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How to Achieve Positive Self-regard


If you’ve ever been in therapy or read self-help books, you know that loving yourself is key to living your best life. Self-love often seems like a squishy term. Here’s one that might be easier to swallow: learning the purpose and practice of positive self-regard. 

The Surprising Benefits of Unconditional Positive Regard explains what positive self-regard is and isn’t. It means treating yourself as a fallible human being no matter what you think, feel, say or do. It’s knowing our actions are unhealthy even as we’re doing them, but still seeing them as the best we can do at the time. Or looking back at something we did in horror yet treating ourselves with compassion in spite of it.

To be clear, positive self-regard is not unconditional acceptance of our actions. It means holding ourselves in positive regard and still not liking but wanting to change our behaviors. For example, you may overeat when you’re upset and be unsure how to feel about yourself. You can value, respect and have compassion for yourself without accepting the behavior as something you wish to repeat. 

This holding of two sets of feelings may be hard for people who think and feel in all or nothing terms. The goal is not to be “good” all the time, which is impossible for human beings, hard as we try. We’re not hard-wired to be goody-two-shoes and we do better when we give up trying to be angels and relax into our humanity, which involves sometimes doing well and sometimes doing poorly.

When I was a novice therapist at a Boston methadone clinic, a job I loved, the sister of a former client I’d been quite fond of called to say this client had overdosed on heroin and invited me to attend the wake. Because it was being held at night in the middle of winter in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I talked myself out of going. Later, I realized I felt somewhat responsible for this woman’s death, as if I should have “cured” her drug use and also worried her family would blame me for it and her overdose. 

I should have gone to the wake out of respect for her memory and her family’s suffering. The only thing that made me feel better at my lapse was a refusal to add to my pain by beating myself up. I didn’t accept my actions, but still held myself in positive regard.

Positive regard can also encourage creativity, authenticity, motivation, and self-actualization. Ideally, we grew up in families that held us in positive regard, but of course, many of us experienced exactly the opposite. That doesn’t mean we can’t find people who show us such regard now and give it to ourselves every minute of each day.