happens, I certainly tend to go back to the last time I felt I did understand something and will try to hold on to that perception. I suspect that this is what has happened with the terms; ’empathy’, ‘congruence’, and ‘unconditional positive regard’. When we are taught something at level 2 (which is, effectively, GCSE standard), we are given enough to get an understanding but this might be a simpler version than we would expect a student to learn at level 5 (undergraduate degree) or level 7 (Masters). With counselling concepts, which are almost always quite complicated, it is worth challenging ourselves to make sure that we are not going back to an earlier definition and then not building on it.

I will pick up on the others elsewhere, if it’s helpful, but for now I want to focus on congruence.

The way in which it is being used by several people is as a synonym for ‘authentic’, and when they do so they tend to put this in the context of a dialogue with their client.

If someone says something that I find shocking, I am likely to show a reaction. If the person then asks me if I was shocked (or another emotional reaction) and I say that I was, then I am being ‘authentic’. If I deny it, then I am being ‘inauthentic’. As therapists we have had it drummed into us that we should be open-minded and authentic. This doesn’t mean that we should inhale sharply, clamp our hand over our mouth, and stiffle an expletive – that might be authentic with a friend, but it wouldn’t be particularly helpful to a client who might feel that they couldn’t share any more with us for fear of our reaction. Denying our reaction, though, is lying and lying is almost always inauthentic. Perhaps our training is wrong here: the better approach is to be open-minded and ‘not inauthentic’. I don’t seek to deny my response, but I might hope to control it – and it is in the ability to ‘control’ our response that the difference between authenticity and congruence seems to get confused. Please don’t misunderstand me – I am NOT saying that being ‘congruent’ is about merely controlling our responses!

Rogers and his successors have clearly defined ‘congruence’ as the state of being where an individual’s sense of their ‘ideal self’ aligns closely with that of their ‘real self’. The ‘ideal self’ is what we could be – what our potential (for the forseeable future) could be. Our ‘real self’ is where we are right now. I am congruent if I have worked on myself (my values, my strengths, my thought processes, my responses, etc etc) so that I am behaving as close as I can to the ideal that I could hope to be at. Most of us struggle to achieve this even after a lifetime of ‘work’. Therapists who are clearly ‘congruent’ with their clients are extremely rare – they are probably the handful that we learn about – Carl Rogers, Gerard Egan, Manfred Kets de Vries. Most of us will aspire to and be working on this all our lives.  To suggest that we were ‘congruent’ with a client because we felt sad when they burst into tears isn’t it (nor is it empathy).

Think of some of the people others describe as ‘wise’ – many of whom have followed a spiritual (that’s not the same as religious) path that has often been alongside or after significant life-challenges – Rumi, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nyat Khan, Elisabeth Gaskill, Bob Marley, Mother Theresa, Ekhart Tolle, Nelson Mandela, Paul Coelho, Maya Angelou, and many more. Their wisdom comes from a life-long search usually based on deep reflection and ‘work’ on their responses to the events of their lives. Through this work they have become ‘congruent’.

Our ‘ideal’ self and our ‘real’ self are not just one thing. We each have different things that provoke us and things that trigger others but not us. Our responses to gender, wealth, politics, domestic violence, sexual abuse, superstition, and even mental health are all different. When an uncontrollable and observable response happens (the hand over the mouth, raised eyebrows, etc), it is a strong indication that this is an area in which we might need to do some work in order to become congruent. However, the response can be an avoidance as much as doing something.

So, for example, my fear of my inability to control my own strength, might lead me to avoid ever going anywhere close to where ‘violence’ could occur. It is an area that I have done some ‘work’ around. I understand some of its origins, and I can recognise the impact of this in my behaviour and my life choices. However, I am incongruent around violence – my ‘real self’ doesn’t match where I would like to be (my ‘ideal self’). So I can listen to a client discuss their violence, I can try not to appear shocked, and be authentic in my response to that person if they call me out because something leaked out. But I am not congruent around violence. A friend of mine is a therapist who works with violent offenders within prisons – I could not.

This article is available as a video-blog…

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