What Is Unconditional Positive Regard?

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Unconditional positive regard is a term used by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers to describe a technique used in his non-directive, client-centered therapy.

How does this work? According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard involves showing complete support and acceptance of a person no matter what that person says or does.The therapist accepts and supports the client, no matter what they say or do, placing no conditions on this acceptance.

That means the therapist supports the client, whether they are expressing "good" behaviors and emotions or "bad" ones.

A Closer Look At Unconditional Positive Regard

"It means caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist's own needs," explained in Rogers in a 1957 article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology. "It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences."

Rogers believed that it was essential for therapists to show unconditional positive regard to their clients. He also suggested that individuals who don't have this type of acceptance from people in their life can eventually come to hold negative beliefs about themselves.

"People also nurture our growth by being accepting—by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard," explains David G.

Meyers in his book Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules. "This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our ailings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others' esteem."

Unconditional Positive Regard and Self-Worth

Rogers believed that people have a need for both self-worth and positive regard from other people. How people think about themselves and how they value themselves plays a major role in well-being.

People with a stronger sense of self-worth are also more confident and motivated to pursue their goals, and to work toward self-actualization, because they believe that they are capable of accomplishing their goals.

During these early years, children learn that they are loved and accepted by their parents and other family members. This contributes to feelings of confidence and self-worth. Unconditional positive regard from caregivers during the early years of life can help contribute to feelings of self-worth as people grow older.  

As people age, the regard of others plays more of a role in shaping a person's self-image.

Rogers believed that when people experience conditional positive regard, where approval hinges solely on the individual's actions, incongruence may occur. Incongruence happens when a person's vision of their ideal self is out of step with what they experience in real-life.

Congruent individuals will have a lot of overlap between their self-image and their notion of their ideal self.

An incongruent individual will have little overlap between his or her self-image and ideal self.

Rogers also believed that receiving unconditional positive regard could help people become congruent once more. By providing unconditional positive regard to their clients, Rogers believed that therapists could help people become more congruent and achieve better psychological well-being.

Putting Unconditional Positive Regard Into Practice

Is it really possible for therapists to offer unconditional positive regard to each and every client? Many suggest that the answer is no. However, as John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan note, it is possible for therapists to try to feel such regard toward their clients.

They also note that such acceptance does not constitute permissiveness or an endorsement of all behaviors. Natalie Rogers, the daughter of Carl Rogers, later explained that her father believed that while any thoughts and feelings are okay, not all behaviors are acceptable.

While unconditional positive regard is a cornerstone of client-centered therapy, it isn't always easy to put into practice. Imagine a situation in which a therapist is working with a sex offender. In their book Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice, Sommers-Flanagan offer some advice to practitioners who encounter such difficult situations. Rather that focusing on the behaviors themselves, the authors recommend seeking positive regard for the suffering and fears that such behaviors might represent.

"Rogers firmly believed every person was born with the potential to develop in positive, loving ways," they suggest. "When doing person-centered therapy, you become their next chance, maybe their last chance, to be welcomed, understood, and accepted. Your acceptance may create the conditions needed for change."

Sources: 

Cooper, M, O'Hara, M, Schmid, PF, & Bohart, AC. The Handbook of Person-Centered Psychotherapy & Counseling. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013.

Sommers-Flanagan, J, Sommers-Flanagan, R. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 2012.

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