For full transparency, I still have my green. I am still fresh-minded and freshly passionate. However, I also have opinions about our current society and politics. I feel disheartened by the divide strengthened by COVID-19 in the United States, and I, too, bear the emotional toll of fundamentally disagreeing with people I know and love.
Although the virus is more of a public health crisis than a political one, Americans have found a way to use its rampage to deepen the chasm that has already been widening for several years between the left and right. As counselors and future counselors, though, I believe we have a social responsibility to use our perspectives to bridge the divide, whether in our circles or on public platforms.
In graduate school, we learn about the Rogerian principle called unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1957). In some of our most introductory classes, we learn that having unconditional positive regard for clients means to display basic acceptance and support of a person unconditionally. How might we apply these principles to daily life right now, in this time of fear, uncertainty, and collective trauma?
Who deserves our unconditional positive regard?
- People who believe the virus is a ruse: Even if we find this theory implausible, there are some who believe this is an elaborate ruse created by the liberal left and they still deserve our unconditional positive regard. After all, wouldn’t we all love to find out that this was all a hoax, that nefarious officials have exaggerated the numbers of American deaths, and it’s all going to be okay if we just get rid of the liars?
- Individuals who feel that the government is threatening their rights by mandating masks in public places: Whether we agree with this gripe or not, they deserve our empathy. Masks are hot, inconvenient, and expensive. Some people feel that the benefit of public health outweighs the discomfort. Some people do not, and they still deserve empathy.
- Healthcare professionals spreading videos with misinformation: Those who are not physically and emotionally overloaded with COVID cases are likely itching to help in any way they can. It’s no wonder physicians in completely unrelated-to-epidemiology fields are attempting to give revolutionary advice that they genuinely believe will help.
- Government officials who are constantly scrutinized for their every move: Yes, you put yourself in a vulnerable position when you run for public office, but I’m willing to bet that they would never have imagined in 1,000,000 years that they’d be governing amid a global pandemic. They deserve empathy. They are still people, and they are vulnerable to aggressive criticism every time they speak. Vulnerability is scary.
- Individuals suffering from extreme anxiety about COVID-19: Some refuse to believe that any safety measure is enough and have lived in a state of hypervigilance since they first learned of the virus. They deserve empathy. That must be exhausting.
- Essential workers who never had the privilege of quarantining to flatten the curve: Many of these people’s lives largely remained the same. Maybe they are afraid of the spread of COVID-19 and protecting their families, but perhaps they have not had the time or energy to decide what they believe about the virus. These people deserve empathy, unconditional positive regard, and the utmost gratitude from those of us who have taken advantage of the services they have consistently provided since March.
You probably have an opinion about what is right and what is wrong. That’s your right as a human. Here’s the thing: As counselors, we are trained to take people in when they are at their worst and try our best to give them hope. Everybody deserves empathy and unconditional positive regard.
What can we do?
- Use your platform to spread empathy: Whether it is social media, your friend group, your co-workers, or committees you are a part of, leaving a trail of empathy can go a long way.
- Implement your own reflective practice on issues you feel strongly about, examine your biases, and observe the entire spectrum of beliefs related to those issues: You will not be able to genuinely spread positivity until you believe in unconditional positive regard for all people. Take time to understand the individuals in society who think differently than you do, just as you would with clients in your counseling practice.
- If you do not already, start considering political ideology in terms of multicultural identities: Politics in the United States show no signs of peace. The perceived divide will continue to deepen. In the same way counselors are educated to consider other cultures, we need to step back and acknowledge our own political biases to practice effectively with those on the other side of the spectrum and everyone in between.
Center for Disease Control. (2020). COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html
Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95–103. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0045357
Kaci Miller is a counselor-in-training in the American South. She is passionate about young adults' mental health, the life-long impact of trauma, and multicultural consciousness. She believes that spreading kindness and making meaning of all life events can change the world.