Self-Compassion, or Unconditional Positive Regard?

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The act of intentionally extending compassion to yourself might seem counterintuitive, selfish, artificial, or just plain weird. This is where the concept of unconditional positive regard comes in handy.

A common thread in much therapy and self-help literature recently, it seems to me, is self-compassion. There seems to be no issue which can’t be improved by changing your attitude, not to the problem so much as to yourself. Beating yourself up, however subtly, for whatever is causing you distress anyway, is the outer layer of suffering, usually the first one we can get at, and once it loosens, a lot of the needless tension, guilt and shame can fall away. The whole situation loosens up.

The act of intentionally extending compassion to yourself, though, might seem counterintuitive, selfish, artificial, or just plain weird. This is where the tenets of person centred therapy come in handy. The concept of unconditional positive regard is not as fluffy or effusive as self compassion — it is rigorous and effective. It means maintaining a positive view of somebody, their inherent value, no matter what they do. It was originally a part of Carl Rogers’ theory of the conditions that must be present in therapy in order for it to be effective, that is, able to set off the natural process of healing and growth in the client. The other two conditions are empathy and congruence, the second of which means being authentic in the relationship, not acting a role or hiding relevant things from the client.

The conditions were meant to be cultivated by the therapist and ‘offered’ to the client, but I don’t think the sharp distinction or the one way traffic is helpful. Unconditional positive regard needs to be present in the interaction, and the client needs to ultimately learn to apply it to themselves, not be dependent on receiving it from the therapist. According to Rogers, the lack of having received empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard is at the root of distress in the first place. The need to receive, as well as to give to ourselves, is basic and formative. The need to receive came first.

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This is a fact that can easily get overlooked in the movement towards self-compassion. While it is quite true that no one else can give us the deep sense of meaning and value we may long for them to give us, or expect them to give us, it’s also extremely probable that we would not be feeling so lacking in that department had our basic needs for unconditional love and respect and responsive relating been fulfilled in the early years. So the problem of lack of self love is at the root a lack of being loved effectively by another. This is not to cast blame on parents. Parents can only give what they are able to give — what they themselves have received — and there may also be reasons that the child can’t pick up what the parent is giving. But if you feel as if you have a big hole inside you that needs filling, it seems likely that a strong enough base of feeling accepted as we are, with all our feelings and reactions, has not been created.

So can the relationship with a therapist repair this? The therapist is obviously not a parent and does not love clients in this way. Neither are many of the ways of soothing yourself and extending self-compassion appropriate — it would seem dubious for the therapist to explicitly and repeatedly affirm that they love the client. This is where the idea of unconditional positive regard comes into its own, and also the open-ended length of person centred work.

Over time the therapist can show the same degree of respect and non-judgemental acceptance of the client throughout all kinds of circumstances and emotions in the clients’ life, as well as throughout various ruptures and disturbances in the counselling relationship. In a short time frame it is easy enough to remain concentrated on ‘the problem’, to build a collaborative working alliance and work on strategies for the client to use on their own, and to build a relationship focused on the client, in which they can feel heard, seen and accepted. Over a longer time, though, situations are bound to come up which reveal the therapist to also be a person who makes mistakes, who reacts to things not always in the way they would like to, whose empathy is not always complete. These are times when the therapist’s attitude to themselves becomes apparent, and if they can show honesty and unconditional respect toward their own mistakes and feelings, as well as toward the client, then a quiet, subtle healing can start to take place. This seems like a safe and attainable aim.

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