Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight

Clients' Symptoms Offer Clues to Their Strengths

By Courtney Armstrong

September/October 2016

As therapists, we’re taught to be master detectives, methodically investigating our clients’ symptoms in search of a culprit—the source of their pain. But if we spend too much time preoccupied with our clients’ symptoms, we’re likely to miss important clues to their hidden strengths. Over the years, I’ve learned that turning a symptom into a client’s ally, rather than a nemesis, can transform the whole experience of psychotherapy for both the therapist and client.

I didn’t always see symptoms as allies. In fact, my early training in hospital settings taught me to view symptoms as pure pathology, and evidence of impairment. Unfortunately, seeing patients as impaired made exploring their innate strengths and how their symptoms might be resources seem irrelevant to the main task of therapy: medicating, controlling, and managing pesky emotional and physiological problems. To make matters worse, clients’ belief that symptoms were their enemy validated their fear that something was terribly wrong with them. Too often I saw therapy bog down, as patients became even more helpless, stuck, and despairing, rather than moving on with their lives.

Frustrated with the limited effectiveness of the medical model of treatment, I searched for more positive approaches to psychotherapy as soon as I obtained my professional counselor’s license in 1999. I became inspired by solution-oriented methods as well as Ericksonian hypnosis, which proposed that clients have the resources…

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