Monday, November 29, 2010

The Best Thing I Had Not Noticed Until Now

Running through the various elements of Positive Psychology is the theme of non-pathologizing. Of looking for the health-promoting quality of behavior. In some older models of human behavior there is a persistent looking-for-the-hidden-negative. A craving for ice cream could be understood as trying to fill some emotional void, or as sabotaging weight loss goals, or as a subconscious response to inadequate breast feeding.

Another way of looking at the same behavior - craving ice cream - avoids pathological understandings and, instead, looks for the health-promoting core of the behavior. I seek out ice cream because it's a treat and serves to remind me that I'm not poor anymore. Or I'm an adult now and can make my own decisions about snacks. Or because eating ice cream feels soothing and good and when I want to celebrate something or if I need to comfort myself or if I need to calm down or if I need to perk myself up, I eat ice cream. I am an agent of change in my own life.

Now at this point someone will likely point out the (painfully obvious) concerns about over-doing it with the ice cream. Identifying the problems of too much ice cream is easy enough. But identifying the positive, health-promoting core of many problem behaviors takes work.

Our brains are specifically wired for quickly taking note of problems and finding dangers. That is a remarkable feature of human neurology and helps protect us. So the work of finding the positive is, in some ways, going a bit against the grain of our brains' typical way of functioning. And it's the modus operandi of Positive Psychology. Thinking like a "positive psychologist" allows that even unhelpful and difficult behaviors may have, at their core, an essentially okay function. Let's try it:

In an adolescent residential program, counselors observe that Vicky is "splitting" the staff. And this behavior makes her less popular among peers and treatment team. But can you find the best thing about this that we haven't noticed yet? To "split" the staff Vicky needs to have been observing and taking notes and figuring out who's the weak link. Noticing what "buttons" she can push to get her counselors all worked up. That takes remarkable emotional intelligence and memory and observational skills! Rather than sitting around a table at treatment team and telling stories of pathology about Vicky wouldn't we rather help her use these skills in a pro-social way that helps Vicky earn friends and income and self-esteem? That will not be easy. It will be easier to simply write her off as a problem resident. But asking questions about "the best thing we had not noticed yet" might actually create its own energy for the work we need to do with Vicky.

Another illustration: Your colleague Steve provides good administrative support and his coworkers like him. He shows up for work and doesn't complain, and is usually available for a bit extra effort during big projects. It's fairly common knowledge that he drinks heavily. He tends to leave work and spend several hours at a bar near his house before driving himself home and going to bed. This pattern is a problem in several different and obvious ways. Is he alcoholic? Is this pattern suggestive of alcohol abuse, or even dependence? Yes, or probably. And he almost certainly needs treatment. But what's the core positive about Steve's behavior here? What has he learned about his own body that might lead to problem drinking? You and I might have 5-10 quick "state change" tricks that are healthy and risk-free. We take a hot shower. Or a cold one. Or you pop in that Bon Jovi CD in you car after a stressful day and play the music really really loud. Or you ask your partner for an extra long hug. We want the same thing for Steve - we want him to have a big bag of self-soothing and state-changing tricks. So if he's feeling bored or lonely or itchy or scared, Steve has a number of behavioral strategies at the ready.

Now try it yourself. Start with a client or a student. Or someone you love. What is their biggest problem behavior? Things would go so much more smoothly if they'd just do more of what? And less of what?

And what's the best thing you'd not noticed until right now? When I ask about the "best thing," I mean just that: the best thing. So let yourself generate 4-5 good things about this problem behavior and then select the one best thing. And then say "good for her/him." And then ask how you might be a part of facilitating their movement towards health and independence and success.

Now let's do this with ourselves. Scan your private experience and identify the one really big problem behavior. The one which, if corrected, could make the biggest difference for you right now. Got it? You can probably generate several pathological labels for it, and you probably would be able to generate a few explanations for why this problem showed up in your life. But sidestep all that for just a minute and notice what's positive about this behavior that bugs you so much. See whether you can keep drilling down until you find a core purpose of the behavior that is praiseworthy, even if misdirected.

This approach starts with a commitment. To the central assumptions that 1)everybody is doing the best that she can, and 2) every behavior serves a function. Are these assumptions that we believe?

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