|Okay, so maybe there's one exception.|
Carl Rogers was a great man and a brilliant therapist. Among all the talk of cognitive behaviour therapy and all the other “evidence based treatments” is an acknowledgement that most of the improvement typically seen in therapy can be readily attributed to the so-called “nonspecific factors”, of which the quality of the relationship between client and therapist is the greatest part. And Rogers was the king of process, to the exclusion of almost all technique. Rogers’ ideas influence what almost all clinicians regard as the foundation of all of their other work.
Then there is unconditional positive regard.
This is a therapeutic stance that the clinician is enjoined to adopt during the therapy session. Whatever the client says or does, it is the clinician’s job to maintain his or her seat as a clinician, to see that the client’s emotions and actions make some kind of sense if only we understand them well enough, and to sweep our own fragile egos out of the way as best we can.
So far so good. But unconditional positive regard somehow leaked out into the public consciousness and became an expectation of parents, spouses, friends, family members, and all who work with the public. Whatever a person does, they should be met with the warm solidity of a relationship that is supportive without any conditions whatsoever. Those who fail to provide this nurturing blanket are simply not living up to their responsibilities as humans in relationship.
There’s just one problem.
Unconditional positive regard is a myth.
It doesn’t exist, not even in therapists. It is a stance. A role. Not a reality.
The truth is, none of us are able to manage truly unconditional positive regard for anyone – not a customer, not a stressed-out spouse, not an innocent infant relentlessly throwing food on the floor, not a faultlessly dementing parent asking the same question again and again. Certainly not for a rebellious teenager in a rage about being insufficiently “validated.”
We might strive to maintain our equanimity, to remind ourselves that the infant is learning about cause and effect, the parent honestly does not recall asking the question four times in a row, the adolescent exists within a toxic hormonal soup of confusion and fear. But we do not entirely succeed and we never will.
Like emulating the Buddha, or Christ, or the religious leader of your choice, unconditional positive regard is an admirable goal. But if we actually expect it of ourselves, or believe that others have easily mastered what seems so impossible for us, then it becomes a tool for guilt.
And because the term has been bandied about so much in the public discourse, people have naturally come to expect unconditional positive regard from others. From their parents. From their siblings. From their friends. From their (God help us) spouses. And it has come full circle. Clients now arrive in therapists’ offices describing the trauma of not having been loved unconditionally by others.
Perhaps it is up to therapists, who carelessly unleashed this beast upon the world, to speak up and slay it. We need to remind the world of the truth.
There is no unconditional positive regard. You will never fully succeed in providing this, and you will never receive it. From anyone. And you shouldn’t. Feedback from others is part of what helps us to modulate our own behaviour. Positive regard from others, without any conditions whatsoever, is the desire of our own narcissism, not of our inner adult. If we snap at our spouses, put them down when they speak, ignore their achievements, rant at will, and generally misbehave, we cannot expect that their fondness for us will remain undiminished and unflickering.
Even new parents do not feel unconditional positive regard for their offspring. They are usually able to tolerate much more than they would of another adult, or perhaps of someone else’s child, but they will, inevitably, have moments of wishing they could just be alone for ten minutes, of thinking that perhaps they would have been better childless.
If we, or our clients, are searching for that all-forgiving breast, that provider of unwavering support no matter what we do, the mission of adulthood is to accept that we will not find it, not to carry out the search with an air of firm entitlement. Because we are not entitled to unconditional positive regard. And if you don’t believe that, then believe this: Even if you are entitled to it, you will never find it. If you think you have: You’re kidding yourself.
Tolerance, kindness, understanding, and, yes, unconditional positive regard are admirable aspirations. But that last is just that: An aspiration. Not a reality. It takes time, but we can eventually get used to it.
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