Existential Psychology

Unconditional Positive Regard

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If you have read Carl Rogers or have seen video of him conducting a therapy session you know he took his personal philosophy of unconditional positive regard very seriously. There are never any judgments from Rogers; just warm acceptance. Being his patient would basically be like hanging out with your grandfather, assuming your grandfather, like most grandfathers, is a kindly old man who has your back, sees your best qualities, and is amazed by pretty much everything you do.

But really unconditional positive regard is not just about accentuating the good. It’s about complete acceptance of the whole person, including bad qualities. It’s easy to overlook what a profound impact Carl Rogers has exerted on the practice of therapy, because it seems so obvious now that a non-judgmental attitude where a client can feel safe to open up about his deepest secrets is absolutely essential for the process to be productive.

What made unconditional positive regard different from the psychoanalytic attitude prevalent at the time was that unconditional positive regard saw the concrete relationship between therapist and client as the vehicle for change and growth. Rogers believed that as a therapist, how you are with a client, the type of relationship you foster, is more important than any insight you could provide as a knowledgeable expert.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, what actually happens when the relationship itself is used as the vehicle for change rather than the process of bringing unconscious thoughts, emotions, and motivations into conscious awareness is that the power of transference is harnessed for growth. A client begins to see his therapist the same way he saw one or more of his primary caregivers, therefore getting the chance to redo a strained relationship, finally receiving the love, fostering, and support he didn’t get on the first go around. It’s actually quite likely that the ‘cure’ in psychoanalysis has always stemmed just as much from the relationship as it has from increased awareness, but early psychoanalysts just didn’t know it. Lots of the time in therapy, clients get better and no one really knows how or why. They can’t pinpoint any specific intervention or new insight that changed things. The positive relationship itself is as good of an explanation for this phenomenon as any we can find.

Research has shown that outcomes for at risk youths are significantly better when these children have just one person in their lives who takes an active interest in them, encouraging them to excel and believing in their potential no matter what. If you have any personal heroes in your life it’s pretty much guaranteed that these people meet the above criteria and have always seen the best in you. It’s not just that they are extraordinary, it’s that nothing could shake their conviction that you’re extraordinary too.

Unconditional positive regard is not just for the therapy hour. It’s a practice to cultivate in all our important relationships. When we see the best in people their best is what we get, and when people see the best in us our best is what we give. If you can be that person for someone who really needs it you will be their hero and you will exert a profound positive influence on the course of their life.