In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is unconditional positive regard.
Unconditional positive regard was first described by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. It involves accepting another person without judgment simply because they are a human being who has value.
It doesn’t necessarily mean accepting a person’s behaviours; it’s about non-judgment of the deeper inherent worth regardless of what problematic actions the person may take. There is a sense of hope that the individual has the resources within them to enable constructive change and growth, and they have the right to make their own choices for themselves.
Ideally, we would all receive unconditional acceptance from our parents as children, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Therapy as an adult can provide some level of substitute to foster growth.
PositivePsychology.com provides several quotes from Carl Rogers, including this description of unconditional positive regard:
“…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 own feelings, his own experiences.”
This quote from Rogers is a nice analogy:
“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”
Rogers identified two main reasons that this approach is effective in therapy: the drive towards effective interactions with others and the desire for self-determination.
Effectiveness in therapy
A review by Farber and Doolin found a moderate relationship between the use of unconditional positive regard and positive therapeutic outcomes, and it wasn’t the sole determining factor in the success of therapy. By helping to strengthen the therapeutic relationship, it can promote other therapeutic goals, not only in humanistic approaches but also in psychoanalytic and behavioural approaches.
Farber and Doolin emphasized that unconditional positive regard must be actively conveyed to the client rather than simply being an internal mindset for the therapist. They suggested that it could be particularly useful when a non-minority therapist is working with a minority client.
Unconditional and the unpalatable
What stands out in my mind when I think of this concept is a patient who was transferred onto my caseload when I was working at a community mental health team. The nurse who was passing him on to me said that while he wasn’t easy to work with, the most effective approach to take with him was unconditional positive regard. It certainly was not easy; he had a history of some rather unpleasant behaviours when acutely ill, so unconditionality was always an active work in progress rather than something that came easily.
Is unconditional positive regard something that you’ve experienced in therapeutic relationships or other relationships in your life?
- Farber, A.B., & Doolin, E.M. (2011). Positive regard. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 58-64.
- Ackerman, C.E. (2018). What is unconditional positive regard in psychology? PositivePsychology.com.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.