An everyday story of unconditional positive regard

Many of you will be aware that for 15 minutes a day (except Saturdays) I slip away into another universe. No transporter beams or Tardises (Tardisi?) are required, simply a cup of tea and a working radio are enough to take me to rural Borchestshire. Yes, dear reader, I am an Archers fan. Enough of a fan to be speaking at the Academic Archers Conference next spring, on Shula as the Queer icon you did not know you needed.

Recently Ambridge has been rocked by the arrest, and conviction of one of its own for drug dealing, a young man who once would have been described as the future “lord of the manor” – Freddie Pargeter, now in a young offenders institution for supplying class Class A drugs.

This is not the time, or the place to explore rehabilitation versus punishment or the legalization/decriminalization of drugs, feel free to have that argument in the comments, if you really need to. Freddie broke current laws, and since it was a first offense, received a relatively lenient sentence. His mother, Elizabeth has not recognized this leniency, in a wonderful demonstration of privilege and entitlement she is insistent that her son does not belong with the kind of young men who commit crimes (like selling class A drugs) and end up in prison.

It is always a challenge of maintaining the balance between unconditional parental love and support and sitting with things we may not like, but refusing to see our children for who they really are is always damaging. This plays out in so many different family contexts. It may seem a leap from working with the parents of LGBT children who cannot accept their children to an everyday story of country folk but in fact it is the same pattern – my child must not differ from the path I have ordained for them. This spectrum of objectification, of seeing a child not as an independent individual with agency and autonomy but as the projection of our own dreams and desires expresses itself in many families. Often parents recognise they are imposing their needs on their children and try to change, in the saddest of occasions they do not. This is perhaps summed up by one of the great philosophers of our time, Granny Weatherwax who said  “Evil starts when you begin to treat people as things”.

Our fictional mother loves her children, that is not in question. However Elizabeth does not, and has never, been able to see who they truly are, apart from her own hopes and dreams. Freddie is not academic, and wanted to leave school, but his practical and creative personality was ignored, he was not seen for who he truly was, but who his mother wanted him to be. It is the same behaviour which leads Elizabeth now to deny the facts of Freddies life, and insist that somehow he is not a criminal because he is her son.

Parenting styles are so often learned, and this is true for Elizabeth as much as anyone else. This week, as Elizabeth’s siblings realised, from their own love for her, that they needed to challenge her insistence on clinging to her imago of Freddie, rather than accept, and love the reality, their own mother stood against them. Unable to say, I love you, but here is a loving challenge,  instead Jill demanded they collude with the delusion.

Unconditional is a word well known to therapists. Unconditional Positive Regard is one of the core conditions as described by Carl Rogers. However unconditional is often misunderstood, it means the position one takes towards a person, or in the case of parents, is not dependent on jumping through hoops, meeting their demands in order to recieve love. UPR does not mean never challenging, and in fact I would argue in the therapy room, or the family, often love (or UPR) are demonstrated by being willing to challenge.

Within the Archers Jill consistently demonstrates a selfishness which means she cannot sit with the discomfort of negative emotions. It is, of course, never easy to sit with the negative, be that accepting your child sold drugs, or that you carry internalised homophobia which means you reject their sexuality. In both fictional and real world examples the parental reaction can be to outwardly demonstrate their love, often in smothering and at times controlling ways. This displacement is easier to sit with than the risk a challenge may bring.

Both Elizabeth and Jill Archer believe that clinging to the image, and avoiding the “hard love” of a challenge makes them a better mother. Many of us will have struggled with mothers like this, some openly abusive, others simply hurting us by refusing to accept who we really are.  They prefer the illusion they created to the living breathing person, and prefer invented positivity to sitting with what can be hard and difficult emotions. Accepting your child broke the law is hard, as is accepting that your child needs to be loved, but not turned into something they are not. However unconditional love, like unconditional positive regard is a clear sighted love, not predicated on a child, or a client, meeting our prerequisites and demands.

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