You can be anything you want to be, we’ll love you no matter what, my parents used to say. But what if I got bad grades and was mean to my sister? What if I was lazy and shallow? What if I sold drugs or killed a person, I thought, at 10 years old. Oh, the dishonesty. From a kid’s eyes, from my eyes, expressions of unconditional positive regard are hard to trust. How could they be anything but empty platitudes, concealing a less palatable set of rigid expectations?
The past several nights, I’ve sat, infant son in arms, gently rocking in a dimly lit nursery. My left elbow propping up his wobbly head, my right arm holding a book, The Pout-Pout Fish.
In this New York Times bestseller, of which I have been gifted three copies, we’re introduced to depression. There are three things to know about the pout-pout fish: he’s unhappy, he’s killing the mood, and there’s nothing that can be done about it, according to the pout-pout fish.
A series of aquatic antagonists pass through, chastising the pout-pout fish for his behavior and propagating mental health stigma that’s always been so prevalent in these sorts of communities. Alas, the pout-pout fish remains resolute; his grumpy demeanor is his destiny.
That is, until the kiss-kiss fish comes along.
With nothing to say, no lectures on morality, no self-help cliche’s, no assertive you need to change, she offers a kiss. A simple gesture of affection, an overture of acceptance, and the pout-pout fish was transformed — now manically spreading love and affection throughout his community of judgmental and insensitive sea-creatures acquaintances.
It hits me hard, expressing a profound truth about how to pull people out of depression, so I think, as my son focuses in on the book, pulling it out of my hands, and quickly thrusting the corner into his eyeball.
Carl Rogers and Unconditional Positive Regard
In the 1950s, the psychologist Carl Rogers popularized the concept of unconditional positive regard in academic and psychological circles. Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, who you could be forgiven for confusing with Carl Rogers, embodied this attitude in his heart-melting quote “you don’t need to do anything sensational for people to love you.”