by David Brazier
Loosely speaking, congruence means genuineness. People are congruent when they are not trying to appear to be anything other than what they are. Congruence is the opposite of dissemblance. It is closely related to a number of other terms, some of which will concern us below: honesty, authenticity, transparency, immediacy, spontaneity; yet its meaning does not precisely coincide with any of these.
As a topic in psychotherapy, congruence is concerned with a person's attempts to achieve harmony in their way of being. We may speak here particularly of harmony between body and mind. Body, in this statement, refers primarily to behaviour, to all the movements and sensations which constitute our experience of our physical being. Mind refers to our sentiments, beliefs, emotions, thoughts and imagery. Sometimes we make this same distinction by talking about a person's "outer" and "inner" lives.
In practice, the line between body and mind cannot be drawn with precision. Nonetheless, the distinction is meaningful so long as we do not start to think that it is absolute. The more congruent we are, the less easy it becomes to distinguish one from the other. In Carl Rogers' terms, a person who is congruent becomes his (her) organism.
The term congruence is derived from a Latin word meaning harmony. I am incongruent when I am not in harmony with myself. A person who smiles (body) while actually feeling miserable (mind), is said to be incongruent. Much psychotherapy, personal growth and spiritual work revolves around the attempt to achieve self harmony, to eliminate incongruence. Incongruence is one of the most used sign-posts in psychotherapy. When the client manifests signs of incongruence, that is where the therapist is likely to focus attention.
While what has just been said is not untrue, there is a more revealing way to think about it. To say that therapy is about eliminating incongruence gives us a simple idea of the process. It tells us where to look, for instance. On the other hand, the human being is infinitely more complex than this simple prescription suggests. When we do focus upon some element of apparent incongruence in ourselves or in another person, what we find is that we are beginning to enter into an appreciation of some of that human complexity.
We could say, therefore, that therapy, rather than being a matter of helping a person get rid of incongruence, is actually more a process of coming to appreciate the full complexity of the person, a process in which the perception of incongruence plays a key role. Incongruence is, from this perspective, simply an appearance. Incongruence is superficial only. When my client covers his misery with a smile there is an appearance of incongruence. Beyond this apparent self-contradiction, however, we find everything which makes this person a character rather than simply a facade. His smile, for instance, is congruent, perhaps, with his desire not to put me ill at ease and it may well be this sensitivity to the needs of others which, in juxtaposition to adverse circumstances common in the world, accounts for his misery. Thus, in this hypothetical instance, we quickly see that there is no incongruence between his misery and his smile after all. Both derive from a single aspect of his character which I had failed to appreciate immediately.
The example just given illustrates the complicated relationship which exists between congruence, incongruence and the hidden part of the person. Incongruence is a superficial appearance of mismatch between manifestations of the person's character in different aspects of their physical presence. These different aspects, however, give us a bearing, as it were, upon the parts of the person's character which we cannot immediately perceive, the hidden parts. When the hidden part is perceived, what had been taken to be incongruence no longer seems so. Thus by attending to what we see as incongruence we do discover the secret parts of the person's character and we do have the experience of the incongruence disappearing. It does not disappear because one of the aspects of surface appearance has been removed or changed. It disappears only to an observer who understands.
All psychotherapy, not just the person-centred approach, is concerned with understanding what is going on when people are "not themselves". This much used colloquialism is recognisable as meaningful to nearly all of us even though logic tells us it does not make sense. How can one not be oneself? Clearly, "self" can cover a great range of perceptions which a person has of themselves, a great range of different things which, nonetheless, we have learned to consider as one thing, namely our self.
I do not wish here to get into a depth of analysis of the concept of "self", but merely to note that it is not a unitary entity. Self is what one identifies with and so it is not necessarily fixed, even from moment to moment. We are therefore here concerned with a phenomenon which has the nature of flow rather than fixity. It is also the case that much of what we consider to be part of ourselves is taken for granted by, or we might therefore say hidden from, us for much of the time. To refer back to the example given earlier, if I were to confront my client with a statement such as: "I sense that you feel miserable, yet I observe that you are smiling," it is quite likely that this person would not be able to offer any immediate satisfactory explanation and might well say: "Yes, I'm silly like that sometimes," or make some equally unrevealing apology. And yet, even this apology does reveal the person because it is also congruent with the same sensitivity we referred to earlier.
We may say, perhaps, that congruence is a process rather than a state, a process in which there is an open harmonious flow, spontaneity. When one is congruent, one's outward manifestation in behaviour, facial expression, body language and so on is all of a piece with one's inner sentiments, beliefs and thoughts as they arise. As we have discovered, however, what is consistent and what is inconsistent is more a function of the depth of perception of the observer than a description of the actual state of the person in question.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TERM
The term congruence was introduced to psychotherapeutic language by Carl Rogers who regarded it as one of the necessary and sufficient conditions for constructive personality change. It is also arguable that it was through a deepening understanding of the implications of this construct for therapeutic practice that Rogers was able to refine his method and carry it beyond the limitations to which his original form of client-centred therapy was subject. In its original form, client-centred therapy (Rogers 1965) was really only suitable for motivated, non-psychotic, non-institutionalized clients and this made it only really appropriate for clinic situations. Rogers and his colleagues later pushed forward with work in long stay psychiatric hospitals (Rogers & Stevens 1968) and later still with the development of the encounter group movement (Rogers 1970) and, in the course of these experiences, they were led to place greater emphasis upon the importance of the genuineness and integrity of the therapist as a therapeutic factor. We may say, therefore, that in the work of the later Rogers, congruence has a more prominent place than it does in his earlier formulations.
The move toward giving greater prominence to congruence as a factor in healthy human relations was stimulated by Rogers' extension of his interests beyond the field of therapy. This was also the stimulus for the change of name from client-centred therapy to person-centred approach. One can only be client-centred where there is a client. One can be person-centred in all inter-personal encounters. Rogers became interested in the application of his ideas in education (Rogers 1983), in organizations, in personal relationships (Rogers 1973) and in politics and peace work. Eventually he produced a book called A Way of Being (Rogers 1980) which suggested that what he was writing about was just that, a way of being for all occasions, not just for therapy.
A further implication of this shift of terminology also high-lights congruence since, even in the therapy situation there is only one client but there are two persons. The term person-centred approach tend to suggest a practitioner who is self-revealing whereas the term client-centred therapy suggests one who is self-effacing. This contrast was not apparently consciously intended by Rogers himself, however.
Despite Rogers' own increasing concern with this concept, however, congruence has not been a subject which has drawn a great deal of attention from person-centred theorists since Rogers. Neither of the two most significant collections of contemporary person-centred writings (Lietaer et al. 1990; Levant & Shlien 1984) have a chapter on the subject. Lietaer himself, however, is in process of remedying this (Lietaer in press), but the gap is noticeable.
ROGERS' CONCEPT OF CONGRUENCE IN 1974
Rogers describes congruence as follows:
It has been found that personal change is facilitated when the psychotherapist is what he is, when in the relationship with the client he is genuine and without "front" or facade, openly being the feelings and attitudes which at that moment are flowing in him. We have coined the term "congruence" to try to describe this condition. By this we mean that the feelings the therapist is experiencing are available to him, available to his awareness, and he is able to live these feelings, be them, and able to communicate them if appropriate (Rogers 1974, p.61).
We can see that in this definition congruence is a matter of not pretending. In particular Rogers was opposed to the assumption by the professional of a stance of superiority, clinical distance or presumption of false expertise. Congruence here also means awareness of one's own inner condition as it unfolds from moment to moment and ability to communicate about this. On the other hand it does not necessarily here imply transparency in all respects. The therapist is only to communicate his inner state to the client when "appropriate". In general, Rogers thought it appropriate to communicate a feeling if it persisted. Congruence, in Rogers' definition, therefore, is not, strictly speaking, the same as immediacy.
On Rogers' 1974 definition congruence can exist for a person even when it is not communicated to the other person in a dialogue. If I am aware that I am frightened and I do not make a deliberate attempt to hide this fact, then I am being congruent. I may still not actually tell you that I am frightened and you might not notice. Congruence does not, therefore, necessarily imply that the inner state of a person has been successfully communicated to another person.
We may therefore draw a useful distinction between congruence which is communicated and congruence which is not. I am inclined to call these explicit and implicit congruence. Discussions of this topic can become confused when this distinction is unclear. On the other hand, the tendency of some people to equate the term congruence only with what I am here calling explicit congruence can lead to another problem which one could call technicalization.
Rogers introduced the concept of congruence in order to counter the tendency to see psychotherapy as a set of techniques. If therapy is simply a set of techniques, then the quality of the therapist as a person is immaterial. Rogers did not believe in technique. He thought that what mattered was to create a psychological climate which was conducive to genuine encounter between two people free of manipulation and social manoeuvring. He proposed three factors, accurate empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, which he suggested were both necessary and sufficient to set up this desired climate. These three factors are really qualities of the therapist, not techniques used by the therapist.
Despite this, there have been many attempts to reinterpret Rogers' method as a set of three (or more) techniques. This is a betrayal of Rogers' most cherished principles but, it has to be said, it is not difficult to see how people made this jump. For one thing, Rogers was very interested in research and research usually implies measurement and as soon as one starts to measure these things they do start to look more like techniques than human qualities. One does therefore hear people say such things as "That therapist needs to use a bit more empathy" or "I was not sure whether to use congruence at this point or not." Any statement of this kind, although one knows what it means, is actually, from a Rogerian perspective, a contradiction of terms. Congruence is not something that one can use. It is something that, at a given moment, one either is or is not. Nonetheless, the question of when, whether and how much to reveal one's inner experience to the other person remains, even though, from Rogers' perspective, this problem is something over and above the question of whether one is or is not congruent. The only implication we can fairly draw from the 1974 definition is that it probably does not really matter very much; that what matters is that we not deliberately try to conceal.
ROGERS' CONCEPT OF CONGRUENCE IN 1980
In A Way of Being, Rogers says this:
I find it very satisfying when I can be real, when I can be close to whatever it is that is going on within me... (this) is by no means an easy thing, but... I have been improving at it... it is a lifelong task... none of us ever is totally able to be comfortably close to all that is going on within our own experience.
In place of the term "realness" I have sometimes used the word "congruence." By this I mean that when my experiencing of this moment is present in my awareness and when what is present in my awareness is present in my communication, then each of these three levels matches or is congruent. (Rogers 1980, p.15)
We can see that the concept remains essentially the same but there is now more emphasis upon congruence as a basis for communication. Rogers goes on from this passage to describe occasions when a feeling "rises up in me" which might seem at first to have no obvious relationship to what is going on and to say how he has often found that sharing such things with the client may "strike some deep note in him" and "advance our relationship".
It seems that in this second definition of congruence Rogers has moved a step further in describing congruence in terms of the elimination of self-censorship. He talks about how he tries to write as far as possible without thinking about what will or will not please his audience so that he can say what comes genuinely from his own experience, for instance.
In the same book, Rogers does explicitly equate congruence with transparency as follows:
genuineness, realness or congruence... means that the therapist is openly being the feelings and attitudes that are flowing within at the moment. The term "transparent" catches the flavour of this condition: the therapist makes himself or herself transparent to the client; the client can see right through what the therapist is in the relationship... Thus there is a close matching, or congruence, between what is being experienced at the gut level, what is present in awareness, and what is expressed to the client (Rogers 1980, p.115-6).
The question of appropriateness has not been dropped completely but one is left with a clear impression that here Rogers is advancing the idea that the therapist can afford to be a good deal more self-disclosing than was implied in his 1974 definition.
Rogers believed that both client and therapist were struggling to get closer to their experiencing. This really is the key to personal growth in Rogers' view: to discard the facade and try to achieve a deep personal encounter with another person.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SECRETS
I would like at this point to make a small digression into the question of secrecy and to consider whether it has any positive value. Rogers was clearly in favour of the idea that, within the confines of the therapeutic relationship certainly and perhaps even in relationships more generally, openness is preferable. There have, however, been some who have taken the view that this is a culture specific attitude which may work less well in proportion as one becomes more distant from the United States of America.
A famous exponent of the Japanese No Theatre, Zeami, reportedly said: "What is concealed is the flower. What is not concealed cannot be the flower. To know this distinction is the flower, and among all flowers this flower is the most important" (Doi 1986, p.110). Doi comments upon this statement that "For Zeami, secrets did not exist because what they made secret was important. It was the fact of making something secret itself that was important" (Doi 1986, p.111).
Not only in Japan: in former times the acquisition of a skill or trade or profession or spiritual discipline typically involved something which was referred to as being admitted to the "mysteries". These mysteries were guarded as a precious treasure. The importance of secrets as a repository of power pervaded most aspects of society. The power of women in society lay in their handing down of mysteries just as did the power of societies of men. It was only in the "modern" age that people came to believe that everything should be exposed and mystery should be banished from our lives. It is open to question whether we are the richer for this.
This exposure of everything to scrutiny was begun by the early protestants who wanted no priests between them and their god and went on from there to develop a spirit of positivism, rationalism, science, progress and modernism. The modern spirit has given birth to many great advances in science and technology but we are all now aware that it has not solved the "problem" of human subjectivity. These days we live longer, we eat better (some of us), we kill each other more efficiently, we live more complicated lives, we sustain bigger cities (and smaller forests), but we are not noticeably happier than we were for all this. The mystery which science has not unravelled is the mystery of the human heart and perhaps that is all to the good.
Sometimes we find on the shelf of a bookshop a volume which purports to reveal in a few chapters the secrets of this or that esoteric society or tradition. We know, of course, that no book is really capable of such a thing. The "mystery" of a carpenter, for instance, does not reside in the instructions to be found in a DIY manual but is lodged, rather, in the harmony of his body and mind when interacting with a piece of timber. Such a thing is not at all easy to convey in words but it may inspire wonderment if we can become aware of its presence.
Phenomenology is, in part, an attempt to restore some of the sense of wonder which we feel when we stand before the mysteries of life and do not try too hastily to explain them away. No explanation is, in any case, ever adequate to the experience.
In therapy we are concerned with the mysteries of the client. I hope I have dispelled the idea that these are to be done away with. I have a sense, rather, that in this inquiry which we call therapy, it is really the client who is the master and the therapist who is the apprentice.
The client embodies her own mystery. Our task is to appreciate that mystery, not destroy it. The client, of course, does not necessarily know this. She may believe that she suffers from her secret self and be tempted to think that the sooner she gets rid of it the better. The experienced therapist, however, is by no means so enthusiastic to expose and dispose of everything too quickly. To do so is rather unseemly and shows disrespect.
The client brings us a precious gift, carefully wrapped. To simply rip off the paper as quickly as possible to get at the contents would be evidence of a total misunderstanding of what the gift relationship is all about. When we tear off the paper with undue haste we betray the fact that we are more interested in the contents than in the meaning of the gift: we display greed rather than love. Similarly, in therapy, it is not the content of what the client presents that matters so much as what the presenting signifies.
CONGRUENCE AND SECRETS
In one sense, congruence is about not having secrets. In a more important sense, however, congruence is about being true to one's secrets. In this second statement, the secrets to which I refer are the things which are laid up in our hearts; things which it is impossible to do full justice to save through our manner of being itself.
We might say that love, really, is what occurs when we become open to the secret life of another person. The congruent behaviour of the therapist demonstrates that it is possible for a person to be true to their nature including those aspects of it which cannot readily be put into words. Therapy involves an attempt to find and appreciate these "secrets"; and because words are so often inadequate we can use all the great variety of artistic, dramatic and expressive media which people have developed for this purpose. However, the aim is not really to expose as much as possible.
The first rule of therapy is confidentiality. Therapist and client together create a special place in which to do their magic work. In this space, what is created is a kind of love. It is the therapist's congruence, which is the therapist's capacity to be true to her own secret nature which enables the client to rediscover and cherish his own mystery again.
Love is signified by the sharing of the distilled essence of our very human experience of life. Love heals. It is for this reason that the client's secret wounds are also the key to his heart. The "confession of a secret is the same in essence as a confession of love" (Doi 1986, p.133).
EXPLANATIONS OF INCONGRUENCE
Here are four theories of the origins of incongruence. They are not mutually exclusive. Like most things in psychology, it is possible to approach this topic from many angles and the more angles we appreciate the more rounded our understanding is likely to become.
a) Dissimulation and the unconscious
When a person acts in a manner which is out of keeping with their inner state we speak of incongruence. Why might this happen? Why would a person not reveal some aspect of self? One answer might be that the person is trying to keep something secret deliberately while another might be that the person is simply not aware of what it is that they are not disclosing.
Thus there are those situations where a person simply chooses not to reveal their inner state, in full knowledge that this is what they are doing. If one is going for a job interview, one might not wish to reveal how nervous one feels. In this situation, the person might know that he felt nervous, but choose to cover this up by dressing smartly, wearing a smile and talking in a louder voice. This is dissimulation.
Then there are those situations where the person is not immediately aware of some aspect of their inner reactions. If one is not offered the job and one is asked how one feels about it one might answer straight away that one feels disappointed. Later one might reflect and come to the conclusion that one only said one was disappointed because that is what people expect you to say whereas the truth was that one actually felt relieved not to have to take on a job that was too difficult.
Then there are situations in which some aspect of our being is completely out of reach of consciousness until revealed by a detailed analysis of our whole situation. These are the sort of occasions catalogued by Freud in which we make mistakes such as choosing a wrong word or phrase which nonetheless reveals an unconscious motivation, or where we manage to forget an appointment with someone who had stood us up on a previous occasion, or where we quite inadvertently leave some item behind when we depart from a place to which we would actually like to return, thus giving ourselves an innocent motive to carry out our desire.
Congruence can thus be related to the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious. We can say that incongruent behaviour is actually motivated either by a deliberate attempt to deceive or by unconscious desires. Congruence, from this perspective, is the (exceedingly rare) condition of being free from repressed motives.
b) Conditions of worth
A second explanation of incongruence is in terms of learning. Rogers conjectured that we learn to be incongruent in order to cope with conditions of worth imposed upon us by those from whom we seek positive regard. In the first instance these will usually be our parents. It is our parents that we learn to deceive first, pretending to be what they want us to be in order to retain their love and affection (Thorne 1992, p.32).
This part of Rogers' theory is not original and is commonly assumed. The general idea is that a child is shaped by its need to receive love. Instead of receiving unconditional acceptance, a child generally meets a situation in life in which the parents trade upon the child's needs in order to get him or her to adopt patterns of behaviour which will be socially accepted or will meet the narcissistic needs of the parents. The parents place conditions upon their affirmation of the child's worth. They say, in effect, I will affirm that you are a good child so long as you behave in an acceptable manner. The child thus learns to disguise some of its needs, to dissimulate, and thus becomes incongruent.
The theory of conditions of worth is part of a general tendency in modern western psychology to blame parents for everything. Whatever is wrong in our lives is attributed to the way we were conditioned by our parents. This might seem self-evident, perhaps.
The theory is open to criticism, however. It seems somehow unsatisfactory to assert that the process by which all children are necessarily socialized goes against their basic nature in a fundamental way. I have argued in another paper (Brazier, in press) that rather than being shaped by its need to receive affection, it is just as possible to conceptualize the child as formed by its own efforts to express love. The common view is that the child's pleasing behaviour is a betrayal of its true nature for the ulterior motive of obtaining approval. It could be, however, that the child's pleasing behaviour is itself instinctive or primary and therefore not in the least incongruent. In general, people enjoy pleasing others and this enjoyment seems neither to be a false sentiment nor is it mediated by some secondary consequence such as approval seeking. Indeed, it is only when it is so false or mediated that we are inclined to call it incongruent and being rewarded by the person we have pleased may actually detract from the pure joy of seeing their pleasure.
It may be that in our innocent state we are both congruent and pleasing. The growth of a capacity for incongruence may actually equate with loss of innocence. We learn to be incongruent in order to ward off disasters and to protect our innermost secret which is our capacity for love. When the circumstances are inauspicious, the best part of ourselves goes into hibernation, like the princess in sleeping beauty. When we encounter a client in this state, the therapist may have to find his way through a forbidding thicket and over decaying battlements before he is able to provide the kiss of life.
The theory of conditions of worth, therefore, seems to me to be based upon a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature as essentially self-seeking which, in many respects, seems out of keeping with the remainder and general tone of Rogers' theory. My own clinical experience suggests that when one gets to the core of the client's personality one does not generally find a grasping nature but rather a capacity for love.
Clearly, the view we have of what the basic nature of people may be will have a strong influence upon what we see as congruent and what we see as incongruent in their behaviour. It seems to me to be a failing of many western forms of therapy that they focus upon bringing the worst aspects of the person into focus and according them the dignity of being the person's supposed "real nature". When, through empathy, one gets to understand more and more people ever more deeply, however, one repeatedly has the experience of finding that what at first seemed self-defeating or destructive behaviour was actually the acting out of the experience of deep (hidden, secret) motives which one can recognise as positive.
In summary, therefore, I think that it makes more sense to see the growth of what appears to be incongruence as a means developed, via loss of innocence, for the protection of our capacity for love, rather than as a way of manipulating those around us to provide narcissistic supplies. My hypothesis in this respect is also consistent, I think, with my suggestion that incongruence is only ever a superficial appearance and that it actually, to one with enough wisdom to appreciate it, reveals rather than conceals the human heart.
c) An explanation in terms of perception and motivation
The process which unites body and mind is perception. Perception is the process whereby body and mind together make sense of the surrounding environment. Paradoxically, so-called "inner" harmony arises when I lose myself in an engagement with something beyond myself. The human being alternates between "simply being" when one is lost in one's engagement with the world and "reflective being" when one stops this flow in order to take stock of one's experience.
When our stock-taking shows that what is revealed by our contact with the environment is in harmony with what we inwardly believe and value, we feel confirmed. When our body and mind disaffirm one another we feel disturbed.
In some circumstances such disturbance is pleasurable, in others it gives rise to distress (Apter 1989). If our experience is always confirming, life becomes boring. If it is repeatedly disconfirming we begin to lose our sanity, we become confused and distrustful. In order to reduce the danger of insanity we screen out a great deal of the information which would otherwise be available to our senses. Freud suggested that our sense organs function not so much to gather sensory data as to protect us from overload. We only ever accept a partial experience of existence in the world. The struggle to achieve integration, inner consistency, elimination of incongruence, is thus a normal part of our everyday psychology and can never be complete.
d) Alternative stories
Yet another way of looking at the question of congruence and incongruence is to think in terms of the stories which we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is a useful way of understanding how we try to make sense of our lives. Life can be considered as a set of projects in which a person engages. Each project gives the person its own sense of identity and each has its own story. The stories are not always consistent with each other, however, and this can, on the one hand, be conducive to richness of life and on the other lead to inner conflict as we struggle to try to evolve an overarching story within which each of the other projects can find an acceptable place as sub-plots.
The stories or "scripts" which we live may have a variety of origins. Often they can be traced to "unconscious loyalties" to one or other of our parents or ancestors. Although most western people do not practise ancestor worship and have ceased to believe that the ancestors continue to interfere in our lives, psychological inquiry suggests that we often do live out patterns of behaviour which speak of an unconscious identification with figures from our family history. After all, where else would we be likely to take our models for ourselves from. The "family story" or saga provides the new young person with a fertile source from which ideas and decisions about self may be derived.
Thus, one part of my client may be living out a story which has as its prototype her great great grandmother who, as family legend has it, was a bit of a libertine. Another part of the same client may be trying to live up to the example of an aunt who was always kind to her and who expected good behaviour. These two parts of my client may have difficulties with each other.
When we start to think in terms of the co-existence of different stories, the idea of congruence seems to become more elusive. How could a person be true to two conflicting plots simultaneously? Often, of course, what our client exhibits is ambivalence and this may well be truly congruent. It is by attending to the client's ambivalence that the therapist gets to hear more than one story and so starts to appreciate the real complexity of the person who turns out to be not so much in-dividual as, if I may coin a term, richly dividuated.
Of course, if one pursues this line of logic one comes to a point at which one can say that, in a sense, a person is always necessarily congruent in the sense that whatever they exhibit outwardly must correspond with some aspect of their "inner life", with one story or another. From this perspective, the task of therapy becomes not one of moving a client from incongruence to congruence but rather of exploring the diversity of themes which the single person encompasses. This is the phenomenological approach. The surface phenomena of the person's life, the choices they make, the way they behave, the small changes in voice and gesture as they talk about one topic or another, all give evidence of richness of form and personal resource (McDougall 1992).
A physical landscape is the product of many forces which have been at work over a long time, each superimposing its effect upon what was already there. Here frost has created a slope of scree. Further down a grassy bank of runkled turf has been created by the influence of rain which has made the surface slip. Further down still water has gathered into a stream and a change in the water table has led this stream to incise itself between banks which now look like miniature cliffs. A person too has a varied personal landscape produced by exposure to circumstances many of which were unchosen.
When one walks through a landscape one might do so in different frames of mind. If it is a familiar area, one probably takes a good deal for granted. This is like the everyday interactions between people who are familiar with one another, lost in the natural attitude. Or one might take a more scientific interest, trying to see through the surface forms (diagnosis) to identify the forces (analysis) which have been at work: glaciation here, fluvial erosion there and so on. This is the approach of the analyst. Or we might be like the poet, noticing each feature for its special "character" or spirit and allowing each to work its own particular magic upon us until the whole becomes infused with charm and its own special coherence, somehow coming alive. This is the approach of the phenomenologist.
These three approaches are equally available in our dealings with people: the everyday, the scientific (reductionist), and the phenomenological (constructivist). In phenomenological therapy, the client's story is told and heard, often repeatedly, until it has grown in the telling, until many tributary tales have flowed into it, until it has here and there broken its banks and found more conducive channels, until its flooding has rendered the lowlands of life fertile again, until it has found its way to the ocean of common humanity where all our separate stories find their common outlet and merge together in the shining sea.
Congruence as a core condition for therapeutic change
Rogers proposed congruence as an essential element in the creation of a climate conducive to constructive personality change (Rogers 1957). The important point to note is that congruence is only one element. Rogers never intended that it should function independently. Congruence, we might say, in Rogers' view, is only therapeutic when it occurs in conjunction with the other conditions he outlines. We can see this readily from an example. If the therapist says to the client: "I'm really not listening to you because I would rather be getting on with writing my next book," this might well be congruent but it probably will not be therapeutic. This is because this therapist at this time does not fulfil any of the other core conditions, namely (i) she is not really in psychological contact with the client; (ii) she is not "congruent or integrated in the relationship"; (iii) she does not appear to be experiencing unconditional positive regard for the client; (iv) she is not engaged in an empathic understanding of the client's frame of reference; and (v) she is not attempting to communicate empathic understanding to the client.
The question of appropriateness, which has been referred to at several points in this paper, is to a large degree resolved by this understanding that congruence does not stand alone. The first task of the therapist is to try to achieve real psychological contact with the client. This is to be rooted in a positive regard for the client which is unconditional. From this base, the therapist attempts to achieve and communicate empathic understanding. Congruence, in Rogers' theory, has to be seen in this context and is only considered to be therapeutic in these circumstances.
From this consideration we can see that the times when it is going to be therapeutic to be explicitly congruent are those: a) when all the other core conditions are in place; or
b) when the therapist being explicit about his or her inner feelings will restore the other core conditions if they have lapsed.
Thus, if I am engaged with my client, fully acceptant of her and have achieved a respectful and appreciative understanding of how she views life and while in the flow of attending to her an image arises in my mind, seemingly unbidden, then it is highly probable that sharing this image with her will be valuable. Again, if I have been empathically attentive to the client and I notice that my mind has wandered, it could be useful to confess this since such a confession is very likely to bring me back to a more attentive state straightaway. On the other hand, simply giving the client a running commentary on what is happening to me may amount to little more than a reversal of roles and be an unproductive self-indulgence on my part as therapist.
It also seems important at this point to make a distinction between what I am calling explicit congruence and what I would usually call "sharing". If a client tells me about his divorce, congruence does not require me to tell him about my own marital history. To do so would be what I would call sharing. Sharing here means divulging information about one's own history and background. Congruence refers to awareness of immediate feelings, images and attitudes arising in the flow of the encounter. Sharing is really a quite different subject and the question of when it is and is not appropriate is a vexed issue in its own right.
Fundamentally, congruence is not a matter of saying particular things at particular times but is, as Rogers says, a way of being with the client. Here we are talking about something which could be called groundedness or integration or centredness. It is a state in which one is non-defensive and unselfconscious. Ironically, it is a state in which the impression likely to be conveyed to the client is one which suggests that the therapist has a good deal "in reserve". What the good therapist has in reserve, I suggest, is a deep capacity for loving kindness.
Congruence as analysis of transference
Analytical approaches to psychotherapy regard the analysis of transference as the key to the therapeutic process. Person-centred therapists on the other hand claim not to analyse anything and have even been known to deny that transference is a useful concept at all (Shlien 1984). I do not wish to get deeply enmeshed in this controversy here, but it does seem to me that congruence often plays a parallel role in person-centred therapy to transference analysis in the analytical approaches.
A client comes to a therapist with expectations and assumptions. Whether we call these transference or simply the result of learning is inconsequential at this point in my discussion. Either way, the therapist is going to find herself responding to the client's approach. How the client is with the therapist will arouse feelings in the therapist. The examination of these feelings may throw light upon the clients expectations both of this particular encounter and of life generally. If the client expects me to persecute him in some way, this will be betrayed by his manner. If I do not intend to persecute him, this encounter is likely to raise a certain unease within me. If I am an analyst I will attempt to understand what is happening here and I will call the achievement of such understanding the analysis of transference. If, on the other hand, I am a person-centred therapist, I will still try to understand what is happening and my manner of doing this may well be to reveal to the client the feelings which he is rousing in me. Either way, the client will be confronted with evidence of the effects of his unrealistic expectations. In the one case it will be said that the transference was analyzed and in the other case that the congruence of the therapist led to enhanced understanding of the client's frame of reference. Both therapist, however, were relying upon the same gut reaction and both shared it in a way which enabled the relationship with the client to advance toward deeper understanding. I suggest, therefore, that in this respect at least, the divide between person-centred and analytic approaches is a good deal narrower than is suggested by a superficial reading of the literature.
Congruence is a matter of revealing what is going on in us when we are engaged in personal interaction with another person. This process of revealing our on-going experience may simply be a matter of not trying to disguise our feelings or it may amount to a thorough attempt at self exploration on a moment by moment basis. When we do this, we find out more about how we relate to others.
Encounter, as a technical term in psychotherapy, signifies a form of interaction between two or more people in which a serious effort is being made to express here and now feelings and to achieve understanding of the relationship process as it is actually going on in the present between the people participating. Encounter groups thus have a distinctive focus which is different from many other forms of personal growth group.
Thus, for instance, a young man in a group says that several times recently other men have made homosexual advances to him. In most personal growth groups this would be followed by some exploration of his feelings on such occasions and of his attitude toward his own sexuality. In an encounter group it would more likely be followed by feedback from other group members about how they find themselves responding to him sexually in the group. We can see that in the first case the group is likely to become focused for a time upon one individual and "a piece of work" may emerge around this protagonist which may throw light upon his life outside the group, whereas in the second case, the group is likely to become focused upon the topic of the sexual feelings they experience for one another and all group members may have something to contribute to this. In an encounter group, all members are protagonists and the drama is that of their here and now interactions with one another.
Encounter groups can thus be lively events. Most people find it a challenge to be congruent continuously. One thing we quickly realize from participation in encounter is the extent to which we habitually rely upon stereotyped ways of interacting with others which serve to absolve us from complete authenticity. Initially we may feel stuck or reticent, not wishing to divulge too much or not knowing how to do so.
Encounter refers essentially to a manner of interacting and is not limited to groups. It also has its place in one to one work. Moreno, who introduced the term encounter to psychotherapy, believed that the goal of psychotherapy was a return to a capacity for spontaneity (Moreno 1983). Interestingly, he also believed that one of the most effective routes toward this was role reversal. Role reversal is what happens when I take on the part of another person. When I step out of my habitual way of reacting and see the world from the viewpoint of another person, that is, when I see a new angle on a situation, freshness returns to life. Encounter is thus just as much a matter of appreciating the other person's viewpoint as of expressing what one experiences from one's own side.
A phenomenological approach to encounter, therefore, is one in which we examine and disclose our experience as we expose ourselves to an inter-personal situation from a variety of angles. In the group referred to earlier the young man must now consider not only his memory of past events but also his immediate feelings as a variety of people respond to him here and now.
This type of work gives us direct experience of the multi-faceted nature of being human. Congruence does not mean finding a single story for oneself and sticking to it consistently. It means discovering that one encompasses many stories and even more latent possibilities. Encounter is thus also experimental. It is not simply a matter of finding out what one already is but also of finding out what one might be.
Congruence enhances relationships. We feel more at ease with a person if we believe we can trust them. Congruence is not the whole story in this respect, however, since it is possible for a person to be congruently hostile or disinterested. For a therapist, congruence is one aspect of the climate necessary for constructive encounter with the client.
Congruence means genuineness. We are congruent when we are not hiding anything. Since none of us is aware of everything about ourselves all of the time, however, there will always be some aspects of ourselves hidden from view no matter how congruent we may try to be.
Attention to the appearance of incongruence can be a key which lets us into some of the more hidden chambers of the human heart, our own as well as our clients'. There is a case to be made for the idea that incongruence is only a deceptive appearance and that to a person with full insight nothing in a person would appear incongruent and so, conversely, by attending to incongruence as it appears our insight is progressively deepened.
Congruence helps us to illuminate our relationships with others and brings into the light of day the hidden assumptions we make about each other. It is thus an antidote to the development of transference and projection.
On the other hand, the attempt to bring everything to consciousness is probably vain and unnecessary. The depths of the person are mysterious whether we call them the id or the organism or the human heart. Spontaneity is more a matter of appreciating what bubbles up from our hidden and inexhaustible depths than of trying to empty them. Although our root nature is necessarily unknown, we do tend, nonetheless, to make assumptions about it. The assumptions that we make about what may lie in these depths will condition what we are inclined to class as incongruence in those around us.
In this paper I have advanced the view that the core of the human personality may be a constructive tendency which is more commonly referred to as love and that the apparent incongruence with which we conceal this benign core may serve primarily to preserve it. Love needs protection. The therapist who seeks over hastily to lay bare the client's soul may do more damage than good. But the one who is patient and gentle while remaining grounded in an appreciation of his or her own inner mysteries may be able to coax even the most wounded client into a renewed appreciation of his or her own neglected depths.
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Dh.D.J. Brazier 1993