What is incongruence? Imagine being a child and one day your parents bring home a new baby. Suddenly you receive less attention and are told to “be quiet”. The baby gets lots of attention, not only from parents but from every visitor. You may feel abandoned, rejected, hurt, angry, confused, bored and ignored. You are likely to be told that the experience of the new baby appearing is a good one, that you need to love and be kind to the new baby – this is a joyous event. All of the feelings you are really experiencing are ignored, dismissed or even punished. Any love or kindness you show towards the new baby is given attention, praised and positively valued. You need attention, praise and positive valuing so you repeat this, learning that you are acceptable if you behave in these ways.
This is the way we learn conditions of worth and they contribute to our sense of self (“the organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself” – Carl Rogers) .
We learn from experience that we are acceptable as long as we think, feel and behave in certain ways. We will try to engage in experiences that fit with our conditions of worth. In situations where we experience thoughts and feelings that don’t fit with our conditions of worth, we have no choice but to deny or distort them in order to remain acceptable.
In such a situation there is conflict between our sense of self and our felt experience. This state is called Incongruence.
When we are incongruent the internal conflict can lead to feelings of anxiety, confusion, anger and shame. We are more likely to experience incongruence when we are with people who have explicit or implicit expectations of us and/or themselves. Counselling aims to dissolve conditions of worth by offering acceptance of a person’s felt experience (no matter what thoughts, feelings and behaviours are shared) without judgement. This new learning (sometimes referred to as re-parenting) leads to reduced internal conflict, greater acceptance of self and increased self-worth. Over time the person becomes more able to internally reference rather than relying on others thoughts and opinions as a measure of their worth and acceptability.