Unconditional Positive Regard
I'm neck deep in writing final papers for my counseling classes, and I wanted to share something that struck me.
Last December, in his letter about Saint Joseph, Patris Corde, Pope Francis described the way Joseph loved Jesus and Mary to illustrate the way God loves us. He said:
Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities.
Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a "most chaste" father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness.
Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery.
God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom.
That passage has been on my mind a lot this past year, and it was on my mind while I was reading a 1957 article from Carl Rogers. Rogers developed the Person-Centered theory of counseling, and in this article, he outlined the "necessary and sufficient" conditions for someone to experience positive change in therapy.
One of those conditions is called aUnconditional Positive Regard, which he describes this way:
To the extent that the therapist finds himself experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client's experience as being a part of that client, he is experiencing unconditional positive regard.
[...] It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of “I like you only if you are thus and so.” It means a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term. It is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude—“You are bad in these ways, good in those.”
It involves as much feeling of acceptance for the client's expression of negative, “bad,” painful, fearful, defensive, abnormal feelings as for his expression of “good,” positive, mature, confident, social feelings, as much acceptance of ways in which he is inconsistent as of ways in which he is consistent.
It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist's own needs. It means a caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences.
One client describes the therapist as “fostering my possession of my own experience ... that [this] is my experience and that I am actually having it: thinking what I think, feeling what I feel, wanting what I want, fearing what I fear: no ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ or ‘not reallys.’”
This is the type of acceptance which is hypothesized as being necessary if personality change is to occur.
When I read this, I read a description of how Pope Francis is saying God loves us, loves me.
God has no agenda when he loves me. He puts no conditions on his love. He accepts my experiences, thoughts, and feelings as my own. Not necessarily approving them, but not expecting them to be anything different than what they are in order for him to love me. He respects my freedom. Even when I use my freedom in a way that harms myself and others.
If that's not amazing enough, two more thoughts came to mind.
The first is that this kind of relationship, in and of itself, is healing. This kind of unconditional love provokes positive change and growth in others. Chaste love, love without possessiveness, is itself healing.
Second, not only does God love me in this way, but God is actively transforming my heart to be like his heart and my desires to be like his desires, so that I am able to love others in this way as well. God's love not only heals, it transforms. And being able to love like God loves, being perfect as God is perfect, is what I was created for.