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The I-Thou Relationship and Unconditional Positive Regard

These are essential relationship attitudes to use in life and therapy.

Key points

  • In the I-Thou relationship, I meet you as you are, and you meet me as I am.
  • Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of complete acceptance.
  • Cultivating the I-Thou relationship and unconditional positive regard lets a client know that they have inherent worth.
  • The I-Thou relationship and unconditional positive regard enable therapist and client to genuinely meet each other, so growth can happen.

The I-thou relationship refers to the sacredness of the relationship between two people. Unconditional positive regard refers to showing complete support and acceptance of a person no matter what that person says or does. Both relationships are essential for effective therapy. While these two core attitudes are specifically components of an Existential-Humanistic psychotherapy modality, I believe they would be beneficial for any therapeutic modality.

I-Thou relationship

According to Martin Buber, a German philosopher, human beings may adopt two attitudes toward the world: I-Thou or I-It. Buber contrasted the I-Thou relationship with the I-It relationship. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings are aware of each other as being interconnected. Dialogue is the means to facilitate this interconnectedness. Buber viewed dialogue as a form of human meeting with an orientation toward connection and relationship. The I-It encounter is the opposite of an I-Thou. It is transactional.

In the I-Thou relationship, I meet you as you are, and you meet me as I am. The I-Thou relationship is a dialogue which can only happen when there is a genuine relationship with the other person. The I–Thou relationship is characterized by mutuality, transparency, and presence. In therapy, it is the relationship experienced between the client and the therapist. This relationship goes beyond any overt transaction between the client and therapist.

In the I-It relationship, there is no dialogue. It only focuses on a transaction which is functional. It is based on an exchange. When the exchange is complete, the relationship ends. I-It relationships include necessary transactions for daily living. There can be both healthy and unhealthy transactions within I-It relationships. Healthy I-It transactions are those that are direct and transparent. Unhealthy I-It transactions are those that are manipulative and dishonest. In therapy, the healthy I-It relationship is demonstrated by the transaction of the therapist getting paid for a session by the client and the client benefiting from the therapist’s skills in the session.

Unconditional Positive Regard

According to Carl Rogers, an American psychologist and the founder of Person-Centered Therapy, human beings may have two attitudes toward each other: unconditional positive regard and conditional positive regard. Rogers contrasted these two attitudes. Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of complete acceptance, whether for yourself or for someone else. Conditional positive regard is an attitude of valuing a person only if certain conditions, standards, or expectations are met.

When you have unconditional positive regard for someone, nothing they can do could give you a reason to stop seeing them as inherently having value and worth. It does not mean that you accept each action the person has taken. It means you accept who they are at a level much deeper than surface behavior. In therapy, an environment of unconditional positive regard benefits the client in the following ways: When the therapist offers no judgment the client feels less fearful and is more likely to share their thoughts, feelings, and actions freely. As the therapist accepts the client, the client is encouraged to find self-acceptance.

When you approach a relationship with an attitude of conditional positive regard, the person can feel they need to respond in a certain way to please you. They feel a need to hide certain aspects of themselves from you, for if they don’t hide them, they risk disapproval. In therapy, this inhibits the client from exploring who they are in a deeper way because they can be afraid of not getting the therapist’s approval.

Therapeutic Benefits for the Client

Cultivating the I-Thou relationship and unconditional positive regard entails letting the client know both verbally and nonverbally, that they have inherent worth. This is incredibly affirming for the client because they are being validated for who they are, regardless of any therapeutic growth that is occurring. It is letting the client know that you, as the therapist, value the client in all their parts – including those parts of themselves they have disowned, avoided, or repressed.

As the therapist, I invite all those parts to the session because the client, like myself, is a complex human being. The client and I are both living, messy, human beings with strengths and gifts as well as vulnerabilities and regrets. We are in the same human soup and on this therapeutic journey together. I just happen to be in the role of therapist, and they are in the role of client. We are two human beings meeting each other as genuinely as we can. In this encounter, change happens for both of us.

The paradox is that the more the therapist facilitates a client to accept themselves in all their parts, the more the client can heal parts of themselves that no longer serve them. Growth can occur. When the client is working on integrating all their parts, including any parts they have disowned, growth can occur. If they resist embracing their inherent value and self-acceptance, and don’t integrate the parts they have disowned, they stay stuck.

A client of mine wrote what I believe encapsulates the power of the I-Thou relationship and unconditional positive regard to facilitate personal growth. “Your understanding and acceptance of my slowly re-emerging self helped me to value myself. I heard a man once describe his reason for his life-long close friendship with another person by saying, ‘He gets me.' I feel ‘gotten’ by you. This feeling is so totally affirming. I have gained a new-found confidence in myself.”

I want to close this post with a few questions you can ask yourself that might be helpful: Who are the people that you are close to in your life? With which of these people do you feel you have cultivated an I-Thou relationship and demonstrated unconditional positive regard? How does that feel for you? Can you describe it? With which of your close relationships do you feel you can have a stronger I-Thou relationship and demonstrate stronger unconditional positive regard? Are there ways you take them for granted? Are there ways you get frustrated at them without feeling compassion for them simultaneously? With these relationships, would you want to have the intention and make the effort to develop a stronger I-Thou relationship and demonstrate unconditional positive regard?

I wish you a life journey of developing I-Thou relationships and holding unconditional positive regard for yourself and for other people in your life.

More from Bob Edelstein L.M.F.T., M.F.T
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