The year was 1992. I was a high school freshman in Mr. Eisenblatter’s art class, and the assignment was to draw a potato. The potato sat before me, earthy and prosaic; I struggled to translate the image onto paper. I could see it, but I couldn’t yet convey it. Eisenblatter grew frustrated with my failures. Taking the paper and pencil from me, he drew over my sketch, shading in potato eyes, cross-hatching dirt, masterfully creating the potato illusion that I’d been unable to do. “Here!” he said, satisfied with his work. “That’s how you do it, ja?”
I took the potato drawing home, to much acclaim. It even ended up framed. But I knew-- and always would-- that it hadn’t been my potato. Some of the pencil strokes were mine, but another artist’s will had been superimposed upon it. I came to resent that potato in a way that has become, for me, metaphorical for the ways in which we distrust and discard those ideas which do not feel authentic or truly ours.
Surprisingly, there’s another potato metaphor coming.
Psychologist Carl Rogers was a pioneer of his time. In the mid fifties, he created a style of therapy that ran completely counter to the psychoanalytic and behavioral trends that were popular at the time, and which (with the exception of Jung) treated the patient as a problem to be solved. As a child, Rogers noticed that potatoes would sprout even under surprising conditions, their tendrils reaching for the light. He likened this to what he called the human tendency toward self-actualization; that each of us, regardless of education, background, gender, or class, has an innate organismic valuing process, which tells us what is right for us.
Rogers believed that each of us “has within himself the capacity, latent if not evident, to understand those aspects of his life and of himself which are causing him unhappiness or pain, and the capacity and the tendency to reorganize himself and his relationship to life in the direction of self-actualization and maturity in such a way as to bring himself a greater degree of internal comfort.”
Rogers’ theories developed into Person-Centered Therapy, which is completely non-directive. That is, the therapist never imposes any external ideas, suggestions, diagnosis, or value judgments into the counseling process. Instead, therapists rely on the principles of their own personal congruence (that is, their inner beliefs are in alignment with their outer behaviors and lifestyle); empathy (notably, this is an active process in which the therapist continually asks themself, “how is the client seeing this?”); and unconditional positive regard, which treats the other person with complete non-judgmental warmth and trust.
When we observe Rogers at work, as in this session with “Gloria,” we can observe how the conditions created by the therapist allow the client to dialogue with her own internalized values to uncover what it is she knows she needs to do for herself. In fact, Rogers had found that attempting to impose external theories through directive methods was less successful than when the client is able to contact their own values and do what feels most important. To put it in potato terms, we each need to be able to draw the potato that feels true to ourselves in order to accept it.
Personally, I find that Rogers’ theories articulate what I’ve observed in my own life, and in my work with others. What I really long for, deep in my soul, is to be held in the presence of whole-hearted empathy and unconditional positive regard. This is so rare as to be truly special, and even, to me, spiritual. It allows something almost transcendent to unfold. The answers that come from deep within myself in this process have an integrity that resounds with authentic purpose.
In contrast, all the well-intentioned advice in the world is useless to me if it doesn’t resonate with my own value system. Set against the example of unconditional positive regard, unsolicited advice can feel to me like an expressed lack of trust in another’s ability to find the best way that works for them.
There are times where, as part of my role as a movement, meditation, or embodiment coach, I am tasked with providing information, education, or ideas for others. Of course, it’s not possible to be non-directive here, but what I’ve learned is to ask questions, provide options, and work with the client’s natural inclinations and interests. If it is very clear that they have absolutely no interest in following what I think is the “best” protocol, then it’s not the best protocol for them. I have learned not only to trust that they need to follow their own internal value system, but to know that trying to superimpose my value system would be completely ineffective at best, and potentially harmful to our therapeutic relationship.
Mr. Eisenblatter wasn’t a great teacher. He was a gifted artist, though, and to be fair, I know from my own experience that it can be really frustrating to watch others struggle when it’s easy to see how they could “fix” things. Like the toddler who screams, “LET ME DO IT MYSELF” when the adult reaches in to help, we need to be allowed to struggle toward wholeness in ways that feel authentic and valuable to us. When we are given the conditions (empathy, congruence, unconditional positive regard), we can trust our internal organismic valuing process. Sure, we may have to draw a lot of bad potatoes. We may decide that drawing potatoes isn’t what we even want to do. But, without fail, we’ll find be able to find the authentic way forward for us.