Positive Psychology and Resilience
What makes one person ‘bounce back’ following adversity and another person seem to ‘crumble in a heap’? This question has always posed a fascination for me. I have often wondered whether individuals are simply born with the skills to cope with the difficulties that life often presents or whether there are a set of stress-coping skills that individuals can learn. I love Martin Seligman’s response. As the founder of the modern Positive Psychology movement approximately 20 years ago, Seligman believes we can create our own happiness. That is, we can all learn how to become more resilient. I agree. I believe that individuals can learn the skills needed for a more positive life. I also believe that we, as counsellors, particularly need to learn and apply these skills in everyday life. We owe it to our clients.
I teach my clients on a daily basis the skills of Learned Resourcefulness and Learned Optimism (among others). I teach my clients how to challenge their thoughts and decide whether their present methods of coping are effective or ineffective. Teaching clients these skills, through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Solution-Focused Therapy, etc., helps them take control over their own lives. They are learning to become more positive in their views, and thus more resilient. It is the most wonderful feeling to know that you have been instrumental in guiding these individuals in the pursuit of their own happiness. What a privileged position we as therapists are in!
I have worked as a private assessor/seminar presenter with the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors over a ten year period. In this time, I have seen many students struggling with issues in their own lives – as we all do. What I find fascinating is whether we have the tools to overcome our own struggles. If we can learn, for example, to avoid the three P’s – Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalisation as Seligman proposes, then surely we are in a better position to help others to do the same?
I am not suggesting that we all have to endure the same experiences as our clients. This would be impossible. What I am proposing however, is that counsellors and psychologists need to learn the skills of Positive Psychology if they are going to advocate them for their clients. Learning the skills can be beneficial to all of us both in our private and professional lives. Think of it this way. Wouldn’t you prefer to go to a counsellor who had experienced some personal issues but managed to overcome those using Positive Psychology principles?
If someone was going to teach me stress-coping techniques based on Positive Psychology that they believed would be beneficial to me, I would want to know that they had tried the methods themselves. Does the person appear to be optimistic? Have they overcome their own challenges using Positive Psychology methods and principles? How did they find it helped them?
I am not suggesting that we as therapists tell our clients all of our life history. I am very cautious about self-disclosure and generally will only disclose relevant, personal information if I genuinely believe it will assist the client. I will generally follow self-disclosure with an explanation why I told the client this information and use a ‘check-out’ at the end to ensure that they are happy with the disclosure. In the majority of cases, I find the clients are very receptive and really appreciate knowing that I have personally tried the methods I advocate.
I use the case example of clinical hypnotherapy. In some cases, I will use this form of therapy – particularly when clients present with issues/phobias that have a chronic history. Having participated in clinical hypnotherapy myself, I understand many of the concerns that my clients may have with this form of therapy. Concerns over losing personal control, revealing personal secrets, implantation of suggestions that are not in keeping with my own etc. are all discussed prior to the therapy. I believe we should do the same with Positive Psychology.
Counsellors and psychologists need to learn, and apply, the skills in our own lives. Find out if they are helpful and in what ways. What are the barriers we experience in learning how to be more optimistic? How difficult do we find it to access resources that are available to us in culturally acceptable ways? Chances are our clients will encounter similar difficulties. Teaching them the skills of Positive Psychology in order to become more resilient is only one piece of the puzzle. Teaching them the skills of Positive Psychology, based on our own experience and applied in everyday life as part of daily practice, is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Only when we know how to create the path to our own happiness and then impart this knowledge to our clients, can we (and our clients) be truly happy.
Transcript of a Counselling Session
The transcript below outlines the third session between “The Professional Therapist” and a 15 year old girl (“Cindy”) suffering depression following death of her Grandmother in June 2011 and her Uncle in September 2011.
Therapist: Hello Cindy. How are you feeling today?
Cindy: Yeah, good.
Therapist: How did you feel about our last session?
Cindy: It was good. It helped me a lot.
Therapist: Can you remember what it was about the last session that you found helpful?
Cindy: I liked the pictures that you drew of the ways of thinking.
Therapist: You mean the picture of the magnifying glass to represent ‘catastrophizing’? Do you remember us discussing this as a pattern that is not very helpful for people?
Cindy: Yes. I remember the magnifying glass and the cup that is half empty.
Therapist: Very good. Can you remember why I drew the half-empty cup?
Cindy: To show me about whether people look at the half-empty part or the half-full part.
Therapist: That’s right. People with a ‘positive mental filter’ always look at the half-full part of the cup. They see the bad things as being only temporary and see the good as being more long-lasting. Remember we talked about Positive Psychology as being the study of people who are happy in their life? Positive people are the ones who choose to see the half-full part of the cup. They know the half-empty part of the cup exists (like people we love dying) but they choose to look at the half-full part. Which one do you choose to look at? The half-empty part or the half-full?
Cindy: At the moment I think I look at the half-empty part but normally I look at the half-full.
Therapist: Excellent! I like how you said “at the moment”. This shows me that you are aware that this negative feeling is only temporary. Do you think that you have changed to a more negative mental filter since your Grandmother and Uncle passed away?
Cindy: Yeah. I think it was around the same time that I think I started to see things more negatively.
Therapist: Do you know what you were telling yourself when your thinking started to change?
Cindy: I started telling myself that I don’t want to get close to anyone because they will leave me, just like my Uncle and my Grandmother.
Therapist: So you thought that people leaving you was permanent?
Cindy: Yes I did.
Therapist: And did you take it personally? Like you are the only person who loses their loved ones?
Therapist: Ok. So you thought everyone leaving you was permanent and that you didn’t want to get close to anyone in your life because everybody leaves you. Did you think that everyone in your life would leave you?
Cindy: Yes. I thought I couldn’t get close to anybody – my friends, my boyfriend, my family.
Therapist: Because they would all leave you?
Cindy: Yes. And I don’t want to get hurt again.
Therapist: But getting hurt is part of life, isn’t it?
Cindy: I suppose so.
Therapist: I have been hurt by other people in my life leaving me too and I am sure other people you know have been hurt because others have left them sometime in their life. Do you think anyone gets through their whole never getting hurt by other people who have left them?
Cindy: Probably not. I guess everybody has somebody leave them sometime.
Therapist: That’s right! Do you mind if we just go through each part of what you just said. You mentioned that people leaving you was permanent. This is one pattern of thinking that will not help you. When I start thinking about people leaving me, I will tell myself “CANCEL/CANCEL” and then use positive self-talk to tell myself that ‘life is about changes’ and that nothing in life is permanent. Do you think you could do the same?
Cindy: Yeah, I suppose so.
Therapist: Very good. The second part you mentioned was that you were taking it personally – like you were the only person who has had their loved ones leave them?
Cindy: Yes, I felt like it was only happening to me.
Therapist: But if you really think about it, are you the only one that this has ever happened to?
Cindy: No, I know it happens to other people as well.
Therapist: That’s right. And lastly, you mentioned that you didn’t want to get close to your family, friends, and boyfriend in case they all leave you?
Therapist: This is called ‘pervasiveness’ – when bad things happen and people believe it affects every part (or everybody) in their lives.
Therapist: Can you see the patterns? I) Permanence – thinking that people will leave you permanently, 2) Personalising – thinking that it only happens to you and 3) Pervasiveness – that everyone in your life will leave you. I call these the three ‘P’s” and Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, said that these patterns can lead to depression. Can you see how these patterns of thinking can make you feel worse and less happy?
Cindy: Yes. I can see that.
Therapist: Great! I know it is easy to fall into the three “P’s” and we can all fall into these patterns, but once you are aware of them, then you can start to change them. I challenge these types of thoughts on a regular basis and I know it definitely helps people to feel a lot happier.
Cindy: Alright. I will try it.
Therapist: Excellent Cindy – that is great! Try challenging the three “P’s” every time you think of them and we will discuss it when you come back for the next session.
Cindy: Ok. I will – thanks.
Mrs Toula Gordillo (BA, BEd, GCertSocSc, PGDipPsych, MPsych, MAPS) is a Clinical Psychologist, Registered Teacher and Trainer/Assessor (CertIV Workplace Trainer/Assessor).