HUMAN SCIENCE AND THE PERSON-CENTERED APPROACH:
AN INQUIRY INTO THE INNER PROCESS OF SIGNIFICANT CHANGE WITHIN INDIVIDUALS
By Robert Barth and Ruth Sanford
ABSTRACT. The purpose of this study was: (1) to develop a research model which would
demonstrate that the core conditions of therapeutic personality change postulated by Carl R.
an inquiry into the inner process of significant change within individuals, as such change
occurred in the ordinary course of their lives. The model involves a deep personal involvement
on the part of the researcher, a commitment to entering into the experience of each participant
as if it were the researcher's own, and an acceptance of the participants involved as the
authorities on their own experiencing of self. The data were gathered over a year and a half by
conducting in-depth interviews during which the core conditions of the person-centered approach were offered to the participants. Two ways in which significant change comes about
were identified: one was a joyful change which leads to an increase in self-awareness. The
other was a tumultuous, painful experience involving deep personal struggle in which an
increase in self-awareness leads to significant change. Regarding tumultuous change, ten
characteristics emerged. Among them were: having a crisis, becoming self-aware, being
persistent, breaking free, and reaching a critical point. The nature of tumultuous change is
described as an outgoing, irreversible process characterized by an "essential tension" involving
opponent forces which create a dynamic and continually developing whole. There are discussions about how the findings illustrate certain person-centered concepts and how the research
was of distinct value to the participants-most specifically, how the method itself facilitated the
process of change by becoming an active part of their living experiences. The role of the
researchers as participants and the participants as researchers is also discussed.
Although both of the authors had a deep interest in better understanding the inner process of
significant change within individuals for years, it was not until we met and had some intensive
discussions about this topic that we determined how we would go about researching it. As we
pondered our own and our clients' experiences of growth as a consequence of person-centered
therapy, it became clear to us that there was really no difference between what had happened to
us during our processes of discovery in our consulting rooms and the research that we wanted to
do. Being successfully engaged in person-centered therapy and doing human science research
struck us as being essentially the same thing. We are, therefore, in accord with the following
observations made by Maureen O'Hara (1986):
In the dialogical process of client-centered therapy, both therapist and client become
engaged in a joint study of the
rich and mysterious world of the client. Client-centered therapy, is, itself, a
heuristic investigation into the nature and meaning of human experience. In his
work with clients,
Once this became clear, another problem-the one of how we would "gather our data"-seemed
almost spontaneously to resolve itself in our minds: If there is no difference between doing
person-centered therapy and the kind of human science research we were interested in, then there
is also no difference between doing a therapy session and conducting a research interview. The
core conditions postulated
constructive personality change to occur are also the necessary and sufficient conditions required
to engage participants in a research inquiry in which the focus is some aspect of their conscious-
ness, their experiencing of their world. Thus, we are also in accord with these observations made
by Phillip Barrineau and Jerold D. Bozarth (1989):
The similarities of application [of the core conditions of the person-centered approach] between the person-centered therapist and the heuristic researcher are obvious. There are few differences in the fundamental stance of the therapist and researcher. The stance of the researcher is an empathic attitude accompanied with the attitudinal values of genuineness and unconditional positive regard that are the core of person-centered therapy, and the focus is on allowing the data to emerge as the natural expression of the phenomena to be studied. ... The manner in which person-centered therapists are prepared is an equally valid approach for the preparation of heuristic investigators. When the investigator can embody the attitudinal qualities in a manner similar to the person-centered therapist, the unfolding process is most apt to occur. The person-centered research model, then, focuses on the attitudinal values of the researcher in the way that person-centered therapy focuses on the attitudinal values of the therapist. These values are the critical bases for acquiring emerging data. (pp. 470-472)
As we embarked upon our voyage of discovery, it became clear that this kind of research in
which researchers are participants and participants are researchers placed rigorous demands upon
us. Some of the searching questions we found ourselves asking were: Can we approach our
research participants with well-informed but open minds? Can we be acquainted with the
literature but hold our knowledge in abeyance so we can make observations with minimal bias,
adhering always to the words and the meaning of the participants? Can we enter the world of
each participant as if it were our own and yet withdraw to our own experience in order to make
observations about that experience? Can we immerse ourselves in all the observations we have
collected and live with them until patterns begin to emerge—without imposing on them the pattern
of some previous study? Can we put this together in understandable form so that it will contribute
to the sum total of what others have discovered in their like search for deeper understanding of
the individual human organism's inner process of growth and of the environmental conditions
that nurture it?
To ensure that the research method embody as fully as possible the spirit of the person-centered
approach, we decided that no detailed, methodological considerations would be given to the
selection of the research participants. This was a theory-driven conclusion whose guidelines
come directly from
The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behaviors; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided (p. 115).
A logical consequence of this, in our opinion, is that there is in fact no need for any kind of
careful selection process when doing this kind of research. Thus, the only requirements for
participating in this project were that the prospective research participants have a genuine interest
in the research questions and that they be willing to discuss their processes of change as openly
and as fully as possible.
Initially seven participants, four females and three males, were involved. Two of these
participants were the authors. As we discussed and debated all of the issues and problems during
the planning stage, we both agreed that we could not with a clear conscience ask anyone to
participate in this research endeavor before we had gone through the experience ourselves. Also,
there simply was no other way better to understand and evaluate the process of the research
method and to determine its strengths and weaknesses. Hence, our participation to a significant
extent in this research endeavor was on a level equal to all of the other participants.
With regard to the latter, they became involved initially as a consequence of reading the
following statement which had been circulated among both personal and professional acquaintances:
We are interested in learning about how positive, enduring change occurs within
individuals. What, we are asking, are the processes of change through which people
grow or mature? To help us answer this question, please describe a situation out of
which a major change in your life occurred: a change that affected the very tenor of
your life, of your relationships with other people, and the way you view yourself. Please include in your description all of your experiences and circumstances—social situations, economic circumstances, work and living environments, interpersonal relationships, moods, self-perceptions, anxieties, emotional conflicts, bodily feelings, etc.-before, during and after the change you choose to focus upon.
All of the research participants were white, middle-class college graduates who lived in an
urban environment. Their ages ranged from late twenties to early eighties. Two were married
and had children. Two—one male and one female-were involved in long-term homosexual
relationships. One was divorced and had no children. The other two were single. At the time
of the research interviews, one of the latter was involved in a couple relationship. In addition to
the authors, there was a computer programming specialist, an administrator in a school for
emotionally disturbed children, a stress management consultant, a baker who had just been
accepted to medical school, and a psychotherapist. None of them had ever participated in a
qualitative research study or knew anything about its methods or procedures. Two, on the other
hand, had had prior experience with the person-centered approach and so were acquainted with
the basic principles.
The Research Process and the Interviews
Selection of Participants
When someone expressed an interest in becoming a research participant as a consequence!
having read the prepared statement above, a meeting was scheduled during which time we shared
more fully our interests and personal involvements with the research question and answered to
the prospective participant's satisfaction any questions that he or she had. We also used this time
to ensure that the prospective participant understood that volunteering for this project involved
a significant commitment and that there could be no guarantees that the endeavor would be
gratifying-that there was no way one could predict what the outcome or the nature of the
experience would be like. We also used this meeting to ensure that the prospective participants
were clear as to what the research procedures would be. If, after all of this, they were still
interested, we obtained a signed consent form and scheduled a time for the first interview.
The Research Procedure
All of the research participants were asked to try to relive the memories of an experience of
significant change as fully and as vividly as they could. They were asked to use the written
statement about the research project as their guidelines. They were also told that when they came
for their first interview, they would simply be asked to relate the details of their experience to
the best of their abilities. It was emphasized that no time constraints would be placed upon this
or any other subsequent research interview, that everyone would have complete freedom to speak
as long or as briefly as he or she wished. No other specific instructions or comments regarding
the interviews were given, both before and during the time that they occurred.
The participants were informed that their first interview would be videotaped and that a copy
of the tape as well as a typed, verbatim transcript would be sent to them sometime thereafter
When they had perused these materials to their satisfaction, a second, elaborative interview was
scheduled which was also videotaped and transcribed. At this meeting, the participants had the
opportunity to revise and elaborate upon the contents of the first interview. We also used this
time to ask the participants questions about it. Although open to new information which might
be offered by the participants during this second meeting, all of our questions were intended to
clarify the explicit descriptive material of the first interview. We did not, in other words, ask
about anything that the participants did not themselves discuss or bring up during their first
To prepare ourselves for the second, elaborative interviews, we attempted to gain from the
first interviews as deep a knowledge as our abilities allowed of each participant's experience
We entered as best as we could into the world of the participant's experience as if it were our
own and dwelled there again and again until we felt that we had an intimate knowing or
experiencing of it This process was repeated after the second, elaborative interview, to integrate
whatever was revealed or clarified during it into our previous understanding of the participant’s
Once each participant's experience was ingested and understood, a narrative was written which
attempted to relate the essential qualities and themes contained in the two interviews. This was
written in the first person, as though the participant had written it him or herself, and employed
as much as possible the original language contained in the two interviews. This narrative was
then given to the participants and another interview which was also recorded was scheduled at
which time the participant could verify or revise its contents. Thus, this served as a double check
to ensure that we had truly entered into the experience of the participant as fully and as completely
With each narrative confirmed and/or revised by the participant, we proceeded to identify the
major themes, features and patterns of each participant's process of change. After we completed
this, we viewed the data collectively and attempted to discern what commonalities and differences existed among them. Any significant themes, features or patterns that ran through more
than one narrative were noted at this time.
The first and the second, elaborative interviews were both approximately two hours in length
for each participant. The narrative confirmation interviews varied in length from forty-five
minutes to an hour and a half. The time that elapsed between the first and the second, elaborative
interviews was about one year for all of the participants. The time that elapsed between the
second, elaborative interviews and the narrative confirmation interviews was, on average, six
months. Although the lapse of one year between the first and the second, elaborative interviews
was not part of the research design but, rather, due to personal factors of the authors that were
unconnected to the research project, it proved to be serendipitous in that it further illuminated
how change and the recollection of change are both ongoing processes that involve personal
constructions of realities that are dynamic, ever evolving, and unique. Each time we met with
the research participants, there was some further clarification of previously discussed materials,
an ever present, ongoing effort to further clarify, understand or more precisely capture and define
the change in question. Often, some new material pertaining to the change was introduced. All
of this was, in our view, due to an incessant quest for greater clarity and deeper understanding
that stemmed from a perspective that was itself constantly shifting, evolving, ever growing.
With regard to further clarification, one of the participants was involved in an additional
interview which occurred after the second, elaborative interview and prior to the narrative
confirmation interview. This was due to certain ambiguities in the participant's reports which
we felt were important to resolve as fully as possible. This additional interview lasted for about
an hour and was indeed very helpful in clarifying the questions that we had.
Finally, two participants lost their initial enthusiasm and motivation for this project: one
sometime between the first and the second, elaborative interview, the other after the second,
elaborative interview took place. They therefore dropped out before their narratives were written
and so there was a total of five participants who stayed with the project to the end.
Some Emerging Themes: Joyful and Tumultuous Changes
Two ways in which significant change comes about were identified. In one way, significant
change leads to an increase in self-awareness. In the other, it is an increase in self-awareness
that leads to significant change. With regard to the former, the change was described as an
opening up of the self, of a new awareness of the self brought about through an intimate
relationship. Reported initially by only one participant, this change was viewed as a joyful one,
a change that caused the participant subsequently to expand her horizons and dare to embark
upon creative endeavors the likes of which she had only previously dreamt about. In this
participant's own words:
It was a period of explosions, of great creativity and joy. I had... a kind of relationship I had never dreamed of having... a very complete kind of relationship, of discovering whole new parts of my creative ability.... He was always inviting me to do something that stretched me a little. And then I found I could do it and I said: Well, I didn't know that about myself. Look at that! It was like discovering a part of myself that I might have dreamed about in some vague way, but had no inkling whatsoever of what was there inside of me.
Although this joyful change was reported initially by only one participant, it became clear to
the first author during the subsequent phases of the research that he was himself in the midst of
such a change during the time that the interviews were being conducted. Although he did not
mention this in his own interviews, it seems in hindsight both relevant and important to this
project and so is described briefly below:
I am the father of two young children. Although I frequently find that role to be an
exhausting and exasperating one, it is often also exhilarating as well. More and more, I find that my son and my daughter are causing me willingly, enthusiastically to reach deeper and deeper within myself to grow and change in order to be a better parent. To my delight, I am successfully learning to be much more patient; to share more; to place their needs before mine; to be more accepting, more understanding, and more forgiving; to be less irritable both during the day and in the middle of the night. Indeed, this is for me a joyfully explosive time: a period filled with wonderment at how much I am able to stretch myself and grow in new directions.
The other change—the one facilitated by an increase in self-awareness-was invariably characterized by a tumultuous period of intense pain and deep personal struggle. It was reported by
all of the research participants and, in all instances, it was precipitated by a crisis of some sot
a crisis in which some deeply felt emotional and/or physical situation created an unbearable
condition that was clearly regarded to be unacceptable. There was a feeling of powerlessness
of chaos or turbulence, and the conviction that things simply could not continue as they had
the past. This was a "critical point": some specific instance in time, due to feelings and/or event
in which the participant felt that there was something terribly wrong, that things must change
that it was simply not possible to carry on as before. This created an "essential tension": a feeling
or knowing that it was not possible to return to the old self, while the vision of the new self_
remained uncertain, cloudy, a bundle of desires rather than a reality,
In all, ten characteristics of tumultuous change emerged from the data. As we considered how
to best present them, it became clear that, although we both have strong aversions to such devices
a table would be the most suitable vehicle. Hence, Table 1, which lists those characteristics of
this type of change in the order of frequency with which they were mentioned by the research
participants and indicate how many of the participants actually identified each of them.
Characteristics of Tumultuous Change
Number of participants
1. Having a crisis
2. Becoming self-aware
3. Being persistent
4. Breaking free
5. Reaching a critical point
6. Shifting to internal self -evaluative criteria
4 out of 5
7. Stressing importance of other people
8. Tolerating ambiguity
3 out of 5
9. Having insight
4 out of 5
10. Seeking genuineness
4 out of 5
Elaboration and Illustrations
What follows is an elaboration of the ten characteristics of tumultuous change that emerge
from this study, in keeping with the spirit of our research method, we have again returned to it
interviews of the research participants and used their own words to convey the essence of these
Having a Crisis
Having a crisis was mentioned most frequently by the research participants and was unanimously described by them as having been a painful, devastating experience. Invariably, there was a great deal of stress and anxiety. All of them mentioned a deeply felt sense of urgency
about their situation and that they felt extremely agitated and disordered. The experience overall
was chaotic, not in any way characterized by some sort of orderly progression:
I don't know if I've conveyed the extent to which I was devastated and depressed and
felt worthless. I mean, I thought of suicide. I thought of killing myself. ... In my
earlier years... I was a very depressed person and I often thought of ending my life.
And as I struggled to gain some understanding of myself and I began to feel better, those feelings went away. One of the shocks of this experience was that... all of a sudden, here I was again actually thinking of ending my life....
Experiencing a death . .. brought me into the here and now.... I felt like I was just dropped onto the planet and just... totally aware of where my life was at.... It made me realize that a lot of times I'm not present. I'm in the future, in the past, but something about death just brought me to the middle of where I was.
I reached a point where I just felt that I was in the center of a huge tangled skein of yarn. And I couldn't find a way out.
The second characteristic described by all of the participants involved validating their own
experience; being open to it and being able to say that it was real. Often, it involved the idea of
being honest with themselves:
The change was that I was able to acknowledge to myself the... lengths through which I went to try and gain someone's love and approval... when the facts were staring me in the face that this was not going to be possible.
I could look at myself realistically. I could look at my needs without being ashamed of them. Without trying to justify them. I could look at them and acknowledge that they were ... the needs of a child. ... I was able to acknowledge those needs were there without condemning myself for them.... I guess it's connected to being able to accept myself.
I have always thought of myself as a happy, calm, pretty well-balanced, nurturing
person, doesn't get angry easily, doesn't feel much sadness... and suddenly there were these feelings coming up in me from such deep places. I wasn't even sure they were mine when they first started coming up.
This characteristic involves keeping the awareness alive-confronting the crisis and staying
with it. It is an active process that sometimes requires considerable effort:
The combination of incidents which happened felt so devastating on every level that I... didn't know how I was going to get through it... and I didn't know if I wanted to
get through it.... And I just [heard] the clearest voice say to me, just keep putting one
foot in front of the other and keep going and you will get there.... And that's what I
did.... I need to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and feel like I was
When that way of being [protective] with people ... is once entrenched, you can get
better and better at changing it. But somewhere, it's always in there. It's in my
awareness and I feel myself on guard.... I'm aware that it's possible to do what I did
before. It's not likely to happen. And it's getting less and less likely that it will happen. But I'm also aware I could slip.
This characteristic refers to new ways of thinking and acting; breaking habits and ways of
looking at oneself:
That has been life-changing for me: to feel that I can be loved even if I don't act in a
certain way. I don't have to be there for everybody all the time in order to be loved.
And the other thing that happened is I... felt I could love myself even if I wasn't this
ideal person. I guess I grew much more compassionate with myself.
I had to stop sex for about a year. I couldn't have sexual intercourse and that turned me around a lot [in terms of] the way I related to men. Usually I would relate to men on a sexual basis and [hope that] the other parts would come later. Then I couldn't relate that way anymore so I had to... start working on... you know, personal relationships.
Reaching a Critical Point
The participants all recognized that they had gotten to a place where it was simply impossible
for them to go on as they had before; that there was this point in time when they saw with great
clarity and complete certainty that things had to change no matter what the consequences or
I realized basically that this was crazy, what I had done. This was really crazy.... It
wasn't who I was.... And when I was able to begin to understand that and accept that
I had been used, that I had been manipulated ... I suddenly became very angry. And
with great resolve and a powerful sense of conviction said to myself, I will never allow myself to get into this kind of relationship again. And I vowed to be alone for as long as it would be necessary; until I felt that it was safe for me to get into a relationship with a woman that was healthy.... I was prepared to be alone for years.
I started drinking more and more and I was more drunk than I was sober. And after a
few wake ups in hospitals and .. . AA and that route, I really felt that this wasn't for
me and that I would need to really escape. So I decided to take my own life. ... I
attempted to do that and spent about a week in the hospital. I was in a coma for three
days and woke up and found out I was very depressed. So I made the rounds to all the doctors that I could and they gave me tranquilizers and they gave me mood elevators and they gave me all these sorts of drugs. And about four months later it happened again, except this time I was comatose for two weeks. And I woke up and I said: Oh, I'll never do this again, I'll be O.K. now and all that type of thing. And the drinking got worse. I was in jail twice, not knowing why I was there because I was so drunk. My whole life was just falling apart. I felt no one loved me. I felt no one understood me.... And then about six months later down the road, after going to therapy at a local hospital... I was very cunning. I saved up all the medication that they had given me and I took over three hundred pills the third time to make sure that the job would be done and I wouldn't have to really deal with anything any longer. Well, that coma was twenty-seven days and ... I woke up! [Laughs.] I think three [attempted] suicides .. is definitely hitting bottom.
Shifting to Internal Self-Evaluative Criteria
Four of the participants spoke about how their change involved movement from external to
internal frames of reference with regard to self-evaluation. Whereas earlier, before their
significant changes, these participants tended to place more importance upon what others thought
about them while forming or altering their self-concepts, they subsequently were much more
inclined to look within themselves and to trust their own experiencing and valuing of themselves
when doing so. It is interesting that this process usually involved a shift from a negative to a
more positive view of the self:
I had to be accepted and to be admired and respected and revered. I think there were
such great, great feelings of insecurity on my part in terms of who I was as a person. I was very needy before this change took place. It mattered to me very much what a
woman would think of me.... I would be very easily threatened, I was very sensitive
to criticism. Not at all sure of myself in terms of my own self-concept and not sure of myself sexually also.
Am I going to stay true to myself and maybe get some real anger and disapproval from the world or am I going to fake it and be something I'm not and get a lot of approval from that? And I finally feel strong enough-or almost strong enough—to face the world with who I am even if they don't approve of it.
Stressing Importance of Other People
All of the participants spoke at length about the role other people played in their process of
change. Some spoke of the persons they were intimately or directly involved with and who were
precipitants somehow of the process. Others spoke of the understanding and acceptance they
received from friends and relatives who were not necessarily principal actors in the events and
circumstances they described but who by their support and caring were nonetheless a crucial part
of the process. There is thus an interpersonal component that seems essential to the process of
change. Although the emphasis was different among them, all of the participants stressed in
some way the importance of their interaction with the environment; no one spoke about a
significant change by focusing solely upon intrapsychic phenomena:
When I started talking with people about what had happened with my brother-in-law and about the sexual abuse, people believed me. That was a huge thing to be believed. Because when I first told my parents about the abuse, they said it didn't happen. It was a very important part of this process to have people believe my story and to believe in me.
The most basic and fundamental thing... [was] that other people loved me. That would be I'd say the number one facilitator of change in my life. Just them being there and doing for me and helping me has enabled me to realize that, because of their actions a seed was implanted in me that said, you can change, you can grow, you can move forward, you can move backward, you can move forward, forward, forward, backward, backward, forward,.... You can do this and it'll be O.K.
It was knowing when I reached the end of the line that this was really it for me. I just
couldn't go on anymore the way I was. And number two, it was asking for help.... I
knew I had to change and I had to have help. The good fortune of it was that I had
someone to turn to and that I was willing to ask her. Being able to ask for it [help] was important.
This characteristic, reported by three participants, involves a willingness to embrace the
unknown. Having reached a critical point in a crisis and feeling that it was impossible to continue
as before, these participants found themselves in situations where they felt compelled to make
decisions regarding their futures at times when the consequences of such decisions were far from
clear or certain. Courage was clearly a component of this characteristic of change because
making decisions about the future during a time of uncertainty invariably involved a willingness
to take risks. A tolerance for ambiguity was also reported by these participants during their
efforts to be self-aware and open to their experiences. Usually, they were facing painful things
in their lives which they had been avoiding for a long time and which were, therefore, quit
confusing to them:
Pacing yourself through the changes and being able to live with the anxiety. That's a
big part of it—living with the anxiety, you know, until the change becomes a little more clear. The biggest part of the change I find is that fuzzy part... that in between part. And just letting it be and letting it happen and trusting in the process.
What it really is just being open to the changes. To letting yourself be open to the
unknown … that you just don't know what's going to happen, but just going with it
and trusting that you'll do whatever you have to do to get there. Yeah. And it's still
scary. It'll never not be scary.
This characteristic refers to those moments when the participants saw with great clarity; 1
a light was suddenly focused on something. But in describing this, the participants spoke of
more than just seeing intuitively or having the cognitive ability to look into a situation and
apprehend the nature of things. They often spoke of having a "knowing" of something which
involved strong emotions and, sometimes, also had physical components to it. This experience
often seemed in part to
describe a process first discussed by
developed by Gendlin (1978) into the concept which the latter called focusing. Also, it was
during the interviews that, for this process of discovery to have meaning for the participants, it
had to happen within them. Someone outside could verbalize it, but this process of knowing had
to occur deep within the person:
It was like an awakening ... to what had happened. Really seeing it. It was a feeling
or a knowing that just went through my entire body . . . which made me feel relaxed
and sure of what was going on. It was like I felt this energy flowing downwards...
flowing through my body. . . . That best describes how it was more than something
intellectual. It was really physical in some way....
All these things I was doing... came to me in a word that I had not thought of before:
It was "protective". I'm being protective. And then I thought: What do I protect? I
protect what I possess! And then the whole thing burst on me... fell in on me like an
avalanche. ... It was a sudden insight that was the beginning [or the change].... It
was very deep. It reached to my very core.
This characteristic was most often identified by the participants saying in one form or another'
I wasn't being myself. It refers to a self-awareness, a dissatisfaction with the way the participant!
were both thinking and acting in the world. Whenever the participants spoke about this
characteristic, they seemed to have two concepts of self in mind: an ideal or authentic self that
referred to positive, innate core qualities; and a real or perceived self which referred to the way
they saw themselves operating in the world. And, it seemed that the extent to which there was
a divergence between these two views of self was the extent to which this component fueled their
processes of change:
What I was thinking of just then was the unreal self that I presented. The facade that I had manufactured. I was not myself. I was not being myself in that relationship. I was pretending to be who I thought I had to be in order to gain acceptance and love and approval.
I was able to acknowledge to myself that I had done all of these things with motivations that were not genuine or sincere. That I was dissembling, that I was being a person who wasn't really me....
This wall I had put up since I told them I was abused just wasn't worth [it] anymore
because I just really didn't care whether they believed me or not.... I just wasn't going to act phony anymore.
There are some problems with conceptualizing the process of change as a pattern or a number
of themes or characteristics. By identifying and labeling components of the process and
subsequently describing or analyzing them, we have removed ourselves from the living experience of the changes which the participants reported. All of the characteristics that we have
identified above are connected and operate together in a kind of whirlpool. Identifying characteristics of the process of change is like looking at the individual frames of a movie. What is
happening is suddenly frozen in time. Examining such a "still" can perhaps give one a better
grasp of what exists or is happening within that individual frame. But all dynamic, ontological
meanings, all possibilities of comprehending the scene of which that photograph is a part have
been lost. To do that, one has to run the film through a projector and view the action on a screen.
So it is with viewing the process of change. The moment you stop it to take a better look, the
more removed you are from the essence of the experience.
Our own experience with the data sustains this observation. After the above characteristics
entered into our awareness as a result of having engaged in our research processes, some of them
became blurry again: they lost their shape, began to dissolve again and mix with one another.
For example, it was often difficult to separate the characteristic of being honest with oneself or
being open to one's experience with the characteristic of keeping the awareness alive. It was
similarly hard to separate at times the characteristic of being in a painful, tumultuous crisis with
the characteristic of having reached a critical point. Also, the characteristics of seeking genuine-
ness and shifting to internal, self-evaluative criteria often seemed to merge, as did a willingness
to embrace the unknown or to tolerate ambiguity with the idea of breaking free, of finding new
ways of looking at oneself. We decided to retain each of them as separate entities, however,
because they all did emerge separately from the data at one time or another. Although some of
them tended to cluster together as we struggled to comprehend the participants' processes of
change, there were nevertheless qualitative differences among them that seemed sufficiently
genuine and consistent
Some Tentative Conclusions
One of the most striking aspects of the nature of change is that the process never ends. Nor
does the process of understanding it. Throughout the interviews, the participants were engaged
in an active and ongoing struggle to make greater sense of their experiences. Every time they
reviewed some aspect of their lives, some additional light was shed on it. Invariably, when they
went back, they added some richness, discovered some greater depth, or got some clearer
understanding. Usually it seemed that this pursuit was fueled by a powerful energy - a relentless
drive to further refine and clarify the experience under review, to bring it into sharper focus, to
add more detail, to comprehend it more fully. Furthermore, as the participants engaged in this
ongoing deepening of their understanding, there were subtle changes both in their views
of their experiences and of themselves. It was as if the flavors were forever changing as the tastes were being described and that the person who sat down at the table to dine was not the one who recalls the meal. Clearly, the participants were involved in an ongoing process of constructing and
reconstructing their experiences whenever they spoke of them. And, each time they did so, they
were somehow viewing them from a slightly different place and with a different internal
perspective. Without doubt, the participants in this project never stepped into the same stream
twice. Their reports, therefore, seem to strongly support modem constructivist views of mind
and mentation (e.g., Berger&Luckman, 1966; Geertz, 1973; Gergen, 1985; Gibson, 1979; Kell),
1955; Lakoff, 1987; Mahoney, 1991; Minsky, 1987; Rorty, 1979; Watzlawick, 1984).
Closely connected to the observation that change is an ongoing, never ending process is an
idea - also reported by the participants - that there is no such thing as "a change"; some event
experience that can be isolated or viewed separately from everything else in one's life. To return
again to the words of one of the participants:
I thought it was rather clear to me which change I felt had most affected me over [the] longest period of time. And then.-.when I once started thinking about change [I realized] what really seemed to happen for me is...not any change but maybe a whole book of changes. One certainly leads into another. So that although [this] change seems separate in itself, it really isn't. Because the one I've chosen is one I think without which the others could not possibly have taken place...
Another participant put it this way:
I see this change now as not being an isolated change but rather a part of my whole
existence. It's one piece of a puzzle that I' m still putting together. What I mean is that the desire for approval and acceptance that I had.-.this great neediness with women-was not just with women but was all pervasive in my life. And I feel now, as I look upon this, it was a shaking out of my relationship with women. But the neediness and the desire for approval and my uncertainty about my own being certainly still exist in other areas. And I think one of the changes I'm going through right now is: How does it exist in my work?
Another aspect of the nature of change which seems clear is that the process is irreversible.
There may be dips and detours along the way - and there are of course changes which are
regressive or which inhibit or retard growth - but the process itself is not reversible because the
person is ever evolving, somehow different, and so can never completely return to a previous
state of awareness or existence. In conceptualizing positive, growth-promoting change, the
second author likened it to a journey on a tilted coil: after "hitting bottom" the person who is
experiencing significant change begins an upward journey, as on a tilted coil which is open at
the top. The movement upward, however, is not in a straight line. The topmost point of each loop
of the coil is higher than the topmost point of the preceding one; it is also true that the lowest
point of any loop is likely to be lower than the topmost point of the preceding loop. When at the
bottom of any loop there may be confusion, despair, feelings of hopelessness and frustration, but
not generally as profound or as debilitating as when in a similar position on the loop during a
previous cycle because, again, one is at a higher (more self-aware) place.
The tilted coil points to another aspect of the nature of change which is that it appears to involve
cycles. Subsequent to reaching a critical point and/or having an insight, during the time that the
participants were resolving a crisis and/or breaking free of old habits and concepts, there was a
concentrated period of great clarity when they were able to see things in a very precise and
uncluttered way. It was described as an exhilarating period of lightness during which there was
this laser-like vision about the change: everything seemed to make sense: there were no
ambiguities, everything was satisfactorily resolved. Things just "felt right". Sometimes it seemed
as if there were no limits to what the participants felt they could accomplish and how good they
could feel about themselves. This period was invariably followed by a more muted emotional
life, a slowing down and a beclouding of the cognitive processes, and a return of some of the
previous feelings of malaise and confusion. Other issues that were somehow viewed as unsatisfactory in the participants' lives surfaced and the participants again began to feel burdened and disquieted. Sometimes these feelings would ebb and flow for quite a while, sometimes they would be short lived. Either way, they usually would swell and build subsequently to a crescendo that would trigger another crisis and the process of change described above would then begin anew.
The final aspect of the process of change that we wish to mention involves the presence of an
optimal level of tension within the individual. This is an idea developed by the second author
which is derived in part from Fritjof Capra's (1982) discussion of self-organizing systems and
the concept of an unbalanced balance.
Capra (1982) said that we talk a good deal about getting a balance between this and that. But
he said that when thinking of life and growth, we can never talk about having a perfect balance.
There always has to be a certain amount of imbalance in whatever kind of balance there is,
otherwise there would be inertia. And inertia is a state of no motion, no activity - death. From
this perspective, the presence of tension is a necessary if not crucial aspect of the nature of change.
If there is the right amount of tension then the process of change occurs. If there is too much
tension, the person decompensates and regresses, perhaps. And, if there is not enough tension,
then perhaps there is just stagnation, no growth.
As we considered this idea, it seemed clear that most of the characteristics of change described
above by the participants do require an optimal level of tension in order for them to be facilitative
of the process of change. Certainly an optimal level of tension is required to endure a crisis and
to reach a critical point. It also seems to be necessary in order for one to be able to validate one's
experience and to be self-aware, to seek genuineness, to tolerate ambiguity, to shift from external
to internal self-evaluative criteria, to be persistent, and to break free from old habits and ways of
On Experiencing the Experience
It is well known that
approach as "experiencing the experience" of another person. This raises an important point since,
during the course of conducting our research, we met individuals who asserted that, were we to
give them copies of our verbatim transcripts, they would have as good an understanding of the
process of change after a few hours of reading as we had as a consequence of having spent many
difficult months engaged in the processes of empathic immersion in other people's worlds.
In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi (1962) repeatedly indicates that experiences can be compared
in depth and the more deeply they affect us the more genuine they may be said to be. We believe
that this cuts straight to the heart of this matter. Furthermore, the more genuine an experience
may be said to be, the better one is able to comprehend it. People who have never indwelled
empathically immersed themselves in the life of another cannot possibly know in depth what
that experience is and what that process has to offer.
An example to illustrate this point is two ways in which one might understand the process of
water freezing. You could say that when water reaches a certain temperature, its composition
changes from a liquid to a solid. And, you could talk about the molecular changes that occur as
this takes place. You could also take your arm and plunge it up to your shoulder into a band of
ice water and keep it there as the water becomes a solid mass. Similarly, you could understand
a roller coaster ride by making observations about the participants and the cars from some good;
vantage point on the ground. Or you could buy a ticket and get on.... The more you can get inside
an experience, the greater ability you have to understand the processes that are involved, It's a
matter of deeply experiencing something: apprehending it not just cognitively, but with as many
of your senses and your emotions as are possible.
The Value of the Research to the Participants
One of the most gratifying results of conducting this project was that the participants all found
the research process to be of considerable personal value. Without exception, they said that the;
knew themselves better and were able to trust themselves more and so be more open to their
experiences as a consequence of doing the interviews. The research was directly relevant to then
because, in itself, it nurtured and stimulated the processes of growth and change. In addition to
having great value, this is also in our view one of the characteristics that clearly distinguish
this research from most traditional methods. Again, to return to the participants' words:
I was amazed at how accurate it [the narrative] was, which feels surprising and good. Because it means that somebody really listened to what I was saying and had no agenda other than to listen to what I was saying. That is not an experience which I had very often growing up.... What I also realized is that reading this...really forced me to take a look at how I present myself.... What is missing is a lot of the emotionality and excitement that I feel inside - which I don't think I let get to the outside. That was the biggest eye-opener in reading this.
One of the participants spoke about how, when he first began to read the narrative, he ha
strong desire to put it away because it was too vivid for him. He then goes on to say:
You do have to look back but the key is not to dwell. The key is to learn and then move forward. I've never really told anyone about this experience before.... Before I just kind of tucked it away.... Now I've revealed it. I've looked at it and there's a certain peacefulness that I do really feel.... Because of the [research] experience I feel better about myself. It's definitely a weight that has been taken away. I don't mean just from my shoulder. I mean from my head to my toes. I feel kind of rested and less heavy. I feel less obligated to hide. I think that is what I'm getting at. I don't want to hide the experience [anymore].
The process of discovery that occurred during the interviews - those peak moments at which
there are some shifts in understanding, some sudden increased awareness of self - seemed often
to be more special than any of the other positive experiences reported by the participants:
PARTICIPANT: I knew him for seven years. It took me seven years to move out. That physical combination, I didn't realize it, of him choking me and me feeling choked emotionally was the last piece where I said: This is it! No matter what I do, I've just got to get out of here....
INTERVIEWER: I'm not clear. That experience of being physically choked...at that
time you had the awareness that there was a connection between that and being
INTERVIEWER: That was just now that that happened?
PARTICIPANT: That was just now....
INTERVIEWER: Just now.
PARTICIPANT: Yeah! That was just now!
The verbatim transcripts and the videotapes that the participants received of their interviews
were also of specific value to them. Here, there was a mixed reaction: some found the transcripts
more powerful, others were more impressed by the videos. In either case, however, the
participants clearly indicated that by reviewing these materials they further increased their self-
awareness. Both the transcripts and the videos seemed to intensify the process of self-exploration
and to make the experience discussed more vivid. In one case, the videotapes turned out to be of
lasting and ongoing value in three distinct ways: First, the participant was so struck, so fascinated
by his appearance and his personality as they came across in the tapes that he found himself
returning again and again to them to study himself and, in a sense, to become better acquainted
with himself. Second, this individual, who spoke in great detail about many painful and very
intimate experiences that he had had in his life, found himself having to change psychiatrists
sometime after the interviews were conducted. To introduce himself to his new doctor, he gave
him the videotapes of the first two interviews. The psychiatrist subsequently reported that he had
found viewing them to be most helpful both in understanding the participant and in establishing
a positive therapeutic relationship. Third, this participant, a man who had been involved in a
stable but sometimes stormy homosexual relationship with the same partner for many years,
decided to show the videotapes to his partner. In the interviews, the participant had discussed
both the history of his homosexuality and his relationship with this individual on levels that went
deeper than anything he had ever been able to say directly to him. Thus, when his partner saw
the tapes, they opened up some extremely positive things between them. His partner was deeply
moved and acknowledged that he had never really realized how much the participant loved him.
And, they subsequently had a healing and growth-producing experience which grew directly out
of their reviewing the interviews together.
Some Person-Centered Concepts
It was not our intention to confirm or refute any person-centered concepts in conducting this
research. In the course of its execution, however, it became clear to us that the participants were
in fact talking about some of the basic concepts of this approach and that the issue of their
illustration should therefore be raised.
in which four basic concepts are introduced and briefly described. They are: concept of self,
actualizing tendency, experiencing, and incongruence. That these concepts can be identified in
the research interviews is unequivocal.
Concept of self
Rogers and Sanford (1989) have the following to say about this basic concept:
Infants become aware of experiences that they discriminate as being "me." Slowly
self-concept is formed. It may be thought of as an organized, consistent conceptual
gestalt composed of the perceptions of the "me" or "I" and the perceptions of the|
relationship of this "I" to the outside world and to others. It includes the values attached to these perceptions. It is a fluid, changing gestalt, but at any given moment, it is an entity—available to awareness, but not necessarily in awareness. It is a constant referent for the person, who acts in terms of it. (p. 1492)
Clearly, all of the participants spoke about their experiences of change in terms of an "I"
"me" that was in relationship to others and to various aspects of life. And, these perceptions
had values attached to them. That it was a fluid, changing gestalt is borne out by the very
of this inquiry: all of the participants reported on significant experiences in their lives
facilitated or resulted in some sort of lasting, growthsome change within themselves.
This term refers to the view or hypotheses that:
Human beings, like every other living organism (plant or animal), have an inherent
tendency to develop all of their capacities in ways that serve to maintain or enhance the organism. This tendency is a reliable one, which, when free to operate, moves human beings toward what is termed growth, maturity, and life enrichment.... Many students of human personality have held this same view. Kurtt was probably the first
to give it its name, and the concept runs through all of Abraham Maslow' s writings. One of the most compelling statements of this position was made by the Nobel prize winning biologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. He concluded from his life work that there is definitely a drive in living matter to perfect itself. He demonstrated this drive at the cellular level, as well as in the total organism... [and] gave solid backing to the concept of the organism's actualizing function, (p. 1491)
The most dramatic example of the actualizing tendency - in both the physical and psychological
realms - in this research inquiry is the participant who made three suicide attempts during
course of one year and who, in his last attempt, took over 300 pills and remained in a corn
27 days. This was a participant who, the suicide attempts notwithstanding, said firmly throng
the interviews that he had never really given up on himself; that there was always a spark in
a fight, an inclination to grow. To us, this points both to what a tremendously powerful force the
actualizing tendency can be and to the complexity of the process. Its power is attested to by
doctors' reports during the coma that the participant had less than a 50-50 chance of survival
and that, were he to pull through, there was a very strong possibility that there would be
damage. Its complexity is indicated
by the apparently simultaneous existence of a death
and a will to live. The participant's attempts to kill himself did not mean that he had clearly given
up on himself and on life. Certainly that was one level of his experiencing. But there see,
have been a strong push towards continued existence present at the same time: two antithetical
forces operating simultaneously and creating a powerful tension between them.
Looking at the process of change more generally, it seems to us that all of the struggles
by the participants - their desire for change, the feelings that they expressed that their
were somehow intolerable and that they could no longer go on as before - also verify the existence
of the actualizing tendency. What else could account for their clearly expressed desires to escape
from heteronomy, to develop, to expand, to grow - to, in a very real sense, perfect themselves.
Why else would they have stayed for so long with such painful and chaotic experiences. With
regard to this, it is extremely interesting to us that, although the tumultuous change is
universally very unpleasant experiences, none of the participants regretted that they had gone
This basic concept refers to the process that includes all that is happening within an individual
that is available to awareness. Rogers and Sanford (1989) point out that in therapy this concept
has a special meaning that is usually called "experiencing fully" and that it was Gendlin (1978)
who "...elaborated upon this concept and developed a method called focusing to help persons let
themselves 'focus downward and inward, step by step,' undl a shift is felt that is physiological
and visceral in nature" (p. 1492). They go on to say:
This uncovering is the crux of the therapeutic process. It is in moments when a
previously denied experience is focused on and experienced fully, openly, and with
acceptance that change occurs.... This experience of a visceral shift is not imaginary.
Research has shown that, when persons are looking within in a receptive and nonjudgmental manner, attending to the felt sense of their own state of being, a shift that is open to awareness may take place.... There is a physically sensed release or opening up....From the subjective point of view, this experiencing is a referent that the client can use.... [It] is one of the most important elements, if not the most important element, of change in therapy, (p. 1492)
There is no doubt - particularly when one views the videotapes - that all of the participants had
these moments of experiencing during their research interviews. It can most clearly be seen
occurring during those moments of discovery which we have mentioned above in our discussion
of the value of this research to the participants. During those moments (which have also been
called "Aha!" or "Eureka!" experiences), there usually is visual evidence on the tapes - a sudden
widening of the eyes, a frozen, open-mouthed pause, a jerk of the head, a straightening of the
torso, a deep inhale, a laugh, a sigh of relief - of some awakening, some wonderment that signals
that a powerful discovery has just been made that is brand new.
Rogers and Sanford (1989) have the following to say about this basic concept:
Incongruence is the discrepancy that can arise between the experiencing of the organism and the concept of self.... When there is a high degree of incongruence, the actualizing tendency acquires a confused or bifurcated role. The self- concept becomes supported by this tendency as the person struggles to enhance the picture he has of himself, and yet the organism is also striving to meet its needs, which may be quite at odds with the conscious desires and the self-concept of the person.... The self is moving in one direction and the organism in another. (p. 1492)
This concept can also be characterized as the tension that exists between the perceived self
and the ideal self. As the process of self-actualization occurs, as one becomes a more fully
functioning person, there is a merging of these two views, a greater degree of congruence between
The characteristics of the process of change that we called "Shifting to Internal Self- Evaluative
Criteria" and "Seeking Genuineness" clearly illustrate the extent to which the experiences of
change which the participants reported verify this basic concept of incongruence. Without doubt
and without exception, the experience of incongruence was pervasive and often intense. Through-
out the interviews, the participants constantly stressed that they were not really being themselves
in the situations they were describing, that their thoughts and actions often felt alien to them
somehow and so often confused and angered them. In one way or another, they all spoke of ideal
and perceived or real selves and of a merging somehow between these two views during
courses of their change.
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