#3 PositivePsychology.com Podcast – How Positive Psychology Can Be Dangerous

PositivePsychology.com Podcast #3Blindly applying positive psychology can be dangerous if you don’t take the factors discussed in this podcast into account…

Hugo Alberts and Seph Fontane Pennock discuss why it is so important to ‘meet clients where they are’, how forcing progress or awareness onto your client can be counter-productive, and share personal experiences from their therapy sessions.

Podcast Transcription

Seph: Hello and welcome to the third PositivePsychology.com podcast episode. Today, I’m entering in conversation with my friend and colleague, Hugo Alberts. Hugo, welcome back to the show again. How’s it going?

Hugo: Thanks, Seph. Sounds quite big, the show, but you know…

Seph: It does, right?

Hugo: Yeah, it does, but no, it’s cool. Actually, I’ve been enjoying a week off with my family and I’m fresh, back to work. So yeah, let’s have a talk.

Seph: Okay, cool. So yeah, let’s dive right in, because I think the subject for today is quite big. There’s a lot of ground to cover. So, let’s not put it off any longer and introduce the topic of today’s talk. You had something in mind. Can you tell me more about that?

Hugo: Yeah, of course. So, I’ve been working with positive psychology for quite some time and I think, first of all, I love the field. I think it’s a beautiful field and there’s a lot of potential there, but I was trained as a scientist and I have always tried to have a critical mind and I think it’s good to always keep a critical mind and I think we also have to have a critical mind when it comes to positive psychology. And, what I want to do in this podcast is discuss some of the things that I learned about positive psychology, you could say dangers of positive psychology or dark sides of positive psychology, or things that you should definitely keep in mind when working with positive psychology. Perhaps people find it useful to hear this and of course I would love to hear what other people think of it. Maybe people have different ideas or maybe they have also additional concerns regarding positive psychology. So, this is actually the topic of today.

Seph: Okay, right, so we are going to be talking about how positive psychology can potentially, or when applied in a… well, maybe I don’t want to say wrong, but in an unfortunate way, can become dangerous. And there are a couple of, yeah, well factors that stuck out to you that we can start with. And, I know we also wrote an article about second wave positive psychology in the past that we can also revisit and have a look at and discuss some of those points. So, do we have a first critique, if you will, in mind to start with?

Hugo: Yeah, actually I have a few of them, of course. But, before I continue I would like to point out that many of the critiques are addressed in what they call the second wave movement of positive psychology, so in the second wave approach, positive psychology is, I believe, more approached as it should be approached. As a field of psychology that is not concerned with positivity alone and this is also the starting point of my conversation here.

Hugo: Positive psychology implies that it’s about generating positivity and if you take this quite literally you could say that positivity may sound as if you’re neglecting negativity. But, I believe negativity is really important and I think it’s part of life. It’s inevitable and negativity can be very positive in the end. If you take a look at the research on benefit finding and post-traumatic growth, those topics, you see that people can learn from negative experiences. They help us grow and without it we couldn’t actually be the person we are. I think the people that are most resilient in life are not the people that had the easiest life, but those are the people that overcame difficulties in life.

Seph: Maybe we can clearly define that whole second wave part for people that are completely new to that term. So, is there another way in which you would define it?

Hugo: We have to understand, of course, what is positive psychology 1.0, what is the first movement then?

Seph: Right.

Hugo: I think in the first… the way positive psychology has presented itself in the early days when it was introduced by Seligman, I think it was introduced as an opposing force almost, like a separate field of psychology that was concerned with positivity, restoring the balance, and almost as if it was acting against traditional psychology that was often confused as negative psychology. But, of course, those terms do not exist. There is no negative psychology. Psychology is a field. I think one of the biggest problems, in the beginning, was that many people confused psychology with clinical psychology, but psychology is so much more than only clinical psychology. And, of course, clinical psychology is concerned with pathologies, with problems that people have. But, the field of psychology is so much more than only clinical psychology. So, this is, I think, one big misconception.

Hugo: If you say, well, positive psychology has always been very negative, I think that’s not true. I think in the past 30, 40 years there have been a lot of studies on strength, even before the introduction of positive psychology research was there that focused on human strength and on positive qualities, and that kind of stuff. Mindfulness research, for instance, was long there before the introduction of positive psychology. So, it’s unfair to say that psychology has always been very negative. When we focus on second wave positive psychology, I think there are three key pillars, you could say, three things that differ from the first wave, and the first one is second wave positive psychology recognizes that negative experiences, seemingly negative experiences can contribute to positive aspects of human functioning and transformation. It’s what I was saying before, like negativity can promote growth.

Hugo: And, the second, I think, acknowledgement is that positive qualities, you know, positive psychology is all about human strength, about things that promote flourishing. All things, I think, need to be considered in moderation. Positive things when they become too much, can become negative. So, for instance, if you take the strength like optimism, too much optimism can be very dangerous. It can promote unhealthy risk-taking, and so on. So, everything that is used too much can become dangerous. So, second wave psychology acknowledges this very fact that we need to take things into perspective and not blindly focus on just increasing the positive.

Hugo: And, I think, for me, that this is one of the most important things, because I come from a mindfulness background. And, I think positive psychology 2.0 acknowledges the importance of coping with negative thoughts, experiences, and behavior. So, it’s more focused on allowing negativity to be there, transcending it, dealing with it, rather than just simple positive thinking, because that can be very dangerous, I think. I think many people confuse positive psychology with happy thoughts, positive thinking, optimistic thinking-

Seph: Yeah, well, I mean, think about all the times you told someone what you’re doing professionally, right? And, you say you’re into the field of positive psychology, and the typical you responses that you get to that, I think it’s telling almost. Maybe it’s just in the name, as well, you know? People hear positive psychology, they immediately think about, oh, positive thinking, positive thoughts, positive emotions, just be happy. How do I become happier? Those kinds of thoughts and questions pop up into people’s minds who are not familiar with the scientific field of positive psychology. So, maybe it’s also partly in the name.

Hugo: Absolutely.

Seph: But, aside from that, what you’ve been saying so far sounds very eastern. Like, I imagine listening to you as someone who is new to field. And then, what you’re saying sounds very eastern to me.

Hugo: Yeah, sure, because that’s true in a way, because I think… In my view, in the second wave of positive psychology, there is a lot of influence of insights that come from the third wave therapies, like acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness. And, mindfulness, of course, is based on Buddhism. It’s a Buddhistic approach, you could say, to suffering. And, I think second wave positive psychology is infused with this view and acknowledges that suffering is part of life. Rather than fighting it, I think we should embrace it and see what we can learn from it and see how we can deal with it. I think if you… A very simplistic view of positive psychology, is that it’s all about creating positive thoughts and emotions and that kind of stuff. And, of course, it’s partly about this, but it’s beyond… it’s way beyond this only, of course.

Hugo: For instance, let’s go back to the example of positive thinking, right? You could say, “Well, I tried to create happy thoughts. I feel sad but I tried to think positively. I generate positive thoughts about the future,” if you’re not careful, this can be a strategy that is called avoidance. It can be a way to not feel the negativity or the things that you’re feeling. And, we know from past research, all the beautiful research that has been done before the introduction of positive psychology, that experiential avoidance as they call it, the deliberate avoidance of experiences is very, very dangerous and is a hallmark of psychopathology.

Hugo: So, if you use positive thinking in that way, just to not feel the negativity that you experience can be very, very dangerous. So, this is why I think it’s so important to discuss these things. This is also why I brought this us. I think many of the topics that we discuss today are, I think, crucial to know when you work with positive psychology.

Seph: Yeah. Yeah, and I can see this visual in my mind’s eye of where there’s like a continuum, you know? The typical continuum of minus five to zero, and then to plus 5 that’s being used in the field. Where a positive… the first wave of positive psychology that has like, let’s say a positivity about positivity itself, and then negativity about negativity itself, is like an arrow from like the zero drawn to the plus five. Whereas the second wave of positive psychology is more like a circle that encapsulates both the negative and the positive and is therefore way more holistic approach to mental well-being.

Hugo: Yes, absolutely. I think positivity and negativity are part of the same coin. Life is this coin, and if you neglect one part of the coin you’re… I think, not much good will follow from this. I think that we should embrace life as it is. And, this brings me also to another point of critique. I think there is sometimes an illusion of positivity creation. There’s this manipulability of positivity that I think it’s really important to understand. I think many exercises in positive psychology, they can be done from a very, what I would say, mental perspective. For instance, gratitude, like counting your blessings.

Hugo: You could say, “Well, I have to be grateful now. I’m starting to focus deliberately on everything that is good, and then I will generate positive feelings, like gratitude,” but I feel there is a huge difference between focusing on things to start feeling in a certain way, like grateful, and experiencing gratitude as a result of being connected to the present moment. You’re not looking for gratitude, but it emerges naturally from your connection, your embracing connection with life as it unfolds. And, this is a paradox, you see what I mean? Because, in the first care you’re really trying hard to feel it and to generate this positivity. And, in the second case, you’re connected to the state of being.

Seph: Yeah, absolutely.

Hugo: So, you’re not looking for it, but it happens. And, I think you know a lot about meaning, of course, but the same applies to meaning. You can search for meaning in life, but we can also experience meaning in this very moment without looking for it, right?

Seph: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely and I was thinking about awareness. What can be the case with gratitude exercises , that are also depending on the level of conscientiousness and awareness, and readiness of the client, is that you can be forcing a sense of awareness onto the client with these gratitude exercises , because of course awareness is a form… Or, gratitude is a form of awareness, right?

Hugo: Absolutely.

Seph: Where it’s like, at maybe one of the higher forms of awareness you can, or higher levels of awareness because you’re paying attention to, well, present moment and to your experience, but also to your life. And, you’re looking for things that you can be grateful for, so it kind of forces you into a mode of reflection of like, zooming out a little bit and looking at your life as an observer. So, I think to force that mode of zooming out and that level of awareness onto someone… Well, there has to be the readiness for that intervention. We’ve been talking about this before. So, I think that doing that forcefully can have… well, I don’t want to say negative, but can be counterproductive.

Hugo: I fully agree. So, what I’ve learned from working with people, working with clients as a psychologist is that people come to you with problems most of the time. They come to you because they’re stuck and they feel they need some help. Now, if you start too soon with all these positive psychology interventions, people can feel like you’re not listening to them, right?

Seph: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Hugo: Because they come there with problems and you start talking about positivity and gratitude, and see what’s there, you know. I would feel misunderstood as well, you know. If I’m stuck, I don’t want you to start immediately talking about to solve it, but I want to connect to you. So, what I learned is we should meet clients where they are. And, if a client comes to you with problems, with sorrow, or whatever that’s bothering him or her, I think we should first and foremost connect to that state of the client. And, provide the client space to experience this and be with this, rather than starting to talk about gratitude intervention and positive psychology and all that positive stuff, I think that can be very counterproductive as you say. Absolutely.

Seph: Yeah. I have to think about like an example of someone being down, maybe after something tragic has happened, and then a good friend of the person coming up to him or her and saying, “Oh, don’t feel bad,” or, “Don’t feel that way,” or, “There’s plenty of things to be grateful for.” They’re trying to help, of course, but they’re not understanding that that might not be the best way to go about doing that, because there is no sense of acceptance of the feelings, or of the state, or of maybe the grief process that the person has to go through before being open to approaching the situation in that way, and feeling happy again, or allowing him or herself to feel happy again. So, it’s almost like it’s the therapist equivalent of, oh, cheer up, don’t feel sad.

Hugo: Yeah.

Seph: When you’re not leveling with them.

Hugo: Exactly.

Hugo: It comes, I think, down to what many of us have, including myself also sometimes, is this fixing perspective. When clients come to us, we feel that we should help them. And, paradoxically, this very feeling of needing to help somebody can be very counterproductive, because automatically you’re putting the client in the position of somebody who’s needy, who needs help, who cannot do it on his own, and you’re trying to, you could say, pull his boat rather than be like a lighthouse that illuminates the way, metaphorically speaking. I think when we use positive psychology in that way, to fix the client, to make him more resilient, or grateful, or whatever we’re aiming at, I think it can be very counterproductive again.

Seph: What about where if the client is onto your motivation, as a therapist, to fix him or her? Or, you know, to fix the situation. What if the client can pick up on that expectation and it can just become extra pressure for them to feel differently, or to heal themselves, or to recover quickly.

Hugo: Absolutely. So, what I’ve noticed myself, and this is really interesting I guess, because it is something that it often not told in the books. So, a lot of stuff on positive psychology is about human strengths, right? I think one of the hallmarks of positive psychology is all the research that has been done on positive characteristics like optimism, a love of learning, all these strengths that people have that helped them to be resilient and that promote well-being at the same time, because they provide energy, and passion, and that kind of stuff.

Hugo: Now, I can give you an example of a client of mine. And, also I will show you how it could be very dangerous how to simply, I would say, blindly apply positive psychology without looking at the deeper layers of the motivation of the client. So, this was a young guy who came to me. He was very ambitious, and he wanted to do a strength finding session with me. And, I was like, “Yeah, sure. Why not? Let’s do this.” And, when I was doing strength finding with him, you know, I was doing a strength finding interviews, strength spotting. I soon noticed that the reason why he was doing this, was because he just wanted to improve himself. And, when I asked, “Why do you want to improve yourself so badly?”

Hugo: I noticed that he was not feeling okay with himself. He had a very low level of self-acceptance. He felt he wasn’t good enough. A lot of his colleagues were Ph.D.’s, he didn’t have a Ph.D. so he felt like he should live up to their expectation. So, there was a deep-felt sense of not being okay. So, if you don’t consider this motivation for all the improvement stuff that people often associate with positive psychology, I think you may actually worsen the situation. Because, imagine I would have helped this person to just, you know, with the best possible self exercise and all these strength interventions so even become better, what I’m actually doing here is I’m not really helping him, but I’m just feeding this intense insecurity, this lack of self-acceptance.

Hugo: So, what I did with him, I said, “I think before we continue working on strength, I think it’s way more important to start focus on the relationship that you have with yourself.” And, see… you see what I mean? The starting point is completely different. If you start developing yourself with the starting point of not being good enough, you’re constantly seeking to become something. To become good enough. To become finally worthy. Whereas, if you start with accepting yourself and seeing that you are already okay the way you are. You’re good the way you are with your positive qualities and your negative qualities. You allow yourself to be as you are. There is a very solid foundation for improvement. Because, improvement is not there to validate yourself, to become something, to seek identity, or whatever in the improvement.

Hugo: So, if you do like exercises like the best possible self, in which you ask people to visualize their best possible version of themselves. If you’re not careful, people may believe that they should live up to this expectation and that they’re not there yet, that they’re not good enough yet, and now they have a mental image of what they actually should be. You see what I mean?

Seph: Right, because all of a sudden they see their present situation as broken, in need of fixing, like not there yet. So, as a therapist you can just be throwing logs on their fire of existing insecurity and low self-esteem.

Hugo: Yeah. Yeah. So, this is why i always try to uncover the deeper layers of motivation behind what people do, why they visit me, why they want things so badly. What are the needs underlying the choices they make and the struggles they face.

Seph: So, would that be one of the first things you do in a typical coaching or therapeutic setting?

Hugo: Well, I think what you mentioned earlier is way more important, is I think to level with the client and see how ready the client is for a certain process of change. Because, imagine a client is not really ready. I can give you loads of examples. I had clients that came to me and said, “I’m here because my wife wants me to be here.” And, that’s not a proper motivation. And, some clients-

Seph: Well, yeah it’s very extrinsic as well.

Hugo: Exactly. So, I think if you ignore this information, I think you’re pulling a dead horse, so to say. There’s not much going on. And, some people they want to change but they have… they’re insecure, they lack self-efficacy, or they don’t know how to do it, or they have tried to but they failed, or they’re ambivalent about change. On the one hand, they do want to change-

Seph: Well, maybe you’re like their twelfth therapist already.

Hugo: Exactly. So, I think before you do anything, it’s really important to just check the current status of the client in terms of motivation, commitment, readiness for change, and then move on from there. Rather than just blindly starting applying positivity psychology interventions, or whatever intervention. For me, positive psychology is a beautiful field and there a lot of techniques and exercises, but I think exercises don’t make a good therapist. I think that it’s so much more than simply giving people a lot of exercises. I think what is one of the most important things in therapy or in coaching is the relationship that you have with the client. It’s a therapeutic alliance.

Seph: I think that is, that’s foundation. Yeah, exactly.

Hugo: I think what we see in research is that relationship factors. So, the relationship that you have with a client and the extent to which a client feels connected, safe, and so on, correlates more, I would say, strongly with the client outcome to success with the therapy than the choice of methodology. So, you could say the success of an intervention is more strongly influenced by the relationship that we have with our clients than the type of intervention, and I think this is so important to keep in mind. Because, then positive psychology also becomes part of a bigger field. Positive psychology, to me, is not the Holy Grail. It is just a beautiful field that is a beautiful addition to a lot of other beautiful work that has been done already.

Hugo: And, regardless of what you use, I think if you’re unable to sincerely connect to a client, to apply deep listening, and to provide a sense of security, and meet client’s where they are, I think positive psychology is useless, and CBT is useless. Because, I think in the end we’re human beings and we have basic needs. We have a need for anatomy. We have a need for competence, for relatedness. And, regardless of the therapy we use, if we’re unable to meet those needs, I think it will not be very productive. I think therapy will not be very productive.

Seph: Right. So, back to where we started, there were a couple of other critiques or concerns about positive psychology. Do you have any other ones that you want to touch on?

Hugo: Yeah, sure. There are many of them, just to talk about a few of them. Another one is of course related to research. Now, positive psychology is a very big field and it includes many subdomains, such as mindfulness, gratitude, optimism, and so on. And, of course, in general the body of research on positive psychology is growing. And, some fields like mindfulness are becoming quite well researched. There are literally thousands of studies on mindfulness now. But, other fields like gratitude, they’re relatively small and there not a lot of replications of existing findings. And, this is something you always have to keep in mind. One study is not evidence. The idea, I think, about research is to see whether things are true or not, and to see what kind of things work and what doesn’t work.

Hugo: We can make bold claims about a lot of things, but many topics in positive psychology that are not researched to that degree that you can make those claims. And, I think this is also important to keep in mind. Of course, there is a lot of progress and a lot of beautiful things are done. This is something to keep in mind. Downside of defining a field that is so big is that, of course, there is a lot of variety in terms of research findings. So, that’s also a critique you could say. Two studies on gratitude don’t mean that gratitude is one very strong predictor of wellbeing, to give you an example. There are more studies on gratitude, by the way, but to give you and example.

Seph: Yeah, no. Absolutely, which is also why I think there is, of course, a need for more replication studies, but I think that most universities aren’t… when you look at it from a system point of view, not wired that way, or at least that’s not how professors are incentivized. I think you can talk about this from personal experience, of course, too. I mean, what’s in it for you as professor to perform a bunch of replication studies when you have a quota to reach of new fascinating research that has to come out.

Hugo: Yes. Well, this is a completely different topic, of course, but this is something that has been going on for quite some time now. And, the scientific domain is, of course, the replication bias? Or, the publication bias, sorry. So, first of all, many studies are published, and only published, because they have significant findings. And, studies that don’t have significant findings are just not being published. So, we have a huge bias. Probably, there are thousands of studies out there that fail to replicate gratitude, or any other kind of finding. But, we don’t know about them because they haven’t been published.

Hugo: What is more is, of course what you said, replication isn’t sexy. It is sexier to come up with something new. It gives a higher chance of being published, but I think it’s important to publish replications because they can prove whether something is rebus or not, which is you know, a one day fly. Another concern, and this a general concern with the field I think of at least social psychology but also positive psychology and other branches maybe as well, some studies have a very low number of participants. You cannot draw definite conclusions based on 40 participants. You cannot generalize these findings to a whole population. You simply cannot do that. There is too much noise, I would say, that can predict the coincidence of these findings. So, these are all critical things that you have to keep in mind when consuming the research.

Hugo: Absolutely, I’m not saying here that we should stop doing research, I think it’s really important to continue doing research and it’s, I think, to this day it’s the best we have. But, it’s important to always stay critical. As I said in the beginning, I think you always have to be very critical about what you read… And, I don’t believe there’s a one fix formula for every client, you know? So, again, to come back to critique of positive psychology, it sounds like sometimes like the Holy Grail, something new, and it’s positivity, but every client is different and all people have different needs. And, what may work Client A may not work for Client B. I’ve been working with acceptance and commitment therapy and I noticed that some metaphors, they don’t resonate with people.

Hugo: Some people find them too difficult and they cannot work with them, so you adjust that. You take a different way of approaching the very same principle, and this I think what is needed to also apply positive psychology in the right way, to be flexible. To be critical and flexible and to address the deeper layers of motivation and the relationship that a client has with him or herself before just applying all that stuff.

Seph: Yeah. So, in that sense, the science and all the research has a supporting role in therapy right, where it can provide some interesting or useful starting points for both the practitioners and for their clients, but… I mean, let’s say a certain intervention has been proven to be effective, quote-unquote, right?

Hugo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Seph: And, you apply it with your client and it doesn’t resonate with him at all. What do you do? Do you stick to it because it has proven to be effective? Of course you don’t, right? You stop and you try something else.

Hugo: Exactly. CBT is, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is probably the biggest therapy movement today, I think. Most people are applying CBT, but what I’ve noticed is that CBT doesn’t work for all clients. If a client is really already in approaching from a very mental rational perspective, already living a lot in his head. Often, very intelligent people that think a lot… Asking those people to come up with counter-arguments, you know, for the problems they have, so, for instance, if you’re suffering from… Let’s say you’re suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, you have an irrational belief about the size of your nose. You think your nose is huge and you’re ugly because of it and you feel insecure about that, of course if you apply CBT you could say, “Well, what is the evidence for this?” And, “Is it really true what do other people say?” So, you can try to conjure these irrational thoughts that you have.

Hugo: But, what I often hear of clients is that they say, “Well, I know what to think.” If you work with people with eating problems, they say, “I know rationally that I’m not fat, but I still feel that way. I still feel ugly,” so, what do you do then, right? You’re stuck, because you’re not meeting the clients where they are. So, CBT may help for some people but for others it may be very useless. And, it’s a very pervasive problem, of course, because there is a difference between knowing things and experiencing them, feeling them. The same with what I dislike about all these affirmations. You know, you can repeat them so often. You can say, “I’m positive. I’m happy. I’m strong.” But, if you don’t experience that, if it doesn’t result from a true state of whatever you’re trying to create, it’s just useless. You say, “I say them, but I don’t feel it.”

Hugo: Yeah. Yeah, I think in that sense it can be… You have to be careful not to just throw logs and fuel on the existing fire of the client, where that fire may be the cause of the problem. So, if the client is experiencing problem that’s created on a rational cognitive level, why would you try to solve the problem at the same level? It’s like the Einstein quote, right?

Seph: Yeah.

Hugo: “Don’t solve the problem at the level it was created.” So, maybe, and this is what I experience in my therapy with a therapist you know as well of course, and have recommended to me… My problem without going into too much specifics, but it was definitely created on a cognitive level, or operating on a cognitive level. She, I think, from the start… maybe it’s, in general, her approach, but she never met me at the cognitive level of the problem. She was way more interested in my feelings and my emotions and my experience and also bonding and creating a relationship with me as well. But, never on that cognitive… Never would she come up with counter-arguments or try to find faults in my reasoning, never. Never. And, that to me was very interesting, because after a couple of sessions I realized like, all the stories I’m telling her and all the stories I’m telling myself, she’s just not too interested in that.

Seph: However, weird that may sound, but she was way more interested in what’s laying beneath the surface of my cognitive ramblings and stories I was creating and telling.

Hugo: Beautiful. So, actually what she was doing, she was not buying your stories.

Seph: No, no.

Hugo: So, in a way, I think she was carrying a solution to your problem, because that is exactly what you needed to do. You needed to see that the stories that you were producing in your mind were just that, stories about life, about whatever problem you’re facing. So, I think many problems that we have aren’t real problems, they’re mind-made problems. We create problems because of the thoughts we have about them. And, what she was doing, your therapist, she was embodying you could say the very solution. She wasn’t buying them, she wasn’t focusing on them, she wasn’t treating them as real, but she was treating them as they are. Just stories. And, this is I think a problem when you start focusing a lot on the thoughts of people. You can say, “Well, you know, you have all these thoughts about your nose and so on, but are they really true?”

Hugo: But, actually because you devote so much time to it, you actually treat them as being true.

Seph: Yeah, and you may strengthen it in the process, as well of course.

Hugo: Exactly, and that’s [crosstalk 00:35:15].

Seph: Because you’re validating the concerns by being interested in them on that level that she’s operating.

Hugo: Exactly. I once had this idea of making a short movie about a man who was standing drunk at the street and he was shouting at you, right? He was like, “Whoa!” All these kind of nonsense he’s shouting at you. Sometimes, it’s like the thoughts that we have. Many of our thoughts are just plain nonsense. All kinds of fear that never happened. We are so afraid of many things that actually never happen. So, it’s basically this drunk man standing along the way shouting at us. So, now what happens if we start talking to this man? Like, what are you exactly saying? Is it really true what you’re saying? It’s not something we do. We don’t… we just, kind of fight, but when it comes to our own thoughts, our own drunk man inside our head we take it sometimes very seriously. And, I think what you do as a therapist is when you devote a lot of time and it’s basically like we’re talking to this drunk man.

Hugo: And, I think what your therapist does, is exactly the opposite. She was tapping into deeper layer than your thoughts than your thinking. And, I think she was… by doing so, I think she was helping you to get through that.

Seph: Yeah. Exactly. She gave like, so to speaking in your metaphor, she gave the drunk man a seat, but didn’t really engage with him and connected to me on a deeper level. Until… and, I think the form was more important than the content here, which was very interpreting about this experience that I had in therapy with her, where at some point the form became clear to me as a client. It’s like oh, okay. Okay. We’re not engaging in this discussion about this being true or not true, or-

Hugo: Nope.

Seph: Am I right to feel this way? Am I, you know? Am I right to feel this way, that was the thing for me as well… that I wanted to discover.

Hugo: Oh, yeah.

Seph: Which is super interesting to me now, you know? And then, I realized that we were not having that cognitive discussion and that the form was different than the form that I expected, because first let me tell you, I didn’t want a middle-aged woman as a therapist because here’s what I thought beforehand. I thought I needed an old man, a male psychotherapist with a lot of experience. I thought, you know, I’ve read some Yalom and I’ve read this and that, so I want to be able to connect with a therapist on that intellectual level. That’s literally what I thought and now I’m ashamed to admit it, because of course she did… yeah. It was amazing to have these sessions with her and I realized that what I thought I needed and what I wanted was definitely not what I actually needed.

Hugo: Beautiful.

Seph: Yeah. I’m very happy to have discovered that.

Hugo: Yeah, of course. I think what she did, in a way, is… I think she didn’t see you as broken in the first place, or in need of fixing. I think what she did is she focused on what you really needed and tried to embody that very thing. Because, I think in the end it’s about can we offer clients what they need? And, I think we often don’t know really what we need and I think a good therapist can uncover the true needs of a client, and embodying that need in this interaction. So, for instance, if you were lacking a lot of hope or trust in life, trusting the process, trusting that things will be all right, I think think as soon as you notice this… that this goes on in the client, I think it becomes really important to see if you can embody this very thing and through your interaction with the client. By the things you say, by the way you interact with the client so that you actually have allowed a client to resonate with that very thing that you are living in that moment.

Hugo: For me, the most beautiful experience was to have a therapist that did that. Once, my life was difficult and was dark, and so on. To have somebody that was embodying this sense of trust in life, that was so real.

Seph: It’s like it’s the same thing.

Hugo: But, it wasn’t on a cognitive level. This therapist wasn’t providing arguments. It wasn’t saying, “Well, look at this way. It’s A, B, C, and D, and therefore you shouldn’t worry.” No. Completely not.

Seph: Yeah, it reminds me of like a child-parent role almost, where as a parent of course you want more than anything, more than rules and punishment, you want to set the right example. And, if you’re relaxed as a parent and not stressed about life, I think that’s the best way to foster these same kind of traits in your kids, right?

Hugo: Sure.

Seph: Because if your kids, especially at a very young age, all they see is stressed out parents, then that’s a sign to them of hey, this world is fundamentally unsafe.

Hugo: Yeah, to set an example.

Seph: And, the same goes for our clients.

Hugo: Yes, it does.

Seph: And therapist relationship.

Hugo: So, there you get back to another point, I think you could say a critique, or at least to be cautious about, I think all the things that you applied or related to positive psychology, if you don’t live them as a therapist, I think they’re useless. You can talk about gratitude, but if enter a session complaining about everything that went wrong, and you know, seriously. It’s really bad, I’ve seen it so many times. People that are preaching about all kinds of things, and probably myself as well, maybe I’m doing it as well. It’s easy to promote something and not live it. You can say, “Well, it’s really important to be present,” to a client and be in this moment and constantly check your phone, you know, what is the example you’re setting? You’re distracted all the time, you’re not fully present.

Hugo: So, I think this I something you always have to bare in mind as well with positive psychology, if you’re trying to apply those techniques, are you living them as well in your session with clients and outside the therapy sessions?

Seph: Well, I think that’s a really, really powerful question for everyone to reflect on and, yeah, so maybe start with what kind of techniques, in that sense, or what kind of field of thought am I living out and maybe start from there. So, that you can start from that foundation of what you have to offer in terms of your attitude towards life and what you’re carrying out by your presence.

Hugo: Beautiful, beautiful. Yes, exactly. So, a question, this is something I came up with myself but I’m asking this on a regular basis, it’s like what is the person I am creating at this moment through my actions, my thoughts, my words, through everything? What is the kind of person I’m embodying? And, is this a person that is helpful in this moment? I fail miserably, of course. Sometimes, I am ashamed to say, but I notice, my God, I’m just being the very opposite of the person I want to be. But, the good news is if you ask that question quite often, it’s easy to also change that. And, you can ask yourself what would be needed to become more like the person I truly want to be in this moment? And, I think the same applies also to therapy, I think.

Hugo: What is this client needing in this moment? And, to what extent am I through my actions, and the things I’m saying contributing to that need? If a client’s… to give you a very simple example, if a client is in a serious need to be accepted and lacks self-acceptance, right? The client is not okay with who he or she is, very low level of self-esteem, and so on… If I’m presenting myself as the expert, you know, giving a lot of advice, giving the impression that there’s a lot to fix, what am I really contributing to the need of that client? I may throw a lot of positive psychology exercises at this client, but am I really helping this client to meet the need that he or she is experiencing?

Seph: Yeah, again, you’re validating the problem.

Hugo: Yes. Yes. So, this is what I like so much about techniques like motivational interview, where you’re not pushing clients, but you’re eliciting through questioning a genuine response, but you’re not pushing clients to become motivated or anything. And, I think this is a very important paradox in coaching. We want clients to become better because this is why we do the work, we love to make people happier and healthier, and so on. But, at the same time, if we become so attached to this outcome, we actually prevent clients from doing so.

Seph: Right, they could-

Hugo: At the deeper level, it has to do with our identity of course, because we feel that we fail if a client doesn’t progress fast enough. And, here it comes again, back to one of the biggest misconceptions, we always see progress as a linear thing. We see that clients need to become better and it’s our job to do that, especially as positive psychologist, right? We need to be focusing on positive experiences and clients need to come through a room and tell us how passionate they are, and how positive they have become over the past weeks, and if that doesn’t happen, it can sometimes feel as if we’re not doing the right job. But, I think, it all comes back to what we were discussing in the very beginning of this talk, is this notion of positive and negative. If this happens, we still are captured in the view that there is absolute positivity and absolute negativity, and that negativity is bad, and that it should be avoided.

Seph: I would say, how do you want to go about doing that with a subjective concept? Like, that’s of course very interesting if not paradoxical.

Hugo: Seph, I think it’s nice moment to conclude this talk, what do you think?

Seph: Yeah, absolutely. I think we shouldn’t express any more concerns with positive psychology or we might as well just take down the website, so. Why not stop here?

Hugo: Perfect. No, thank you. It was great talking to you again.

Seph: Yeah, likewise, man.

Hugo: Talk again soon.


What our readers think

  1. Shawna Oliver

    Our oldest boy and his wife moved from being our neighbor to Florida( from Maine) 4 days ago. He was the supportive encouraging fun older brother to a 21 and 18 yr old.Formative in their lives. Many Many well meaning folks stated “At least you have a great place to visit.” One astute friend who works in crisis intervention just stated repeatedly she was sorry I was suffering…and not being okay for awhile is just fine. My husband and I are trying to teach our younger boys to allow grief share grief with someone you trust when felt and feel empathy for others experiencing the same.

  2. felida tucker-rustia

    I appreciate the information you have provided that will serve as guidelines in the application of positive psychology which should be individually differentiated

  3. Alexandra Lo

    Totally agree! Unless one cleansing the inside and accept oneself, the foundation is not solid!

  4. onisimo raboiliku

    Wonderful to know this. Thanks for the update and research of positive psychology.

  5. Santo C Wapokurwa

    I am Santo- MD, a Psycho-Spiritual Therapist from Psycho-Spiritual Institute,Nairobi- 27/07/2019;b3;46 PM
    Thank you very much for your input on positive psychology. I think,a client who is depressed or aggrieved due to psycho-somatic factors, needs first to have his or her issues explored by a Therapist. Once he or she has reached the level of self-acceptance and ready to adopt a new behaviour,then positive psychology techniques can be applied in terms of psycho-education to support the client.

    • felida tucker-rustia

      Please share your experience in psycho-spiritual therapy. Thanks so much 🙂


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