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Unconditional Positive Regard in Counselling

Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is a concept strongly associated with the founder of person-centred psychotherapy, Carl Rogers. Rogers believed that the therapist’s unconditional positive regard towards the client is one of the six necessary and sufficient conditions which must be present in the therapeutic relationship in order for change to occur.

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What is Unconditional Positive Regard in Counselling?

Unconditional Positive Regard in Counselling: An image of two open hands communicating acceptance

Unconditional positive regard in counselling describes a prizing of the individual, holding no judgement towards them and accepting them fully, just as they are. Carl Rogers described this way of being in the relationship as:

 “A caring which is not possessive, which demands no personal gratification…It involves an acceptance of and a caring for the client as a separate person, with permission for him to have his own feelings and experiences and to find his own meanings for them.”. (Rogers, 1967)

For positive regard to be unconditional in the therapeutic relationship, the therapist must accept all of the client’s feelings and experiences equally and avoid making judgements about their value or validity.

The Purpose of Unconditional Positive Regard in Counselling

Rogers believed that self-acceptance is a key ingredient for therapeutic movement and growth in therapy. He elegantly captures the essence of this sentiment in his writing:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.” (Rogers, 1967).

Offering full acceptance towards clients in the therapy room allows an opportunity for clients to explore their feelings and experiences more fully, perhaps hearing themselves vocalise aspects of themselves which have remained hidden or denied to self for many years.

Expressing difficult thoughts and feelings, which are often accompanied by a sense of shame, in an environment free from the threat of judgement and rejection can help the client to internalise the therapist’s non-judgemental attitude and to promote self-acceptance and self-love – making growth and change possible.

Criticisms of Unconditional Positive Regard

Here are some of the key criticisms of unconditional positive regard:

  • UPR may fall into conflict with congruence – It can be argued that developing a way of being which is unconditionally accepting of the client may also be inauthentic. We all make judgements in our lives and hold internal biases; does laying those aside put the therapist in a position of incongruence?
  • Challenge and UPR – Modalities which favour challenge, and solution-focused techniques to promote change are less likely to see value in unconditional positive regard. Techniques such as challenging unhelpful behaviours and highlighting cognitive distortions appear to be in conflict with Rogers’s ideas around accepting the client just as they are.
  • Lack of empirical evidence – Like a lot of humanistic theory, which is difficult to research and measure in an empirical way, unconditional positive regard comes under criticism for the lack of conclusive evidence for its efficacy.
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How Do We Achieve Unconditional Positive Regard in the Therapy Room

  • Self-acceptance – In order to fully accept the other, it is important that we work towards developing compassion towards ourselves. If a client brings a feeling or element of their personality which we are unable to accept in ourselves, we are much less likely to be able to offer UPR in the relationship. Personal development, personal therapy and self-care are important for nurturing our feelings and attitudes towards ourselves.

Expressing difficult thoughts and feelings, which are often accompanied by a sense of shame, in an environment free from the threat of judgement and rejection can help the client to internalise the therapist’s non-judgemental attitude and to promote self-acceptance and self-love – making growth and change possible.

  • Being in the client’s frame of reference – Offering unconditional positive regard requires us to put our judgements aside and be alongside the client – stepping into their frame of reference. Behaviours or attitudes which the therapist might ordinarily feel compelled to judge must be viewed from the perspective of the client, in the context of their experiences, and not from the therapist’s frame of reference.
  • Being aware of our prejudices – It is important to understand and acknowledge our personal prejudices and unconscious biases, so that we are aware of how they might impact on our ability to be present with clients. If a judgement lies in our unconscious, we may not spot its presence in our interactions with our clients and may unknowingly be responding from a place of judgement. Open and non-defensive work in supervision is vitally important.
  • Being open – Enter into every therapeutic encounter with an openness and willingness to be with the client in the moment. Avoid making assumptions or predictions and check yourself if you find yourself doing so. This way we can fully receive the client, providing the conditions for growth and change.

Reference

Rogers, C. R. (1967) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. 2nd ed. London: Constable.

 

This article was written for Counselling Tutor by Erin Stevens

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