The Theory of the Person-Centered Approach and the Theory of Chaos


Ruth Sanford


This chapter is a reflection upon the parallels between the theory of the person-centered approach and the theory of chaos. A landmark in the latter was the publication in 1987 of Robert Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science. After eighteen years of studying the theory which underlies the structure of the person-centered approach, I find that Rogers’ descriptions of a new way of being and of the process of becoming, moving alongside the new way of thinking described by Gleick in his book on chaos. To quote from Gleick’s prologue: "Chaos is a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being" (p. 5).

After experiencing the application of person-centered theory in the therapeutic one-to-one relationship as well as in intensive groups, training programs, university classes and intimate day-to-day relationships, I find strong evidence that the theory has a solid scientific base. My focus, therefore, is on Carl Rogers the scientist who, as the theory of chaos unfolds, is clearly in the vanguard of this new science.




"Chaos is a science of process." That is the first important point to hold onto because, as I see it, process is a word which indicates one of the parallels between the new science and the new way of being which Rogers evolved and which he practiced.

In 1961, Rogers, in On Becoming a Person, devoted a chapter to "A Process Conception of Psychotherapy." In his later works, he speaks of empathy or deep empathic listening, not as a state but as a process that works quietly and dynamically.

I have spoken of the parallel that is expressed in the word "process". I shall now speak of some of the many other ways in which Carl Rogers’ work, I believe, parallels the new science, not necessarily in the chronological order in which they have evolved.




I was reminded recently that universality has different meanings in the popular vernacular and in science. Nevertheless, I shall use the term and try to define it in its various uses.

Rogers addressed universality with two somewhat different meanings himself. One is embraced in his saying, "The more personal is the more general." I have found that if I speak very deeply from my own experience and my own open heart, what I have to say will speak to the hearts of many people in many countries from many backgrounds.

In my experience the more personal is the more general. An example that comes quickly to mind is the one-page piece first written as one of my weekly columns in the local newspaper under the by-line, "As I See It." The title of the piece was "Loving with an Open Hand." It was a distillation of more than thirty years of my life. It came about at a point in my life when I called a friend and said, "My life is getting so tangled; it’s like a tangled piece of yarn. If I could only get hold of one end of it I think I could unravel it but I can’t find that end."

My husband was ill. My daughter was small. The two mothers had come to be with us to help and I was trying to be a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter-in-law, a good daughter and in the process found that I was taking responsibility for members of the family and was losing myself. I was simply going under. This very good friend helped me to see that others in the family had their own strengths and that if I let them use their own strengths they would become stronger, that I was not responsible for everyone. In one week of very intensive work, I came to that realization.

Waking up from a nap one afternoon, the words came to me very clearly, "You’ve been protective. What does protective mean? It means I protect what I possess." I was horrified.

The change that I made there, I believe strongly, made a difference to the whole future of my family. I used in

"Loving with an Open Hand" the metaphor of a butterfly coming out of a cocoon; a very helpful person who wanted to help the butterfly come out of the cocoon loosened the thread. The butterfly came out but had such weak wings it could never fly. I find that wherever I have gone in the world - South Africa, the Soviet Union, Mexico - someone has spoken to me and said, "Oh! You wrote ‘Loving with an Open Hand’. I have it up on my refrigerator door (or I have it by my bedside). It has spoken to me."

So, that the more personal is the more general has very real meaning for me, and there is a universality of the human condition, the human experience. In South Africa, England, France, Mexico - almost every class or group with which I’ve spoken - I’ve had this feedback.

In A Way of Being (1980, p. 114), Rogers said one of the bases for his theory is the self-actualizing tendency which is at work in individual organisms including the human organism. The universality of this tendency as expressed in other forms of life extends to the universe itself and is called the formative tendency. This is what Rogers said in A Way of Being about the formative tendency:

"We are tapping into a tendency which permeates

all of organic life—a tendency to become all

the complexity of which the organism is

capable. And on an even larger scale, I believe

we are tuning in to a potent creative tendency

which has formed our universe, from the smallest

snowflake to the largest galaxy, from the lowly

amoeba to the most sensitive and gifted of

persons. And perhaps we are touching the cutting

edge of our ability to transcend ourselves, to

create new and more spiritual directions in human

evolution. This kind of formulation for me is a

philosophical base for the person-centered

approach" (p. 134).


In 1951, in his Client-Centered Therapy he made reference to the self-actualizing tendency, although at that time he did not use the term. It grew out of his rejection of certain concepts common in therapy at the time: the regressive tendency, the death instinct, the disruptive forces, the closed systems of classic science and the closed system of the science or the practice of therapy.




It is important to note that what Rogers was questioning was the established and the classical forms of psychotherapy, the analytical and the behavioral approaches which had been widely accepted. When he put his trust in the open system, the self-actualizing tendency, and genuinely believed that that system was at work within each individual, he could no longer function within a closed system. What he was doing was the same thing that the new scientists have done in putting aside the classical science which is built on predictable structures. Rogers was basing his approach to therapy on his experience.

"My recent thinking", he wrote in 1951, "tends more and more toward the individual as an organism with a rather definite need for structure and with almost unlimited potential provided the environment gives him the opportunity to become aware of his needs and of his wells of positive expressivity", (p. 167), which again defines for Rogers the role of the therapist as being quite different from the role which had been defined previously.

He was defining somewhat tentatively at that point the self-actualizing tendency. "The self-actualizing tendency", he wrote later in 1980 in A Way of Being (p. 115), "is characteristic of organic life of which the human organism is one. Individuals have within themselves vast resources for altering their self-concepts, their basic attitudes and self-directed behavior. These resources can be tapped if a definable climate of known facilitative, psychological attitudes can be provided."

He later defined the conditions as being:

1. Deep empathic listening.

2. Unconditional positive regard or acceptance of the

other person and the other person’s reality.

3. Genuineness or realness - not having to hide behind a professional front or a desk or a white coat or other device.


In On Personal Power (1977, p. 8), Rogers made an even stronger statement which he did not repeat in this 1980 definition. "This tendency," he said, referring to the self-actualizing tendency, "can be thwarted but cannot be destroyed without destroying the whole organism."

This leads to a little story about Rogers. As a small boy he lived on a farm. The potatoes were put in the basement to keep over the winter and he noticed that towards spring many of those potatoes became small, dried up and wizened, but that they sent out little delicate white shoots which found their way toward the only light in that dark basement, a cellar window high up.

This illustration he carried through his life as an example of the self-actualizing tendency. These fragile shoots would never become the strong potato plants which it they were meant to be. They could never produce other potatoes but they were doing the best they could in the environment which they had - stunted but still trying.

Ilya Prigogine, to whom he referred frequently, the Belgian scientist and philosopher who received the Nobel prize in chemistry the same year that On Personal Power was published, speaks of an open system. He said what Rogers said but in a different language.

Coming from the discipline of statistical and chemical physics, he was open to his experience even as Rogers was open to his. He used his own terminology to describe "the spectrum that runs from simple, self-organizing systems, to the whirlpool and Jupiter’s Red Spot, to more complicated, dissipative structures and finally to highly complex, self-actualizing, autopoetic or self-making systems such as ourselves, the human being."

Open systems are those that depend on interaction with their environment, the larger world. According to the theory of open systems, an organism in either a state of order or of chaos by the incidence of perturbations or fluctuations is thereby given a choice, a choice of bifurcation (bifurcation being a point of branching) a choice of moving from order (any of these directions are possible when a branching or a choice takes place) to chaos or from chaos toward order or remaining in chaos or order of a greater or lesser degree, but when turbulence or perturbations are introduced into a self-organizing organism in an open system, change will take place. That is Prigogine’s concept.

Now I hear Rogers and Prigogine saying in different terminology that the human organism, which Rogers referred to as the individual, is an open system, self-organizing, self-actualizing, which means that its life depends on the flow between the self and its environment which cannot remain in equilibrium if the organism is to stay alive but is, rather, in a constant interchange of energy.

If one accepts the concept of an open system which Rogers and Prigogine both do, then the organism is nudged at this point from the condition of entropy or the tendency toward death by means of perturbations, large or small, which permit the organism to export the excess entropy.* The self-actualizing tendency is at work within the organism with a movement toward another form or another level of organization.

Rogers says, "toward greater complexity" (1980, p. 133). Prigogine says, "of increasing complexity" (1984, p. 12). Prigogine implies but does not state that this tendency exists in the self-organizing organism as long as the organism exists. He simply says it is. Rogers says, "It persists."

Philosophers, theologians, and logicians may see this parallel in different lights but my light leads me to put it this way: Prigogine says that an open system, when perturbations occur, tends to export entropy and to move in the direction of greater complexity. The tendency exists in the organism. It is.

Rogers says that it not only exists in the human organism but it persists in the face of destructive forces in the environment and can be destroyed only by destroying the organism itself. In his later years, Rogers expressed the belief that this tendency toward greater complexity does not rule out transformation to another form of existence.


Davies, Paul, in The New Physics (p. 5), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.




Another point at which Rogers and Prigogine meet is captured in the word "irreversibility." This for Prigogine involves the concept of time. As a layman I shall not attempt to penetrate the core of the issue of time which is so profound that it occupied many years of the life and thought of Albert Einstein.

Gleick says, "Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of absolute space and time; quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurement process; chaos eliminates the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictability" (1987, p. 6).

Heraclitus expressed the idea, congenial to Taoism, that one can never step into the same river twice, meaning that minute by minute the river changes as it flows and, although it is the same river, it is never the same in any two consecutive moments or days or weeks or years.

As I become more and more aware of my body and of my feelings I know that I am not and can never be exactly the same as I was an hour previously. Interactions within myself with the part of the world immediately surrounding me and the persons with whom I have interacted have already brought about some change.

The forward thrust toward increased complexity in all open systems is irregular but persistent in its movement. Carl Rogers’ experience of irreversibility as drawn from various statements and writings can be paraphrased as: The individual once engaged in the process of change and growth, once gaining a new insight, cannot return to yesterday’s being. That organism is forever changed in some way.

The concept of irreversibility then is inherent in the self-actualizing tendency. The self-actualizing tendency in the larger environment, which leads again directly to the formative tendency in the universe, means that we are not alone and this to me has a great significance. As a human being, I am not alone in this thrust forward toward greater complexity. It means that we are not alone in the forward thrust, whether it be from order or from chaos; we may go from order to chaos or chaos to order and not even be aware of the perturbations that have brought it about.




The fourth point which Rogers and Prigogine have in common as I see it is listening, which brings us to the question of communication. Prigogine said that communication within the organism and between the organism and its environment is essential to the life of that organism.

In reaching this point Rogers was far, far ahead. The first chapter of A Way of Being is called "Communication"; the first aspect of communication which he addresses in that chapter is listening. He speaks of the enjoyment he feels:

When I can really hear someone it puts me

in touch with him; it enriches my life. It

is through hearing people that I have

learned all that I know about individuals,

about personality, about interpersonal

relationships. There is another peculiar

satisfaction in really hearing someone: It

is like listening to the music of the

spheres because beyond the immediate

message of the person, no matter what that

might be, there is the universal. Hidden

in all personal communications which I

really hear there seem to be orderly

psychological laws, aspects of the same

order we find in the universe as a whole.

(1980, p.8).


He raised the question - and he raised this every time he had an interview or was meeting with a group - "Can I hear the sound, the sense and the shape of this person’s inner world? Is it going to be possible for me to do that and to stay with it? Can I resonate to what he is saying so deeply that I sense the meaning he is afraid to express as well as what he is saying?" (Rogers, 1980, p. 8).

An illustration of such listening makes the meaning very clear, I believe. Rogers recounted his experience of meeting a young man who tried to say why he was consulting Rogers. Did he have a purpose? Was there something he wanted? What was he asking Rogers for? He said, I don’t know. There’s nothing in this world I want.

Rogers accepted his statement at face value and as they went along with the conversation the young man finally said, there is something I want to say. I want to live. That is, I want to keep on living.

At that point, Rogers sensed that beneath the words perhaps the young man was saying that there was a time when he didn’t want to live. As they talked further the young man spoke of a recent suicide attempt. That was deep listening.

In such a relationship Rogers talked little and had time to resonate to the other, to be in communication, to trust his own experience of that communication, was open to the other, to himself and to his intuitive knowing. We have spoken of listening as a kind of resonance.