Renowned psychotherapist Carl Rogers became known for a handful of interventions that continue to inspire those of us who believe in listening to people and their stories – really listening, not just waiting for an opportunity to apply our own opinions (or theoretical framework) to their data. His ‘person-centred’ approach offered ‘unconditional positive regard’ to the client, who may never have experienced such an opportunity before. Sure, if you had parents who treated you well, with lots of love and support, you would have been raised with an aura of this kind of regard. Someone who listened to you and let you really be yourself, no matter what. But many people didn’t have that opportunity; many had to compete for love and affection from the start; some never got much of this kind of attention at all and somehow, in spite of it all, raised themselves to become relatively stable adults. Even those raised with love and support had to be disciplined, had to learn about what constitutes acceptable behaviour, when they pushed their innate power games too far. These power games include being cute and adorable for rewards, of course, as well as being contrary and willful for the sake of it (aka self-assertion).
And here’s my point. Perhaps, as Rogers seems to have begun to think later in his career, it might not be the case that unconditional positive regard gives the best results in a therapeutic relationship. And what I want to add to this is: perhaps we might be better served, in everyday relationships as well as in therapeutic ones, offering unconditional neutral regard. Let me explain. The problem I see with unconditional positive regard is that it offers exactly what Rogers saw it would; an opportunity for someone (here, the client, but I want to extend this discussion to anyone we might consider could benefit from this set of ideas, including ourselves) to believe fully in themselves and the “OK-ness” of their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, dreams and desires. First of all, I think this is a wonderful idea and I do support it – for a while. The problem is, we don’t really or always actually know what is good for us. Sometimes, we need someone who cares about us to say no. Experienced guides in the arts of spiritual discipline can offer this; at least, they often have a better idea of when we are over-balancing in one direction and could do with a nudge to set us straight.
This could still be a case of unconditional positive regard, if you like. But rather than only supporting the inner life of the person in question, it also pushes it. Towards challenge, rather then indulgement. Towards constructive change, rather than just affirmation. Towards evolution and not just the warm fuzzies. This is partly why I am calling for unconditional neutral regard instead. Because that limit to desire, that external force saying “No,” can be just as edifying, just as helpful, just as loving in the long run as the “Yes” ever was. The wisdom of the earth teaches us that this world is a place of limits, as is this body in this life. Let’s learn to maneuver skillfully within this realm, responding to an even balance of positive and challenging feedback so that we evolve and adapt, in flow with the universe as it is, rather than as how we wish it was. As Rogers himself so aptly stated: “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination”