Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) and what it should Look Like

The following is a presentation I will be making at a non-Christian discussion group on the subject of the "unconditional positive regard." The psychotherapist Carl Rogers had popularized this terminology, insisting that our relationships required that we regard the other with a positive regard that transcended their performance or any other material consideration: 

UPR provides a vital component for meaningful relationships. However, it is not the only component.

I had worked for the New York City Department of Probation for 15 years and enjoyed  relationships with many of my probationers. I tried to show them that they were important and valued. To demonstrate this, I’d offer to make them a coffee or hot chocolate when they’d enter my office. I also made it clear that I was willing to take the time to listen and provide feedback.

I hope that they were able to see that my regard for them wasn’t merely a manipulation to get them to comply and reform so that I could feel that I was doing a good job. I genuinely regarded them as precious human beings despite their poor moral and vocational performances and the pain that they had caused others. As God’s highest creation, humanity bears a moral and intellectual resemblance to our Maker, and I feel that God had enabled me to see this resemblance in them, despite the destructiveness of their lives.

However, there was also another reason that I could see a different side of them – a side that transcended their dismal performance. I knew what God had done for me to lift me out of shame, self-contempt and dysfunctionality, and I knew that He could do the same for them. He might not make them all into Harvard grads, but He could convert their lives into something beautiful.

My God had enabled me to accept myself despite my many failings, and this enabled me to also accept others, even to be drawn to them. Consequently, instead of running from them in disgust and contempt, I found I was drawn to them, wanting to bring out the best in them, despite my own long list of inadequacies.

I began to see them through the eyes of my God, who pleads with broken people in this manner:

  • "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)
As a counseling student, I had learned about the therapeutic necessity of UPR. However, for a long time, it was no more for me than a useful technique to elicit positive responses from the client. I acted out the UPR but didn’t really believe that someone who looked so negative and pathetic to me could actually be an unconditional positive. Therefore, I didn’t believe that all of my clients were worthy of my positive regard.

I also observed psychotherapists as they used this technique in a counseling setting. However, they were not sincere about it. I knew what they really thought because we would have professional processing sessions during which we’d discuss the cases.

Consistent with their materialistic assumptions, they considered the counselee a basket case. Therefore, for them, UPR was no more than a necessary manipulation, which they cynically used as one of many tools. Meanwhile, there were other therapists who were genuinely compassionate. For them, UPR complemented their natural empathetic inclinations, although they might have had difficulty philosophically justifying UPR.

However, UPR should never become an excuse to enable or indulge immoral behavior. Instead, it was because I regarded my probationers with UPR, that I also regarded them as responsible moral beings, culpable before the law. Consequently, I also confronted and even threatened them. From the start, I laid out the law for them – their conditions of probation – explaining to them that I would not hesitate to send them back to court if they failed to fulfill their conditions. I feel that I dignified them by taking the stance that they were responsible for their conduct, and this was something about which I never received an argument! However, I assured them that, if they were trying to go in the right direction that I’d be there for them, and if they weren’t, I’d be posed against them.

UPR doesn’t mean that relationships should only be about soft-fuzzies. There are objective behavioral standards to which we must conform. This is because there is an objective moral reality supported by a righteous creator God. Without such a God, we cannot have coherent moral or legal standards. Otherwise, these standards would then be no more than socially created, mutable, moral conventions – relative standards to which, in good conscience, I wouldn’t be able to require anyone to follow.

However, this raises an important philosophical question – “How can we regard someone positively and negatively at the same time?” In order to reconcile this paradox, there has to be two different perspectives – a material, performance-based perspective and a transcendent perspective. With only the material perspective, we can only judge someone based upon performance. With only the transcendent perspective, we cannot engage their behaviors as we must.

Occasionally, I’d receive a report that my probationer was harassing his girlfriend. I would have to take action in a way that wouldn’t compromise my principles - UPR, justice and the need to protect the innocent. Happily, there is no essential conflict between these principles. If I regard the probationer with UPR, this doesn’t mean that I can’t criticize or punish their behavior. If I regard them positively, I will speak the truth to them and hold them accountable. We should not give into the temptation to regard them as a mere product of their environment. This is to demean them.

If they’ve done wrong, they require a punitive response, not only for the good of society but also for their own good. I found that once they understood that I was trying to be fair, I rarely experienced any hostility from them. In fact, the younger ones would welcome a firm disciplinary hand.

I had derived a deep joy in doing this work. There was partly because I believed in what I was doing. I believed in justice, and I also believed in the value of the people who had been committed to my oversight.

True UPR requires humility – accurately seeing our inadequate selves apart from our denials and self-promotion. If I regard myself as a superior human being, it becomes almost impossible to not look down on others. But the Lord had painfully revealed to me that if it wasn’t for His protection, I could have easily ended up either behind bars or as a suicide statistic. This self-realization changes the way we regard others.

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