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Like so many psychological terms and theories, unconditional positive regard was initially introduced as a tool for counsellors and psychoanalysts but was quickly adopted for other purposes, including by teachers, mentors, and social workers, and is also regularly used by parents as they form relationships with their children. The ability to provide unconditional positive regard is perceived to be admirable, and it is thought that those individuals who don’t experience unconditional positive regard from significant adults in their children are less likely to feel worthy of love and self-care, and may not live fulfilled and well-rounded lives. But what is unconditional positive regard? How does it differ from unconditional love? And what is the psychology behind the theory? Here’s everything you need to know about unconditional positive regard.
What is Unconditional Positive Regard?
Unconditional positive regard is a term often used in counselling and refers to the relationship that a counsellor has with their client. When adopting the theory of unconditional positive regard, this means that you commit to accepting and valuing your client without judging or criticising them. In fact, unconditional positive regard is a theory so unconditionally positive that it means that counsellors are discouraged from evaluating their clients in any way that might be perceived to be negative.
The unconditional positive regard concept was first posed by psychotherapist Carl Rogers, who founded person-centred therapy, and unconditional positive regard is considered integral to this psychological approach. Person-centred therapy is influenced by humanistic theory, and Rogers was considered to be a pioneer for client-led therapies within the field of psychology. As a theorist, Rogers was prolific and whilst person-centred therapy (with the accompanying theory of unconditional positive regard) is considered his best known, he also produced many other well-known theories including The Seven Stages of Process and the theory widely referred to as the Core Conditions.
When trying to understand what unconditional positive regard is, perhaps it is best to refer to the original founder of the theory. Carl Rogers referred to unconditional positive regard as “A caring which is not possessive, which demands no personal gratification … It involves an acceptance of and a caring for the client as a separate person, with permission for him to have his own feelings and experiences and to find his own meanings for them.” (Rogers, 1967). Unconditional positive regard is generally defined as accepting either someone else or yourself with complete acceptance and love: nothing you do or the person you are demonstrating unconditional positive regard for does externally will stop you from seeing them as inherently human and inherently lovable. This does not mean that you have to love any negative decisions a person makes or negative behaviours that they demonstrate, but when adopting unconditional positive regard, you accept that these decisions are a part of the person and continue to demonstrate unconditional positive regard for them anyway. Within the field of counselling or psychotherapy, unconditional positive regard is used to build a positive, trusting relationship between the therapist and the client. The client should feel able to share anything with their therapist or counsellor so that there is no barrier to receiving the care and support that they need.
Whilst unconditional positive regard is often used by therapists and counsellors, it can also be adopted by parents, teachers and mentors to help ensure that the children under their care grow into healthy and happy people with a positive sense of self-worth. Unconditional positive regard is an approach that is considered particularly valuable when working with children because it can have such a significant and positive impact on how children feel about themselves, which will only have a positive impact on their attitudes in later life.
Psychology Behind Unconditional Positive Regard
If a client is afraid of their counsellor or concerned that their counsellor may judge them based on the information they share, they are unlikely to share pertinent information with their counsellor, particularly if they perceive these behaviours, feelings or experiences to be negative. But if a client and their counsellor cannot share an open and honest relationship then this will negatively impact the treatment process, as it will be impossible to ascertain the root cause of any problems or concerns without access to the full picture. For this reason, the psychology behind unconditional positive regard is integral to the way in which humanistic therapists are able to treat their clients. As already outlined above, when demonstrating unconditional positive regard, you do not have to like a client or accept their behaviours, but you do have to work on the assumption that they are fundamentally good and that they are doing the best they can.
For many clients, the feeling of experiencing unconditional positive regard from their counsellor or therapist can be incredibly rewarding, with unconditional positive regard from a therapist or counsellor acting as a substitute for any unconditional positive regard they did not receive in childhood. A lack of love, support, and unconditional encouragement can often lead to negative behavioural patterns and a lower likelihood of life success. Carl Rogers believed that those who do not receive such regard from their parents at a young age are more likely to have low self-worth or to achieve full personal psychological development. For this reason, within this psychological model, therapists that offer unconditional positive regard assume the position of ‘proxy’ parents to their clients.
This perspective was emphasised by Rogers himself when he wrote that “To be with another in this [empathic] way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside yourself; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish. Perhaps this description makes clear that being empathic is a complex, demanding, and strong—yet subtle and gentle—way of being.”
Examples in Counselling
Whilst unconditional positive regard can be utilised within parenting and teaching and is often adopted within these fields with huge success, the theory was originally posed to be used by counsellors, to enhance the relationship that they build with their clients. Some examples of how unconditional positive regard can be used in counselling include:
- If a client shares thoughts or behaviours with their counsellor that would be considered, both by wider society and by the counsellor themselves, to be morally wrong. The counsellor would not express either positive or negative opinions, but would instead ask their client what drove them to these thoughts and feelings, or how they feel about behaving in this way. There should be no focus, from the counsellor, on the legality or morality of the behaviour.
- If a client shares details about behaviours that are harmful to their health or well-being. The most common examples of this would be drug use, alcohol abuse, or self-harm. The therapist should not tell the client that these behaviours are wrong, but use unconditional positive regard to guide them to self-realisation that their behaviours are harmful, and that they are worthy of a level of love and self-care that cannot be achieved when indulging in these negative behaviours.
- Finally, unconditional positive regard is best used in counselling to give clients an example of how acceptance and being valued by others should both look and feel. The client will still experience being valued and highly regarded, regardless of any mistakes that have been made in their lives. The client can, in turn, use this unconditional positive regard as a model for how they should accept themselves. The underlying message here is that if their counsellor can accept them no matter what information they reveal about themselves, then they can also accept this flawed version of themselves. Because all humans are flawed, but this does not mean that they are unworthy of positive regard either from their peers or from themselves.
How to Use Unconditional Positive Regard
In practice, unconditional positive regard is a relatively easy technique to use, and one that can be incorporated into a wide spectrum of everyday life. The easiest example of how to use unconditional positive regard is in the relationship between parents and their children. Good parents find it easy to show unconditional positive regard to their children: regardless of how they behave, what they do, or what they think, parents still love their children. This means that if a child has a temper tantrum, makes a mistake, or has political views that are wildly different from the views of their parents then they will still be loved and accepted. You can use unconditional positive regard within your household by showering your children in love and affection, and by letting them know that whilst you may not always like their behaviour, this will not diminish the love and affection that you have for them.
Although in this example, a parent will also love their child, it is important to note that unconditional positive regard is very different from unconditional love. In situations where unconditional positive regard is also used, such as when it is used by teachers, mentors, social workers and, of course, the example that is the focus of this piece of counselling, unconditional love is not a factor. In fact, demonstrating unconditional positive regard does not even mean you have to particularly like someone. When assessing how to use unconditional positive regard, from the point of view of a counsellor or therapist, you simply need to believe that your client has the inner resources and human strength to work out what they need, with your expert tools to support them. You also need to demonstrate respect for your clients, putting your personal opinion aside and accepting them as they are, regardless of whether or not you like them or agree with their opinion. The ability to put your personal opinion, belief systems or moral standards to one side is at the heart of how to use unconditional positive regard. This is also one of the reasons why unconditional positive regard draws criticism from these individuals who are not utilising the technique.
Criticisms of Unconditional Positive Regard
Unconditional positive regard is a lofty ideal, and an admirable approach in theory, but one of the most frequently asked questions about this approach surrounds whether it is actually possible for a counsellor to demonstrate unconditional positive regard to all of their clients. The short answer is no: counsellors, like their clients, are only human and they cannot demonstrate unconditional positive regard at all times but they can certainly try to.
The difficulty in creating an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard is not the only criticism of the practice. Other key academic criticisms of unconditional positive regard include:
- Unconditional positive regard may be perceived to be inauthentic. Is it authentic, or acceptable, for a counsellor to put aside their core values in order to make their clients feel more at ease? If a counsellor chooses to disregard their own feelings and judgements, will this put the therapist in a position of incongruence? This criticism lays bare the concept that counsellors are not robots: they cannot behave in the same way with each of their clients, because their feelings about their behaviours and personalities are likely to be influenced by their own beliefs and bias.
- Unconditional positive regard does not allow room for challenge. But within some psychological philosophies, and for some clients, challenging unhelpful behaviours and laying bare how those behaviours, beliefs or attitudes are caused by cognitive distortion can lead to progress and development. However, this kind of challenge is in conflict with Rogers’s ideas around accepting the client just as they are, and therefore this is an approach that is often not used in solution-focused counselling.
- Finally, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the validity of an unconditional positive regard approach. This is true not only of the concept of unconditional positive regard but for a lot of humanistic theory: the people-focused nature of the approach means that it is difficult to research and measure in an empirical way. As a result, unconditional positive regard comes under criticism due to the lack of conclusive evidence to demonstrate whether or not it is an efficient and valuable technique.
Unconditional positive regard is a key theory to understand if you wish to become a counsellor, even if you choose not to incorporate this technique into your own practice. At the other end of the scale, if you are looking for a counsellor and feel that many of the issues you are facing stem from problems or concerns within your childhood, then you may feel that a counsellor that runs sessions using the concept of unconditional positive regard at their heart may be the best way to make progress.