Unconditional Positive Regard

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As the U.S. Presidential race begins to heat up in earnest, the thing that’s been mostly on my mind isn’t the economy, foreign policy, or the deficit, but rather something that’s not just absent between the two candidates but also among the people who support them: what psychologists call unconditional positive regard.

According to Wikipedia, unconditional positive regard was coined by the humanist Carl Rogers and is defined as “basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does.” In therapy, the key to mustering unconditional positive regard can be summed up in one word: acceptance. Rogers believed that all people have the internal resources required for personal growth and that it’s the therapist’s suspension of judgment and his expectation that the client before him can change that makes change far more likely.

Outside the therapist’s office, unconditional positive regard has come to mean accepting people as they are, good and bad traits together, by focusing on one’s belief that everyone has inside of them the potential to improve—to become, in effect, good. Some people may seem so far away from their best selves that such a transformation appears impossible, but according to Buddhist thought, “even a villain loves his mother.” That is, we’re all endowed with the Buddha nature, which here is considered to mean the capacity to become wise and compassionate, as well as accepting and loving toward all people, even “villains.”

To view someone with unconditional positive regard isn’t to automatically forgive them their sins, but rather to refuse to dismiss their humanity because of them. The key point about unconditional positive regard isn’t whether or not someone deserves it—isn’t whether or not they’ve so scorched whatever seeds of goodness lie within them that those seeds are no longer capable of sprouting (even the most self-centered of people will find themselves pulled in a more positive direction when on the receiving end of unconditional positive regard, especially if it comes from someone like a parent, a spouse, or a therapist). The point is that the real benefit of unconditional positive regard accrues to the person who feels it.

Mustering up feelings of beneficence toward others defends us against the view that the world is mostly evil. It not only increases the likelihood of our bringing out the best in others, but also increases the likelihood of our bringing out the best in ourselves. To become someone who consciously seeks to find the best in others is to become someone who we ourselves like; it’s to become someone more likely to display the very behavior we look for in others; it’s to become more optimistic. It is, in essence, a way to learn to love the world. And though many may disagree that all people deserve our unconditional positive regard, it’s hard to argue that loving the world won’t make us happier than hating it.

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  • I have been following your posts for over a year now and look forward to them each Sunday evening. Just clicked over to Amazon to check out the details of your book…is there going to be e-reader (i.e., Kindle) version available?

    Sekishin: Indeed, yes, there will be a Kindle version. It should become available shortly after the book is published on November 6th.


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  • Thanks so much for your brilliant articles. This one made so much sense to me—I am often criticized for (foolishly, I am told) giving the other person the benefit of the doubt…but how much happier it makes me…

  • Good. One should keep in mind though that in politics your good may not be my good or “the potential to improve” to MY good. That is the one of the problems with politics. It seems narrow minded but there was a good book years ago called Muddling Towards Frugality which comforts me that we will eventually get where I want to be. I hope!

    You need to scorch the pine tree before the seed grow though so all will be well in the end.

  • I haven’t commented in a while, although I have remained an avid weekly reader. I want to make two different points.

    First I am glad to read in the comment above that there will be a Kindle version of your book! I will look for it in late November.

    And second, perhaps I am the exception that proves the rule. I hold President Obama in unconditional positive regard, even when I don’t agree with him 100% or when I feel a better result might have come from a different path. Any disagreement or let down is always followed by the thought that “perhaps he has a long term goal I do not see” or “perhaps today he is distracted by other things that are of greater importance that we do not know” or “perhaps today he does not feel 100% and is doing the best he can under the circumstances.” Mind you, these thoughts don’t come often because I am rarely in disagreement and only occasionally disappointed. I think if you were to survey Obama supporters, you would not find me to be such a singular exception.

    In any event, applying a more macro principle to the concept of acceptance, I am reminded of what my parents each often repeated as I was growing up—”Always look for the good in people for it will make each of them look more attractive and in turn you will be giving yourself a more beautiful world to live in.”

    Steven: Right on!


  • Thank you for again holding us to a high standard of thought and behavior. This reminder comes at a time when I anticipate the release of an in-law from jail. He is a serial (of course) child molester. Family and friends were among his victims, and my son was in his preferred age range, but I listened to my gut and kept him at a distance. The arrest was still a shock because I didn’t know exactly what repelled me but when others were charmed he seemed false. I wrestle with what my relationship will be when he is out. He lied to, manipulated and deeply wounded those he claimed to love. This villain loved his mother perhaps, but he devastated her and almost ruined his father’s business. Do I think of him as ill, with no control over his actions? I struggle with how to frame his actions so I can find compassion for his humanity.

    Jane: Very very tough case. His crimes are heinous. Yet I doubt that, if he’d been given a choice, he would have chosen to be as he is. I think it’s entirely possible—and even reasonable—to feel compassion for someone toward whom you also feel murderous rage.


  • I don’t mean to sound like the spoiler here, but how is that different from willful blindness?

    Sidney: Willful blindness would be pretending a person’s negative qualities don’t exist. Unconditional positive regard means looking past their negative qualities to the person they have the potential to be, all the while holding them accountable for the person they are.


  • I understand the benefits of UPR 🙂 intellectually but I don’t see how I could emotionally perceive positively sociopaths bent on destroying and causing harm…like the Taliban who have today shot a girl in Pakistan in the head because she promoted education for women. Rage, I do feel; nausea, too … but I simply cannot look at them with compassion and positive regard. Can you?

    Ondrej: I can feel compassion for them because I view them as profoundly deluded. Had they only grown up in another country with other parents a very high likelihood exists that they would hold an entirely different system of beliefs, beliefs that would have them feeling as sickened by the actions they took as you are. I condemn their actions. I acknowledge that the likelihood of them ever coming to see reason, to see their actions as unconscionable crimes, is vanishingly small. But I grieve for the people they could have been.


  • Alex, thanks for your thoughtful post. I agree that the current political campaign and the language of politics in general is creating an environment of defensiveness and discord. In fact, seeing the two candidates smiling and shaking hands at the start of avdebate and behaving like two people who respect and accept each other almost seems anachronistic. Like a charade. It’s too bad. I also agree with you that acceptance of others as well as ourselves and our current situation is key creating any semblance of inner peace. But it’s very hard. In her wonderful book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach mentions that the question she is most often asked is doesn’t acceptance of poor behavior encourage its continuance? If I accept wrong-doing am I not just handing out a free pass? Her answer is that though it may seem otherwise, acceptance is in fact the only way to bring about real change. If we want change in the world, first we must change ourselves. And to become free, to awaken, first we must let go of fear and accept.

    Thanks again for your post. I look forward to others.

  • What an interesting exchange of ideas and challenges from this one post, Alex.

    My experience has brought me this understanding: to possess compassion, to be the embodiment of compassion, means that negative emotions—such as anger or rage—are permanently destroyed. Stated another way: negative emotions are no longer able to exist when one’s spiritual development has reached the embodiment (in light ment) of compassion. This is what I have realized, what is to be achieved in enlightenment, that one’s own heart becomes light with this knowledge and freedom from negative emotion.

    What approach to take with those who have harmed themselves and/or others, such as what Jane referred to? Well, anyone can develop compassion for them by understanding that this person’s painful actions were manifested from a profound ignorance, so deep of an ignorance that it over rode any ability at the time for that person to control the hurtful word or behavior.

    Thus compassion is the only rational response. Not an acceptance of, nor a tolerance of the harm or enabling of further violation, but rather an inclination of one’s heart toward an acceptance of the imperfection of humanity, and through an awareness of the difficulty each person experiences as they struggle and bumble toward their own enlightenment.

    Giselle M. Massi

  • Alex,

    A very powerful conversation in response to your excellent and thought-provoking article.

    Personally and in my work, I work with these questions every day. Even those grounded in mindfulness practices and those with an intimate knowledge of their emotions find that feelings are very deep and complex. Never an advocate of labeling feelings as good and bad (more duality doesn’t serve us) it is important for us to recognize, understand and appreciate those feelings that arise within us.

    When it comes to “politics,” particularly in today’s toxic cultural wars, asking the question of holding in UPR when we strongly disagree is a critical one. We need models for this on a larger cultural scale—can we respect others when we believe they are lying? Can we hold others in UPR when we believe their actions are harming others—and the earth? Can we be “fiercely compassionate?”

    These are not only deeply personal questions but ones with huge implications for the world we are constantly creating.

    So even though we can look at the Taliban (and I also don’t think it serves us to select the most heinous criminals as examples to test our ability to be compassionate or empathetic) and understood the roots of the conditioning and ignorance, how does that impact our actions in stopping these crimes against humanity?

    These dilemmas represent very fine lines, intricately woven sets of feeling and beliefs—but as many of the excellent comments point out—we must look within first and take responsibility for the truth of what we feel.