Of Pickle Jars and Carl Rogers

I was an only child, bright, and as the bright often are, quirky, so much so that I never really fit in with my classmates at my Catholic elementary school. During recess, I often checked out a basketball and spent the time alone, dribbling around the schoolyard. At home, I spent a lot of time alone in my room reading and fantasizing about being in the woods with only a trusty canine companion for company, or riding the Pony Express, just me, my horse, and a mochila full of letters.

female Io moth

Although I was a city girl, I was as much of an amateur naturalist as our postage-stamp backyard and occasional camping trips with my Girl Scout troop allowed me to be. The Goldenrain tree next to our house was a favorite food of Io moth caterpillars, prickly and bright green with red and white racing stripes down the length of their bodies, so I captured and raised them on my dresser in pickle jars with perforated lids. I gave them Mexican names: Juanita, Pedro. When they emerged from their cocoons sporting wings with owlish eyespots, I left the jar open on the back porch and set them free.

My solitary endeavors didn’t seem to have bothered me much, but as I grew older, they certainly bothered my father, who often criticized my lack of social skills. He told me teachers had commented to him that I hung around them a lot but didn’t seem to have any friends my own age. No doubt their intentions in telling him were noble, and their words never meant to be passed along to me, but delivered by my father, this was just something else about me that was deeply flawed and needed fixing. Because even those who tried to have me as a friend were viewed by my father as flawed, I never felt comfortable spending more time around them and deepening these relationships.

As I got older, I learned to interact comfortably with other people, so much so that old coworkers jokingly began calling me a social butterfly despite my protestations that I was, and would always be, fundamentally an introvert. I made dear friends, often lovably quirky and bookish. Still, in new situations with new people, especially when I am being formally evaluated, the old insecurities return. Now that I am presenting myself as a candidate for graduate programs in counselling, these old voices are particularly vicious. Who am I, who have never been particularly socially adept or popular, to want to make a career of working so intimately with people?

As is often the case when I am feeling low, I began reading. I started one long-neglected work, On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered therapy, and learned that in his childhood, he, too, had raised moths. Watching old videos of Carl Rogers and reading his books always makes me feel good because he is the embodiment of warmth and acceptance — indeed his theoretical approach is founded on these — and this detail shared between us made me smile even more.

But when I picked up a copy of another of his books, A Way of Being, at a used bookstore, I was stunned to find that Carl Rogers had similarly inauspicious beginnings.

Let me begin with my childhood. In a narrowly fundamentalist religious home, I introjected the value attitudes towards others that were held by my parents. . . To the best of my recollection this unconsciously arrogant separateness characterized my behavior through elementary school. I certainly had no close friends. There were a group of boys and girls my age who rode bicycles together on the street behind our house. But I never went to their homes, nor did they come to mine. . . during the important years of adolescence I had no close friend and only superficial personal contact. I did express some feelings in my English themes during the two terms when I had reasonably understanding teachers. At home I felt increasingly close to my next younger brother, but an age difference of five years cut down on any deep sharing. I was now more consciously a complete outsider, an onlooker in anything involving personal relationships. I believe my intense scientific interest in collecting and rearing the great night-flying moths was without doubt a partial compensation for the lack of intimate sharing. I realized by now that I was peculiar, a loner, with very little place or opportunity for a place in the world of persons. I was socially incompetent in any but superficial contacts. My fantasies during this period were definitely bizarre, and probably would be classed as schizoid by a diagnostician, but fortunately I never came in contact with a psychologist.

If this is the stuff young Carl Rogers was made of, then surely there is a chance for me too. For all of us.


Thanks to Jason Michalko for pointing out that today would have been Carl Rogers’ 110th birthday, which prompted me to sit down and finish this post. Be sure to check out his post on Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy: Unconditional Positive Regard: It’s Not Just for the Dogs

Image of a female Io moth used under Creative Commons license from Anita Gould’s Flickr feed

2 thoughts on “Of Pickle Jars and Carl Rogers

  1. I’m an introvert and I didn’t speak until I was about 2 years old. I also collected bugs, snakes, and frogs. I overcame talking in public and have become a biology teacher. My mother use to say, “It takes one to know one.” I wonder if people who have spent time alone contemplating life find peace in helping others contemplate their life.

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