The Power of Unconditional Positive Regard
“Love takes courage. Be brave. Let yourself be seen.” –Brené Brown
What are our deepest longings?
When we lie awake at night or sit in stillness, what desperate fears claw to the surface of our thoughts?
What feelings gnaw our stomachs to shreds and imperil our poised, carefully-constructed semblance of ‘gram-worthy life?
Which desires threaten to discredit the representative selves we send into our worlds each day?
In other words, when we allow our terror to speak, what does it say?
No doubt, the answers to these questions are as varied as the individuals who ask them. My educated guess, however, is that when we drill all the way down, most of us whose basic needs are met, will find ourselves in a very similar place to one another. Sure, the pictures on the walls vary, and the floor plans differ, but the castles we’ve built in our innermost places all serve a common purpose; bunkers for our authentic selves, hideouts for our shame, refuge for our inability to believe we can be fully seen and remain fully loved.
So, how do we begin to deconstruct these heavy castle walls in order to see beyond them? How do we let the light and the landscape in, stone by heavy stone? How can counseling help with this process?
Enter unconditional positive regard. A concept coined by Carl Rogers, it is one of the most critical components in building a strong therapeutic alliance in the counseling room. Put simply, it is a posture; a therapist’s sincere belief in her client’s inherent dignity. Unconditional positive regard says no matter what thoughts, feelings and behaviors are illuminated in this space, you, my client, are worthy of love and acceptance, and I, your therapist and fellow human, will empower you to experience this belief; to feel it, to receive it, by my very presence.
This heart-and-mindset slays the shame which drives incongruence. It dismantles the defensive castle walls we build to isolate our humanity. It says you are wholly acceptable, right now, exactly as you are. Unconditional positive regard is an invitation: bring your thoughts and feelings into the light and into this room and let us curiously explore them. In this way, the client regains authority over her thoughts and emotions, rather than being their pawn. As her darkest fears and deepest shame are met with acceptance, love and mercy, there grows in her an unstoppable courage; one which will fuel her quest for the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health she longs for. A courage which will teach her, stone by stone, she can be wholly seen and wholly loved still.
For those in Christ, these Rogerian principles are rooted in deep biblical truth. What Carl Rogers pioneered in the early 1950s, a man named Yeshua demonstrated over 2000 years ago. His documented relationships with his disciples, his friends and his enemies are evidentiary examples of the power of unconditional positive regard. We see him steeped in mercy with the woman at the well. We see him drenched in grace upon meeting Peter after being deceitfully betrayed by him. We see him offer acceptance to the thief on the cross. Indeed, we witness unconditional positive regard even as he hung dying, when he implores the Father, “Forgive them! They don’t know what they are doing.”
Unconditional positive regard is rooted in a greater worldview which says every human being is inherently loveable because each one is created in the image of a good and loving God. As Christians, we start here. As Christian counselors, we live here. What this means is no matter the offense, no matter the evil perpetrated by or against our clients, we hold their dignity as sacred truth. We are offered an opportunity to walk out the command in Micah 6:8; to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. We can accept an invitation from our Redeemer to allow mercy to triumph over judgment.
David G. Meyers, psychologist, author and happiness researcher, puts it this way: “This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted.”
Clients need not fear rejection or judgment from us. In the absence of fear, freedom prospers; freedom from shame, terror and incongruence, and freedom to take down the castle walls, come out of hiding, and live.