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At the simplest level, positive regard is the energy that is produced by the act of attending to another human being or organism in a positive manner inside of a relationship. and it means that you are making a positive difference in someone’s life.
In short, someone’s attention directed to you fills you with a sense of fullness and belonging. At the same time, because the act of giving positive regard sets up a reciprocal energy, that person is lifted in the process. The very act of them giving their regard to you completes them and makes them whole. What it means is that your presence creates a positive difference in their life. Another’s attention lifts them and makes them feel full and whole, such that they recognize that their very being makes a positive difference in your life.
Positive regard is always moving. It is dynamic like the flow of energy. It is reciprocal. That is the very fact that your presence lifts another and, at the same time, the giver of the regard is also lifted. Reciprocal positive regard acts like the tide. It lifts all vessels under its influence.
Human beings run on the wind of positive regard. The need for positive regard motivates or is a factor that influences all human interaction. Our need for the regard is based in our species’ evolutionary-based need to survive. It is hard-wired into our very DNA. The need for positive regard is a deeply held survival-based instinct. Our connection to others has kept us alive throughout history and our need to give and receive positive regard is the connection by which the energy of interpersonal attachment flows between individuals.
The first instance of positive regard transaction begins before the birth in the prenatal environment. How the mother perceives and interacts emotionally with the neonate in uterus may, in fact, be a first glimmering for the new being of the power of this energy. Certainly the energy field set up between the mother and child at birth is perhaps the quintessential foundation on which all subsequent positive regard transactions are in some way influenced. That first look of recognition between the mother and the newborn is the most striking example of positive regard and may, in fact, come closest to that sense of total love and acceptance we call unconditional positive regard.
In real life, the state of unconditional love or unconditional positive regard is asymptotic. It is a rare state that does not last very long. It is like those rare elements that are produced in the great atom smasher. In real life, unconditional positive regard is a theoretical assumption, but is very difficult or nigh impossible to attain.
One can see everything or any interaction between human beings through the prism of the need for positive regard. Every interaction between human beings engenders another thread through the loom that is developing the tapestry of our life. This tapestry that we are weaving, minute by minute, throughout our lives creates an experiential field. Like an electrical or magnetic field, it draws to itself patterns of energy unto itself that are unique to each individuals and the particular tapestry that he or she is in the process of designing. Each person is constantly designing his or her own tapestry of human interaction, partially based on the pattern of reciprocal positive regard one has set up in one’s early relationship with significant others. The original significant others have the greatest influence upon the development of the parameters of the pattern that one sets up into one’s tapestry.
Positive Regard and the Transitional Object
The death of Peter Jennings and the adulation and homage to his public as well as the private man is an example of the power of the positive regard. We develop a regard complex with another through a transitional object, like the television for a television personality, which we have never met and with whom we only have a second-hand connection through the transitional object.
Shame is the antithesis of positive regard. Indifference is the absence of positive regard, leaving the individual feeling neglected or betrayed. There is always a dynamic conflict between the individual’s need for independence and his or her need for a sense of oneness. Both states are necessary for the continued survival of the organism. It is seen all the time in the behavior of animals. Like the penguin who stays with the young at the Antarctic, while its mate goes back to the sea to get fed and then comes back to feed the chicks. It is always a balancing act between the individuals need for survival through self-control and autonomy as apposed survival through its ability to connect to others, thereby surrendering to the sense of outside control with security that is present in the relationship.
Patterns of current values and behaviors have their foundations in past experiences. Some of our most powerful patterns are those which affect our lives without our really being aware or conscious of their import. These are the kinds of patterns which act like a subtext, like current that flows below the surface of our everyday lives, affecting us in subtle and not so subtle ways. Our constant attempts to balance our intimacy needs with our needs for freedom and independence is an example of one of these patterns set up by early experience that can facilitate a battle for homeostasis between these two states throughout our lives.
This pattern of oneness/freedom is so very strong because of its foundation in our imperative as an organism to survive. Its first articulation is expressed during our prenatal experience. It is one which comes out of a common human experience that every human being has had as they come into this world to begin their lives. It is also so strong and so subtle because much of the rational machinery on which later experience is structured and integrated into our lives is not fully developed in the neonate. For example, the amygdala is not fully developed so that the emotional memory is non-logical, but is more one which is held at a deeper visceral level. This makes for a pattern that is not readily understood by the human in terms of a collective consciousness experience.
This conflict starts in the womb. In the womb we are in “Hotel California.” We are getting everything we need: food, air, nurturance, comfort, freedom of movement within bounds, and a place to explore. At the same time, we are one with our mother. We are literally part of her body. We are separate, yet merged with our creative force. No wonder we call it Mother Nature and Mother Earth. As time in the womb continues through the gestation process, we become more of a separate entity, a being that is whole and more and more able to sustain itself on an independent basis, but one that is still connected to the mother as one. We continue to get all our needs met and we are, to a large extent, safe in the environment and one with our host.
At the time of birth, we are separated from the host. We are removed from or cast out of “Hotel California.” This separation is a complex one because the baby is both the instigator and the mother. Changes in the hormonal environment signal the fetus that it is time to go. This is a very delicate chemical, hormonal and psychological time which engenders stress within the womb and in which balance within the womb and for the mother is very high. We move from a place of oneness and nurturance in the process of birth to a place of being free, separate and on our own. We take our first breath; we feel our own skin and the touch of others. It is definitely scary and uncomfortable and exhilarating for the baby at an experiential level.
So here we have two very different environmental states for the neonate states that are, in their own ways, untenable in engendering conflict in each and between them. The neonatal experience has, in some way, come to terms with these two disparate states of being in order to make sense of the world. The womb has become a noxious environment, a dysfunctional home, and the new world is fraught with unknown dangers and definite discomfort and struggle. The struggle to breath, the struggle to move, the struggle to be fed and nurtured, and, at the same time, the exhilaration of being free and independent. This is the natural consequence of life.
This experience becomes the paradigm from which many of us move through life. We swing like a pendulum between these two very real needs throughout our lives. As we become too close to the object, a job, a wife, a girlfriend, we become anxious. It is like an old body memory that has gotten re-stimulated. Like the phantom arm, we remember both the wonderful oneness with our mother also also feel the claustrophobia of the environment shutting in on us. The heat and discomfort are held at a cellular memory within us. When we feel this feeling, we begin to flee. Part of us needs and wants to get free and to get away. We don’t know why but we become anxious and uncomfortable being too close. The anxiety builds until we do something to get some space in the relationship. We get this momentary sense of relief by taking our space back. Momentarily we are in homeostasis. And then we begin to feel that we are alone. Our body memory of the alternative state of being on our own starts to come into play and we begin to feel a kind of depression due to the feelings of being so out there and vulnerable. It is both a sense of vulnerability and perhaps they are old needs to survive and the knowledge that we needed someone else to survive in this world. The deep spiritual sense of interconnectivity comes into play as we try to reconcile this need for freedom with our needs for nurturance and oneness.
The Buddhist philosophy states that we are all one, that the idea of separation is really an artifact of the birth process, we are part of the great ocean of consciousness and we well return to that great ocean of consciousness at some time when we pass away. So maybe our natural state is that of being in the oneness of connection with all those around us. On the other hand, it seems that to be at oneness would rob us of our ability for self responsibility. Without the sense of independent free will, how can we survive? This is a natural process that each human being must be reconciled with in their own way and in their own time. If the mother has real problems with her own ability to reconcile these two states, then it must affect her relationship with her child. Her own early disturbed attachments are met on the child in perhaps an unconscious manner.
This idea of disturbed attachment is interesting. If the natural process of working through this process is disturbed prematurely, the process of reconciliation between these two disparate states becomes out of balance. The individual whose primary object of attachment leaves, abandons, or becomes unavailable emotionally is arbitrarily set up to seek the attached state constantly.
Time and again there is the complaint of the inability to tolerate this constant yoyo-ing between these two states. The complaints are either that the significant other is not available emotionally, physically or sexually, or that the partner feels that the other is strangling them and is too needy in the relationship. One constantly hears the concerns the patient has about feeling out of control in the relationship or not getting their needs met in the relationship. Dr. Paul Standal attempts to approach this by strengthening the patient’s sense of boundaries in helping them clarify their sense of what their rights and responsibilities are within the relationship.
Dr. Standal has also been pretty successful helping clients use the concept of judicious rejection. This has been great help to several clients. Judicious rejection really is a tool to get control of the needy kind of behaviors. It is playing hard to get. It is surprising that when someone pulls back in the relationship, the other principle will tend to seek out the other more forcefully. It is clear that if you swing the pendulum to the other side of the spectrum, the other person will begin to feel depressed and alone and empty and scared and will begin to reach out to get closer again. The need for Hotel California becomes the operating drive based on old needs for nurturance and survival.
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