The I-Thou relationship refers to the sacredness of the relationship between two people. Unconditional positive regard refers to the complete support and acceptance of a person, no matter what that person says or does. Both relationships are essential for effective therapy. Although these two fundamental attitudes are specifically components of an existential-humanistic psychotherapy modality, I believe that they would be beneficial for any therapeutic modality.
According to Martin Buber, German philosopher, human beings can adopt two attitudes towards the world: I you Where I-It. Buber contrasted the I-Thou relationship with the I-It relationship. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings are aware of each other as interconnected. Dialogue is the way to facilitate this interconnection. Buber saw dialogue as a form of human encounter with an orientation towards connection and relationship. The I-It encounter is the opposite of an I-Thou. It’s transactional.
In the I-Thou relationship, I meet you as you are, and you meet me as I am. The I-Thou relationship is a dialogue that can only take place when there is a real relationship with the other person. The I-Thou relationship is characterized by reciprocity, transparency and presence. In therapy, it is the lived relationship between the client and the therapist. This relationship goes beyond any overt transaction between client and therapist.
In the I-It relationship, there is no dialogue. It only focuses on a transaction that is functional. It is based on an exchange. When the exchange is over, the relationship ends. I-It relationships include the transactions necessary for daily living. There can be healthy and unhealthy transactions in I-It relationships. Sound I-It transactions are those that are direct and transparent. Unsound I-It transactions are those that are manipulative and dishonest. In therapy, the healthy I-It relationship is demonstrated by the transaction of the therapist being paid for a session by the client and the client benefiting from the therapist’s skills during the session.
Unconditional positive regard
According to Carl Rogers, American psychologist and founder of person-centered therapy, human beings can have two attitudes towards each other: unconditional positive regard and conditional positive regard. Rogers contrasted these two attitudes. Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of total acceptance, whether for yourself or for someone else. Conditional positive consideration is an attitude of valuing a person only if certain conditions, standards or expectations are met.
When you have unconditional positive regard for someone, nothing they can do can give you a reason to stop seeing them as inherently valuable and valuable. This does not mean that you agree with every action the person has taken. It means you accept who they are on a much deeper level than surface behavior. In therapy, an environment of unconditional positive consideration benefits the client in the following ways: When the therapist offers no judgment, the client feels less fearful and is more likely to freely share their thoughts, feelings, and actions. As the therapist accepts the client, the client is encouraged to find self-acceptance.
When you approach a relationship with an attitude of conditional positive regard, the person may feel that they have to react in a certain way to please you. They feel the need to hide certain aspects of themselves from you, because if they don’t hide them, they are likely to be disapproved of. In therapy, this prevents the client from exploring more deeply who they are because they may be afraid of not getting the therapist’s approval.
Therapeutic benefits for the client
Cultivating the I-Thou relationship and unconditional positive regard involves letting the client know, verbally and non-verbally, that they have inherent worth. This is incredibly encouraging for the client as it is validated for who they are, regardless of ongoing therapeutic growth. It is letting the client know that you, as the therapist, appreciate the client in all of their parts – including the parts of themselves that they have disavowed, avoided, or repressed.
As a therapist, I invite all of these parts into the session because the client, like me, is a complex human being. Both the client and I are living, messy human beings with strengths and gifts as well as vulnerabilities and regrets. We are in the same human soup and on this therapeutic journey together. I happen to be in the role of therapist, and they are in the role of client. We are two human beings who meet as sincerely as possible. In this encounter, change occurs for both of us.
The paradox is that the more the therapist helps a client to accept himself in all his parts, the more the client can heal parts of himself that no longer serve him. Growth can occur. When the client works to integrate all of their parties, including those they have disavowed, growth can occur. If they resist embracing their inherent worth and self-acceptance, and don’t integrate the parts they’ve disavowed, they get stuck.
A client of mine wrote what I think sums up the power of the I-Thou relationship and unconditional positive regard to facilitate personal growth. “Your understanding and acceptance of my slowly resurfacing self has helped me to value myself. I once heard a man describe the reason for his lifelong close friendship with another person by saying, ‘He understands me. . I feel ‘apprehended’ by you. This feeling is so affirming. I have gained new confidence in myself.”
I would like to close this article with a few questions you can ask yourself that might be helpful to you: Who are the people you are close to in your life? With which of these people do you think you have cultivated an I-Thou relationship and demonstrated unconditional positive regard? How does that feel to you? Can you describe it? With which of your close relationships do you think you could have a stronger I-Thou relationship and demonstrate stronger unconditional positive regard? Are there ways to take them for granted? Are there ways to be frustrated with them without simultaneously feeling compassion for them? With these relationships, would you intend and make the effort to develop a stronger I-Thou relationship and demonstrate unconditional positive regard?
I wish you a life journey of developing I-Thou relationships and having unconditional positive regard for yourself and other people in your life.