What are conditions of worth?
Conditions of worth are an idea that comes from Carl Rogers, the founder of a style of counselling called Person-Centred Counselling. Carl Rogers believed that every person has the means within themselves to ‘get better’ and that the Counsellor’s role was to walk alongside the client while they found the drive within themselves to do this.
Rogers said that conditions of worth are what we develop when we take on board other people’s values and ideas about how we should be. If they differ from what our inner desires and beliefs really are, it sets up a conflict and we experience tension and distress because, without really examining why we think the things we do, we are often unaware of what comes from us and what comes from other people around us. One of the things that might happen in counselling is working to uncover what these tensions are – this can sometimes bring an enormous sense of relief and, in turn, it can help us be better parents by stopping us imposing conditions of worth on our own children.
How are conditions of worth set up?
As we are growing up, we learn that some things that we do please others around us – when we say please and thank you adults regard us with approval – whereas other things that we do earn us negative feedback – if we hit our brother or sister our parents may send us to our rooms or shout at us. Of course, these are just examples, in a different family, saying please and thank-you might be thought of as weak, and hitting our siblings might mean we can ‘stand up for ourselves’ and earn us positive feedback.
Whatever we do, we receive messages about whether a particular action is likely to bring us praise or disapproval. To a child, to receive praise or be looked upon positively is a need. In some senses, it can be thought of as more than just a need – it is a requirement. In order to get our needs for food, warmth and love met, we need to please the people who give us these things.
Later, in life, we might learn from society that it is desirable to look a certain way, or to do particular things. If we do not fit in with these ideas, we might come to believe that we do not have value because of these things – our worth is challenged.
How do conditions of worth affect us?
If I am told by my parents that in order to be ‘successful’, I need to have a high-paying job, say as an accountant, a nice house and a fancy car, I might come to share this idea even if deep within myself, I don’t really want these things. I might secretly want to travel the world in a camper van and write poetry. If I have taken on my parents’ ideas as conditions of worth, I may come to believe I am a failure for not achieving the career, the house and the car and if I do get the camper van and write the poetry I might still feel like a failure and not really understand why. Essentially, my conditions of worth are in conflict with my authentic Self.
Another example might be if I feel upset about something and I am told that this thing should not upset me. If I take this on as a condition of worth, I may come to believe that my feelings and emotions and wrong and I cannot trust them and so I need someone else to tell me what to think.
Here are some other examples of conditions of worth:
- Being gay is wrong
- Being an artist is not a ‘proper job’
- Nice people do not dislike other people
- Boys don’t cry
What can counselling do about conditions of worth?
If we can examine our history and look at what conditions of worth we might be carrying and how they have affected us, we may be able to begin to answer some of the questions we have about what it is in our lives that is making us unhappy. In the above example, if I understand that my beliefs about success being a high-paying job, a house and a big car, come from the way I was brought up, I may be able to accept that the camper van and poetry are what is right for me even if my parents (or whoever else) don’t agree. I can then make my decision about what to do next from my heart rather than from someone else’s beliefs.