Unconditional Positive Regard is a central concept in the theories of Carl R. Rogers, both for psychotherapy and for interpersonal relations. A universal need for positive regard by others appears at about the same time a person begins to experience awareness of self (Rogers, 1959). In therapy, UPR is a quality of the therapist’s experience toward the client (p. 239). Rogers’ writing sheds light on various aspects of this construct: Unconditional
One experiencing UPR holds ‘no conditions of acceptance . . . It is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude.’ (p. 225) Positive One offers ‘warm acceptance . . . a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term . . . It means a caring for the client . . . ’ (p. 225). Regard One regards ‘each aspect of the client’s experience as being part of that client . . . It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs.
It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his [or her] own feelings, his [or her] own experiences.’ (p. 225) Theoretically, the importance of UPR lies in its power to build up or restore the recipient’s unconditional positive self-regard. Unconditional positive regard requires that a person be warm and accepting even when another person has done something questionable. While most parents attempt to give their children unconditional love, few grant their children unconditional positive regard.
Many therapists advocate giving their clients unconditional positive regard as part of the therapeutic process. UPR is most notably associated with person-centered therapy, or Rogerian therapy. Carl Rogers (1951) viewed the child as having two basic needs: positive regard from other people and self-worth. How we think about ourselves, our feelings of self-worth are of fundamental importance both to psychological health and to the likelihood that we can achieve goals and ambitions in life and achieve self-actualization.
Self-worth may be seen as a continuum from very high to very low. For Carl Rogers (1959) a person who has high self-worth, that is, has confidence and positive feelings about him or her self, faces challenges in life, accepts failure and unhappiness at times, and is open with people. A person with low self-worth may avoid challenges in life, not accept that life can be painful and unhappy at times, and will be defensive and guarded with other people. Rogers believed feelings of self-worth developed in early childhood and were formed from the interaction of the child with the mother and father. As a child grows older, interactions with significant others will affect feelings of self-worth.
Rogers believed that we need to be regarded positively by others; we need to feel valued, respected, treated with affection and loved. Positive regard is to do with how other people evaluate and judge us in social interaction. Rogers made a distinction between unconditional positive regard and conditional positive regard. Unconditional positive regard is where parents, significant others (and the humanist therapist) accepts and loves the person for what he or she is. Positive regard is not withdrawn if the person does something wrong or makes a mistake.
The consequences of unconditional positive regard are that the person feels free to try things out and make mistakes, even though this may lead to getting it worse at times. People who are able to self-actualize are more likely to have received unconditional positive regard from others, especially their parents in childhood. Conditional positive regard is where positive regard, praise and approval, depend upon the child, for example, behaving in ways that the parents think correct. Hence the child is not loved for the person he or she is, but on condition that he or she behaves only in ways approved by the parent(s). At the extreme, a person who constantly seeks approval from other people is likely only to have experienced conditional positive regard as a child.
How Unconditional Positive Regard Works in TherapyRogers 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. The demonstration of UPR from a therapist can encourage people to share their thoughts, feelings, and actions without fear of offending the therapist. A therapist might simply ask a client to expand on why he or she behaved in a particular manner, rather than condemning the person’s action or inquiring as to how the other person might have felt.
Some therapists believe that UPR can serve as a temporary substitute for parental love that may help clients gain confidence to explore their issues. This belief is heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and is not popular among contemporary mental health professionals. Through providing unconditional positive regard, humanistic therapists seek to help their clients accept and take responsibility for themselves.
Humanistic psychologists believe that by showing the client unconditional positive regard and acceptance, the therapist is providing the best possible conditions for personal growth to the client. David G. Myers says the following in his Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules: People also nurture our growth by being accepting—by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. 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.
Drawbacks of Unconditional Positive Regard
UPR can be especially problematic in couples counseling, where couples often desire a referee who will tell them when they are doing something detrimental to the relationship. When clients feel that UPR in therapy is contrived, it may backfire. For example, some people want a therapist to tell them when they are doing something wrong, to bring awareness to the behavior.
UPR can be difficult for a therapist to sustain, particularly when a person is making negative or unhealthy choices on a recurring basis. Consequently, many therapists attempt to strike a balance by remaining positive, upbeat, and nonjudgmental while at the same time pointing out when a person’s actions are harmful to himself or herself or to others.