Thursday, February 20, 2014

Unconditional Positive Regard: De-Mystifying Carl Rogers' Concept

It is incredibly difficult for most people to grasp the concept of unconditional positive regard. Even on paper, it seems that Carl Rogers eludes understanding. And yet, once someone not only understands it, but practices it with full faith and confidence, it completely changes your world view and the way you interact with others. This, in turn, generates more positive feelings for those who receive the unconditional positive regard. So, let us begin with some basic clarifications, definitions if you will, to help reach an understanding.

Self-Actualization: according to humanistic psychologists, Rogers included, the driving force behind human behavior and mental processes. The motivation is to become the best "you" that you can be. This is defined by each individual through choices fueled by free will. Those choices can be influenced by interactions with others, but it is ultimately up to YOU to decide which choice to make and how you define your ideal self. It is also up to you to determine whether or not you reach your full potential, at what rate, and for what amount of time you will stay there.

Free Will: ability to make choices and the responsibility to accept the consequences of those choices. Humanism states that each human being experiences the world in a unique and conscious way. We interpret what we experience in ways that we choose, and each interpretation is just as valid as someone else's because it works for us as theirs works for them. However, we are also fully responsible for our choices and interpretations. No one can "make" you feel or do anything. You choose to respond with certain emotions or behaviors and you can just as easily choose a different response if you are not satisfied with a particular outcome. You are also free to reinterpret your experiences and reevaluate your definition of your self-actualized persona if you don't like the direction you are taking at any given moment. The choice is all yours, as is the responsibility (or "blame" if you prefer a more pessimistic term).

Positive Regard:  positive affect (liking, love, respect, some combination thereof) and individual receives from others and gives to others. When we experience positive regard we know that others care for us and our self-esteem tends to rise. The type of positive regard, however, greatly affects the potency of the experience.

Conditional Positive Regard: positive affect that comes with a price. All too often do we sense that our worth in the eyes of others is dependent upon some measure of merit that they place upon us. We are also not always fully aware of what that condition is, just that it exists. For example, small children often change their labeling of other children as "friends" based on the actions of those "friends" at that moment. Sally may see Amy as her best friend today because Amy gave her the juice box from her lunch. But the next day, Amy is playing house with Joe and didn't ask Sally to play with them, so Sally doesn't like Amy that day. Children often feel as if the love of their parents is highly conditional--Mom & Dad won't love them fully unless they get perfect grades, are accepted into the "right" school, choose the "right" career, or make it onto the team or in the honor society. Many children grow up believing that they have to perform the right actions in order to receive acceptance from their parents and, sadly, some children feel that they never quite measure up to the expectations of their parents. If you have ever worried about disappointing your parents, then chances are good that you experienced (or even just interpreted it as) conditional positive regard. This is a heavy burden to bear, especially if the individual is very important to you. By trying to live up to someone else's expectations, we prevent ourselves from setting our own standards and defining our own goals for self-actualization. This makes is all the more difficult to achieve that high level of existence because you feel you are not free to set the bar yourself.

Unconditional Positive Regard: positive affect with no strings attached. As hard as it is to live with conditional positive regard, we are so used to experiencing it that we find it too difficult to grasp, let alone believe in, the idea of unconditional positive regard. The first step in giving unconditional positive regard is to separate behavior from the person. Of course, this is in direct opposition to behaviorism, which states that human beings are simply the sum total of their actions (behaviors). Humanism makes this distinction, though. Yes, you have free will. Yes, your choices are your responsibility. However, your choices, your behaviors, even your feelings, are not YOU. What defines your personality, your person, is something above and beyond just the conglomeration of the bits and pieces that people witness and judge on a regular basis. A human is something above and beyond their experiences. According to humanism, deep in the heart of every human being is a core of goodness worthy of love and respect simply because they exist. There are no "bad" people. There may be "bad" thoughts or "bad" behaviors or "bad" choices, but that does not mean that the person who engaged in them is "bad" in any sense of the word.

Rogers believed that receiving unconditional positive regard allows an individual to correct inappropriate behaviors without having to give up their core essence because that core was, by its very human nature, worthy of positive regard in its own right. Again, it is not easy to grasp as we are so used to conditions being placed upon us. For many children, if their parents were to say "I love YOU. I'm disappointed in your choices and I don't approve of your behavior, but nothing will change how much I love YOU as a person," this would be too difficult to understand. How can you possibly love someone so much that you can look past their flaws? In truth, you don't have to look past someone's flaws, you don't have to ignore what you consider to be improper behavior or wrong choices, to provide unconditional positive regard. Correcting behavior and steering someone toward more healthy decisions is actually a form of love, so long as your intent is not overpowering malicious control so that your life is more enjoyable, but rather to improve the experiences of the person whose behaviors you are correcting. Parents who show unconditional positive regard love their children because the children are who they are, and they help their children make better choices that will in turn lead to more positive interactions with the rest of the world and help their children on their journey toward self-actualization. Parents correct AND forgive behavior that they feel is maladaptive or inappropriate. They don't dwell on it, per se, but they don't ignore it either.

To forgive behaviors that may have hurt you because you have unconditional positive regard for someone else does not mean that you have to be their doormat or their punching bag. You can still have unconditional positive regard for someone who mistreated you without having to put up with the maltreatment. You can "love" them from afar and patiently wait for them to change their behaviors. You can accept them for who they are without having to put up with their behaviors. But, you have to be able to separate a person from what they do. Again, it's not easy. It's also not easy to convince someone who is not used to receiving unconditional positive regard that you can feel that way toward them.

You can also choose to not let someone else's behaviors hurt you. The amount of anger or sadness you feel, according to humanism at least, is completely up to you. While it is understandable to feel hurt when others behave selfishly in regard to you, you don't have to feel that way. You can decide how much you want it to affect you. You can decide if you want to give the person time to correct their behaviors. You can decide if you want to help them correct their actions. You can decide if you want to move away from them. You can decide if you want to give them another chance.

It is easy to like people who treat us the way we want to be treated. It is easy to dislike people who don't. It is a true challenge to decide to have unconditional positive regard for yourself and others, separating the behaviors from the person. If I have confused you, if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to comment on this post or contact me via Twitter (eowyn35) or Google+ or Facebook. I'm not hard to find and I welcome all thoughts and viewpoints. They help me make different choices and life is that much richer for the experiences.

And yes, I do personally believe that there are no bad people in this world. There are many bad decisions and many selfish acts perpetuated, but I believe that all people have a core of goodness within them. Some may need a little more help and positive regard to find it than others. And it did take me a while to figure out all of this and decide to believe it for myself.