Whether you struggle with low self-esteem or want to improve your relationships and/or leadership style, knowing your character strengths and becoming familiar with strength-based tools will be the greatest tools you can add to your life tool box.
Here are some ways to find your strengths and live life with purpose!
What is Strengths-Based Psychology?
Strengths-based psychology is an approach to psychology that sees people as more than just a set of problems to be fixed. Rather, it focuses on what can be done to help people become their best selves, both in terms of relating to others and being productive.
A great assessment you can take to learn more about your character strenghts is the VIA Character Strengths Survey. There, you will get to know what your top 5 Character Strengths are.
Next, explore how these strengths might manifest themselves in your life. What would happen if you put more effort into using your natural talents? Would it have any effect on the people around you?
Use daily gratitude practice to also reflect on your day in terms of what character strengths you have used. Maybe you had to negiotiate something or compromise. In this sitiuation you might have shown empathy, social intelligence and communication skills. Or maybe you cooked dinner for friends or family, in which case you could have used your kindness, generosity and creativity. See, it's that easy.
How strengths-based approaches can combat negativity bias
I have a theory. What we focus on the most influences our neural pathways. The more we work in a certain way, the harder it is to deviate away from that. Therapists and coaches with an attitude as the one above are not only making it harder to let go of the negative, but can unintentionally prevent their clients from moving into a place of flourishing. It is a self-feeding negativity loop.
Let's look at what happens when you add an awareness of character strengths into your everyday life:
You learn to identify your wins easier. Your brain has plasticity, you are training your brain to identify not only your own, but other people's strengths. By doing that you are enhancing the strength of gratitude and appreciation. As a result your relationships become more positive, deeper and more meaningful. You experience what we call “Positivity Resonance”, a positive bonding experience. As a result your self-esteem grows. It's an endless upward spiral into florishing. And yet, so many practitioners refuse to incorporate this into their work.
You might be saying:"But I don't want to run around with rose-tinted glasses!" Don't worry, your brain has an inbuilt negativity bias to protect your from harm. All that positive approaches do is to shift your perception and vision into “reality”. You see the whole spectrum, not just the negative. It's like getting a new pair of glasses but for your life.
Why people get stuck in therapy
Let me share an experience I had a few weeks ago during a training weekend for a course I am currently taking:
One of the tasks we have been given is to do a 20-minute presentation on a topic we feel passionate about. We are asked to suggest topics and then the whole group would vote on what presentations to take further. A majority of the topics were on, yes, you guessed it, problems and difficulties. I suggested positive psychology. There was zero reaction and zero interest from fellow psychotherapists. To me, this is a disappointment, but no surprise. Therapists can also get stuck in a negativity bias loop.
In humanistic therapies Positive Psychology can often be perceived as a fad and “not deep enough”. The vast amounts of scientific evidence are being discounted.
The majority of my clients are people who have been stuck in therapy but want to give it one more final try. They often report that their therapist kept looking backwards instead of towards a better future. They have gained more awareness in therapy but still don't know how to move forward. When they mentioned that they don't want to look into the past anymore, the therapist would see that as a defence and make that the focus of the session. It's time to work differently. Fixing a problem is not automatically creating something good.
Strengths-based leadership today
I don't usually bring politics into my emails, but here we have a perfect example of great leadership. One of the most inspiring leaders of today is Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His resolve, defiance and resilience is not just inspiring and moving the Ukrainian people, but it is also touching the entire world. How does he do that?
Yes, we feel empathy seeing the pictures of destruction. People fleeing and seeking refuge. But there is another aspect that touches us: People are being seen and heard. Zelenskyy keeps reminding not only his people but other world leaders and their citizens of their humanity, their character and their strengths. He talks of loyalty, humanity, faith, trust, bravery, perseverance, love, kindness, fairness, leadership, gratitude, hope and even brings in humor in the darkest of times. He sees and appreciates the support he gets and asks for what he and his people need whilst at the same time not being afraid to also critize without hate. This is why we identify. And this is why we are so moved to show support, civilians take up arms and build defenses, people take refugees into their homes.
If a country's leader can do all that, imagine what you can do.
A litte exercise for you to do with a friend
Get together with a friend or your partner and each share for one minute a story of when you were at your best. Try to listen to what strengths the other has exhibited and note them down. After each of you has shared their story, read to eachother the strengths you have identified and evidence them by pointing to the story. Reflect on how this made you feel. Did you feel seen? Did you feel appreciated? Did it feel good to focus on the positives of your friend or partner?
Over the many years of training and me practicing psychotherapy, I have seen many different psychotherapists and how they practice. This also has informed the way I work. From 2012 to 2019, I managed a psychotherapy centre which I founded in 2012 until I decided to work remotely from our home in London.
When the approach is more important than seeing the person
In those seven years 9-12 therapists used to work in that centre. In that time I have become very familiar with the different approaches different therapists work with. What I have noticed is that some therapists are very much in love with the therapy they practice and with their own philosophy. I realized that this doesn't necessarily mean that this can lead to a very rigid approach and can be a disservice to their clients.
What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that some therapists, their theory, and the model of practice is more important than really seeing the person. Let me give you an example. When I started my center, what was important for me was to create a space that was a home away from home, a welcoming space, rather than a cold clinical space. I wanted my clients to come into the center and therapy room that was light and spacious and welcoming. I would offer a glass of water or tea to help my clients relax and feel welcome and respected. One day a new CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) psychotherapist had started at the center. Whilst she was still in a session with a client, her next client was already at the door I opened the door let them to the waiting room and offered them a drink. They asked for a glass of water. Later that evening, their therapist approached me and asked me not to offer their clients anything to drink. I was quite surprised that they would ask me this, it was a hot day and it just seems to me like the thing to do to make people feel comfortable and provide that caring space. This therapist was so stuck in their way of working they believed that offering a client a glass of water was negative for their therapy process. Sadly, there are quite a few psychotherapists who subscribe to this idea. She that offering a client a glass of water means that in their sessions, some clients will hide behind that glass of water, they will use the water to self-soothe but she wanted them to experience the necessary discomfort. To me, this is simply crazy and a neurotic way of working. Since then, I have spoken to other therapists who also refuse to offer their clients a glass of water or tea because they feel for different reasons that offering clients something to drink is a bad idea. Imagine this! To me, this is an absolutely silly approach. This is how crazy the therapy world can be. This is not something I subscribe to.
What therapy really is
The way I see therapy is that it is a relationship. A combining of forces. You know your past, you know your experience, you know your needs and your wants, and you know where you want to be in life. I have studied psychology, trained as a psychotherapist as well as a coach. I have worked in research, I have undergone my own therapy as part of my psychotherapy training. And we are combining our forces to get you to where you want to be. And I do that by providing you a safe space. Though now I work online rather than in a therapy centre, it is still very important for me to provide that space for you.
An example of when to walk away
Let me give you another example. When I was 20, and I was studying in Berlin and I wanted to see a therapist. At the time, I didn't know all the intricate differences between what kind of therapies there are. I was just glad to find somebody who took insurance. I was late to the initial session because it was in a very different part of Berlin and I got lost. This was pre GPS times. When I arrived at the therapists house, she looked very angry. She suddenly led me into her office, sat opposite me, and then proceeded to tell me that I didn't want to be there. I was so confused. I was only 20, I had been looking forward to work on my anxiety regarding public speaking and couldn't wait to finally start the session. Instead I was confronted with somebody who was telling me that I didn’t want to be there. I told her that I just got lost because this was a part of Berlin I have never been to. It was a big road, I took the wrong turn. And that's all there is to it. She continued to explain to me that if I really wanted to be there, I wouldn't have taken a wrong turn. It was absolutely crazy. She proceeded to analyze my getting lost by misreading the map or not getting into the right lane, early enough to take the right turn, as some kind of subconscious process as signifying me not wanting to be there. It was absolutely crazy and also incredibly disappointing as I felt let down and invaded. Her projecting her phantasy of what had happened in the end actually led me to leave the session. She made me not want to be there. A self-fulfilling prophecy. It certainly was a very unsafe environment. Fortunately enough, a short while later I found an amazing psychologist I could work with. This is an example of a therapist projecting her own fantasy onto her client. I have had clients who had bad experiences with therapists in the past. And there are many similar stories that I've heard. I find it very sad that even though we are trained to see the real person, to see you and hear you, sometimes you are missed.
An open and welcoming environment for you
Working with me provides you with that open curiosity about you and your journey. Of course, we make assessments, we might wonder whether the process is this or that and might feel inclined to interpret something you say but I will always check in with you and see what you really mean. Open communication and transparency are so important. You will not be squished into a model or into a fantasy of what I think who you might be or what I think might be going on, I'll be communicating with you openly. Because this is the space that every therapy client needs. A space to be themselves without any judgement - an open space. Not a box that you are being put into. I respect you religious views, your sexuality, your pronouns. Simply, you and who you are and who you want to be.
How do you know whether you are with the right therapist?
Simply put, trust your gut. Whether you want to work with me or somebody else. Meet a therapist first and just have a chat with them. Ask them questions and see what kind of questions they ask you. If they ask you the same question several times it might mean that they want you to say something they want to hear or they might not be listening. If they welcome you and are curious ,if you can sense their empathy and their patience and their openness that already is a good sign. See if they ask you if you had therapy before, and what has worked for you, as well as what hasn't worked for you. You can ask them what kind of therapy they practice, what their beliefs are about therapy and mental health. Ultimately, trust your gut instinct. You don't have to stay with the therapist, just because you already had a few sessions with them. You can at any point choose somebody else to work with.
For example, I like to check in with my clients now and then ask them “Hey, how was the session? Did you get what you wanted?” I do that in therapy as well as in my coaching work. If there is something you want to do more of, we can do that. If you think “that wasn't my cup of tea, I want to try something else”, we can do that. It's about working towards the same goal together. Whatever your healing journey is, my goal for you is your autonomy and your independence. That means for me to become redundant. The moment the client says “I'm good, I think I can stop therapy” is one of the most amazing moments. This is why I love this work. Because I know you are ready. And if I feel that maybe there might be some more work to do, I will share that with you. And that's fine. Sometimes, therapy can get really tough, and you might not be ready to go a bit deeper. That's okay, too. It's important for therapists to honor their client’s boundaries and their defenses. A therapist shouldn't push a client into a zone that's not comfortable for them. You have a right at any point to say “I don't want to talk about this. “What you talk about is your choice. If you feel that the therapist is pushy, you can say so. If they insist on being pushy, you are free to leave. First, give them feedback so they know what they're doing. However, if they don't honor your feedback, you might want to rethink whether this is the right therapist for you. You do not want to work with somebody who might potentially traumatize you. Some therapists see themselves as the experts who knows better than you (ie. Not aware enough of their ego) and might not be aware of the power imbalance in therapy. It is important to acknowledge that when you come to therapy and you open yourself up to the stranger sitting opposite you, whether in the therapy room or on the scree, that ultimately, you make yourself vulnerable. And you want to be with somebody who honors that vulnerability and respects it.
Follow your gut. Give it a try. If you feel safe with a therapist you've chosen that's great. If not, it's okay to walk away. I hope you appreciate this little insight. And if you are interested in a brief consultation to see whether we might be a good match feel free to contact me