When people enter therapy, they often want to change behavior or feelings they have struggled with for a while. They often feel frustrated or worn down.
A strengths-based approach to therapy starts by focusing on what is working. We look for the wisdom and a person’s efforts to persevere, in spite of life’s challenges. It helps us teach people to see what happened to them in their lives or what they have struggled with emotionally as the natural outcome of having to deal with extra amounts of stress. It also helps them start to recognize their strengths and use them to take better care of themselves.
Some people feel burdened living with the labels or expectations others placed on them, for some as far back as childhood.
People we work with often recall negative words people used to describe them, such as “badly behaved”, “defiant”, “hyper” or “withdrawn” as they grew up. Often, children who get these labels are not simply misbehaving, but are overwhelmed with stress. They have no support, no role models for how to deal with a stressed out nervous system, no way of knowing how to get the help they need. So they act out. Sometimes acting out is the only way people can say “I need help!”
Sometimes people learn to deal with emotional distress with a distorted sense of responsibility. They hold themselves to perfectionistic standards at school, at home, and in their activities. They take on super-sized responsibilities early on such as taking care of family members or working. They see problems and feel compelled to fix them.
Even a child growing up with caring loving adults can feel overwhelmed by stress that leaves them feeling unsafe and insecure. They may feel in constant danger from thoughts and emotions they can’t control.
No matter the cause, when a person’s emotional experiences become intolerable, they need relief. They experience either intense reactions (hyperarousal) or struggle with feeling numb and dead inside (hypo-arousal). Without supportive relationships, they often resort to behavior that gets them into trouble. They may use self-harm, alcohol, drugs, food or food restriction, sex or pornography, hyperactivity, people-pleasing, or other behaviors that provide a moment’s relief.
Therapists have a name for the unhealed wounds and overwhelming stress that lead to many of these symptoms and behaviors: trauma.
In a strengths-based setting, we see behaviors such as substance use, self-harm, eating disorders, and perfectionism as desperate attempts to cope with trauma. They are not actions we should punish (or encourage in workaholics or over exercisers). We see the behavior as symptoms of a person in pain, not the mark of a ‘bad’ person.
A strengths based-approach looks to understand how the behavior makes sense, given a person’s distress and limited resources. We see a person’s desperate efforts to survive as a strength that affirms their humanity and need for support and treatment.
A strengths-based approach accepts a person as-is. It recognizes the desperation and extreme states of emotion that unhealed trauma creates, and affirms their need for care and resources. This perspective:
- Does NOT ask: “What is wrong with you?”
- Asks: “What happened to you and how did you survive?”
- Affirms: “Your behavior makes sense, given what has happened to you.”
Learning to recognize and use one’s personal strengths is a transformative journey for people who have experienced trauma. A strengths-based approach complements trauma-informed therapy because it:
- Affirms a trauma survivor’s human dignity and need for healing
- Is sensitive and respectful: we respond to traumatized individuals with supportive intent and consciously avoid re-traumatization
- Strengthens the alliance between client and therapist by recognizing pain instead of judging behavior
- Allows for genuine trust
- Brings hope
- Removes the glass ceiling that diagnoses can impose on progress
- Allows client to understand they are struggling with trauma; they are not ‘crazy’
- Invites curiosity rather than self-criticism
- Opens opportunities to “de-code” symptoms so deeper healing can take place
- Resolves shame and guilt by understanding symptoms as coping skills, not as weaknesses or flaws
- Builds resiliency
- Invites the client to use their healthy or wise parts
A strengths-based approach applies to the treatment of trauma in its many forms — as these leading trauma therapists explain:
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