Unconditional Positive Regard and Ecopsychology

“The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided,” –Carl Rogers, on unconditional positive regard

The graduate-level counseling program that I got my Master’s degree through at Lewis & Clark College has a very humanistic foundation. Humanistic psychology was developed by Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and several other pioneering psychologists in the mid-20th century. After decades of being dominated by the Victorian biases of Freud’s psychoanalysis and Skinner’s cold behaviorism*, the field of psychology was in dire need of some warmth and humanity.

There are several key tenets to humanistic psychology, including the idea that people are inherently good, that we are whole, complex people and we should strive to develop our best selves, and that a therapist’s role is to be supportive in these efforts while offering constructive tools the client can use. Also important is the concept of unconditional positive regard, in which a therapist wholly accepts a person as they are, and does not judge them no matter their mistakes or flaws. By offering this place of complete support, the client has the opportunity to see that they always have the potential to become better regardless of their past or present circumstances.

Unconditional positive regard is not an easy state to achieve; very few people are able to maintain it on a daily basis, and even seasoned mental health professionals often have to work to get into that space, especially if their client is one with whom they have deep personal disagreements. It requires a person to step outside of their own biases and judgements for a while, and to simply accept a person in the moment: “Right now, it’s like this.” Not a bad way to approach a client who just needs one person in their life who isn’t going to immediately dismiss them.

And not a bad way to try to approach people in the general sphere. But again, also not easy. Generally speaking if you have an interest in ecopsychology you also have an interest in environmentalism, and chances are you’re pretty concerned about climate change, deregulation, overpopulation and other threats to the planet’s many ecosystems. It can also be maddening to watch politicians, business tycoons and other people in power show absolutely no regard for the effects of their actions in the pursuit of money.

Back when I was still actively seeing clients, while I did treat people who had vastly different worldviews and experiences, I never had someone in my office who was directly responsible for polluting entire bodies of water or clear-cutting thousands of acres of forest. One of the things I learned in ethics classes was that if I couldn’t set my biases aside with a client, I should refer them to another therapist so that the therapist-client relationship wouldn’t be polluted by my resentments and anger. I’m not sure how long I’d last in a session with someone who bragged about rolling coal or wishing they could shoot endangered raptors; I might have set a record for the fastest referral ever.

But in the years since then, I’ve had a lot of practice trying to figure out how to embrace unconditional positive regard in my everyday life, to include with people who believe or do things I think are abhorrent. Out here, I don’t have the ethical obligation to refer someone to a better-suited therapist, and I can’t escape people who have diametrically opposing viewpoints. Some of them are people I care for very deeply, in fact.

And as hard as it is, I’ve been trying to take a step back from my opinions and remember that everyone has the potential to be better, kinder, more awesome in all regards. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve written and then deleted argumentative comments on social media without every actually posting them (there’s a lot to argue about, you know.) I’ve looked at the current political and social climate as an opportunity to really put unconditional positive regard to the test–trying to approach everyone I meet without judgement or bias. It’s not easy, let me tell you, but I guess that’s one of my goals on the path to self-actualization.

So how do I look through this with an ecopsychological lens? The initial assumption might be that a client becoming the best person they can be involves them embracing their ecological selves, in which they cease to see themselves as the dominant species on the planet, and instead feel a sense of being just one part of a vibrant, interconnected ecosystem. After all, ecopsychologists have spent the past couple of decades strongly emphasizing the idea that we are sick on a societal level and our destruction of the planet’s life-support system is a symptom of that. The “cure” should be to experience responsibility and care toward their entire community, human and otherwise.

Yet to an extent that’s the therapist writing the script for the client. And that’s not what you do in unconditional positive regard. As difficult as it can be, you have to sit with that client in that moment, and set aside your assumptions and beliefs. Your job is to hold space for them to let go of all their preconceived notions about themselves, to include those plastered upon them by others throughout their lifetimes, so that they can discover their own potential for self-actualization–in other words, create a garden for them to grow in.

Outside of the office or treatment center or wilderness retreat, the work continues. Our current dilemma has come about in a milieu of fear, anger, greed and a scarcity mentality. We are driven by a fear of lack–lack of resources, lack of safety, lack of acceptance. It’s the tragedy of the commons–get yours before it’s all gone.

What if we offered everyone, not just clients, the opportunity to stop being so self-centered and defensive all the time? What if people knew they could come to us at any time and speak without being automatically judged? What if they could slough the weight of fear and anxiety about rejection off their shoulders, and know they could simply be themselves? How might they feel about exploring the possibility of personal growth then?

Obviously it would be a lot of work, and require a ton of self-care. But again, I’m talking in terms of ideals. I have a lot more ruminating to do on this concept, but I want to keep following this intersection of ecopsychology and unconditional positive regard, and will revisit it in later writings. For now, what say you, dear readers?

*I recognize I’m not being completely nice to either Freud or Skinner. To be fair, they both made vast contributions to psychology in their own way. However, at the time Rogers and their ilk were really hitting hitheir stride, they were filling a decidedly large gap in the care of mental health, one that couldn’t be addressed by probing the unconscious mind or testing behavioral responses.