Sunday, January 8, 2012

Unconditional Positive Regard: It's Not Just for the Dogs

"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."
-- Carl Rogers
Recently Debbie Jacobs, founder of Fearful Dogs and a follower on Twitter, shared the following interchange with the human:

 debbie jacobs 
i don't expect my dogs 2 love me unconditionally. they know as well as any1 when I'm being a jerk
 Jason Mihalko 
Now now there is room in unconditional love for jerks mt don't expect dogs 2 love me unconditionally. they know when I'm a jerk
 debbie jacobs 

 whew. good 2 know there's hope 4 me & other jerks

This got me thinking about unconditional positive regard. This is part three of an occasional series of blog posts about my therapy dog view of different psychological theories. For parts one and two, check out An Ecological Approach to Life: Urie Bronfenbrenner and Erik Erickson: A Therapy Dog's View.

Let's  meet Dr. Rogers. The human never actually got to meet him. He did, however, spend some time studying with one of Carl Roger's doctoral students, Marshall Rosenberg. If you are interested, by the way, there is a long documentary of Carl Rogers doing group therapy. Click here to watch the documentary called "Journey Into Self."

Carl Rogers (January 8, 1902 - February 4, 1987) was an American Psychologist. Throughout his career he developed a new way of approaching both psychotherapy and education. He was a deeply religious man, growing up Pentacostal, and originally planning on becoming a minister. He was a humanistic psychologist and developed and promulgated the notion of client-centered therapy and student-centered learning. He's work has so saturated how we think about ourselves that he was voted second to Sigmund Freud as the most important clinician-psychologist of the 20th century.
"It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried."
--Carl Rogers
In brief, Rogers saw three essential and required qualities of a relationship. Those three qualities are: genuineness, acceptance, and understanding. The following is from the website, Mythos and Logos, written and maintained by Brent Dean Robbins.

Genuineness: Rogers found that the more genuine he was in the relationship, the more helpful it would be. This means that the therapist needs to be aware of his own feelings, in so far as possible, rather than presenting an outward facade of one attitude, while actually holding another attitude at a deeper or unconscious level. Being genuine also involves the willingness to be and to express, in one's words and one's behavior, the various feelings and attitudes which exist in one's self. Rogers found this to be true even when the attitudes he felt were not attitudes, with which he was pleased, or attitudes which seemed conducive to a good relationship. it seemed extremely important to be REAL.
"People are just as wonderful as sunsets if I can let them be... When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, 'Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner'... I don't try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds."--Carl Rogers
Acceptance: Rogers found that the more acceptance and liking he felt toward a client, the more he was willing to create a relationship which the client could use. By acceptance, Rogers meant a warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth--of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings. It means a respect and liking for him as a separate person, a willingness for him to possess his own feelings in his own way. It means an acceptance of and regard for his attitudes of the moment, no matter now negative or positive, no matter how much they may contract other attitudes he had held in the past. This acceptance of each fluctuating aspect of this other person makes it for him a relationship of warmth and safety, and the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.
"The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true."
--Carl Rogers
Understanding: Rogers also found that the relationship was significant to the extent that he felt a continuing desire to understand--a sensitive empathy with each of the client's feelings and communications as they seem to him at that moment. Acceptance, Rogers felt, does not mean much until it involves understanding. It is only as one UNDERSTANDS the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to the client, or so weak, or so sentimental, or so bizarre--it is only as one sees them as the client sees them, and accepts them and the client, that the client feels really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of his inner and often buried experience. This FREEDOM is an important condition of the relationship. There is implied here a freedom to explore oneself at both conscious and unconscious levels, as rapidly as one can dare to embark on this dangerous quest. There is also a complete freedom from any type of moral or diagnostic evaluation since all such evaluations are, Rogers believed, always threatening.

A full discussion of Roger's approach would require much more than a blog post. If you'd like to learn more, some places to start are here, here, or here.

The juicy stuff I wanted to talk about is the concept of unconditional positive regard. This might be what is most misunderstood about Carl Rogers as well as what I see most misrepresented in our collective consciousness. It's also probably Carl's greatest gift.

What we usually get goes something like this:
Owner comes home to discover the dog chewed the most favored pair of slippers. Owner says "bad dog!" Owner is likely to find some appropriate (in their eyes) method of punishment. Perhaps spanking with the chewed slippers, or a harsh yelling, or something of the sort. 
"What's wrong with you? You know better. Bad dog!"
These scene is repeated over and over across homes across America (and around the world, in places where dogs are kept as pets). Many wouldn't see a thing wrong with this.

"We wouldn't want to spoil the dog. He needs limits. He needs to know I'm the pack leader."

Humans have similar sayings for human children -- "spare the rod, spoil the child" is one that comes to mind. What have you heard? Which ones have you used?

Let's push this one to the extreme and enter into a contemporary controversy. Those who fear unconditional positive regard the most tend to fear little ones will run amok and turn into directionless, shiftless, irresponsible and self-indulgent grown-ups if they are shown kindness and taught that they are important.

Take Michael Pearl, for example, who states his child-rearing techniques are modeled on "the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules." The New York Times writes that "the Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, "can be rolled up and carried in your pocket."

Before I get to far afield, let's get back to unconditional positive regard. First, however, let's talk about what it isn't. Unconditional positive regard isn't approval. Let me say that one more time. I will say it in nice big pleasing green letters. (if you really want to dive into the controversy of Pearl, try Google or look here or here)
Unconditional positive regard is not approval.
There is no expectation that an owner approves of their dog's shoe chewing behaviors. There is no expectation that a parent approves of their child's sassy behaviors. Unconditional positive regard isn't about unconditionally accepting behaviors.

Unconditional positive regard is providing care to another without any conditions or strings attached. Rogers wrote ..."of importance in creating a climate for change is acceptance, or caring or prizing - unconditional positive regard. it means that when the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely. It involves the therapist's willingness for the client to be whatever immediate feeling is going on - confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love, or pride. It is a non-possessive caring. the therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way."
Now wait just a minute. I thought you just said unconditional regard isn't about acceptance? Carl just said it was.
All right, you have a good point there. But who would you rather listen to? Carl or your favorite therapy dog, Magnolia Wigglesworth. Trust me. I know what I'm talking about here.

This is where many talented smart people (psychologists and others) get lost in the weeds. Carl is talking about accepting someone's experience. He is talking about validation here. Recognizing that your experience is your experience. If you are filled with murderous rage, you are filled with murderous rage. If your puppy found those slippers to be irresistible, they were irresistible. We encounter the experience of another as valid, true, and real.

We don't have to agree with it. We don't have to like it. We definitely don't have to approve of it. It doesn't have to be true for us. What is important is that we recognize what the experience for the other is.
We have empathy for the experience of the other.
There is more, of course, to unconditional positive regard. We had to get that sticky confusion about acceptance and approval out of the way. The power in unconditional positive regard is we encounter the other with the general notional that they are valued, valuable, and important because they are. Because they are what? Because they are: because they are here, because they exist, because they are.

Back to Carl:
"The therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way." --Carl Rogers
Whoa. That's some heavy stuff. Right? Just imagine for a minute someone prizing you. Valuing you and your experience. Do you even know what that would be like?

My guess is for most of you, your answer is no. You don't know what it is like to be prized as a living being. You've been raised conditionally. You live a conditional life. Your value is based on your conformity, your ability to please those around you, or the things you can do for another.

This is the brilliance of Carl Rogers. He showed us a way to be more. Fitting in, from time to time, is important. Knowing how to be part of the crowd is an important part of a social life. Likewise, it's also important to be able to care for another, to provide, to create and to contribute. There is, however, more.
"The good life... involves an increasing tendency to live fully in each moment. I believe it would be evident that for the person who has fully opened to his new experience, completely without defensiveness, each moment would be new... The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination."--Carl Rogers
Go out there and see what it is like to prize someone's being-ness. What is it like to prize yourself in this way? It's hard, especially when their behavior angers you, frightens you, or is downright reprehensible (or your own behavior does the same). Find a way to start. See where it brings you. See how it makes you feel. See how your experience changes or how it stays the same same.

Some of you, no doubt, might find yourself feeling angry. Usually questions are asked like "how can I offer unconditional positive regard to Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden, or the man who killed my father?"

I believe it is possible to do that. It is possible to treat someone with unconditional positive regard, with respect, and with a sense of honor of their being-ness--without approving of their behavior. It's beyond the scope of this post about Carl Rogers to talk about the protective use of force, and how we approach and encounter evil experiences. Maybe another day.

For those of you who ask these questions, know that for today you don't have to greet these people with unconditional positive regard. Start where you can and see what happens.

The Twitter conversation that started this all ended with this. It is also where I will end this post.

 Jason Mihalko 

. The sweet sound of unconditional love will always save wretches like us.

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