Unconditional Positive Regard in Person-Centered Theory

The Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) developed Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) and identified this concept within the six necessary and sufficient conditions; also known as a core condition in Person Centred Theory (PCT) (Rogers, 1957). UPR is defined by Rogers (1959; 1957) as a ‘quality of the therapist’s experience toward the client’ and as ‘a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience as being part of the client’ (pp.239, 98). Unconditionality is defined as ‘constancy in accepting the client’ (Cooper, et al, 2013, p. 183); and Positive Regard as ‘the affective attitude of the therapist toward the client’ (Cooper, et al, 2013, p. 183). This review is important because Rogers (1995) examined the idea of how UPR advocates the concept of how a person ‘blooms and develops his own unique self’ rather than becoming the self that others want him or her to be, which lies at the heart of Humanistic Psychology (p.23).

Meaning, application, and evolution

Barker, et al (2010) have described a study where Rogers refined these attitudes throughout his career. He argued that ‘the relationship itself rather than any technique is the crucible for therapeutic change’ (p.115). The therapist’s qualities that offer the core conditions: known as Congruence, Empathy and UPR (Barker, et al,2010) and the importance of UPR within conditions 4, 5 and 6 are highlighted throughout Roger’s work. The findings show that UPR supports ‘freeing the client for normal growth and development’ (Rogers, 1942, p.42). Bozarth (1998; 2001) and Cooper et al (2013) researched different views by those who advocate PCT and discuss the fact they also found the idea of UPR facilitating freedom that incorporates organismic experiences and claims that it ‘is subsequently aligned with the actualising tendency and this ‘points to ‘conditional positive regard‘ as the condition that creates the clients incongruence’ (p.183). More broadly, we know that UPR’s therapeutic condition of accepting a client with unconditional worth ‘frees the client from conditions of worth’ (Rogers, 1959, p.224). Such an observation is supported by Bozarth and Wilkins (2001) since they argue that ‘unconditional positive regard is an essential ingredient if a therapeutic relationship is to be a corrective relational experience’ (p.182).

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Rogers (1959) states the benefits of UPR as ‘a central axiom for client-centred therapy’ (p.10), which is supported by Bozarth (1998; 2001). His studies claim that UPR needs to be present in the therapeutic relationship to assist in the process of facilitation of personality change (Bozarth, 1998; 2001). Although Barrett and Lennard (1998) argue that it is unclear that the ideas of UPR can be defined as a single variable and that they are ‘conceptually difficult to handle’ (p.81). Also supported by Bozarth and Wilkins (2001) who argue that ‘unconditional positive regard is the hardest therapeutic attitude to develop’ (p.42). Watson and Steckley (2001) state how Rogers (1957) came to believe that ‘therapists must experience Unconditional Positive Regard for the clients in themselves as well as communicate it to the client’ (p.181). Sanford (1984) contended if it is truly possible to show UPR to each person who we meet. Wilkins (2000) further highlights how a therapist can offer UPR ‘depends on the attitude individuals hold toward themselves’ (p.33).

Feltham (2010) discusses the effects of therapists covertly or overtly conveying rejection or judgment as ‘reinforcing exactly those negative experiences that others, such as parents, have been responsible for’ (p.15). Rogers (1963) and Freire (2001) have described a view of adhering to Roger’s postulation of pathology that discusses the ‘conditional positive regard as the condition that creates the client’s incongruence’ (Cooper, et al, 2013, p.183). Such a process results in the idea that ‘UPR is the curative variable’ which dispels the limitations which could be embedded in the beliefs which could be acquired by others (ibid, p.183). Some studies by Watson and Steckley (2001) show that UPR ‘helps clients to learn that they are worthy of respect’ and ‘view talking about feelings as positive’ (p.191).Though there are new developments being made on how clients contribute to therapeutic change, these are limited (McLeod, 1990). For instance, Barkley (2009) contends that ADHD impairs the capacity to self-actualise (Barkley, 2009). Nevertheless, he supports a study by Cromar (2019) that advocates ‘UPR being of therapeutic value’ (p.26).

UPR appears poorly understood as a separate attitude and can be misinterpreted (Bozarth and Wilkins, 2001). What we know so far, then, is that what Rogers (1957) has claimed in the format that a person needs to perceive UPR from the perspectives of others to enable him or her to integrate ‘his or her own experiences into the self and self-concept’ (p.181). This seems very likely and is supported by rigorous person-centred therapists (Rowan, 1993; Whitton, 2006), although Feltham (2010) raises difficulties with distinguishing between the superficial and genuine feelings which any therapist could define as UPR and the different ‘shades of UPR’ (P.17). He argued that ‘such attitudes are often mixed up with personality nuances, incongruence and countertransference’ (p.16). Despite of this, it is asserted by Feltham, (2010) and also agreed upon by numerous PCT authors ( Rogers, 1957; Rowan, 1993; Whitton, 2006) that ‘no successful counselling is likely to happen in a non- accepting relationship’ (Feltham, 2010, p. 15). There appears limited research on the lack of UPR studied as a single variable (without empathy or congruence) (Freire, 2001). The evolution of human development demonstrates the universal need for positive regard by others which, occurs, when a person begins to experience awareness of himself/herself. (Freeth, 2007)

Different viewpoints/ limitations

However, Mearns and Thorne, (2000) (Freeth, 2007; Berk, 1998) who write about person and Nature, conclude some tension of Sanders (2012) study and writes about the destructive tendency towards self is enhanced in an environment where an acute dearth of positive regard is in existence and concludes that it may ‘be self-enhancing’ for some but could also be ‘potentially destructive’.- He claims that there needs to be a balance between a person’s ‘realistic appraisal of demands of other aspects of the person’s life’ (p.24). Prochaska and Norcoss (2003) state a lack of agreement from a psychodynamic perspective and discuss the fact that ‘A Freudian would object that the Rogerian approach involving unconditional positive regard provides ‘a transference relationship that has all the elements of an idealized maternal love’ (p.164). Rogers also used the words prizing and non-possessive caring to describe ‘unconditional positive regard’ (p.116). This is shaped by the prizing of self and the positive regard we receive from others. There appears little research on how UPR develops within the therapeutic relationship and whether this attitude becomes engrained in the relationship and it is worth considering how UPR may encounter challenges ethical or socio-political influences (BACP, 2017). Nevertheless, research has pointed out the justification for UPR. Feltham (2010) describes this philosophical position as:

‘we are all a mixture of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ features and that each of us are remnants of dysfunctional and unloving attitudes and behaviour and states that ‘sinners or those most obviously antisocial are most in need of love, or UPR (P.16/17). Fundamental in the developing of UPR is respecting a human being’s reality, and as argued by Lieater (2001) as ‘valuing the deeper core of the person’ (pp.92,93) with ‘respect that ignites into spontaneous warmth, even affection’ that promotes ‘a deepening relationship’ (Cooper, et al, 2013, p. 39). However, Barker (2010) found that counsellor’s prejudices and preconceptions can affect their ability to offer UPR. For instance, critique of person-centred theory by (Masson 1992; Wilkins, 2003) asks: ‘Faced with a brutal rapist who murders children, why should any therapist have unconditional positive regard for him? (p.234). ‘Feltham (2010) confirms that ‘rigorous person-centred counsellors will insist that UPR does not come automatically’ and ‘requires disciplined personal development’ (p.16). Bozarth and Wilkins, 2001) argued that ‘my acceptance of my client is something that grows’ (p.93).

And there is also some research by Feltham (2010) who writes about UPR being understood as a ‘politically correct’ attitude that is capable to rise above prejudices, adhering to the idea that UPR ‘resembles the highest form of love or agape’ (p.15). However, research shows limitations in offering UPR and both Lietaer (1984) and Sanford (1984) researched the controversy of UPR. Lietaer (2001) proposes that how clients perceive the therapist’s UPR ‘is largely dependent ‘on the client’s level of experiencing (p.104). The theory of the necessary and sufficient conditions emphasises how change might occur if a person (regardless how ‘bad’) consistently experiences the UPR of another. Even though it is essential to understand that this does not prove the supposition is accurate or that some people are beyond redemption but more so when the therapist may bring limitations (Rogers, 1951).

Put succinctly, the literature on UPR tends to cluster around the experience of how the conditions of relationships in therapy offer a ‘corrective relational experience’ (p.191). Therefore, (Cooper, et al, 2013) conclude that the study by Watson and Steckley (2001) point out that ‘they do not capture the essence of non-linear relationships (p.185) which has been also supported by Sandford (1984). She argues an inconsistency in how a person can display this attitude in more meaningful relationships compared to, for instance, shallow relationships. There seems limited research concluded in this area. However, Saunders and Hill (2014) claim that ‘the provision of warm accepting environment can be a challenge for many clients as well’ ‘warm unconditional acceptance could be untrustworthy and puzzling’ (p.137). Feltham (2010) further explains that ‘CBT writers have cautioned that too warm an acceptance style could encourage a client to be dependent on the counsellor and increase irrational beliefs about the need for others’ love’ (p.17). However, Farber and Doolin, 2011) argue that ‘there is virtually no research driven reason to withhold positive regard (p.62).

Albert Ellis (1973) found a disagreement in his research about the theory of Rogers concerning an individual accepting himself through receiving the UPR of another and argued that ‘his self-concept is still dependant on some important element outside himself’ (p.63). Therefore, it is supported by who advocate the importance in establishing a relationship that encourages actions, thoughts and feelings to be encouraged without fear whereby genuine UPR is experienced by the therapist by ‘focusing on the feelings associated with the action rather than the action itself’- as a result the client feels free to try things out and make mistakes, because the client knows he or she is accepted no matter what’ ( study.com). ‘Bozarth (2001) identifies ‘a very basic need of the therapist must be satisfied to express his fundamental penetrating warmth if the relationship is to be healthy and legitimate’ (p.8).

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Rogers acceptance was a non-directive acceptance that steadily deepened into a condition that people in mental turmoil need no more than to be accepted as they are’ (p.5) (Raskins, 1948, p.105). Barker, et al (2010) review Rogers core conditions that claim they are essential for therapeutic change, they state the benefits of the therapist’s prizing of the client and discuss the fact that ‘in a total rather than conditional way’ (p. 116). Wilkins (2003) has critiqued this aspect of person-centred theory as he believes that a therapist holds within him/her the limitations to offering UPR and without this, the therapeutic encounter will be futile.

A study by Freeth (2007) discusses ‘how much our subjective realities and philosophical position influence the way we approach these issues and what values we attach to the argument’(p.77) which is supported by Stern ( 2004 ) who came to believe that ‘the encounter must carry the therapist’s ‘personal signature’ (p.168). In the light of Feltham’s study (2010), it has been conceived by Wilkins (2003) that ‘addressing our own fears and unresolved issues so increasing our unconditional positive self-regard we can increase our ability to offer UPR to others (p.73-74).

Bozarth (1998) further claims that the term ‘unconditional positive regard is the curative factor in client centred theory’ (p.83). This is supported by Bozarth (2010) who writes about qualitative studies and has concluded how clients who feel understood and accepted also experience self-validation – he confirms they find it ‘safe to self-disclose’ (Bozarth, 2010, p.185). This was supported by (Bergin, et al, 1971) who contend their studies by evaluating 12 studies on nonpossessive warmth and concluded that evidence pointed to warmth enhancing a positive therapeutic outcome (Bergin, et al, 1971). Using similar concept (Levinson and Ruef, 1997; Wickramasekera, 1998, in Bozarth and Wilkins, 2001) have contended that UPR ‘may have direct psychological impact’ and argue that it ‘is worth further investigation’ (p.190).

In conclusion, literature on UPR supports how a person needs to experience a sense of belonging and acceptance (Watson and Steckley, 2001). Extensive literature analysis and review shows that UPR is an essential foundation in the existence and growth of human beings (Bozarth and Wilkins, 2001). These illustrate the manner in which UPR develops through the therapeutic relationship in which the therapist offers unconditional acceptance of the characteristics and conditions of the client without necessarily agreeing with the client’s behaviours/ attitudes. Significance in providing this growth promoting attitude depends on how perceptive the client is to this and how the therapist can develop and offer this attitude. These factors appear detrimental to any limitation of therapeutic benefits (Cooper, 2008).

However, there is minimal research on the efficacy of UPR without the consideration of empathy and congruence (Sanford, 2001). Compelling evidence suggests UPR encourages the client to become congruent once more when a therapist accepts a client with unconditional worth (Rogers, 1959). However, some research question the Rogers claim that all three core conditions must be present to help promote therapeutic change (Copper, 2008). Although research shows how UPR encompasses the qualities of empathy and congruence, UPR is hard to define as a separate attitude. The essence of the argument is that research points to UPR being a main contributor in research evidence that supports Rogers’s claim of the therapeutic relationship being a curative factor (Cooper, 2008)


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