Positive Principles in Therapy

There are literally hundreds of philosophies about how to conduct therapy. All therapists, at some point in their career have to try to define their approach to working with clients. A small percentage of therapists strictly adhere to one approach, some learn to use that one approach masterfully. Most though, including myself, have a more eclectic approach, trying to figure out the right approach for each client. Of course, there are pros and cons to each style. But, regardless, I tend to think that most therapists choose approaches that fit some aspect of their personality. Therapy is all about interpersonal connectiveness, communication, learning together, sharing ideas and experiences. These are in some ways, quite intimate. If a therapist is fighting their authentic personality, then it can be difficult. This is not to say that there is no difference between how I am when I am “being a therapist”, compared to “being a friend”, or “being a sister”, but my point is that, at least for me, there needs to be some overlap in terms of style. Also, I should say that a part of being a good therapist is one’s own inter and intrapersonal growth. So, some of my default characteristics may not be the best fit for therapy, personal relationships, or in some cases, either. These qualities can be highlighted in therapy, and a good therapist is often thinking about their own growth, just as they are thinking about the growth of their clients.

So, that was a long introduction to the main point of this entry. I’ve always been attracted to positive interventions and approaches. I think that this is a reflection of my personality and my personal philosophy. Positives approaches can include things such as positive psychology, compassion based therapy, and really any intervention that specifically tries to increase/enhance positive emotion, positive experience, or positive thoughts. I don’t think that “negative” experiences, symptoms, etc, should be ignored, but I do believe in the power of helping people get in touch with a spark of inner optimism, passion, value, anything that is powerful and important to them.

Some approaches, on the other hand have more of a neutral bend, and some approaches actively seek out sources of pain (with the intention of working through them). I have respect for these approaches too, and believe that in some instances, they are the more appropriate then simply positive approaches. Ideally, there would be a balance between these different stances. But, the thing that is novel about positive approaches is that they are actually pretty new, at least to the field of modern psychology (but certainly not to other disciplines like philosophy, religion, etc). The idea that a therapist might bias themselves to focus on their patients strengths, goals, and values, even prioritizing these things over pain, symptoms, traumas, is new. And, it’s understandable that this makes some people uncomfortable. One might worry, “what if that symptoms gets worse because we’re focusing on other things”…”what if we ignore the root of the problem”. Fortunately, the field of psychology has started looking at these questions with rigorous research and we now understand that, in fact, positive interventions can not only improve our moods and functioning, but can also lower negative symptoms, even if this is not the treatment focus. Future entries will discuss the “how” in more detail. Of course, if a client does not believe in this approach in principle, even after education about it, it would not be a wise approach (clients need to have some confidence that the approach will be helpful, no matter what it is). I would never force an intervention. But, I do believe that despite the enormous amount of suffering that we experience as humans, during this short time that we have, there is also an incredibly strong, power, beautiful essence inside of us (or outside, if that is your belief) that most people are able to tap into, either on their own, or sometimes with help. Tapping into this experience has given people the ability and energy to get through even the toughest of circumstances. And, when things in life are going more smoothly, being mindful of the positive, helps us to experience gratitude, balance, and wisdom. You will notice that this philosophy is embedded in many of my posts, and it is, in fact, a large reason why I entered this field to begin with, and what keeps me connected to it.

If this is a topic that you are interested in, an excellent book is Christopher Peterson’s, A Primer in Positive Psychology, http://www.amazon.com/Primer-Positive-Psychology-Oxford/dp/0195188330

Peterson does a fabulous job of describing ways that people can incorporate positive principles into their lives and the scientific reasons for how these interventions increase happiness. It’s easy and fun to read, and set up like a text book (though it reads so much better then most), so you can flip around to chapters that catch you attention.

One final though… What are you grateful for? Even if life is at it’s hardest right now… What are the dreams, values, relationships, that motivate you and support you? And, does being in touch with this information make a difference in how you go through your day?

-Dr. Megan Goodwin