‘Dare We Do Away With Professionalism?’1 Why the person-centred approach
is opposed to the state regulation of the psychological therapies
Andy Rogers (2009)
Originally published in Therapy Today, May 2009
‘I state sorrowfully: there are as many certified charlatans and exploiters of people as
there are uncertified.’ Carl Rogers1
As Rogers’ famous statement reminds us, the person-centred approach (PCA) has a
long tradition of vigorously questioning professional developments in counselling and
psychotherapy. More recently, considerable disquiet about the proposed state
regulation of the psychological therapies through the Health Professions Council
(HPC) has been reported anecdotally among person-centred therapists.2 Many in the
community feel uncomfortable with the regulatory agenda and are concerned for the
philosophical and therapeutic integrity of their practice under the proposed regime.
Here I unearth some possible roots of that discomfort in the theory and philosophy of
the person-centred tradition, in the hope that it will help practitioners reflect on their
experience of the political changes afoot and channel their concerns into positive
collective action. This is not a definitive account of the case against regulation, which
you can find elsewhere,3, 4 but a snapshot of the most conspicuous issues for person-
Theory and values
A central proposition in Carl Rogers’ theory of personality change and therapeutic
process5, 6 is that given the right interpersonal conditions, an individual will gain ‘a
dawning realization that the evidence upon which he can base a value judgement is
supplied by his own senses, his own experience’,6 minimally corrupted by judgements
originating in the ‘personal cultural environment’.6 Known in the theory as
‘internalising’ the ‘locus of evaluation’, this shift in the person’s valuing process is, in
Mearns & Thorne’s view, ‘an expected consequence of person-centred counselling’.7
In the context of such genuine, empathic, accepting relationships, it is argued, we free
ourselves from ‘conditions of worth’; that is, we become liberated from the
oppressive or ambivalent judgements of others, judgements we have absorbed – or
‘introjected’ – to the detriment of self-esteem. As Dave Mearns writes, ‘Helping
another person to internalise his locus of evaluation is not achieved by exercising
power over him… but by creating a relationship in which the client may take
responsibility for himself.’8
So at the level of values, the theory tells us that the PCA is committed to self-
authority, self-responsibility and the right to self-determination, not just for clients but
for therapists too. This is clearly in opposition to the values of regulation, as currently
proposed, which suggest that people in therapeutic relationships should be subject to a
greater degree of external authority. It is apparently not sufficient for us to practise
within self-regulating systems of civic accountability9 and existing laws governing
human behaviour and transactions, which if necessary could be tweaked to tackle the
worst exploitation in therapy.10, 11 Instead, it will be the state and its agents – rather
than ourselves, our peers and our clients – deciding ultimately who is fit to counsel
and how they should be doing so.
The prospective client under this new regulatory framework, who in person-centred
terms could be struggling to trust their internal, ‘organismic’ valuing process, will
enter a helping system that is considered ‘safe’ and ‘effective’ – and therefore
trustworthy – only when judgement is deferred to a set of external structures and
processes. Regulation, in this scenario, becomes a network of oppressive conditions of
worth for counsellors to negotiate, all the harder not to internalise and transmit to
clients because they carry the power of the law, the fear of criminalisation and
professional humiliation and the economic threat to destroy livelihood and careers.
The locus of evaluation of therapy itself thus becomes externalised, leaving the
person-centred values that counsellors hope to embody with their clients entirely at
odds with the values of the proposed professional working environment.
Values incongruence: an ethical dilemma
It seems that counselling and psychotherapy – that is, people and relationships –
cannot be trusted. The public, we are told, need protecting from potentially dangerous
therapists who will be deemed trustworthy only if registered with the designated
authorities (HPC) and trained in approved schemes, despite the fact that this flies in
the face of research findings which consistently fail to demonstrate that training,
experience or professional accreditation are important in determining either positive
therapeutic outcome or reduced incidence of malpractice. As Brian Thorne has
argued, there is even evidence to the contrary, that the status of the licensed
professional ‘attracts precisely the person who succumbs to the allurement of power,
and who is therefore more likely to abuse it.’12 Indeed, independent research into
cases of BACP’s own professional conduct procedure spanning almost ten years
found that accredited members were over-represented in complaints.13
Person-centred practitioners, then, who attempt to provide the appropriate facilitative
conditions for clients to free themselves from the oppression of external judgement,
face a formidable ethical dilemma here – they can work under this proposed system
only if they defer assessment of their practice to externally imposed expectations and
processes, which will be rooted in an institutionalised therapeutic ideology, as
discussed below. And in its evidence-free assertion that we need the proposed legal
controls to minimise harm, state regulation promotes a lack of trust in therapeutic
relationships that explicitly contradicts Rogers’ and his followers’ consistent faith in
the universal human tendency towards growth, constructive relationships and the
fulfilment of potential, known in person-centred circles of course as the ‘actualising
tendency’, a concept which underpins much of what I have said above.
Instead, state regulation communicates a worst-case-scenario, infantilising belief in
the tendency for therapists to be destructive if allowed too much freedom. Ironically,
the regulatory machinery then uses this fear to justify removing the very conditions –
accepting, open, genuine and non-directive – which would have been most likely to
facilitate and support practitioners in offering constructive, growth-promoting or
agenda-free therapeutic spaces rather than disempowering or abusive ones. This
situation creates a devastating incongruence between therapeutic and
professional/administrative values. And as person-centred counsellors will attest,
therapist incongruence outside the therapeutic relationship invariably manifests within
the therapeutic relationship, potentially undermining the work in the most damaging
If this were not challenging enough, the conditions provided by a post-regulation
environment will most likely limit freedom and creativity in the profession.
Contemporary writers from a range of approaches have argued this point14 but it is
also made explicit in person-centred theory. An internalised locus of evaluation is an
‘inner condition of constructive creativity’,15 Rogers proposed, without which truly
creative acts would not be possible. The person must be free enough from external
evaluation to give voice to new ideas, to work idiosyncratically and challenge
accepted practice, a freedom that will be inhibited by a highly externalised evaluative
regime such as state regulation through the HPC.
Clearly Rogers carried this creativity hypothesis into his own analysis of
professionalisation when he wrote, ‘I have slowly come to the conclusion that if we
did away with ‘the expert’, ‘the certified professional’, ‘the licensed psychologist’, we
might open our profession to a breeze of fresh air, a surge of creativity’.1
The conditions imposed by registration, certification and licensing systems were, in
Rogers’ mind, at best unhelpful and at worst oppressive because they elevate the
status, expertise and power of the therapist – which will always be at the expense of
the client’s empowerment – while simultaneously creating an environment in which
therapists themselves are restricted and subordinated by the very framework
conferring that status and authority.
As such, the construction of a system as will soon be upon us, in which therapists can
work only once they are approved by the government and its chosen organisations, is
incongruent with an approach that, as Rogers claimed, ‘is politically centred in the
client’16 and involves ‘a conscious renunciation and avoidance by the therapist of all
control over, or decision-making for, the client.’16 Why? Because the person-centred
practitioner’s trust in the client will face a smothering fear of the punitive professional
measures that might arise from anything that steps outside the prescriptive norms of
an increasingly standardised therapy.
I will now highlight four other key ways in which person-centred – if not all –
therapists need to be concerned about the shape of therapy as it is likely to emerge
under state regulation through the HPC, which we might preface with Rogers’
remarks that, ‘the urge toward professionalism builds up a rigid bureaucracy…
Bureaucratic rules become a substitute for sound judgement… the bureaucrat is
beginning to dominate the scene.’1
First, the traditional person-centred emphasis on therapeutic attitudes and
idiosyncratic expressions of the person-centred ‘way of being’ will be threatened by
increasingly standardised trainings and legally enshrined descriptions of ‘best
practice’ in each modality, which find ‘skills and competences’ much easier to grasp
than relationship qualities like, say, intimacy or mutuality. Evidence for this
‘manualisation’ of counselling and psychotherapy can be found in the work of the
Skills for Health (SfH) organisation, particularly its National Occupational Standards
(NOS) and ‘competences in development’ for the psychological therapies.17
Interestingly, it is psychoanalysts who have had most to say about how this attempt to
pin down procedure does a disservice to the subtle relationship issues of therapy.18
Second, therapeutic practice will become increasingly dominated by the healthcare
model. As the HPC reveals in its name, therapy will be ordained as one of the ‘Health
Professions’. To many in the PCA this is not an appropriate umbrella for the work,
which concentrates on human potential rather than deficiency19 and the offering of
facilitative conditions rather than medical-style instrumental intervention with
predictable outcomes. Indeed, some client-centred therapists have argued recently for
‘principled and strategic opposition to the medicalisation of distress and all of its
apparatus.’20 But, sadly, a medicalised paradigm in government initiatives around
therapy is already evident in the state-funded Improving Access to Psychological
Therapies (IAPT) scheme and its financial and ideological honouring of the modality
claiming most loudly a medical-style ‘scientific’ evidence base, cognitive behavioural
therapy (CBT). Needless to say, the PCA, with its non-medical model(s) of human
distress and its differing research methodologies, has not been blessed with the IAPT
Third and linked to the expectations of this health model, many therapy professionals
are already focusing attention on the evidence provided by outcome research. The
difficulty with this trend lies in the question of what constitutes acceptable research
and evidence and the demands placed on the therapist to demonstrate consistent
outcomes using the approved methods, such as those favoured by and favouring
approaches like CBT. Leaving aside the fact that outcome research of this kind is
incongruent with the client-centred idea of ‘principled’ rather than instrumental
work21 and is irrelevant to an ‘ethics alone’ approach,22 more generally it will jar with
the person-centred commitment to the uniqueness of each client, the idiosyncratic
nature of each therapeutic relationship and the innumerable range of diverse outcomes
that might arise from such encounters and still be considered by the participants to be
‘successful’, with or without structural endorsement. Crucially, the use of such
evaluation tools potentially corrupts the person-centred therapist’s efforts to meet the
client as a person and an equal rather than as an expert assessor of their difficulties,
however much practitioners find superficially pragmatic workarounds.
Last but not least, we would do well to remember that the person-centred approach
has since the 1960s been closely allied to social critique and political radicalism – it is
even fond of describing itself as ‘revolutionary’.16, 23 Historically significant in that
Rogers was evermore concerned with social and political matters as his career
progressed, there was for some time a lull in this area of person-centred activity.
Recently, however, it has gained a new lease of life.24 How, might we ask, will such
an important dimension of the person-centred worldview flourish when therapists
require government sanction to practise?
We should not underestimate the cultural, ideological and economic pressure towards
conservatism and political acquiescence that could be exerted upon a therapy when it
is coerced into a binding professional relationship with the state. At worst, market
forces operating within the tight boundaries of regulatory policy might threaten an
approach with extinction if it does not toe the party line. Simply, you will not be
employed to work or funded to train others in a non-compliant modality. And once
the approach is chased into the private sphere and training courses dry up, it will be
ever-harder for counsellors to justify their practices to the regulatory body that
decides who can work legally in the newly institutionalised profession.
Again it is clear: the PCA is practically, theoretically, politically and ethically at odds
with current regulatory proposals.
The future: institutionalised therapy?
A decade ago, Mearns & Thorne warned person-centred therapists about capitulation
‘to the seemingly dominant zeitgeist… a cautious, carefully circumscribed form of
therapy where the key criteria are the achievement of prescribed goals, proven cost-
effectiveness and predictable therapist behaviour as laid down in manuals of
practice… a profession where the creeping forces of institutionalisation and
regulatory dogmatism are insidiously advancing.’19
They claimed the emerging culture threatened to destroy the heart of person-centred
therapy in ways prefiguring my account here and asked if counselling and
psychotherapy generally was ‘losing its humanity’. At the turn of the century, then,
the institutionalisation of therapy posed great dangers for the profession as a whole
and specifically for those working in the PCA. But these warnings from the year 2000
were not, it seems, heeded. Make no mistake, the analysis is as pertinent now as ever,
particularly for person-centred practitioners who wish to stay true to the historical,
philosophical and therapeutic tradition created by Carl Rogers.
If anything has dated in the last ten years, it is Mearns & Thorne’s diplomatic
commitment to tread a middle path with regard to how the PCA should respond to
these changes, retaining hope, as they did, that the worst excesses of
professionalisation might yet be restrained by something other than outright
opposition. Of course, that was probably a reasonable position then. But things have
moved on. We are only a few meetings away from the drafting of legislation.25 If ever
the person-centred approach needed to think critically, attend to its collective power,
find a voice and safeguard its future integrity and values congruence, it is now.
1 Rogers C. A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1980. pp.243-248
2 Sanders P. Personal communication; 2009.
3 Mowbray R. The case against psychotherapy registration: a conservation issue for the human
potential movement. Trans Marginal Press; 1995.
4 Postle D. Regulating the psychological therapies: from taxonomy to taxidermy. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS
5 Rogers C. A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-
centred framework. In Koch S. (ed.) Psychology: a study of science vol. 3: formulations of the person
and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill; 1959.
6 Rogers C. Client-centred therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1951. pp.149-150
7 Mearns D. & Thorne B. Person-centred counselling in action, 2nd ed. London: Sage; 1999. p.49
8 Mearns D. Developing person-centred counselling. London: Sage; 1994. p.x
9 Postle D. Protecting the client experience: a catastrophe map of civic accountability in the
psychological therapies. 2008. http://ipnosis.postle.net/PDFS/SRCTMapFINAL.pdf
10 Karian, P. & Musgrave, A. Prophet in the wilderness: Previn Karian interviews Arthur Musgrave.
Ipnosis 33; 2008.
11 Hogan D. The regulation of psychotherapists. Ballinger; 1979.
12 Thorne, B. Guest editorial: Regulation – a treacherous path. CPJ 13 (2); 2002. p.5
13 Khele, S., Symons C. & Wheeler, S. An analysis of complaints to the British Association for
Counselling & Psychotherapy, 1996-2006. Counselling & psychotherapy research (CPR) 8 (2); 2008.
14 House R. & Totton N. Implausible professions: arguments for pluralism and autonomy in
psychotherapy and counselling. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 1997.
15 Rogers C. On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1961. pp.353-354
16 Rogers. C. On personal power: inner strength and its revolutionary impact. London: Constable; 1978.
17 See: http://www.skillsforhealth.org.uk/page/competences/competences-in-
18 For example: http://ipnosis.postle.net/pages/DLCritiqueofPPNOS.htm
19 Mearns D. & Thorne B. Person-centred therapy today: new frontiers in theory and practice. London:
20 Sanders P. Principled and strategic opposition to the medicalisation of distress and all of its
apparatus. In Joseph S. and Worsley R. Person-centred psychopathology: a positive psychology of
mental health. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2005. pp.21-42
21 Grant B. Principled and instrumental nondirectiveness in person-centred and client-centred therapy.
Person-Centred Review 5 (1); 1990. pp.77-88
22 Grant B. The imperative of ethical justification in psychotherapy: the special case of client-centred
therapy. Person-Centred & Experiential Psychotherapies (PCEP) 3 (1). PCCS Books; 2004. pp.152-165
23 Bozarth J. Person-centred therapy: a revolutionary paradigm. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 1998.
24 Proctor G., Cooper M., Sanders P. & Malcolm B. (eds.) Politicizing the person-centred approach: an
agenda for social change. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2006.
25 Follow progress here: http://hpcwatchdog.blogspot.com/ and oppose state regulation here: