"And all you're ever gonna be is mean. Why you gotta be so mean?" -- Taylor Swift
As you might suspect, the idea of picking a single person as the architect of a key idea becomes a bit muddied over the course of the years. If you do a quick Google search of “unconditional positive regard” you will find at least three different names associated. The idea itself is important as it pertains to the development of psychotherapy, but it’s not like we are talking about the light bulb or the telephone here.
Unconditional positive regard is simply the idea that the therapist treats his or her patient with love and respect no matter what they have done or what they have said. By itself such a notion is not that remarkable. Whether it is properly understood by most therapists remains to be seen.
The remarkable story of unconditional positive regard wasn’t the theory itself, but who the theory came from. Viktor Frankl was many things over the course of his life, but the most remarkable of those things was as a survivor. His family was ravaged by the Holocaust as he lost both of his parents and a brother in different concentration camps including Auschwitz.
For someone to see the very worst in humanity and come out on the other side at all is remarkable. Everyone that survived persecution, torture, and abject cruelty is remarkable. Someone that survives that and somehow comes away preaching for us to see the very best in humanity is worthy of sainthood. Yet, this story was embedded in those of us that sought our masters in counseling.
Of course, if someone lived their life with unconditional positive regard, they wouldn’t help but be hurt. There is too much natural cruelness in the world. There are too many people that don’t positively consider those around them. There are too many people that don’t consider those around them at all. There are those that think that we have entered into an age of narcissism and if that’s true then treating everyone with unconditional positive regard can be inherently dangerous.
However, one of the problems with modern living is the notion of either ors and neither nors. Some might call it the “all or nothing” fallacy. If we can’t be nice to everyone and if we can’t treat everyone with kindness and positive regard then we shouldn’t treat anyone nicely or with positive regard. The dichotomy is a dog eat dog world where the strongest survive and everyone else is trampled on.
There are shades of gray in this world. Everything cannot be black or white. Some things can have elements of this and that. We can conditionally treat people with positive regard. We can take steps to protect ourselves from bad people without trampling on the rights and feelings of other people. We can live with love even while some around us don’t love us back.
We can remember Viktor Frankl. No, spending a lifetime pioneering psychotherapies is not in the cards for most of us. Spending a lifetime doing anything to help those around us might take some doing. Yet, we can see the simple lesson here. A man that lost nearly everything at the hands of some of the worst people in history still found a way to love everyone. Maybe we can find our way to at least be kind to those around us.