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.
23 thoughts on “What Is… Unconditional Positive Regard”
I think this is the trait that is the most important in therapeutic psychology.
I’ve always wondered how therapists do this with people who have done terrible things. I had a CBT therapist who used to be a prison therapist and said she had worked with murderers and sex offenders. I did wonder how she kept her unconditional positive regard for such people, although I never had the courage to ask.
Probably in some cases unconditional positive regard isn’t the best approach. A former colleague of mine did a lot of work with sex offenders, and he said he had to do a lot of calling out their BS.
That would make sense.
Wouldn’t placing value judgments on the particular patient for doing something either “evil” or “distasteful” completely compromise the idea of unconditional? Granted, my offense was hands off, and I have worked very hard to turn things around and educate others, but if the therapists and doctors I’ve worked with didn’t have unconditional positive regard, I would not be this far along. My therapist, who owns her large practice with many employees, has said to me that those who can’t be unconditional are very frustrating to work with because they bring value judgments into the room which can be unhealthy for the patient/client.
I think where it gets dicey is in the case of psychopath, or at least highly antisocial, offenders, as there typically isn’t the motivation to “get better” so to speak in that population.
I think that’s a good point, but mustn’t they be evaluated with unconditional positive regard before that diagnosis can be made? Or, is positive as subjective as negative? Good article and discussion. I need something to keep my mind working on a Friday afternoon.
I agree that evaluation should be done without prejudgment, but I don’t think taking a neutral stance is the same thing as unconditional positive regard. And since psychopaths by nature tend to exploit perceived weaknesses in those around them, trying to take a stance of unconditional positive regard could ultimately end up being countertherapeutic.
That was nice to read. I think I’ll practice some unconditional positive regard towards myself! I really think it’s a beautiful concept. Also seeing the other person as really someone else makes it very fruitful in therapy or in life for that matter.
Yes it does!
I’m not sure if I’ve experienced it in a therapeutic setting, but I’ve gotten unconditional positive regard from people in my life, like my husband. It’s what I’d consider grace, getting kindness and understanding when we least expect to get it.
I never thought of it as a therapeutic tool, but hey you learn something new everyday! Thanks for the informative post!
I believe I treat most people with unconditional positive regard. There are certain cases in which I don’t, I’ll admit. I think it’s a means of protecting myself from further disappointment of trusting others. (I’m not even quite sure if that makes sense), However, when I’ve discussed this very subject with my own therapist many, many moons ago… She stated that because I tend to look at the good in most people, that when I am let down it does really affect me and in most cases triggers a depressive episode.
I mean, remember when I wrote about my brother and sister? I would always give the benefit of the doubt, regain some stability, and BOOM! A major let down and I literally was heading in a downward spiral all over again.
Again, in most cases I feel I treat people with unconditional positive regard, but if I am let down… The guarded wall goes up.
Yeah you need to protect yourself.
I’m a therapist and for me, unconditional positive regard is partly accepting a person where they are right now. Not judging the past or trying to manage or preemptively fix the future. I saw someone above asked about working with people who have done bad things. For me, when your in that therapy space, lots of things fall away and you aren’t so much concerned about their past behavior but about affirming who they are in the moment and encouraging their genuine expression of themselves. So often, people have never been able to be themselves without judgement and when they trust that they can, for me as a therapist, it is such an honor to witness that I really don’t think about how it compares to past misdeeds.
That’s great that you’re able to do that.
Great and enlightening post, as usual, Ashley! I think unconditional positive regard towards children is extremely important. And like you said in another comment response, that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with another person, you just accept them as they are. I think when children don’t get enough positive regard, they develop maladaptive ways of looking for it in others, or hurting people as a result of their pain. I’m no therapist, so this is just a layman’s opinion. To paraphrase Fred Rogers, love, or the lack of it, is at the root of everything.
Yes children deserve as much love as we can possibly give them.
I feel like a therapist I used to see was like this with me. She didn’t understand my eating disorder because it wasn’t something she specialised in. She tried her best to be understand, accepting and helpful. She wasn’t always.
I do try to show this towards everyone I am surrounded by whether I like them or not.
That’s good that you take that approach.
I had never heard of unconditional positive regard before…but this topic is VERY interesting! There are a couple of challenging individuals in my life who I don’t know how to deal with…it sounds like unconditional positive regard might be a good approach <3
Yeah good to have another tool in the toolbox.