There’s a fundamental paradox at the heart of psychotherapy. On the one hand, our focus on people’s emotional pain, on what’s gone wrong in their lives, is what legitimizes us as a profession and provides the economic rationale for our being recipients of insurance reimbursement. While some of us may be uneasy about relying on the medical model for much of our income, what separates credentialed psychotherapists, on the whole, from a range of other helpers—coaches, spiritual healers, mentors, advisors of various stripes—is precisely our presumed quasi-medical expertise in identifying people’s mental “disorders” and coming up with treatments to cure or relieve them.
On the other hand, within the last two decades or so, we’ve seen an increasing restiveness in the field, a certain sense that maybe in trying to do good, we’ve focused a bit too much on zapping the bad. We’ve seen the growing sway of the positive psychology movement, based on the scientific study of human strengths—such as courage, hope, grit, optimism—that enable individuals and communities to thrive. We’ve also seen a new appreciation for human resilience—people’s innate capacity to recover after great loss or hardship and even, in some cases, develop and flourish.
Clearly, therapists must always respond with empathy, understanding, and attuned clinical expertise to clients’ suffering. But the theme of this issue is that in their urgency to relieve pain, therapists must not overlook the rich possibilities for health and growth within every person, without which even the most skilled clinician in the world can do nothing. In the end, all clients must, to some extent, be their own healers.
In this issue, we seek to expand our practical understanding of what it means to focus on strength rather than pathology. Courtney Armstrong writes, “It may be hard for us to recognize that our clients’ symptoms can reveal the path to their healing. But if we look and listen carefully, we may find that it doesn’t take a detective to find our clients’ greatest strengths.” Lisa Ferentz invokes the metaphor of the therapist as conductor being the key to promoting post-traumatic growth: “I saw my clients’ multifaceted experiences, thoughts, and emotions as components of an orchestra.” The therapist’s craft, she argues, resides in our ability to shape clients’ inner cacophony into something more resonant and harmonious.
All the authors here agree that encouraging and emboldening people to access their inner optimist may be the most foundational element of therapy. And Brené Brown, whose TED talks and bestselling books have developed a worldwide following, shows how vulnerability, rather than being evidence of weakness, is a crucial strength, which can enable us to overcome the sense of shame that underlies so many issues that bring people to psychotherapy. (By the way, she’ll be a Networker Symposium keynote speaker next March.) Her book Daring Greatly is a call to engage more wholeheartedly in life and overcome the sniping critics who live not only around us (especially on the internet), but within us.
Throughout this issue, you’ll encounter reminders not to allow our necessary focus on suffering and misery to lead us to ignore the deep, life-affirming, perhaps ineradicable, human drive to love, to find meaning in life, to laugh, and to play—even in clients who’ve endured almost unimaginable pain.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.