My Experience of the Healing Power of the PCA In Groups around the World

Ruth Sanford


It has been my experience that if you can establish communication across lines of conflict, difference, or estrangement between members of a group or between the estranged parts of an individual as in psychotherapy, then healing almost inevitably will take place.

My mind is teeming with memories of those who have found healing and wholeness in large and small groups, only a few of which I shall mention. Let me start at home with myself. I will speak of two stages in my life.

In my work with counselors at West Hempstead I did not know the terminology of the PCA, but I was experiencing the heart of the PCA and the heart is what's important. I was accepting the students as they were. I was trusting that they would take responsibility for themselves if they were offered an opportunity and they did not disappoint me. And I had set aside the usual hierarchy – "Teacher knows best". This is a description of the days at West Hempstead High School where we started "The Experimental Program" that appeared in Freedom to Learn for the 80's.

This experiment in learning began with an almost desperate need to save myself. As a counselor with administrative responsibilities in a public school district, I had felt for some time that I was dying a little every day. I had begun to feel like a shock absorber, taking in the pressures, the anxieties and frustrations of students, parents, administrators, teachers, the board of education and the community, trying to be at the same time an advocate for student growth and learning. It seemed to me that everyone was losing, especially me. There had to be a better way! Unless I could find one, my energies and enthusiasms would ebb away and I would become another dropout from the educational system. One of my strong points is, I believe, that once I have gained an insight, I do something about it. My first step was to apply for a sabbatical leave, which I used for research into 'Creativity, Intelligence and Achievement m a Public Secondary School: Implications for the Classroom." It grew the following year into an experiment in education in which I, a counselor, worked first with a group of teachers, and later with those teachers in their classrooms. Our purpose was to create a climate in which the creative urge to growth and the excitement of learning would be nurtured. Much to our surprise we found that in the nurturing climate which we were striving to create, we ourselves were nourished, and found within ourselves a renewal of excitement in learning.

The next eight years were the most vital and adventurous of my professional life – up to that time.


There was a second stage when I was introduced to the PCA. A whole new world opened up to me. There is a partial description of this time in my paper with Bob Barth – Human Science and the Person – Centered Approach: An Inquiry into the Inner Process of Significant Change within Individuals (Person – Centered Journal, Vol. 1,No. 3, 1994)

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.

Jeanne Ginsberg, a student in the EXP program at West Hempstead also told of her experience of EXP and what it felt like to go from there to her Latin class. The quote is also from "Freedom to Learn for the 80's"

My first impression was that I had stepped into a carnival funhouse; nothing was as it should have been. There were no grades; teachers offered minimal direction, students were addressed with the same respect given adults. There seemed to me to be little point in working or in participating since there were no external standards to meet. Even in our discussions there seemed to be no right or wrong answer. Most students seemed to feel the way I did and our beginning discussions were somewhat dull, guarded comments punctuated by long silences. Even then, teachers did not interfere. I began to feel that something was not right and that no one was doing anything about it. I began to feel anxious as the realization hit me that since there was no external approval or punishment-no adult with a special knowledge and power telling me what was 'right,' I was going to have to figure out for myself what was 'right,'what I wanted to get from this experience. If someone were going to make this interesting or meaningful or fun, it would have to be me... I gradually stopped doing things for a teacher's approval and started doing things because I wanted to do them. How did this happen? I think one of the main factors was that the teachers seemed to accept everything I said. They didn't approve or disapprove; there didn't seem to be any judgment attached. They simply seemed interested. So, there was no point doing something for someone else's reaction. As I stopped doing things for someone else I began to realize what I was interested in; what I wanted to learn; what was important to me; essentially, who I was. I began emerging from the shell of my parents'and teachers' expectations and into my own self.

In Latin class, I was told to sit in a row in alphabetical order by my last name; the notes to be copied from the board made up our notebooks. Our text was a translation of Julius Caesar. The teacher moved up and down the rows to see that we were copying the notes neatly and exactly. A test was given daily on the material we were instructed to memorize the evening before. Homework: work in the deadest sense of the word. I remember practically nothing of my two years of Latin study. No wonder I was often late for this class had nightmares about it, and dreaded eighth period.

Carl summarized some of Jeanne's experience. "There are three elements in Jeanne Ginsberg's statement that stand out vividly. One is the contrast between the living joy of self-directed learning and the deadening nightmare of a highly traditional class. Another is the evidence that the impact of EXP was lasting. Clearly it has affected her teaching. Finally, the program played a part in helping her to become a thoughtful, independent citizen...And she is helping even her disadvantaged students to become similarly thoughtful citizens, also."

I had a client who had made three attempts at suicide and had been in comas of 3,14 and 27 days after those attempts. Some time after these three attempts he called and said "This time, I'm really going to do it. There's nothing anyone can do. I called to say goodbye" At this point the therapist's reply was "If you go ahead and end your life, I shall be very sad. I care for you and I'll miss you. But it's your life. You have the right to do whatever you choose with it. And I'll not think the less of you" He hung up. The next morning I received a call from him. He said "I decided that if someone trusted me that much, I must have something in me worth living for." That was his last attempt at suicide. He has now gone back to graduate school and has decided to become a patient advocate in hospitals.

Irina was an interpreter in Moscow in 1986. On the way to Tbilisi in Georgia after Moscow we said to her, "We hope you will become a participant in this workshop rather than continue as a translator". She did and at the end of a day in which much time had been spent on men-women relationships, Irina suddenly stood up and flinging her arms wide she shouted "Hullo, Irina! " Irina moved to the US as a translator and consultant to businessmen. She became a much trusted liason between high level executives in Russia and the United States and was responsible for part of the execution of multimillion dollar contracts. At the present time she is seeking to establish her own niche in education and counseling in California. In 1998 she said to me she would never forget that moment, the excitement and freedom she felt.

A social worker that participated in the 4 day intensive group in Moscow in 1986 reported before the Scientific Council "I have such strong reactions. I have been longing to share something. Yesterday I began my work with clients and I found I was starting to apply this approach. It was very important to me as a professional. I have learned that clients or friends don't want your advice, your interpretation. Before the workshop I was kind of a detective, trying to investigate, to find the underlying reason for this or that act. But then in the workshop I was the client and I learned it was very bad to be listened to by a detective. I hadn't really listened. I realized it meant a lot just to be listened to. I don't want to find some theoretical model. I just want to listen, to give my attention. I know this sounds commonplace, but I want you to realize what I've been feeling. I shouldn't treat others as objects on which we are going to try to impose our help. Formerly, I based my work on the idea that a person coming to me for help was guilty of something. When they feel guilty and we reinforce that guilt, it does not help.

Working with a person yesterday, I tried to understand her pain, feeling her feelings. This was very helpful. She told me of beating her child. Formerly I would have been indignant, but this time I listened and understood. When she left she told me that it was the first time in her life that she felt listened to and understood. I have learned that it is important to stand in the other person's shoes. Before this I knew the theories. Now we have learned from the inside."

D was a student in a university course. He said "The first night I had my doubts. The other students seemed younger but I met in the teacher – facilitator an exceptional human being. There was something in her voice that said to me 'trust this'". A classmate befriended me and not only gave me a ride home nights but to and from classes on the weekend. After years of reading Carl Roger's work, I had begun to connect its practice with his words.

On the second and third day I was feeling confident. We were talking more about a way of being and more was being said by all. I saw the unconditional Positive Regard coming from the teacher but she remained strong and non-directive. The time the teacher took with R, a fellow student, was valuable.

The fourth day was by far the most significant for me. I felt sadness at missing the richness of my father over the issue many years ago of not giving me a job and use privileges of the car. In listening to other members of the group, I realized I was feeling sadness at all the things we could have been.

This was the day of my talking about my brother. I couldn't stop. I had to deal with my brother. That day, long ago, I was very, very angry. I had to make him stop. I had to make him know my power. (In my anger I took him by the throat. I could hardly let go.)

[My brother went away with this incident unresolved.] I have to confront this. I love my brother. I want to be with the pain and confusion in a loving way. I want to create an atmosphere so that we could all help us get back home. I give him that love."

In more recent years this student devoted himself to his work with a minority group as a counselor administrator and has recently returned to graduate work in order to extend his current skills and interests. He has been active in promoting the work of the Person – Centered Approach and is planning to host his family's reunion in 1998.