In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term: unconditional positive regard
Unconditional positive regard was first proposed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. It involves accepting another person without judgment as a human being who has value.
It’s not about liking a person necessarily or accepting their 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 positive regard from our parents when we’re young, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Therapy as an adult can provide some level of substitute for this so that the therapeutic relationship can be used to help the client grow.
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 unconditional positive regard is effective in therapy: the drive towards effective interactions with others, and the desire for self-determination.
A review by Farber and Doolin found that there was a moderate relationship between the use of unconditional positive regard and positive therapeutic outcomes, so it was not the sole determining factor in the success of therapy. By helping to strengthen the therapeutic relationship, it can help to promote other therapeutic goals not only in humanistic approaches but also 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 unconditional positive regard could be particularly useful when a non-minority therapist is working with a minority client,
What stands out in my mind when I think of unconditional positive regard 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 was a very odd duck, and had a history of some rather unpleasant behaviours when acutely ill, so unconditional positive regard 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?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- Farber, A.B., & Doolin, E.M. (2011). Positive regard. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 58-64.
- PositivePsychology.com: What is unconditional positive regard in psychology?
- Wikipedia: Unconditional positive regard