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The Problem With Unconditional Positive Regard

Seemingly benign, it can keep us from seeing distress as a meaningful response.

Key points

  • Therapists and others have long championed “unconditional positive regard” as part of a proper relationship.
  • While valuing the lives of others is a great good, the “unconditional” part should give us pause.
  • It risks trivializing people’s experiences and wrongly treating them as abnormal or unhealthy.
Wikimedia Commons
Carl Rogers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Therapists of many stripes have long considered unconditional positive regard to be an essential element of a good therapeutic relationship. Initially popularized by Carl Rogers in the 1950s as a cornerstone of client-centered therapy, it gradually spread to other approaches—in practice, if not always in theory. Although seemingly less concerned with relationship skills and more with techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapists, for example, turn out to be just as committed to empathy and unconditional positive regard in their actual practice as therapists with other orientations.1 Even psychoanalysts have largely left behind their objective analytic neutrality in favor of a more empathetic relationship.

For Rogers, unconditional positive regard involved laying aside one’s own views and values in order to “enter another’s world without prejudice.”2 It meant creating a type of caring relationship “in which clients are accepted as they say they are.” Therapists “prize” the whole person, who is given “permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences.” In this empathetic “ambiance,” the client is emboldened to “feel more acceptance of all his own experience,” including that of which he might be “frightened or ashamed.”

Rogers and others believed the stance of positive regard fostered a therapeutic relationship of trust and support, encouraging clients to be forthcoming and share their thoughts and feelings without fear of being judged or misunderstood. Such a “facilitative attitude” would help clients develop their own positive self-regard and approval.

In the extension of artificial intelligence (AI) to psychotherapy, we find the same ideal. The therapeutic chatbot Wysa, for instance, promises to be “someone who doesn’t judge,” an obvious attraction to people hoping to avoid stigma and preconceived ideas. According to a survey on AI and work from the company Oracle, American employees endorsed “unbiased” and “judgment-free” as the two primary reasons for being enthusiastic about machines for mental health support.3

Beyond therapy, Rogers and many others have recommended unconditional positive regard as a beneficial way of conducting ourselves in all our relationships with friends, colleagues, students, and even our children. It is not just the therapeutic alliance that is at issue.

On the face of it, the stance of positive regard seems entirely unobjectionable and benign. What could be wrong with relating to others with empathy and support, with trying to always remain fair and open-minded?

Paradoxical Consequences

The “unconditional” part, however, should give us pause. It can have paradoxical consequences.

First, such an approach risks trivializing people’s experiences. There can be an assumption, as we find in Rogers’s humanistic psychology, that each of us is an isolated individual, a closed circuit of self-defined meanings and idiosyncratic experiences. “Man,” Rogers writes, “lives essentially in his own personal and subjective world.” Each of us has our own personal truth, we might say, which emerges from our own private and “essentially” arbitrary choices. Our experience, in this view, “just is what it is,” observes the psychologist Louis Sass, and since it is subjective and incommensurable, “there is little point in criticizing its validity.”4

But then, Sass continues, there is also little “possibility for serious communication.” If, in our lofty openness and acceptance, we deny people any substantive standpoint of their own, something that could challenge our own assumptions about reality “or the proper conduct of life,” then there may be something “ultimately condescending and even countertherapeutic” about unconditional positive regard. Validating a person’s perception of their experience, understood in this purely private and arbitrary way, is just an empty gesture. It has no more significance than affirming a person’s favorite brand of ice cream.

Seen in this way, unconditional positive regard is not a step toward a genuine encounter. Rather than opening up the possibility of a “probing and ultimately challenging dialogue” that could confront “issues of values and of (objective) truth,” the unconditional stance would foreclose it. There is no point if the world and its demands are not part of the picture.

Second and related, unconditional positive regard risks an unwarranted pathologization. Signaling an immediate acceptance of a person’s account of their experience in therapy or other close relationships can shut down any discussion of their reasons or inquiry into their circumstances. Why did they act as they did or feel “frightened or ashamed,” to quote Rogers again? Reasons are important; they are how we establish our moral agency, our full personhood, and our responsibility. Without knowing the reasons, we cannot consider a person’s thoughts, behavior, or feelings as meaningful responses, as justified or appropriate to the situation. Their experience is left open to, or even invites, the interpretation that it is reasonless and, therefore, abnormal.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the most common form now practiced, would seem to be different. Being active and directive, CBT seems to avoid the subjectivism that infects the concept of unconditional positive regard. In CBT, we are led to recognize that some of our thoughts, feelings, and actions cause us difficulty. Suffering is a matter of “faulty thinking.” Its resolution involves “reframing” or “restructuring” with more “positive” and “effective” habits.

But the CBT focus is on solving a problem and reasons, again, play no role. Did getting upset make you happier or allow things to go better? The leading question is of “effectiveness,” which leaves no room to see suffering as a response to events in the world or to the moral and normative demands of our situation. Issues that are fundamentally moral or existential get subsumed under and treated as indistinguishable from the pathological.

Valuing the lives and needs of others is a great good. But while unconditional positive regard may help us persuade others to feel better about themselves (at least temporarily), it also risks reducing their status as agents by denying them a vision of the good or language of reasons. In the very moment they seek meaning in their suffering, they may find not empathy but that we have changed the subject.


1. G.P.J. Keijsers, C.P.D.R. Schaap, C.A.L. Hoogdun. “The Impact of Interpersonal Patient and Therapist Behavior on Outcome in Cognitive-Behavior Therapy: A Review of Empirical Studies.” Behavior Modification 24 (2000): 264-297.

2. Quotes from Carl Rogers are from: “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 21 (1957): 95-103; and “A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, as Developed in the Client-Centered Framework,” in S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959, 184-256.

3. Oracle, “As Uncertainty Remains, Anxiety and Stress Reach a Tipping Point at Work,”

4. Louis A. Sass, “Humanism, Hermeneutics, and the Human Subject,” in S.B. Messer, L.A. Sass, and R.L. Woolfolk (Eds.) Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988, 222-271.

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