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Tuesday 8 May 2012

Less Conditional Positive Regard

Last week I pointed out that unconditional positive regard is a myth. Time to follow up.
Not sour grapes but sour cherries:
 Spring has arrived.

Unconditional positive regard was proposed as a therapeutic stance in which the role of the therapist is to create as broad and open a setting as possible so that clients can have the space to contemplate the unthinkable and truly explore themselves. If we think that the therapist will frown or pass out if we reveal our hidden urges, hostilities, or wishes, then we will be less eager to discuss them. But it is often within the parts of ourselves that we regard as unacceptable that we will find the capacity to change.

Somehow, like Atlantic salmon escaping from Pacific fish farms, unconditional positive regard got out of the therapeutic net and began contaminating the world beyond the clinic. As a result, thousands of people have embarked on a quest to receive unconditional positive regard from those around them, unaware that they are searching for a gryphon – a mythical beast.

Our emotional reactions are created as much by expectancy as by events. If we do not expect to lift off when we flap our arms, we will be unperturbed by our inability to fly unaided. If we believe that the light should change the moment we press the button, however, we will be frustrated by even a minor delay.

So believing that unconditional positive regard is out there wandering around, that other people get it all the time, and, further, that it is one’s right as a human being to receive from family, friends, and spouse, is a kind of poison. The fact that we never seem to get it feels less like the natural state of the world, and more like a judgment against us. We are inherently faulty, we are misfortunate in our choice of companions, and the world has treated us poorly.

If we can release this mistaken expectation and acknowledge the reality that we will never truly receive it, we can rest more easily. And we can notice and feel grateful for the positive regard that we do receive, particularly when it comes despite our faultiness, our lateness, our untidiness, or our hundreds of other quirks. Rather than not quite being good enough, we can see the acceptance of others as being a bonus, an unexpected but welcome boon, rather than as a pale reflection of the indulgence we wish we could get instead.

Where to from here?

It’s a constant disappointment to notice how often the spotlight comes back to ourselves, and our own responsibility for our lives. We cannot change others, and exhorting them to make their love for us more unconditional (so that we can stop worrying about their needs or feelings) tends to bring on precisely the rejection we hope to eradicate.

Instead it’s up to us to examine the path we build for the fellow travelers in our own lives. What do we expect of them? Do we carefully define all the acts, words, and emotions that they must exhibit in order to be worthy of us? Do we reduce their range to a narrow tightrope that we expect them to walk? Or do we strive to broaden the path for them? Do we widen the rope to a trail, the trail to a road, the road to an open field in which they can be whoever they are?

We may need to provide feedback now and then. The daughter who loves drawing at the breakfast table may need to be told to get ready for school. The new romantic partner may have to be informed of one’s expectations regarding fidelity. We will strive to hang onto our affection for the person beyond the behaviour, even when their actions are not particularly lovable. But we will also forgive ourselves for letting it go now and then, recognizing that if we fail to cultivate the extreme equanimity of a Buddha, this is no great surprise.

The feared result, of course, is chaos. If we have few expectations, much less demands, of others, won’t they take full advantage of us in every way possible? Will we not become their enabler, their “yes man”, their patsy?

No. Knowing their propensity for lateness, we will happily decline the suggestion to meet them on a rainy street corner after work. We will still point out the fact that the school bell rings at 9, or that we hope they can be present for our birthday party. But we will focus our affection on the person, not the behaviour, and attempt to create the widest highway for their actions that we can manage. It won’t be unconditional. Every highway has a shoulder, after all, and beyond that a ditch. But it will be the widest we can make it.

A friend from perhaps twenty years ago and far away characterized himself as an “extremely sensitive individual.” Not a bad thing, and there are several in my life today who would similarly describe themselves. Unlike these others, in his case it meant “prone to grossly overinterpret anything anyone does.” A moment’s lateness meant that others did not respect him; a failure to anticipate his dissatisfaction signaled unforgivable carelessness; a poorly worded phone message clearly spelled out a deeply hurtful insult. For others he not only demanded they walk a tightrope, he turned out the lights to see if they could find the rope in the dark.

Predictably, he was often angry at former friends, and doubly so given that they could seldom divine what he was upset about. Friendship with him was like walking in a minefield – you never knew when you might say a laden word and become the enemy. Recognizing that this self-protective behaviour no doubt came from a difficult history was helpful, in that it enabled friends to focus on the person behind the demands. And it was important to stop trying to walk the tightrope, as this only led to exhaustion.

Instead, you had to accept that at any moment you might be in the doghouse, and carry on with your life until he forgot, forgave, or explained what was bothering him. Had he been able to relax his expectations, he might have had more friends, and their pool of affection for him might have been deeper. Instead he was a peripheral figure to most – someone whose friendship you could lose without being crushed.

His regard for others was highly conditional. It was not my job to demand he be less so; instead it was up to me to broaden the highway I let him walk. Ultimately my own life changed and I moved several provinces away. But I still think of him, engaged in the search for unconditional positive regard, angry at not getting it, and imposing tight conditions on all others. It was the road to unhappiness. He was poisoned by a bad fish, a toxic idea.

Maybe all psychology should be done in closed containment pens. When that stuff gets out it can cause a lot of damage.

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