Unconditional Positive Regard

therapy and mental health treatment concept as a sheet of torn crumpled white paper taped together shaped as a side profile of a human face on wood, psychological help concept.

The concept of unconditional positive regard was developed by Carl Rogers in 1956 and is widely accepted as essential for therapy to be effective.

According to Rogers, unconditionality means that there are no conditions of acceptance. Wikipedia adds to this by stating that this basic acceptance and support of a person is regardless of what the person says or does. Unconditional positive regard is not about evaluating, it is about accepting and believing in the right and ability of the person, when experiencing it, to heal.

Carl Rogers states the following: “The central hypothesis of this approach [Client-Centered Therapy] can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

Rogers, Carl R. “Client-centered Approach to Therapy”, in I. L. Kutash and A. Wolf (eds.), Psychotherapist’s Casebook: Theory and Technique in Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

We live in a world were such positive regard is often more the exception than the rule. There seems to be so much judgment out there, especially on social media.

Angry little girl shouting

And this is especially true when people interact with a child or adult with unresolved trauma. People with unresolved trauma often exhibit behaviors that are difficult to understand. The child or adult affected by it can be highly dissociative and can seem to be choosing to be disengaged, uninterested and unreachable. They can also be hyper-vigilant and sometimes hyper- aggressive.

Someone who is not trauma-informed might believe the person has the choice to stop those behaviors and therefore deserves to be judged as being unreasonable or difficult. Often the trauma-impacted person is easily triggered, experiencing flashbacks, and many times is repeating or reenacting the situations in which their trauma first occurred.

Well-meaning people, often the ones closest to those who display typical behaviors of someone with unresolved trauma, issue a variety of suggestions and advice. “Have you tried…” “Something that helps me when I feel overwhelmed is to…” “Have you ever thought about how your behaviors impact others, how you are off-putting by being like this?”    

These suggestions are veiled criticisms that convey judgment, disapproval, doubt and the belief that the person should be able to stop these behaviors simply by their volition. There is a pressure to change, as if the person isn’t really trying hard enough.

Recovery and healing from trauma doesn’t work like that. For there to be any kind of recovery or healing, a child or adult must first experience high levels of safety in a relationship. A major part of feeling safe with someone is to know that they are not judging you and in fact accept you. They don’t require explanations for your beliefs and behaviors.

Actively listening and reflecting back to a person without adding any kind of reassurances, explanations, suggestions, personal stories or questions (what we call RESS-Qing) is how we offer unconditional positive regard. Your job is not to fix someone. Rather it is to embrace them with loving acceptance and appreciation, even when it doesn’t make sense to you. “It seems hard for you right now to fully attend to others around you.” “You seem surprised at how angry you feel right now. Your anger might even be scaring you.” “Sometimes we really struggle to control behaviors that others believe are unacceptable.”

Depressing girl. sits on the floor. Depression and chronic fatigue.

It can be an effort to offer unconditional positive regard to a trauma-impacted child or adult because we want things to be better for them. The problem is that anything short of unconditional positive regard can not only hurt not that person but can limit our relationship with them. It takes time to learn to trust the power of simply being with somebody with messages of pure acceptance and no criticism or judgment. If we are trying to fix someone, we are not accepting them for who they are in the moment.

In Carl Rogers words, offering unconditional positive regard means that we appreciate that “the individual has within him or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior.”

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. Can you recall a time when all you needed was someone to appreciate and accept you and instead they offered a lot of suggestions and judgments about your behavior? How did that make you feel? How did that impact your relationship with that person?
  2. How do you think you might have felt if instead you were offered unconditional positive regard? How much safer would that have made you feel in the relationship with that person?
  3. Are you willing, especially if you have a child or adult in your life who has unresolved trauma, to extend to him or her unconditional positive regard, leaving behind any comments or even facial expressions that communicate you are judging him or her?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute