We all share the urge to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, grow, and mature. We all long for self-actualization, to enhance the self, and reach the ultimate state in which we can express and activate all the inner capacities we possess. We all want to become as integrated and effective as possible, and we all wonder who we really are.
Yet it seems we have almost forgotten how the most fundamental positive change and long-lasting personal development in humans actually occurs.
It might surprise you, but the most fundamental and lasting change happens in warmly emotional and expressive relationships, where mutual respect is present, and where non-possessive caring is exhibited. This kind of relationships facilitate true self‑realization, based on permission for one to freely express themselves.
On becoming a person – the path towards an integrated, effective and mature organism
The success of psycho-dynamic therapies greatly relies on building an accepting and understanding relationship between a therapist and a client. Such a relationship tends to be explored for insights and serves as a fundamental safe base for the client to express their personality freely. That leads to an everlasting positive personality change and personal growth.
There is no cognitive, behavioral, solution-focused or any other psychological exercise that can replace the experience of an unconditionally accepting relationship.
Psychological research has shown that a relationship between a therapist and a client, if all the necessary conditions are met, has the power to help a person become more integrated, effective, and mature.
It sounds almost unrealistic and unbelievable, but only the right kind of a (therapeutic) relationship can help a person:
- Become the person they really want to be
- Gain a better understanding of themselves
- Be more open to life experience
- Value themselves more highly
- Be more self-confident and self-directing
- Become more accepting in their attitudes towards others
- Seeing others as more similar to them
- Become more realistic in how they view themselves
- Become less rigid and fixated
Sounds intriguing? By far the best book that describes what kind of a relationship leads to real personal growth is On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy, written by Carl R. Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Even if you are not interested in the power of psychotherapy or psychology as a discipline, the book is definitely worth a read for three main reasons:
- Becoming aware of how big of an impact every relationship has on your life, including both how you influence others in relationships and how others influence you.
- Having an ideal relationship model to strive for in your everyday interactions with people and, even more importantly, in the relationship with yourself.
- You will understand the real healing forces of relationship based psychotherapies
In the book, as in my summary, the relationship between a therapist and a client is in the foreground. But that doesn’t mean you can’t transfer this valuable knowledge about the power of relationships into your everyday life and interaction; or if you are fascinated by the power of relationship dynamics in interpersonal therapy, maybe even join one. I did for sure.
Everything starts with you fully accepting yourself and the other person
If you want to facilitate personal growth of people in a relationship with you, then you must grow as well, which is usually as painful as it is enriching.
The degree to which you can create relationship conditions that facilitate the growth of others as separate individuals is based exclusively on the measure of the growth you have achieved in yourself. This leads us to the heart of the saying that you must first love yourself before you can love others.
Loving, accepting or changing yourself in this regard means becoming trustworthy, dependable and consistent in relationships. It means communicating unambiguously and consistently and honestly expressing positive attitudes towards the other person – attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, and respect.
These expressions must absolutely be congruent, meaning that being who you are on all layers of existence is fundamentally important. That’s certainly not an easy state to achieve.
The two fundamental conditions for personal growth to happen in a relationship, based on values of acceptance, congruence and empathy, are:
- Be who you really are: The more genuine you are in a relationship, the more potential for personal development the relationship has. Your attitude and expression must be congruent with inner conscious and unconscious processes. You also need to have the courage to align your feelings and attitudes with your words and behavior. If you are not completely who you are, if you don’t accept yourself as you are, you have small chances of accepting other people.
- Unconditionally accept the other person: The more acceptance, understanding and liking you feel towards the person interacting with you, the more you create a relationship with a potential for personal development and growth. This means accepting someone’s worth unconditionally, no matter what their thoughts, behavior or feelings might be. This acceptance can’t be played, instead it must be completely real on the conscious and unconscious level.
As you can see, a person (or a therapist) must be a very mature person to create conditions under which real growth and personal development can occur in relationships. Even more, nobody fully achieves these conditions, so the presence of congruence is more important than anything.
The more a therapist is able to listen acceptingly to what is going on within themselves, and the more the therapist is able to be the complexity of his feelings without any fear, the higher the degree of congruence that is achieved and the more trust for freedom of expression in a relationship is developed.
When there is unconditional acceptance of yourself and the other person, then the following miracle happens in a relationship:
|If you are in a relationship and you are …||Then the other person will …|
But how can that even happen?
An experience has the greatest impact on one’s personal growth
In life, experience is the highest authority. No ideas, your own or others’, are as authoritative as one’s experience. No religion, spirituality, theory or research can take precedence over direct individual experience.
The touchstone of everyone’s reality and validity is their own individual experience. And the most important experiences happen in relationships. Every relationship brings a new experience to an individual, and with the experience also comes the power for growth, change and transformation.
That’s why research has shown that for therapy to be successful, a therapist’s attitude and feelings are the most important, even more so than the procedures, techniques, or theoretical orientation.
That doesn’t mean a therapist shouldn’t be skillful, but with any decrease in complete acceptance of a client, the therapy becomes substantially less effective. When the therapeutic relationship gets perceived as less accepting, it becomes a threat and is therefore ineffective.
The most skillful therapists have the capacity to create a relationship in which the following conditions are present:
- There’s complete trust in a relationship
- A person is understood, as are their meanings and feelings
- There’s a high sensitivity to an individual’s attitudes
- The feeling of independence to make choices and decisions is present
- A warm interest without any emotional over-involvement is expressed
- Hesitantly approached feelings are clarified and openly stated
- There’s a complete transparency and congruency between feelings and words
There are also many attitudes that dry out a relationship potential for personal growth:
- Lack of interest and care
- Remoteness and distance
- Over-degree of sympathy
- Direct specific advice regarding decisions (which we all love to give)
- Emphasizing history rather than present problems
That kind of a relationship, which should primarily be experienced with parents who are not toxic, brings a whole new level of understanding and expression to one’s life. That’s because you simply can’t be something that you haven’t experienced.
When a person finally feels fully accepted, they also have less trouble accepting their own fears, bizarre thoughts, tragic feelings and discouragement and expressing them in a positive way, as well as comprehending their moments of courage, kindness, love, and sensitivity.
If an individual is exposed to the right kind of a therapeutic relationship, the new relationship experience leads to the following change:
- The person accepts themselves more fully, together with their feelings
- The person starts to seem themselves differently, in a more realistic way
- They adopt more realistic goals for themselves
- They become more self-confident and self-directing
- They become more of who they really are, the person they would like to be
- They become more flexible and less rigid
- They behave in a more mature fashion, expressing the whole spectrum of emotions in a healthy and respectful manner
- Any maladjusted behaviors can be changed to more positive behaviors
- They become more accepting of others
- They become more open to evidence and experience, inside and outside themselves
How growth really happens in a therapeutic relationship
An experience of accepting, unconditional love, empathy and congruency that builds trust leads to real personal growth. Here is how and why:
When a person finds that someone else is finally listening acceptingly to their feelings, they become able to listen to themselves, little by little. As the person becomes more open to what is going on within them, they also become able to listen to all of the feelings which were or are being denied or repressed.
Finally, a person is able to listen to feelings that seemed terrible, disorganized, abnormal or shameful to the person, and as such their existence went unrecognized.
The process then continues. As the person is learning to listen to themselves, because somebody else is unconditionally listening to them, they also become more accepting of themselves.
The person soon starts taking over the same unconditional, consistent, congruent and positive attitude towards themselves, accepting themselves as they are. They become much more inclined towards fluidity, tentativeness of construct, changing experience of life and closeness of relationships.
Slowly, a person in a therapeutic relationship can go from questions like:
- What do others think I should do in this situation?
- What would my parents or my culture want me to do?
- What do I think ought to be done?
To more integrated questions like:
- How do I experience this?
- What does it mean to me?
- If I behave in a certain way, how do I symbolize the meaning that it will have for me?
The final step for the person in such a relationship is to remove the façade, become less evaluative and rigid, and to drop defensive behaviors. That leads to a more self-aware, self-acceptant, less defensive and more open person who finds themselves free to change and grow.
Such a therapeutic relationship enables the person to move away from a state where their feelings are unrecognized, unowned and unexpressed. The person finally gets a chance to move away from fixity, remoteness, rigidity and impersonality.
That leads the person to seeing themselves as a person of worth, as an autonomous and self-directing person, a person who is able to form their standards and values based on their own experience. On the other hand, with such relationship experience, tensions of all types are reduced, from physiological tension to psychological discomfort and anxiety.
All that because the person starts feeling worthy of being liked.
The seven stages of development from a rigid to a fully integrated person
The development from a rigid, fixated state to becoming a fully integrated person, open to experience and perceived as a process, can be seen through seven stages. The development on the path of becoming a person is especially seen in the loosening of one’s feelings.
The lower end of the spectrum (stage 1) begins with feelings being something remote, unowned and not present now. Then they become a present object with only some sense of ownership. On the upper scale, they are experienced and expressed in the immediate present. Emotions that were previously denied start to bubble up.
In the final stage of the development (stages 6 and 7), experiencing a continually changing flow of feelings becomes the main characteristic of an individual.
The journey of a person through the development and becoming a person can be seen in the following characteristics:
- Unwillingness to communicate self. Communication is exclusively external. Personal feelings and meanings are neither recognized nor owned. There is a blockage in internal communication. There is no desire to change, and relationships are seen as dangerous.
- Expressions begin to flow in regard to non-self topics. Problems are perceived as external to self. Feelings are described as unowned or as past objects. Experience is completely bound by the structure of the past. Personal constructs are rigid and perceived as facts.
- Freer flow of expression about the self as an object, or expression about the self as a reflected object, existing primary in others. There is still very little acceptance of one’s feelings. Feelings are seen as something bad, shameful, abnormal. Personal choices are seen as ineffective, but there is a recognition of contradictions in experience.
- Feelings become described as objects in the present. There is distrust and fear of experiencing feelings in the immediate present, but such a tendency can easily be seen. Only some acceptance of feelings is exhibited. Experience is less bound by the past and less remote, and some discoveries of personal constructs occur.
- Feelings are expressed freely in the present and are very close to fully experienced. There is an increasing ownership of feelings and a desire to become the “real me”. The real feelings that bubble through are more of a surprise and fright than pleasure. Experience is no longer remote. There are many fresh discoveries about oneself.
- A feeling finally flows to its full result. A present feeling is experienced with immediacy and all the richness. The experience and feeling, which constitutes its content, are fully accepted. Feelings are not something to be denied, feared or struggled against. Self as an object tends to disappear, one is the self, in the existential moment, not something that one perceives. This stage is accompanied by physiological loosening, seen in muscular relaxation, tears, sights etc.
- There is a growing and continuing sense of accepting one’s feelings, basic trust is being fully developed in one’s own process of becoming. Every situation is experienced and interpreted in its newness, not as a past event. The self stops being an object, and becomes a subjective and reflective awareness of experiencing. Internal communication becomes clear.
It’s very interesting to analyze which stage you are currently in.
Through the process, a person grows especially in four important aspects:
- Openness to experience: The individual becomes more open to experience. Openness is the opposite of defensiveness. Without openness to experience, we see reality strongly distorted, focusing only on data that feed our negative view of the world. With openness, beliefs are not rigid and ambiguity is more easily tolerated.
- Trust in oneself: The prerequisite to being open to experience is to trust in oneself as an organism that is a suitable instrument for discovering the most satisfying behavior in each immediate situation. The trust comes from having access to all the available data in a situation on which to base the behavior. Such a person has knowledge of their own feelings and impulses, which are often complex and contradictory. At the same time, the person is able to sense social demands, from rigid social laws to the desires of family and friends.
- No more approval seeking: A person starts living by individual standards, based on the question – Am I living in a way that is deeply satisfying to me, and that truly expresses me? With that, there is less and less need for approval or disapproval or any standards to live by.
- Consequently, one also becomes more creative.
- Willingness to be a process: The most important is the realization that one is a process, not a product. There is no fixed state or goals to be achieved, a person is never a fixed entity, but rather involved in a process of becoming. In such a process, a person is a continually changing constellation of potentialities.
It’s a paradoxical thing, but the more you’re willing to be yourself, the more you find yourself changing, the more you also find that other people to whom you relate are changing. If you can provide a certain type of a safe relationship, the other person can use the relationship for personal growth and to change in a more positive way.
The deepest form of despair comes when you choose not to be yourself
Deep down, every person wants to know who they really are. They want to be in touch with their real self. They want to become what they are at their innermost core. But how can one become such a person?
A safe zone in relationships, together with the freedom to express oneself, creates an environment that people use to become more and more who they really are. People become their real self in relationships where they can be free in their thinking, feeling and being, able to move in any direction they desire.
The most common despair in people is not choosing or willing to be oneself. The deepest form of despair is when people chose to be somebody other than themselves.
A relationship can never facilitate personal growth if you act as though you are something you are not. It’s no help in any relationship to wear a façade or be who you’re not. What does help is to be yourself and to listen acceptingly to yourself.
When you accept yourself as you are, then you change in a positive way. It’s impossible to change, to move forward, to grow, to move away from what you are, until you thoroughly accept what you are.
- It doesn’t help to act calm when you’re actually angry
- It doesn’t help to act pleasant when you’re actually critical
- It doesn’t help to pretend you know the answer when you don’t know one
- It doesn’t help to act loving, if you are hostile at a particular moment
- It doesn’t help to act as though you are well, when you feel ill
To be yourself means to go away from “oughts” and other people’s expectations. It means to move away from pleasing others, or to fit the imperatives set by your parents, culture or whoever. To be yourself means to choose not to be artificial, imposed, anything that is defined from without.
Individuals who move towards being themselves move towards being more autonomous, becoming responsible for themselves. They choose the goals they want to move towards. Such a “true-to-self” individual doesn’t always make the smartest decisions, but they absolutely learn to learn from their own experience.
People who tend to be themselves move:
- Away from any façades and being something they are not
- Away from “oughts” and pleasing others
- Away from meeting other people’s expectations
- Towards autonomy and self-direction
- Towards being a process, not fixed, rigid personalities
- Towards living fully in each moment and functioning more fully
- Towards being complex and sometimes possessing contradictory emotions
- Towards openness to experience
- Towards acceptance of others
- Towards trust of self and increased trust in one’s organism
Only if you are who you truly are can you fully experience life. Because when you live your true self, you can be completely comfortable, without anything to hide. You don’t have to invest energies into proving that you are moral and consistent or defending yourself.
You can instead invest your energy into being creative and solving problems. You can much easier find a balance to openly advance your selfish interest, and simultaneously engage in sympathetic concern for others. And you are finally able to express the whole spectrum of emotions in a healthy and respective manner.
When one is being their true self, the expression of a negative emotion loses the destructive force. One can be angry without fearing anger or being afraid that anger will spiral out of control.
One can be fearful, without fear dissolving them, and can experience any other negative or hostile feeling without a damaging escalation and hurting people. The more a person permits the entire spectrum of feelings to flow, the more they find their appropriate place in total harmony of person’s feelings, which enables one to find the balance.
In relationships, permit yourself to accept and understand people
The deepest level of a relationship occurs when one experiences themselves as fully accepted, just as they are.
The acceptance of the other person begins with willingness for the other person to be feeling whatever is going on in them in the moment – it can be fear, confusion, pain, pride, anger, hatred, love, courage, awe or anything else. The acceptance starts with experiencing a warm, positive and accepting attitude towards what is in the other person.
Such an approach is unfortunately a rare occurrence in relationships. In communication, when somebody expresses their thoughts, feelings, attitude or beliefs, we all have the tendency to reply with something smart, with our perspective, thoughts or judgments.
We rarely permit ourselves to really understand the other person, to comprehend what the meaning of the statement is for the person and why they feel as they do. We rarely have the capacity to actively listen in relationships.
The main reason why we don’t permit ourselves to understand other people in communication is that if we really let ourselves understand, then we might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear and resist change.
Thus, accepting and understanding other people, and being outstanding in communication, is far from easy. Our position is rather that every other person must feel and think and believe the same as we do. That’s the opposite of permitting the other person to be who they are – be it your kids, friends, parents or any other individual.
Are you strong enough to let other people feel, think and believe differently than you about a particular subject or a thing?
We have to be frank with ourselves that:
- It’s not easy to permit the other person to feel hostile towards us
- It’s hard to accept anger as a real and legitimate part of the other person
- It’s challenging to accept that other people see life problems and issues differently than you
- It can also be hard to accept that the other person likes you, and wants to be like you
- It’s really hard to accept people for who they are, without any judgements or a desire to influence, educate or change them
Unfortunately, by not accepting the other person, we achieve the opposite from what we usually want. The other person loses a secure base to change and grow. That’s why learning to accept other people, based on learning to accept ourselves, is the greatest relationship skill that one can possess.
Accepting the other person means respecting and linking them as a separate individual who possesses their own feelings in their own way. It means accepting a person regardless of their attitudes in the present or past, no matter how positive or negative or contradicting they might be.
The relationship that has the most potential for personal growth is a relationship that is completely transparent, in which real feelings are evident, but at the same time the other person is accepted as a separate person with value in their own right.
The bridge in the process is an empathic understanding that enables one person to see the private world through the other person’s eyes.
Below are the questions that encourage one to fully accept people they are in a relationship with:
- Can you be trustworthy, dependable and consistent in some deep sense in a relationship?
- Can you be expressive enough to communicate unambiguously?
- Can you let yourself experience positive attitudes towards the other person?
- Are you strong enough as a person to be separate from the other?
- Can you respect your own feelings and needs as well as those of the other person?
- Can you own and separate your feelings from the other person?
- Are you strong enough not to be downcast by the other person’s extremely negative or positive emotional states?
- Can you permit the other person to be what they are? Can you give people the freedom to be, or should they follow your advice, model you, or be dependent on you in some way?
- Can you step into the other person’s private world so completely that you lose the desire to evaluate or judge it?
- Can you receive a person unconditionally or only conditionally, the latter meaning you only accept some of the aspects of their feelings while you are silently or openly disapproving of others?
- Can you free the other person from the threat of any external evaluation?
- Can you meet the other person as an individual who is in the process of becoming, or are you rather bound by their past and yours?
The best way to enrich any relationship is to open new channels through which others can communicate themselves – their thoughts, feelings and private perceptual worlds to you. You and the other person become enriched when you open new channels through which others can share themselves with you.
The best way to enrich a relationship is to become an outstanding communicator and build multidimensional relationships. The more you are open to realities in you and the other person, the less there is the need to rush to “fix things”. At the end of the day, life at its best is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed, not even relationships. Thus, there is no need to rush into fixing anything.
If you are not able to accept a certain aspect of a person, it’s usually because you are frightened or threatened by some aspect of the other person’s feelings.
Obviously, you must deeply care about the other person to reach such relationship depths, but in a very non-possessive and unconditional way.
Unconditional acceptance simply means not to accept a person only when they behave in a certain way and disapprove of them when they behave in other ways. Unconditional love means having positive outgoing feelings without any reservations and evaluations. And a non-possessive attitude means perceiving the other person as an autonomous and free individual.
Accepting someone is a process, it means grasping the moment-to-moment experience that occurs in the inner world of the other person as the other person sees and feels it, and at the same time not losing the separateness of their own identity in this empathic process.
It takes practice to become fully accepting and understanding towards others, but it all begins with being accepting and understanding towards yourself.
Everyone is fundamentally a good person
People who haven’t experienced a real accepting and understanding relationship don’t have the experience that would lead them to expressing the good in them. Out of defensiveness and inner fear, people can and do behave incredibly cruelly, horribly destructively, immaturely, regressively, anti-socially and hurtfully.
Yet, when people are fully accepted, strongly positive directional tendencies, which do exist deeply in them, come to the surface.
Only in the process where a person is fully accepted do they get an opportunity to move towards the positive, the constructive, towards self-actualization, maturity and socialization. That means the innermost core of a person’s nature is always positive – socialized, forward‑moving, rational and realistic. It just needs the right experience to be properly expressed.
When a person is less than a full person, when they deny different expects of their experience to their awareness, then their behavior can be fearful and destructive. But when a person becomes fully a person, when they are a complete organism, fully aware of their experience, then the human attribute comes to surface. A person can finally be trusted and their behavior becomes constructive.
A person might still not be always conventional and conforming, which makes complete sense, and a person must always be individualized to a certain extent, but when a person is accepted, they definitely become more socialized, positive and constructive.
Thus, one of the goals of the utmost importance in life is to learn to unconditionally accept yourself and others, especially your children. Because only an experience of the right kind of a relationship can bring out the best in people.
In conclusion, if you want your relationships to truly to blossom, try to develop the qualities and capacities that the most experienced therapists have. These could be characterized by the following statements:
- You behave just as you are in relationships, without pretending or playing roles.
- You deeply care about the other person and are not only interested in them, or even indifferent or disapproving.
- You appreciate how the other person’s experience feels to them.
- No matter whether the other person expresses good or bad feelings, it should make no difference to how you feel towards them. You don’t respond positive some times and negative at others, but are congruent, accepting and empathic, and your interest surely doesn’t depend on what the other person is saying to you. Instead, you deeply care about the other person.
Otherwise the book is quite long (420 pages) and put together as a collection of essays, lectures and talks that Rogers gave during his career. The book survived the test of time, since it was written in 1961 and is still is one of the very popular psychology books.
It can definitely be a little bit tougher to read, but it’s extremely valuable for understanding the power that a relationship has in the therapeutic process.