I was at a mental health conference a few years back. The talk was on traumatic stress. The first thing the speaker did was to divide the room in half, straight down the aisle. It was evenly matched with about 100 therapists on the left and about a hundred therapists on the right. Then all of us were given an assignment. We were to watch a video of people who were coming in for therapy, and as the video was playing, we were to take assessment notes, just as if we were in our own therapy chairs.
But each side of the room was given different aspects of an assessment. The right side of the room was asked to look for symptoms. What criteria for mental health disorders might the clients have? What were the red flags? What were the preliminary diagnosis to consider? In short, what was wrong?
The left side of the room was asked to assess the clients’ strengths. What did they have going for them? What were their skills sets? What were their social supports like? What gifts did the clients already have that the therapist could mobilize to carry them through this hard time?
Both are common things to do in an initial assessment.
After the video, and our diligent note taking, the presenters did their own kind of informal assessment. They asked all the therapists how sure we were that we could be helpful, and how confident we were that the clients could get better. They asked us how we felt, and how important we thought our work was in the world.
For the most part, the people on the right, who were looking at what was wrong, felt kind of dejected. They thought the road would be hard. They were less sure they could help the clients. They were less likely to think the people would get well, or even that therapy really mattered. They were kind of a bummer to listen to, actually.
But the therapists on the left, where I was, and am most of the time, were more sure the client could reach their goals. They felt fairly confident and had a real faith in the client. Prognosis was good! Further more, the right-side therapists thought their work was essential. They were kind of proud of all the strengths in the people, and some of them wanted to keep talking about these clients. We were pumped!
These were the same clients, and we all watched the same video. One group had the unfortunate task of looking for what was wrong. The other, looked for everything that was already right.
Many people have had training in how to look for things they are doing wrong. Maybe their parents had a knack for pointing out flaws. Maybe high-pressured, competitive environments left no room for mistakes. Jobs, schoolwork, relationships, families, the mirror, past conversations… some people have the bad habit of examining their whole lives with a big red pen.
In This Moment Now, New Assignment: If you’re like that, pull out your highlighter instead. The new assignment is to note everything you already have going for you. Be diligent. Are you resourceful? Survival skills? Persistence? I might be one of those enthusiastic therapists on the left side of the room, but if you retrain yourself to look at your strengths, I have faith you’re going to feel healthier.