The Use of Unconditional Positive Regard with Loved Ones Struggling with Addiction

Unconditional positive regard, a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does, especially in the context of client-centered therapy. This is an effective method when thinking about your loved one who has an addiction which is a condition that influences them in ways they would not otherwise behave when it is active. As loved ones we do not want to withhold acceptance or support from our addicted loved one when their addiction is active. We want them to understand that we still accept and support the person they are inside even if we cannot accept or support their active drug or alcohol using behaviors. There is an important distinction that must be made to our actively addicted loved ones in our communication and behavior so that we can appropriately cheerlead their successes and know what to do during their tribulations. This may seem like a delicate tightrope to walk but it’s actually pretty easy once you begin to understand what having unconditional positive regard toward your love one really means.

To have unconditional positive regard toward someone does NOT mean:

·Shaming them when they have relapsed or engaged in a behavior associated with their drug use/excessive alcohol use

·Dismissing them as part of your family, or withholding love from them

·Refusing all contact with them

·Treating them like they have control over all of their behaviors when they are in their active addiction

·Expecting them to fail when they are in early recovery

·Reminding them frequently of their behaviors associated with their active addiction when they are attempting to recover

·Treating them like a child who should know better when they make a mistake in their recovery or relapse

·Using absolute character statements “you’re a thief”, “you’re a manipulator”, “you only ever care about yourself”

·Believing that “addict behaviors” will always lead to a relapse

·Insisting that you have become an expert on their addiction and know what’s best for them

·Using threats when the person is active in their addiction “if you don’t go into treatment I’ll call DCF and make sure you never see your child again”

·Attempting to manipulate them into treatment

·Using labels “addict” “drunk”

Positive unconditional regard DOES means:

·Remaining in contact while they are actively using with boundaries and without rules or conditions for that contact

Ex Leaving a voicemail or text to let them know you’re thinking of them and love them

Ex Offering to pick them up to go grab a coffee

Ex Offering to schedule a visit with you and another loved one (sibling or child) for a designated amount of time in a safe space

·Enforcing a self-protective boundary while telling the person you love them and giving them “life raft” options

Ex “you can no longer live with me while your alcoholism is active but I can help you get into a place to help you or if you ask for help later on to get into treatment and I’ll be there for you”

Ex “I can’t let you see your daughter alone while you’re actively using but let me know when you’ve gotten some help and we will arrange something or let me know when we can arrange something to all spend some time together in a safe space for a short period of time”

·Separating the active condition from the person struggling with it when communicating

Ex: “The fact that your addiction is active right now means I can’t trust you home alone” vs” I can’t trust you home alone”

Ex “I can’t give you money while your addiction is active” vs “I can’t ever trust you with money”

Ex: “You’re never going to get it together” vs “I worry if you keep using you won’t be able to move on in your life”

Ex “You’re pathetic” vs “Your addiction robs you of an ability to do much of anything lately”

·Treating them like an adult without an addiction when they have entered recovery

·Allowing them to be the ones to bring up recovery/addiction related topics when they are in recovery

·Letting them be the expert on their addiction/recovery and what they’re experiencing and have gone through

·Offering them a genuine expectation of success and cheerleading each recovery attempt no matter how many times they have tried and relapsed in the past

·Believing in them, in who they are, in what they are capable of and reminding them when possible

·Allowing them to feel supported in whatever recovery path they take (there is no one size fits all recovery package)

·Asking them what they need from you and listening to what that is

·Remaining open minded to different recovery and treatment pathways and educating yourself on different modalities (methadone, Antabuse, medical marijuana, etc.)


Kelly Taylor, CAC,LMSW,LADC

Kelly Taylor is a Certified Addiction Counselor, Level Masters Social Worker, and a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor. She currently works full time as a senior counselor at an outpatient treatment facility which provides medication assisted treatment to those struggling with opioid dependency. Kelly is also co-owner of Catalyst Counseling of Connecticut, LLC and conducts individual, family, couples, and group therapy part-time. Kelly offers therapy as well as therapeutic life coaching to her private practice clients.