The importance – and the challenge – of unconditional positive regard


Terri Waldman

                by Terri Waldman, Director,                                                         TMC Geropsychiatric Center

By simple virtue of the romance industry, February has evolved into the month of love.

More than hearts and flowers, however, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the importance of love in our lives, in all of its forms. And one of the most important tenets we can practice is something called “unconditional positive regard.”

Launched by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers in the postwar boom of the 1950s, it is not a new concept. It sets out a challenge to each of us to show complete support and acceptance no matter what a person says or does. We are tasked first and foremost with seeing them as a human being who deserves love and respect – without condition or exception.

This became more than a theoretical exercise for me at the beginning of my career. Long before I became the director of the TMC Geropsychiatric Center at Handmaker, I was a social worker assigned a juvenile sex offender, who preyed on women his mother’s age. It was a conflict for me. I really wanted him to go to jail. And don’t get me wrong: He needed to be held accountable for his actions. But while his suffering didn’t excuse what he did, as we came to work together, I learned more about him. The recognition of his suffering allowed me to work with him as a human being who was in pain.

That was a big lesson.

Putting yourself in someone’s shoes requires developing your sense of empathy. Note that I did not say sympathy. If you feel sorry for someone, you can’t help them from that space. But you can think about how you would like to be treated and work from there.

People don’t ask to be sick. I know you might have occasion to think someone you love is manipulating you. Or that they don’t have to be that way, because they were fine just five minutes ago, so they’re just trying to get your goat. But the reality is they have an illness. That illness is talking, not the person.

As the healthy caregiver, it’s important to maintain that feeling that this person is not OK right now – whether medically, psychologically or cognitively – but it’s our responsibility to treat them respectfully until they are. And that holds true even as roles change and even if you no longer are getting that feeling of reciprocal love from the person who is ill.

Finally, it’s also important to use unconditional positive regard with yourself. Like chocolate? Like flowers? Treat yourself every now and then! You don’t need a manufactured holiday to love and appreciate who you are – unconditionally.


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