UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD: A PERSON-CENTERED TOOL FOR TRANSFORMATION
Personally, the Person-Centered Approach healed me in a way no other approach could have. I have always felt like I had to adhere to an external factors but realized that following my heart, emotions, mind, etc. to the fullest, I can discover so much about my journey and process.
As a long-time instructor of Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered approach and an even longer seeker of spiritual wellness, my life has become an intertwining of both. The healing I have witnessed along the way in both my spiritual and professional paths has given me a sense of humility toward the experience of being human and I was excited at the opportunity to share my findings.
My writing was stalled, however, with the recent deaths of two very important women in my life and the feelings of loss that followed. As I am still adjusting to great loss, it seemed most congruent to let my present state of mind become a stepping off point for my writing. It became important for me to bridge the personal and the professional. In reviewing my relationship with these two women, I recognized key elements of the person-centered approach to therapeutic healing, what Rogers termed “a way of being” . In this article, I will address the healing potential of unconditional positive regard and how it allows healthy growth toward the authentic, autonomous self. My personal experience with these women will be used to describe the effects of unconditional positive regard. I offer this personal exploration in hopes that it helps others bridge personal and professional perceptions.
A Person-Centered Approach
At the core of Carl Rogers’ theory of person-centered approach is the idea that within each individual there is an innate motivating force that will move an individual toward health, toward his/her full potential (for simplification, I will henceforth use the feminine term in my writing). He likened this impulse to that of an onion kept in a dark cellar. In spite of the dark environment, it will send out rootlets to seek the light, to grow. That same tendency exists within each of us. Given a healthy environment, an individual will thrive, open to her natural potential and move toward autonomy, toward self-actualization. In the example of the onion, however, that dark environment might symbolize unhealthy conditions, external dominating pressures, that can stifle healthy growth and lead to unhealthy or discordant behaviors.
Both childhood conditioning and societal pressures impose belief structures, expectations and judgments that help shape us. Either consciously or unconsciously we are pushed to fit a mold, one not necessarily of our choosing. This can lead to a discrepancy between our behaviors, the life directions we choose, our feelings about ourselves, and our natural inclinations or choices more in line with the innate self. Confusion and depression are often the result of these discrepancies. Carl Jung stated that as children, those aspects that parents find unacceptable are often cast into the shadows, these aspects often being our natural gifts, our talents, the innate movement of the self. In my experience, society can do the same thing. We spend much of our adult life working to release external conditioning and reclaiming aspects of the self that have been buried. An environment that is unconditional, empathic and respectful offers the possibility for an individual to recognize conditioned behaviors and reclaim the autonomous, healthy self.
Maya was a colleague, friend and co-facilitator for close to 25 years. Our friendship grew from a collegial one to a closely intertwined friendship. Because we were both trained in person-centered approach, there was an unspoken agreement to be honest with each other, to be real, congruent. The willingness to share openly, even when that meant confronting each other created a trust and allowed us to learn from each other. Setting judgments aside, we listened, shared thoughts on the many topics we were exploring separately and together. No idea was out of bounds, no mood too ugly to expose. There was a trust in sharing feelings and ideas that would leave me vulnerable in most other situations and with most other people. It is clear she always held my experience with unconditional positive regard. There was a respect and honoring of my process and a keen interest in my unfolding.
Rogers was once asked why he did not use the word love instead of unconditional positive regard. His response was that love can be conditional, and often is. Unconditional positive regard, on the other hand suggests that judgments are set aside, there is a caring feeling toward the person and she is regarded with respect. When I spent time with Maya, I was at ease and comfortable in simply being myself. There was no fear of reprisal for behaviors or comments. Any challenges to my thoughts or ideas were offered with clear acknowledgment of my reality and with her taking ownership of her own. This relationship allowed me to see myself more clearly and to explore the dark side of my personality when it presented itself. Maya created an energetic field that I trusted. Even in my darkest times, I knew she would be there when I surfaced, sometimes finding her at my side in these dark places, always without judgment.
In this relationship, where unconditional positive regard was the norm, I rejoiced in new thoughts, discoveries and self-revelations. By her reflection, I recognized my self worth and in that reflection my self-trust was strengthened. My spontaneous reaction when she died surprised me - “There is one less person in the world that loves me.” I realize in retrospective that hers was a special kind of love, one that is rare, an unconditional and positive one. In this recognition, I am working to integrate the unconditional positive regard in which she held me and feel myself a stronger individual for having had her in my life.
Potential for Transformation
Rogers believed that given a healthy, nurturing environment every individual has the capacity to achieve their goals and desires, He identified three key elements as fundamental to a healing environment. These elements are: empathy, the willingness to listen to and understand a person’s world view, congruence – the willingness of the therapist to show up without facade, to be genuine, and unconditional positive regard – the willingness to be fully present to the client’s reality without judging or advising (This does not exclude offering resources when needed or confronting discrepancies when they arise). I have always seen these elements as a formula for compassion.
From this compassionate attitude an environment is created that builds trust and offers a space within which an individual can recognize self-judgments and/or belief systems that have shaped life choices and to some degree personality traits. Reflecting on behaviors that have become obstacles, without the pressure of judgment or expectation, an individual can begin to identify truer needs and move toward autonomy. This process, of course, is not without challenge. The shedding that must occur for a lasting transformation to occur is often painful as one is forced to confront aspects of the self. Within an unconditional, compassionate environment, however, an individual may find the courage to leave the old skin behind and move toward autonomy and self-actualization. As the old skin is shed, she can reclaim joy, freedom and a congruent sense of self.
The second recent loss was my spiritual teacher of almost 30 years. Naima came from an indigenous tribe in Mexico. Her gentle yet powerful presence drew me to her the moment I met her. Being of Mexican descent myself, I was drawn to her shamanic work and subsequently many years of 7-day pilgrimages at her side in sacred areas of Arizona, U.S.A. What stands out clearly from that relationship is her unconditional love and full presence, an unconditional positive regard for me and, as I observed, for all who participated in her work, even when she was strongly confronted. In adjusting to my loss of her, I’m keenly aware of how big a space this type of “love” creates within which an individual can grow.
In practicing person-centered approach with individuals, I found that this approach is much more challenging than the words might describe. Person-centered approach functions at its highest level when all three conditions, empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard are active. It may seem simple to hold an individual’s experience when sharing is mundane or personal stories are dramatic without triggering the therapist personally. However, when we are challenged to accept behaviors that make us uncomfortable or we work with someone who pushes our buttons, it becomes a process that requires self awareness and sensitivity, an empathic, unconditional presence.
My work with Naima was of a shamanic nature; I was pushed to go deep into myself. Naima created an environment that was unconditional and supportive. She articulated it clearly and encouraged participants to hold the same level of support for each other. This articulation created a judgment free environment for the tests we would undergo. Her goal for us was to trust the inner movement of what she called ones “unique design”, perhaps the same essence that Rogers termed as our “innate motivating force”. We were encouraged to seek our “unique design”. We were tested, placed in situations that were difficult and that challenged our reality. (For example, one at a time we entered a deep hole in the earth for an extended amount of time, late at night, in the darkness, opening to what this sensory deprivation might bring up.) In such vulnerable work, there was fallout, Naima was challenged with questions, projections; participant fears arose, often causing emotional conflicts.
The single most powerful learning experience for me throughout these years was bserving Naima’s unconditional presence and care for individuals and for the group, regardless of what surfaced. She stayed fully present without judgment, always supporting with tenderness, understanding that the unfolding self is not an easy process. Her gentle empathy was unconditional, creating a safe container for healing. In this environment over the years I witnessed the healing of alcoholism, child abuse, parental issues and my own awakening to a fuller self. The deep respect given to each individual made transformation possible and long lasting. Sitting in ceremony during her recent memorial, the most common acknowledgment of her work was her unconditional love and the healing it allowed.
The Need for Compassion
I am deeply appreciative of all you have facilitated/brought into my awareness. I sense the lessening of the darker side. I know that the shift into Light/Spirit is the healing and where I am supposed to be.
In working with populations from diverse cultures and of varying ages, many individuals have shared feelings of alienation, either from family members or from society. Still others consider themselves “outsiders”. Most of us do not live in societies that encourage individuals to be fully honest and open, to express feelings that are unpleasant. There are pressures to conform, to produce, to succeed, this success having little to do with personal or spiritual empowerment unless one is lucky enough to find an environment that supports this. This alienation may well be seeded in an individual’s alienation from their innate and natural self, from their “unique design”. Everyone struggles in some way. If I am to be in the helping field, it is most important to me to step into relationships with my judgments and projections set aside, that I encourage individuals to “come as they are” with all their baggage, whether it’s clients, students, or friends. If together we can identify and relax conditioned judgments, artificial belief systems, self criticisms and hold the deeper self with compassion, with unconditional positive regard, perhaps the individual’s innate design will show itself. Perhaps the path can be cleared for healthy, joyful growth and the unique beauty of each individual can thrive.