Unconditional Positive Regard

Psychologist Carl Rogers is generally associated with the concept of unconditional positive regard. The concept means acceptance and support of a person even when the person’s actions are inappropriate. You may not approve of someone’s behavior, but you can still approve of them as a human being. Parents often make this distinction to a child: “I will always love you, but I disapprove of this behavior and will not allow it in this house!”

 Rogers believed that success in counseling was more likely if the counselor provided the client with unconditional positive regard. He felt that the “no-strings” acceptance attached to clients would provide them with the confidence and support needed to obtain insight into their problems, and the motivation to pursue personal growth, greater self-understanding, and self-direction.

During my (CB) years as a college professor, I had many occasions when a student came to my office to discuss some “problem.” Sometimes the issue was critical – even emotionally dangerous – for the student, such as a rape, alcohol/drug abuse, concern over suicide, or physical bullying. In those cases, I referred the student to the Counseling Center, and I sometimes immediately accompanied them to make sure they followed through.

 On other occasions, the problem – while quite troubling for the student – was relatively less serious, such as, “How can I tell mom and dad I want to change my major?” “If I drop this course, am I a quitter?” “I got an F on the test and I’m afraid to see the teacher. Can I just email him?” “My boyfriend dumped me. I’m worthless.” In these cases, I learned over the years that the students generally knew what I would say, but they still needed to hear someone tell them it was OK to be feeling like they did. They were looking for some positive regard. Over the years they had heard parents and others tell them, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” In these cases, it was generally pretty easy for me to assure them that, “How you’re feeling is totally normal. In fact, I remember how I felt exactly the same in my freshman year in college when I faced a similar situation.” I could almost hear an audible, “Thank, God, I’m not weird,” from the students when I gave them such reassurance. And, the great thing about this relief was now they had the confidence to attack the problem. We would chat about the importance of meeting the issue head-on (such as, “No, do not email the professor. Go see her about the F and ask her straight up for suggestions on what you need to do differently to improve your performance.”), and in some cases I would point out for them resources the College provided to help them confront problems.

Providing unconditional positive regard definitely has its usefulness. There is, however, a danger in overdoing it. Some parents, for instance, become determined to make sure that their children never experience failure. They keep a close eye on the kids, and structure their environment to build self-esteem and trust by filling their kids’ lives with success. Unfortunately, this childrearing strategy is a corruption of unconditional positive regard because it’s unrealistic, and doesn’t build self-esteem and trust over the long run. Failure experiences are inevitable in life – and that’s a good thing because learning to cope with failure instills the learner with persistence, determination, dedication, and endurance, qualities that help the learner build a life of autonomy, purpose, meaning, humility, and satisfaction. Indulgence, on the other hand, instills one with dependency, passivity, helplessness, and self-loathing. And, these principles apply whether we’re talking about childrearing, friendships and romances, or any situation requiring coping with life’s stressors. Whatever the life challenge facing you, always be aware of the fine line between unconditional positive regard, and indulgence.

One day in July I received a call from a gentleman: “Dr. Brooks. My son ***** is your advisee, and I’m wondering if you could check for me why I haven’t received the tuition bill for the fall semester. I called the Business Office and they told me to check with my son, because he would have received the bill.” While we were talking, I reached into my advisee file and pulled out his son’s folder. I opened it and the first paper – dated one month earlier – was a letter to the student from the Academic Dean’s office advising him that because of low grades, he was suspended from the College for one year. Because of privacy laws, it was standard practice for the College to notify only the student of any matter concerning grades. What the student did with the information was up to the student. I thought, “Good lord, he never told dad he was suspended.” I collected my thoughts and said, “Mr. *****, there is information in your son’s file that I cannot share with you. I’m going to transfer you to the Dean’s office.”

I learned later from the Dean that the father was quite distraught, and very angry that his son did not share the information with him about the suspension. The father also said that he and his wife had always given their son considerable leeway to conduct his own affairs, and support him whenever he asked. The dad said, “I should have been tougher on him instead of always backing him up.”

Receiving positive regard is very comforting and reassuring. In the context of learning how to cope with stress, however, you must remember that such regard must not be used to prevent you from evaluating your actions with respect to accountability. You must accept the responsibility to determine if your actions can be distinguished from your wants. That’s what functioning in reality means.

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