People come to a therapist because they want something to change: they want to feel or act differently, understand themselves or others better, or relate to things in a more spacious and accepting way. These changes of mind, of course, require changes of brain. Psychotherapists are in the business of changing the brain for the better, which means building up the neural substrates of inner strengths, including character virtues, executive functions, perspectives, attitudes, positive emotions, and capabilities. These positive traits are the resources we draw upon to soothe ourselves, lower anxiety, feel loved and worthy, be appropriately assertive, contribute to others, and choose the higher road over the lower one. In many ways, the essence of therapy is developing inner strengths, which come from positive states.
It’s easy to dismiss positive experiences as lightweight, new age, pie-in-the-sky fluff—mere “positive thinking.” But these good moments are actually the building blocks of self-regulation, secure attachment, self-esteem, and positive mood. We grow inner strengths by having experiences of them. If you want to be more mindful, have more experiences of mindfulness; if you want to be more confident, have more experiences of being appreciated by others.
But merely having positive experiences isn’t enough: they must be installed in neural structures for any lasting value. Otherwise, they’re momentarily pleasant—better than a stick in the eye—but with little or no enduring benefit. A positive experience must be held in short-term buffers long enough to start getting encoded in long-term storage. “Long enough” depends on the experience and the person, but it’s at least a few seconds and usually longer of staying with and really registering a beneficial thought, perception, emotion, desire, or action. Without this sustained immersion in a positive mental state, its conversion rate to positive neural trait will likely be low at best.
It wasn’t until I began regarding the installation phase of acquiring good traits as the crux of effective therapy (and other paths of healing and growth), that I began to see more deep-seated and long-lasting changes in my clients. Activating useful thoughts and feelings is certainly good, but installing them in neural structures is even better, and learning how to do this has made me a better therapist.Learn more about how to help clients install positive traits in Rick's complete article, “The Next Big Step: What’s Ahead for Brain Science in Psychotherapy?,” in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.