Stephen Joseph Ph.D.

What Doesn't Kill Us

The Secret to a Contented Life

Unconditional positive self-regard

Posted Jun 05, 2013

Feeling good about ourselves is important to a contented life. But the secret to feeling good about ourselves is unconditional self-acceptance.

As children we often develop what psychotherapists refer to as conditions of worth. Conditions of worth are the rules we learn in childhood for what we must do to be loved. For example, we learn that we must be attractive, popular, sporty, tidy, respectful, funny, or whatever in order to feel accepted.  Everybody has their own unique combination of conditions of worth. For one person, it might be to please other people. For someone else it is to be the smart one. For another it is to always keep their feelings in check.

Conditions of worth become deeply buried within us and we carry them around with us, even as adults. Without being aware of it we judge ourselves in terms of how well we live up to our conditions of worth. As a result, how good we feel about ourselves becomes conditional. We lose our ability to trust the evidence of our own senses and defer to the judgment of others.

To truly feel good about ourselves we have to learn to be aware of our conditions of worth and let them go. The secret is to learn to value ourselves on our own terms, unconditionally.

What this means is that we make our own choices about what our priorities in life are, what our values are and what rules to live by. So when we kick ourselves for not living up to some standard it is our standard, not us simply kicking ourselves on behalf of someone else.

Unconditional self-regard doesn’t mean praising ourselves unrealistically. Rather the opposite, we have to be realistic about ourselves, both our strengths and our weaknesses.

As the psychologist Carl Rogers pointed out, when we do accept ourselves for who we are, paradoxically we become free to change and grow psychologically. 

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Patterson, T.G., & Joseph, S. (2006). Development of a measure of unconditional positive self-regard. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, research and Practice, 79, 557-570.