Carl Rogers was one of the founders of the client-centered approach in psychology. It
was a move from the therapist being a standoff professional who was an expert of both the process and of the client, the client could not resolve their issues without the expert insight into the unconscious by his/her therapist, to acknowledging the subjective experience of the client and the client being the expert of her/his self, while the therapist remained the expert of the therapeutic process. It was a balancing of power in the therapeutic relationship. Rogers identified three core conditions for a therapist to demonstrate, which he believed were necessary for client change: Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard, and Empathy. In this blog post, I want to focus on Unconditional Positive Regard.
Unconditional positive regard is one of the hardest things for a therapist to learn and embrace. The thought behind unconditional positive regard is not that you accept a client’s behavior, negative behavior is negative behavior, but that you accept the client even when they demonstrate “bad” behavior which the therapist finds unpleasant. We all come with our own values and biases, some that we are not even aware of, that can leak into the therapy session if we are not on guard for them, which will express our disdain for the client due to her/his behavior. To avoid this issue therapists choose not to work with certain groups of people or issues as the therapists own inability to find some redeeming quality in their clients prevents healing in the client. Once a therapist recognizes how they inhibit themselves and how their bias affects their work with clients, it is freeing to let most of that go (we can’t let it all go obviously, but we can be aware of it).
Being able to find that one thing that allows a therapist to value the client as a person, separate from their actions, can become a breakthrough for both the client and the therapist. Many clients who do “bad” things, have spent their entire lives hearing how “bad” and “worthless” they are, so there is no incentive to improve; they have internalized the message of being a bad person, not a person who does “bad” things. To hear that someone believes that they are worthy as a person, can inspire change and the desire to do better.
As writers it is easy to shade our antagonist as evil or a villain. The protagonist is whom we give depth to, it is the person we want our readers to identify with, and often we identify with as a projection of ourselves. The villain exists as the heroes’ foil, a straw man for the hero to knock down to progress their own development, and by the same token may be a projection of what we view as evil. It’s an easy way out to say that this character is evil and must be defeated, whereas in reality though, very few people are true sadists, doing evil for the sake of doing evil. Most people that we judge as “bad” have a reason for engaging in the behavior that we view as evil or it is just counter to what we think is right.
As writers it is our responsibility to love and understand the antagonist (which I much prefer as term than villain, because it positions them as counter to the protagonist without judging), as much as we do our protagonist. We need to recognize our biases and values that keep us from exploring the why of our antagonists. By adding complexity through illuminating motives and conflicting feelings that our readers can identify with we make the antagonist real for them. It also adds depth to the protagonist; if our readers don’t care about the antagonist, why will they care if our protagonist defeats them. It can also add depth to the protagonist by illustrating how s/he comes to peace with defeating a person who had goals and desires just like the protagonist, but were counter to the protagonist. This can set the stage for an internal struggle by our lead.
Remember, by caring about the foe of our hero, we demonstrate caring for both our protagonist and the intelligence of our readers.
Writing prompt: Identify someone you consider “bad”, e.g. a warlord, a robber, a corrupt politician (you can go deeper/more personal if it’s safe for you) and write a short story about their back story. What lead her/him to become a warlord, robber, corrupt politician, etc? The goal of this prompt being to justify the “bad” behavior.