“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.”
- Carl Rogers
Positive psychology nerds, this one is for you.
For those who don’t know, positive psychology is the study of the ‘good life’. This branch of psychology attempts to answer the question: what makes life worth living?
Many years ago, traditional psychology focused almost entirely on mental illness and maladaptive behaviours. Positive psychology developed in response to this, calling for an additional focus on happiness, wellbeing, and positivity in the study of the mind and human behaviour.
After all, there is more to life than its challenges. Resilience and well-being are important aspects of our mental health as well!
One of the greatest takeaways from positive psychology is unconditional positive regard, or UPR for short. It is a small shift in mindset and action that can help us strive towards fulfilling a greater amount of our potential.
In this post I will:
Explain the origins of positive psychology
Introduce the concept of unconditional positive regard as both a therapy technique and a real-life skill to practice in life
Discuss the benefits of having unconditional positive regard for yourself and others
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
Positive psychology builds on concepts from another school of thought- the humanistic movement.
Therapy that is based in a humanistic approach follows a simple principle- the client is at the centre. Integral to this approach is the belief that humans inherently possess the drive to self-actualize i.e. fulfill their potential. In fact, this is one of our primary motives for behaviour.
Here is where we meet the guy who I’ll be name-dropping often in this post, and who these concepts would not be possible without: Carl Rogers.
Carl Meets World
World, meet Carl.
Carl Rogers was the founder of the humanistic psychology movement and the practice of client-centered psychotherapy.
If these terms are confusing, here is something that may be more relevant. Many of the features we associate with a good therapist can be traced back to the ideas of Carl Rogers:
Listens without judgement
Accepts the client for who they are and where they are in their journey
Empower clients without directing their life
Alongside client-centred therapy, Carl Rogers coined the main idea behind this post: unconditional positive regard.
What Is Unconditional Positive Regard?
Unconditional positive regard is the practice of expressing empathy, support, and acceptance, regardless of our actions or words. We can direct this practice towards ourselves or other people.
A therapist can offer UPR to their client by being supportive, non-judgemental, and compassionate towards the client, no matter what they have said or done.
At the root of UPR is that we are all innately:
Human (and therefore imperfect)
Doing the best we can with the resources we have in the circumstances we are in
Worthy of compassion and understanding
When done right, UPR is powerful. It can encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves.
According to Carl Rogers, we all have a natural drive to learn and grow. You can say we are wired for the need to reach our fullest potential (i.e. self-actualization).
However, when we constantly experience shame and judgement, it can get in the way of this process.
Unconditional positive regard acts as a balm for these wounds. It shows us we are loved, respected, and worthy of goodness. In this environment of safety, we can confront what is holding us back much more effectively.
Growth and fulfilment is much harder to achieve when we are being shamed, judged, or made to feel as though we are inherently bad people. This causes us to response out of defensiveness, which is a hard place to grow from!
By fostering safety, unconditional positive regard allows us to face life with more honesty and courage because we know that deep down, no matter, what we are loveable.
What Unconditional Positive Regard Is Not
Let’s get one thing straight- giving someone unconditional positive regard does not mean that we accept and put up with abuse.
This idea also does not imply that everything we do is acceptable and justified. Understanding the reasons behind someone’s behaviour does not mean the actions are now excusable.
Holding people accountable, setting boundaries, and prioritizing safety are all possible within this framework.
For example, if we know someone is acting in harmful ways, we can accept that they are a fallible human being and still choose to set boundaries.
Unconditional Positive Regard In Therapy
You might be wondering what this actually looks like in a therapy setting.
Let’s look at 2 ways therapists use unconditional positive regard in practice:
When A Client Has Wronged Someone
Often, clients share thoughts, feelings, and experiences that some people, perhaps even the therapist themselves, would consider morally wrong.
Let's say a therapist is seeing a client who has mistreated a friend.
Unconditional positive regard in this scenario will look like responding with empathy, not contempt.
Instead of condemning the client and focusing on the 'immorality' of the behaviour, the therapist can focus on the client's feelings and explore what they believe drove these actions.
The Therapist Models What Acceptance Looks Like To The Client
The therapist demonstrates that they still value and accept the client, despite their mistakes. This sends a message to the client: if someone can accept me as exactly who I am, flaws and all, then I can also accept myself.
By modelling what unconditional acceptance looks like, the therapist shows the client that it is possible to be both safe and vulnerable. Taking risks for personal growth becomes easier in this context!
The Benefits Of Unconditional Positive Regard
What's in it for us? Turns out a lot actually.
When we feel shamed, harshly judged, and misunderstood, it does a number on our confidence.
Unconditional positive regard, when it is both self-directed and received from others, can help build this confidence again!
By building a safety net, UPR allows us to take risks that expand our comfort zone and capacity for growth. These results ultimately bolster confidence.
Living Your Dreams
One study found that those who had positive self-regard were more likely to be pursuing their 'intrinsic aspirations'.
Having positive regard encourages us to have good expectations from the world. When your own self-worth is not constantly being challenged and questioned, it frees up time and energy to focus on building a fulfilling life.
Moreover, trying and failing is no longer as scary because our self-worth is not tied to any one event or opinion. Unconditional positive regard enables us to rely on our intrinsic self-worth instead.
A More Authentic You
When experiencing shame, criticism, and judgement, our most authentic selves tend to retreat. These messages tell us that is it not okay to be who we are.
Over time, this may become a core belief. Making decisions according to what people will think of us becomes second nature and live in fear that we won't live up to others' expectations.
Unconditional positive regard helps to unravel shame. When someone tells you that there is nothing you could do to make them not love and respect you, a powerful shift can take place. Suddenly, our self-worth and lovability are not up for consumption.
We can make decisions that reflect our most authentic selves.
I hope this post gave you something new to think about! Unconditional positive regard is not a golden ticket. However, it is a perspective that prioritizes our inherent self-worth.
When people treat us like we are worthy of love, respect, and compassion, despite our mistakes, it opens the door to personal growth. And it is even more powerful when we see each ourselves in this light.
I'll leave you with this question: what would the world look like if we practiced unconditional positive regard, both internally and with each other?
Until next time!