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.”
The concept is simple, regard people positively, and don’t make your best regards conditional on anything. It’s about accepting people despite their faults and loving people no matter who they’ve become.
Unconditional Positive Regard is an attitude. It can be applied in a range of settings and relationships. Parents to children, teachers towards students, scientists towards a research subject that is tripping on mushrooms, and from Carl Roger’s perspective, a therapist towards their clients. By 2010, the mental health benefits of incorporating unconditional positive regard into therapy had become clear.
But there seems to be an uncomfortable contradiction at the heart of practicing unconditional positive regard as a therapy. How can you think exclusively good things about a person when your goal is to change them? How could there not be a clear acknowledgment of another person’s shortcomings?
According to Rogers, there’s a simple answer: separate the person from the behavior. People can suck, but something more fundamental within them is still loved. The goal is to remember that a singular manifestation of ourselves does not define us in our entirety. To be clear, the goal is not to think that our kids or co-workers or clients are perfect, just that they are people, and that beneath the surface of misbehavior lies a human who is desperately grasping for the same things anyone is.
The other challenge with positive regard is bringing it into our personal lives. How can we transcend the emotional traps of sibling rivalries, parental neglect, and disobedient children? When our fates are so thoroughly entwined with the behaviors of another person, how can we genuinely have empathy when they do us wrong?
One of the difficult truths I’ve had to accept about mental illness in my own life is that people who are suffering are often hard to be around. At the heart of mental-health stigma is a devastating reality: depression and anxiety are often paired with hostility or the withholding of a broiling resentment. Often the times that people need help the most are the same times when people are the least approachable. How can we maintain a positive attitude towards our friends and family when met with such vitriol?
The answer, in my view, has to involve humility. Before we can empathize with the suffering of someone we love, we need to know what it’s like to suffer ourselves. More simply, we need to recognize that we all suffer. To regard others with unconditional positivity, we need to recognize that when it comes to important things, most people have no clue what they’re doing, rather, that we have very little clue what we’re doing.
But feeling it is one thing, and expressing it is another. Without the courage to be vulnerable, all that humility isn’t worth anything. Somehow, we need to try and transcend our social-media-mandate to share only our accomplishments, only our sparks of genius and beauty (says the person sharing a piece of writing he spent hours on). Only if we’re willing to be vulnerable, to expose our insecurities to the people whose affection we most desperately want, can be taken seriously when we express unconditional positivity.