Recently I came across this phrase “unconditional positive regard”. As a helping person who wants to provide emotional support to others, this is a key attitude to inculcate in oneself. The term interested me for several reasons. I was happy to find a phrase for the empathetic way we view others: as humans who are flawed yet trying their best to grow and fulfil their potential. This phrase was first introduced by the Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. It is a therapy technique that aims at accepting and supporting a person regardless of what they say or do. In other words, non-judgmentally accepting a person for what they are. It is deeply healing technique. It helps the person explore their innermost thoughts and desires and still have a safe environment to express them all. I have to say, I think this technique is genius. It is built on the premise that most of us humans survive in an environment where we get little to no acceptance. As toddlers our parents might have been happy to see us throwing tantrums or breaking open a new toy because it was permissible at such an age. Most parents celebrate such new behaviour. But as we grow older, it gets immensely clear that our parents cannot unconditionally accept us when we rebel against their rules or come back home later than usual. We are taught how to behave, how to act in a stipulated modes of action, and so on. There is a strict line and moving away from the line means we are never going to be viewed with positive regard, not by our parents and definitely not by the society. Maybe this is why a part of us is so deprived of some graceful acceptance. And when we do find this non-judgemental acceptance in therapy, we thrive and we grow as unique selves.
As a person who is getting trained on providing empathetic support to people, I think it is very important for me to cultivate this way of viewing others. I try to practice this on literary characters. As soon as I start judging a character, I hold myself and try to feel acceptance for their flaws. I try not to tag them based on their actions alone. A human is more than their mistakes and their failings are part of them as much their goodness. This all seems so positive to philosophise about. It is also joyous to empathise with a person, hold their feelings for them and accept their experience for what it is. I felt good that I was able to form a closer bond with people through unconditional positive regard. BUT….
There is a huge But. So far I have only been thinking about unconditional positive regard towards others but what about myself? When it comes to my own personal life, I was nowhere close to applying it. Due to the pandemic situation, I have been staying at home for several months. Time feels stretched thin and endless. Throughout this time, I have seen ups and downs of my mental health. There are several days I feel euphoric and full of vitality and there are other days I feel low and depressed. But something has been constant through all my highs and lows. I lead a very stressful life with PhD work piling up each passing day and a clamorous home environment with a dysfunctional family. There are plenty of things on my plate at any given moment and I feel anxious about how I am going to manage them all. Sometimes I see no solution other than to shut myself in a room and cry. In short, it is a hard time. As an empathetic person one would think I empathise with myself and view myself through unconditional positive regard. That’s not my reality. Slowly, and very creepily a critical voice is growing strong in my head. It hates me. It thinks that I am making excuses to keep myself from working. It calls me weak for not being capable enough to cook and study at the same time. In other words, it is just being a bitch to me. I am having trouble separating this voice from myself. Some days this voice becomes me. I am my own strict parent. I am my own punishment. I have to tell you, it has been exhausting accommodating this voice inside my head. It is even trickier that I don’t realise its existence half the time. That is why reading about unconditional positive regard hit me hard. Like a sudden gust of wind, it knocked me down. “Why am I not able to provide myself the same empathy that I want to provide others?” “Why can’t I be a good, unconditional and generous parent to myself?” It is too early for me to find answers but I have this thought that I can be gentle on myself and still provide immense space for growth. Unconditional positive regard towards oneself need not mean lack of accountability or discipline. It is a space to hold ourselves as a whole human being capable of growing to our whole potential without external force.