How Does Conditional Positive Regard Affect Well-Being?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever tried to help someone who is struggling with poor motivation and low self-esteem? Your natural inclination may have been to give them some version of a pep talk to brighten their mood. If your response came out of concern that something was wrong, and out of a desire to help regardless of what the nature of the problem was or any feelings you might have about it, then you would have been showing your friend unconditional positive regard.

By contrast, if your pep talk was given only because you agreed that your friend’s problem in that moment was real and troubling, while at other times you tend to dismiss their complaints, then in that moment you may have been practicing conditional positive regard, because your support was conditioned on your agreeing that what your friend was facing was actually a problem.

How we regard one another and give or withhold support from one another can affect our mental health and our ability to grow and mature. Giving love or support to other people only if certain conditions are met sometimes might seem to be the right thing to do, but in fact conditional positive regard can be damaging. Let’s take a look at conditional and unconditional positive regard to see how each of them work and what their effects might be.

You Deserve To Be Unconditionally Seen And Accepted

The Perspective Of Psychologist Carl Rogers

Researchers have long studied the effect that personal or professional feedback has on an individual’s self-esteem, affect, and motivation to learn. For example, psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987), whose work has had a lasting impact on the field of psychology, believed that people need an environment of genuineness, empathy, and unconditional acceptance for them to grow into mature, healthy adults. Rogers, along with psychologist Abraham Maslow, also developed the concept of self-actualization, which is often defined as the process of achieving one’s goals, wishes, and desires, and becoming one’s true self.

Rogers thought that conditional positive regard, especially from a parent to a child, had the potential to stop a person from becoming self-actualized. For example, if a parent only provides warmth, affection, and acceptance when the child meets their standards, conditions, or expectations—such as valuing the child only if they enter the same profession as the parent or perform well as an athlete—the parent is showing the child conditional positive regard, which can negatively affect the child’s self-image. By contrast, if the parent loves and accepts the child no matter what, the parent would be showing unconditional positive regard, which Rogers felt was necessary for healthy human development.

The Effects Of Conditional Positive Regard

The effects of conditional positive regard have mostly been studied in the context of relationships between children and adults such as parents and teachers. With regard to parenting, such studies have found that when parents make their love and affection contingent upon a child’s behavior, the child may learn that they’re only worthy of love if they behave in certain ways. The child may also learn that they have to repress certain emotions in order to be accepted.

Parents may use conditional positive regard as a tool to control their children to receive a beneficial desired outcome such as good grades in school. However, studies have shown that this technique may backfire in the long run because it can negatively affect the child’s ability to control themselves and also damage their sense of their own autonomy. This is because conditional positive regard by parents may send the message that the child can’t rely on themselves to gain understanding about the world around them, but instead have to rely on their parents’ judgement.

According to researchers AviAssor, Guy Roth, and Edward L. Deci, children whose parents implemented conditional positive regard developed less authentically, had internal feelings of compulsion, experienced shame following failure, and experienced unstable self-esteem and low self-worth. Such children also felt disapproval toward their parents and harbored resentment against them. By contrast, the authors of the study suggest that children may experience better personal growth and better mental and emotional health if their parents show them unconditional positive regard and have more respect for their child’s autonomy.

It’s important to note that giving children unconditional positive regard isn’t equivalent to a permissive parenting style that might not set boundaries for the child. Parents can show their children unconditional positive regard and at the same time provide clear expectations and rules for the child’s behavior. The difference is that with unconditional positive regard, the parent tries to make clear that the child’s worth as a person doesn’t depend on their behavior.

The effects of conditional regard between teachers and students in the classroom appear to be slightly different from the effects between parents and children. One study found that conditional positive regard on the part of teachers toward students seemed to foster more classroom engagement. However, another study found that conditional positive regard could have a negative effect on students’ emotional well-being for students who weren’t doing well in class.

Conditional positive regard doesn’t only affect relationships between adults and children. It can also influence different kinds of relationships between adults. One study investigated the role played by conditional positive regard on friendships and intimate relationships. The study showed that conditional positive regard generally had a negative effect on the quality of the relationship. The study authors theorized that this is because conditional positive regard doled out by one partner had a tendency to take away the other partner’s autonomy because of the requirement to behave in certain ways in order to receive esteem or affection.

Unconditional Positive Regard In Therapy

In his work, Carl Rogers argued that therapists should use unconditional positive regard toward their patients. Rogers thought that it was important for patients to be able to express themselves honestly to their therapists without feeling like they were being judged. According to Rogers, allowing people to be who they are was the best way to help them change, since he thought that change happens best when people can see themselves honestly.

One way that a therapist might show unconditional positive regard might be to ask the client to discuss their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that the therapist might consider to be morally unacceptable, but without the therapist telling the client that these things are unacceptable. The goal here might be to get to the root of the client’s views and behavior, rather than to target the illegality or immorality of the behavior, since focusing on laws or morals ultimately might be unhelpful in helping the client to change and to heal.

Unconditional Positive Regard In Social Work

You Deserve To Be Unconditionally Seen And Accepted

Social work has many crossovers with counseling and therapy. However, social workers may see clients in contexts that are different from those therapists usually work in, such as providing services to the elderly and to people with developmental disabilities that are intended to allow those clients to live as autonomously as possible.

A social worker’s clients may come from a different culture or have a different set of life experiences from that of the social worker. Unconditional positive regard therefore can be an essential part of what social workers do. This is because accepting the client where they are and encouraging them to follow a path that’s consistent with their own views, values, and beliefs can be an important part of establishing and building professional trust, and an important part of meeting the client’s own needs.

Having unconditional positive regard doesn’t mean that the social worker necessarily approves of their clients’ behaviors. What it does is place the focus on the client’s ability to direct themselves and guide themselves toward their desires and goals. Respecting the client’s beliefs and their ability to make decisions for themselves can empower the client to accept themselves as they are and may make it easier for them to make positive changes in their lives.

When To Seek Help

Many people have been negatively affected by conditional positive regard. They may have had parents who withheld affection if they got bad grades or for other reasons. They may be in an intimate relationship with someone who shows love and affection only under certain conditions. These experiences can be damaging and can have negative impacts on one’s ability to create and maintain healthy relationships with other adults and with one’s own children.

Fortunately, there are licensed therapists who understand how such issues can affect people, and are available to listen and to help guide you toward better mental health and better relationships. Some clients might prefer to meet face-to-face in the therapist’s office, but online options from services such as BetterHelp are becoming increasingly available.

Some people find online therapy to be more convenient than in-person appointments, since they can meet with their therapist in the comfort of their own home. In some cases, online therapy may be less expensive than traditional in-person treatment. Studies have also shown that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face meetings in the therapist’s office.

Takeaway

Conditional positive regard means giving someone esteem, love, or support only if that person meets certain conditions. By contrast, unconditional positive regard means giving love and support regardless of the person’s behavior. Conditional positive regard can be damaging, especially in parent-child relationships and in intimate relationships between adults. If conditional positive regard from a parent or a partner has negatively affected you, help is available from a qualified, licensed therapist.

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