Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Loving you regardless: The Difficulties of Unconditional Positive Regard

Carl Rogers with glasses talking
It seems very difficult, if not impossible, to have “unconditional positive regard” for oneself and/or for others. It is a term that Carl Rogers used for his humanistic brand of psychological counseling or adjustment. The psychologist offers absolute acceptance of the client's ideas, who in turn feels validated and grows in self-esteem.

But can the same be applied to our daily lives? Can we love people and ourselves with “no strings attached,” completely embracing and accepting who we are and how they are? I think it would take nothing short of a saint or an enlightened being to be able not only to forgive others for the “harm” they may cause, but more importantly to forgive oneself.

Most of us do end up picking ourselves apart when something goes against our desired end or plan or when we commit an act or error; it becomes hard to forgive ourselves. Some even engage in what Germans term “Selbstzerfleischung,” meaning ripping oneself into shreds.

A date that does not meet our expectations and where we blame ourselves for its failure, such as “I should not have said the following inappropriate things” or “I behaved like an idiot” are some ways of confronting and dealing with the disappointment. For example, when we fail exams, we feel angry with ourselves that we either forgot vital information on the day of, or that we simply did not study enough.

Certainly in both cases there exist people who lay blame on others in each case: The date went wrong because this person was simply not worth it, and I failed the exam because my teacher is a jerk and hates me. Yet the outcome is, in the end, still one where “unconditional positive regard” has not been applied, as it is based on looking away from the facts either by means of ignorance or arrogance.

The other unconditional positive regard is towards others. Now here comes the challenge. No matter how much we may love our partner, wife, husband, son, daughter, parent, there is part of us that gets annoyed with their behavior. When they behave in a manner that does not suit our ends or when they commit “foolish acts” or “mistakes,” we are usually at their throats, regardless of how much we actually love them.

Having fights and arguments seems a natural thing to do, and we often say that is part of the whole relationship. We grew up like that, and we teach our children the same. I love you, but …. There are always conditions and strings attached with the ominous “but.”

I love you but you are misbehaving. I love you but you need to change your attitude or your belief system. I love you but you need to do the following things for me, or else

We seem to have the power of withdrawing our love at any point, namely when our conditions are not met. It is like having a bank account and threatening the bank that if they ever upset us, we would withdraw all our money and close the account.

It is traumatic because we may realize that we have to please others all the time, and that if we don't, we will lose their precious love. In many cases it's a bluff. We do love them unconditionally, but we use the threat of its withdrawal as a tool or weapon to modify other people's behavior to our own personal liking.

Yet the consequences may be deep. We can leave behind scars. We can come to think that the other person does not love us unconditionally, and we may be in constant fear that they could leave us any moment, or worse, they could stop loving us.

It is part of human nature to be selfish. And love is not immune to it. We love people because of certain qualities they have or we think they do. We expect reciprocity. We expect them to behave in a respectful manner and to be faithful to us. We expect them to love us the way we are. Yet in reality, it is an extremely difficult undertaking; it is not easy to love oneself completely and to love the other person without any strings attached.

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