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Unconditional Positive Regard

If you think it's about smiling and nodding, you are doing it wrong.

Unconditional positive regard is not about liking someone.

Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is the foundation stone of many of the psychotherapies. At first glance, it seems like a fairly simple idea. But unpacking what it looks like in practice turns out to be far more difficult.

One of the questions that always crops up is whether it is possible to have UPR for someone who has done terrible, hurtful things. “I couldn’t like that person,” or “I would never approve of what they have done,” are frequent comments from people learning about UPR for the first time. But UPR does not mean you must like a person or approve of what they have done.

What it means is that you respect the person as a human being with agency to choose how to respond to their situation, and that no matter how dangerous or dysfunctional they seem to be, they are doing their best. This rests on the particular philosophical view of human nature associated with the psychologist Carl Rogers, the founder of client-centered therapy.

First, Rogers’ theory was that human beings have an innate urge towards socially constructive behavior which is always present and always functioning at some level. Second, Rogers believed that each person had a need for self-determination; and the more a person’s need for self-determination is respected, the more likely their innate urge to be socially constructive will take hold. For Rogers, this provided insight into the best way to create nurturing environments at home, school, workplace, and therapy room.

Unconditional positive regard, therefore, means valuing the person as doing their best to move forward in their lives constructively and respecting the person’s right to self-determination—no matter what they choose to do.

That doesn’t mean that you need to like the person or approve of what they do. Nor does it mean that you have to simply put up with what they do if you see it as dangerous in some way.

Trainee therapists often want to know how to do UPR. It can be misunderstood as simply being nice to people—smiling at them and nodding. But it’s not about what you do. UPR is an attitude. Once a therapist gets the attitude, the behaviour that expresses that attitude will follow.

The thing to understand is that UPR only makes sense as a way to be with others if you think the theory behind it is right. But more than that, if you don’t buy the theory, you won’t actually be able to do it—no matter how hard you try.

If you are not genuine, your conditional regard will always leak out.

Learn more in my book, Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why It Matters.

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