In psychology, congruence refers to the level of agreement or consistency between an individual’s internal experiences and outward expression or behavior.
When a person’s self-image, ideals, and actual experiences align, they are said to be congruent, contributing to a sense of authenticity and well-being (Stevenson, 2022).
Congruence is foundational to mental health. Incongruence cab potentially lead to feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and internal conflict. In therapeutic settings, fostering congruence is a key goal, as it helps individuals align their self-perception with reality, thereby promoting self-acceptance, authenticity, and psychological well-being (Thorne & Sanders, 2012).
Congruence in Psychology: Definition and Overview
The term congruence in psychology is most closely associated with Carl Rogers, a prominent American psychologist and one of the founders of humanistic psychology.
Rogers introduced the concept in the context of client-centered therapy, emphasizing the importance of an individual’s real self aligning with their ideal self. He posited that congruence is essential for achieving self-actualization and well-being (Thorne & Sanders, 2012).
Rogers’ concept of a dualism between congruence and incongruence was developed as a reformulation of Freud’s unconsciousness and consciousness.
Whereas Freud argued that therapy should be about a person moving from unconsciousness to consciousness, Rogers’ humanistic approach held that a client’s purpose in therapy is to move from incongruent to congruent.
Ellingham (2001), channeling Rogers, outlines how Rogers defined these two terms:
- Congruence: “congruence is associated with awareness and constitutes the state of a person who is genuine, whole, integrated, without facade, [and] adjusted” (Ellingham, 2001)
- Incongruence: “incongruence congruence’s polar opposite, is linked with ‘denial and distortion to awareness’ and taken to represent ‘the basis of all psychological pathology in man, and the basis of all his social pathology as well'” (Ellingham, 2001)
Examples of Congruence in Psychology
1. The Congruent Teacher
In a school setting, a teacher named Mr. Smith feels a deep passion for educating and genuinely cares for the well-being of his students, which is evident in his enthusiastic and empathetic approach.
This internal passion and care are congruent with his external behavior, as he consistently creates a supportive learning environment and actively engages with students to address their needs.
Students, sensing Mr. Smith’s authenticity and congruence, feel more comfortable and open in his class, fostering a positive and conducive learning atmosphere. Mr. Smith’s congruence contributes to his effectiveness as a teacher, as his genuine nature builds trust and encourages students to be more receptive to learning.
This example illustrates how congruence, the alignment of internal feelings and external expressions, can significantly impact interpersonal relationships and create a positive environment in real-world settings.
2. The Congruent Therapist
In a therapy session, Dr. Allen genuinely feels empathy and understanding towards her client, Maria, who is struggling with anxiety.
Dr. Allen’s internal feelings of compassion are congruent with her external behavior, as she actively listens, validates Maria’s experiences, and provides a safe and non-judgmental space for Maria to express herself. Maria, sensing Dr. Allen’s authenticity and congruence, feels more at ease and is able to openly share her thoughts and feelings, fostering a stronger therapeutic alliance.
This congruence on the part of Dr. Allen facilitates a deeper exploration of Maria’s issues and contributes to more effective therapeutic interventions. In this scenario, therapist congruence plays a pivotal role in building trust and openness, which are essential for successful therapy outcomes.
3. The Congruent Manager
In a workplace setting, Sarah, a manager, genuinely believes in transparent communication and values the input of her team members.
This internal belief is congruent with her external actions, as she regularly holds open forums for discussion, actively seeks feedback, and addresses concerns transparently. The team, recognizing Sarah’s congruence, feels valued and secure in expressing their opinions and ideas, fostering a collaborative and trusting environment.
Sarah’s congruence helps in building strong, authentic relationships with her team, leading to increased job satisfaction and productivity among the members.
This example demonstrates how congruence can positively influence team dynamics and contribute to a healthier and more effective working environment.
Examples of Incongruence
1. Hiding True Feelings
In a friendship scenario, John feels discomfort and disagreement with the group’s plan to go hiking, as he has a fear of heights, but he masks his true feelings and expresses enthusiasm about the plan.
This incongruence between his internal feelings and external expressions leads to feelings of anxiety and discomfort as the hiking day approaches. The friends, unaware of John’s true feelings, are confused by his withdrawn behavior and apparent lack of enjoyment on the day of the hike.
John’s incongruence not only affects his well-being but also creates a sense of disconnect within the group, as his friends sense that something is amiss but cannot pinpoint the issue.
This example illustrates how incongruence can lead to internal conflict for the individual and potential misunderstandings in interpersonal relationships.
2. The Incongruent Therapist
In a therapy setting, therapist Dr. Thompson feels uncertain about his ability to help his client, Mark, who is dealing with a complex set of issues, but he portrays an overly confident demeanor.
This incongruence between Dr. Thompson’s internal self-doubt and external display of assurance creates a subtle barrier in the therapeutic relationship. Mark senses a lack of genuineness and struggles to fully trust and open up to Dr. Thompson, hindering the progress of the therapy.
Dr. Thompson’s incongruence leads to a strained therapist-client relationship and limits the effectiveness of the therapeutic interventions.
This scenario exemplifies how incongruence in therapy can impede the establishment of trust and hinder the therapeutic process.
Ellingham, I. (2001). Carl Rogers’‘congruence’as an organismic, not a Freudian concept. Rogers’ therapeutic conditions: Evolution, theory and practice, 1, 96-115.
Frankel, M., Johnson, M. M., & Polak, R. (2016). Congruence: the social contract between a client and therapist. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 15(2), 156-174.
Ismail, N. A. H., & Tekke, M. (2015). Rediscovering Rogers’s self theory and personality. Journal of Educational, Health and Community Psychology, 4(3), 28-36.
Krikorian, M. (2022). Carl Rogers: A Person-Centered Approach. In The Palgrave Handbook of Educational Thinkers (pp. 1-13). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Stevenson, L. (2020). Authenticity, Spontaneity, and Congruence. The UBC Journal of Philosophical Enquiries, 1(1), 50-62.
Thorne, B., & Sanders, P. (2012). Carl Rogers. London: Sage.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]