What Is Unconditional Positive Regard in Psychology?

This technique emphasizes the therapeutic benefits of feeling accepted

A female therapist listens to a couple during a therapy session.

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Unconditional positive regard, a concept from Rogerian psychotherapy, is the practice of showing nonjudgmental acceptance and warmth towards therapy clients. According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard is a key component of successful therapy. When clients feel accepted and understood by their therapist, they are more equipped to develop positive views about themselves and act in ways that improve their lives.

Key Takeaways: Unconditional Positive Regard

  • Unconditional positive regard is a term coined by psychologist Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered psychotherapy.
  • For therapists, practicing unconditional positive regard means communicating acceptance, warmth, and understanding to clients.
  • Within Rogerian therapy, unconditional positive regard is considered a crucial part of the therapeutic relationship, as it helps clients cultivate unconditional positive self-regard.

Unconditional Positive Regard and Humanistic Psychology

Unconditional positive regard is an essential component of person-centered or Rogerian therapy, a therapeutic approach developed by psychologist Carl Rogers. In Rogerian therapy, a therapist listens and allows clients to decide for themselves what to discuss. The therapist’s role is to develop a better understanding of the client (or, in Rogerian terms, to cultivate empathic understanding), to be authentic and genuine in their interactions with clients, and to accept the client in a nonjudgmental, compassionate way. That nonjudgmental, compassionate acceptance is what Rogers termed unconditional positive regard.

Rogerian therapy is considered a humanistic approach to psychology because it emphasizes people’s capabilities to grow and change for the better, focusing on strengths and potential rather than weakness.

Benefits of Unconditional Positive Regard

In Rogers’ theory, all humans need to feel good about themselves. As a result, we often end up developing contingent positive regard—that is, we feel good about ourselves only to the extent that we believe we are living up to certain standards. Individuals with contingent positive regard might feel positively about themselves only to the extent that they view themselves as a good student, a good employee, or a supportive partner. If they fail to meet those criteria, they experience anxiety.

Unconditional positive regard is considered beneficial in Rogerian therapy because it helps clients develop unconditional positive self-regard. Clients may be accustomed to judging themselves harshly, but when they experience a therapist's unconditional positive regard, they can develop an ability to accept themselves unconditionally.

Unconditional positive regard is also considered beneficial in therapy because it helps clients to open up during therapy sessions without having to worry about being judged.

How Therapists Provide Unconditional Positive Regard

From a therapist's perspective, unconditional positive regard means having warm, positive feelings towards the client and accepting the client for who he or she is. It also means being nonjudgmental, which could seem counterintuitive if a client reports behavior that is socially undesirable. However, Rogerian psychologists believe that it is important for therapists to attempt to communicate unconditional positive regard at all times.

This therapeutic approach is influenced by the Rogerian believe that people are motivated to improve themselves and behave in positive ways. In this light, as psychologist Stephen Joseph explains in a blog for Psychology Today, practicing unconditional positive regard means realizing that, even if a behavior seems unhealthy or maladaptive, the client may have simply been trying their hardest to deal with a difficult situation. For example, imagine that a therapist has a client who shoplifted. Shoplifting is not a desirable behavior, but the therapist practicing unconditional positive regard would consider the fact that the client might have been facing difficult financial circumstances with few other options.

When clients behave negatively, Rogerian therapists try to refrain from passing judgments, and instead respect clients’ autonomy. In Rogerian therapy, the therapist will work to try to better understand the client’s situation and the factors that led to their behavior. Through therapy sessions, the client can work to develop more adaptive ways of responding to their environment; importantly, however, clients—and not the therapists—are ultimately the ones to decide what changes they want to implement in their lives. The therapist’s role isn’t to pass judgment on the client’s behavior, but rather to provide a supportive environment where clients can bring about positive change themselves.

The Influence of Rogers’ Ideas

Today, many psychologists try to cultivate unconditional positive regard when working with clients, even if they don’t strictly identify as Rogerian therapists. Unconditional positive regard is often an important element of the therapeutic relationship, which is crucial for achieving positive outcomes in therapy.

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