Does Unconditional Acceptance Work in the Real World? Here’s the Theory

The Theory

Carl Rogers believed that in unconditional acceptance he discovered the human change agent.

To discuss this it is necessary to begin by summarizing the theory of Carl Rogers explained in a previous post. This is the most influential concept of the past half-century, so it bears repeating.

Rogers speculates that each human being possesses an internal guidance system, which he refers to as the self-actualizing tendency. If followed, the self-actualizing tendency will lead the individual to become a fully functioning (psychologically healthy) person.

Rogers also postulated that all of us need acceptance from significant others. If that acceptance is given conditionally (I will accept you if you live a certain way) then the individual will only be able to accept himself if he follows those conditions of acceptance. Consequently, rather than following his self-actualizing tendency so as to achieve personal fulfillment, the individual will be guided by these conditions of acceptance, which will lead to psychological pathologies and failure. We might diagram this concept as follows:

Carl Rogers--(1)

On the other hand, Rogers theorized that if significant others display unconditional acceptance, the individual will be able to accept himself unconditionally, which in turn will free him to follow his self-actualizing tendency and thus to become the person he was meant to be. Here is what this would look like:

Carl Rogers--(2)

In the post two days ago I dealt with how this perspective grants a license to people to unleash their evil inclinations. A parent accepting his child unconditionally in essence is giving permission to the child to skip school and do drugs with parental acceptance.

The Change Agent

However, the theory suggests that unconditional acceptance is not the problem but the solution. The theory postulates that the problem stems from a lack of unconditional acceptance, which has warped the child’s personality, prompting him to seek destructive behaviors such as skipping school and doing drugs. However, as his parent conveys unconditional acceptance to this child, he will be able to accept himself unconditionally. This will free him to follow his self-actualizing tendency, which consequently will lead to his transformation into a fully-functioning person who will abandon drug abuse and other irresponsible inclinations in favor of productive behaviors.

In short, then, unconditional acceptance constitutes a change agent that performs personality makeovers, transforming unhealthy personalities into mature, responsible ones.

Therefore, parents need not concern themselves with their children’s harmful behaviors. If they will only establish an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance in their homes their children ultimately will respond by spontaneous discarding bad behaviors for good ones.

The Need to Keep the Faith

Of course, the natural inclination of good parents is to panic when their children display negative behavior patterns. Rather than maintaining faith in the power of unconditional acceptance to produce positive change, fearful parents will convey conditions of acceptance in order to get their children to stop their inappropriate behavior. According to Rogers, this response will only exacerbate the problem since it is this type of conditional acceptance that produced the distorted personality that is causing the problem.

Or perhaps the parent will seek to express that they accept their erring child but not his inappropriate behavior. In yesterday’s post I discussed why this approach will lead to failure.

The appropriate response for the parent when confronted with a child’s bad behavior is to keep the faith, recognize that the problem stems from failure of their child to receive enough unconditional acceptance long enough to produce the needed transformation, and believe that if they persist in unconditionally accepting their child that ultimately this promised metamorphosis will kick in.

Does the Rogerian Faith Hold Up Under Reality

This leads to the ultimate question: Is Rogers right? Will unconditional acceptance eventually produce the promised transformation, or is the parent in expressing unconditional acceptance only providing a permissive atmosphere that frees the child to live promiscuously?

The next post offers a response to that question and data from Rogers’ own major experiment to support this response.

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