Feltham and Dryden define ‘conditions of worth’ as ‘the terms on which one receives approval from significant others’ (1993: 34). This concept is central in person-centred counselling, developed by Carl Rogers.
First Use of the Term
Rogers (1959: 209) introduced and explained conditions of worth as follows:
The self-structure is characterized by a condition of worth when a self-experience or set of related self-experiences is either avoided or sought solely because the individual discriminates it as being less or more worthy of self-regard.
… A condition of worth arises when the positive regard of a significant other is conditional, when the individual feels that in some respects he is prized and in others not. Gradually this same attitude is assimilated into his own self-regard complex, and he values an experience positively or negatively solely because of these conditions of worth which he has taken over from others, not because the experience enhances or fails to enhance his organism.
In other words, based on the idea of conditional love, conditions of worth are the messages we take on board about what we have to do to be valued by other people. They are based on introjected values – that is, the values that we adopt from those around us, to enable us to gain their approval. Conditions of worth are a result of receiving conditional positive regard from others – i.e., from what we experience others wanting us to be and do in order to be seen by them as worthy.
When Conditions of Worth Are Acquired
Conditions of worth are usually acquired in childhood: ‘Conditions of worth are transmitted to the child, who learns that s/he is acceptable or lovable if s/he behaves, thinks and feels in certain ways’ (Tolan, 2003: 4). We may be surrounded by this from birth, giving the message: ‘Comply if you want to be viewed as worthy of being loved.’
Conditions of worth include rules that govern values, beliefs and behaviours – if we break these rules, we expect to receive disapproval and rejection. They become part of our self-concept, and we accept them as the truth rather than as an opinion. Conditions of worth can be very subtle and so extremely powerful, and they may not be obvious to us.
Examples of Conditions of Worth
Ask yourself how you would complete the following: ‘If I am to be of value, I must …’:
- work hard
- please others
- not cry
- not get angry
- not show any weakness
- be quiet
- do as I am told
Maybe some of these endings feel familiar to you. All reflect conditions of worth. They put pressure on us to behave in particular ways, even when contrary to how we feel. Thus, they lead to incongruence.
Haugh (2012: 21) describes a bereaved client who was feeling guilty that she was sometimes having fun six months after the death of her sister. She worried that people would think less of her for being happy. Haugh (ibid.) explains:
She linked this to the fact that in her early home life it had been frowned on to have ‘too much fun – it tempted fate’. In her family of origin she had received more positive regard for being morose than for being happy.
How Can We Move Away from Conditions of Worth?
The process of leaving behind conditions of worth and beginning to operate as our real selves includes moving away from facades, away from ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’, and away from pleasing others. As receiving the core conditions enables us to identify and reject conditions of worth that are unhelpful, we move towards self-direction, openness to experience, a greater trust in self, and a greater respect for and understanding of others.
When Rogers (1959) sought to identify the characteristics of an actualized person, these included: ‘Have no conditions of worth and experience unconditional self-regard’ (Merry, 2014: 40). Accepting ourselves requires a movement towards being able to recognise – and ultimately reject – conditions of worth, moving towards using our own organismic valuing process.
Feltham C and Dryden W (1993) Dictionary of Counselling, Whurr Publishers
Haugh S (2012) ‘A Person-Centred Approach to Loss and Bereavement’. In Tolan J and Wilkins P (eds) (2012) Client Issues in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Sage
Merry T (2014) Learning and Being in Person-Centred Counselling, PCCS Books
Rogers C (1959) ‘A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, As Developed in the Client-Centered Framework’, in Koch S (ed) (1959) Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context, McGraw-Hill
Tolan J (2003) Skills in Person-Centred Counselling & Psychotherapy, Sage