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Do therapists need to be optimists?

posted 7 Apr 2017, 21:19 by Suzi Wallis   [ updated 7 Apr 2017, 22:48 ]
You will meet some counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who come across as positive and perpetually cheerful. Chances are, like any other segment of the population, this is not true for them all of the time. There are many factors that influence a person's ability to maintain optimism in the face of challenging and painful circumstances.

Therapists, through their work, encounter proportionally greater numbers of people in pain - whether this be physical, emotional or spiritual. It takes awareness, emotional intelligence and the correct type and amount of support to maintain emotional resilience in the helping professions.

I believe that good therapists can maintain a mixture of optimism (after all, if they don't believe people are capable of change, it would be very difficult to be effective) and realism. As you can see from the Wikipedia link on realism, there are many interpretations of this term. What you don't want from your therapist is unrealistic optimism (defined as believing that you are more likely to experience pleasant events than is actually the case, and less likely than others to experience negative ones), because it can minimise clients' experiences. Unrealistic optimism can keep you from being able to change direction when you are unable to see the trouble that lies ahead. More realistic optimism itself, can offer hope to a client who is struggling to find it. Unconditional positive regard (see below), is a process where a therapist can hold a space for growth and understanding on the client's behalf, until they are able to do this for themselves.

I once heard a supervisor describe a therapist's story of their own optimism changing due to burnout as a "Pollyanna" way of thinking. This refers to a story from 1960 where the main protagonist maintains a highly positive attitude in the face of much hardship and negativity. I think the supervisor in question was highly disrespectful of the therapist, as they were showing emotional intelligence and self observation - the "symptom" of negativity or pessimism was informing them of a serious resilience issue that had arisen. Labelling in this manner (of any kind) can create disconnection and even a backwards pattern in relation to progress.

You could say that optimism and pessimism operate on a continuum, and realism is in the middle. Unfortunately, this is a very subjective statement, and each person's perception would most likely place realism in a different place on the continuum.

I've outlined some of the terms below for clarification.

Optimism 

Optimism, according to Wikipedia, is a mental attitude. A common idiom used to illustrate optimism versus pessimism is a glass with water at the halfway point, where the optimist is said to see the glass as half full and the pessimist sees the glass as half empty.

The term is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning "best". Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, is defined as expecting the best possible outcome from any given situation. This is usually referred to in psychology as dispositional optimism. It thus reflects a belief that future conditions will work out for the best.

Variation in optimism and pessimism is somewhat heritable and reflects biological trait systems to some degree. It is also influenced by environmental factors, including family environment, with some suggesting it can be learned. Optimism may also be linked to health.

Pessimism

Pessimism is a mental attitude. Pessimists anticipate undesirable outcomes from a given situation which is generally referred to as situational pessimism, or believe that undesirable things are going to happen to them in life more than desirable ones. Pessimists also tend to focus on the negatives of life in general or a given situation. The most common example of this phenomenon is the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" situation. In this situation a pessimist is said to see the glass as half empty while an optimist is said to see the glass as half full. 

Realism

Perhaps the best definition of realism is actually from the definition of logic:

Logic (from the Ancient Greekλογική, logikḗ), originally meaning "the word" or "what is spoken" (but coming to mean "thought" or "reason"), is generally held to consist of the systematic study of the form of arguments. A valid argument is one where there is a specific relation of logical support between the assumptions of the argument and its conclusion. (In ordinary discourse, the conclusion of such an argument may be signified by words like therefore, hence, ergo and so on.)

In my experience, realists tend more towards a pessimistic view of life than an optimistic view. They may plan for the worst, so that they are not disappointed or unprepared. This can sometimes lead to a compulsion to plan for the worst, and can reduce people's ability to enjoy what is happening for them in any given moment, or to anticipate a future event that will be pleasant.

Unconditional positive regard

Unconditional positive regard, a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does, especially in the context of client-centered therapy. Its founder, Carl Rogers, writes:

The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

Rogers believed that unconditional positive regard is essential for healthy development and tried to establish it as a therapeutic component. Through providing unconditional positive regard, humanistic therapists seek to help their clients accept and take responsibility for themselves. Humanistic therapists believe that by showing the client unconditional positive regard and acceptance, the therapist is providing the best possible conditions for personal growth to the client.

By definition, it is essential in any helping relationship to have an anticipation for change. In the counselling relationship, that anticipation presents as hope—an optimism that something good and positive will develop to bring about constructive change in the client's personality. Thus, unconditional positive regard means that the therapist has and shows overall acceptance of the client by setting aside their own personal opinions and biases. The main factor in unconditional positive regard is the ability to isolate behaviors from the person who displays them.

In summary

Therapists, to be effective, need to be able to maintain their own resilience and strength. Separating their internal reactions from the therapeutic work is essential, so that they can hold a neutral, safe space for clients to gain understanding and realisations. A combination of positive and realistic attitudes on the therapist's part will best serve both them and their clients. Negative or pessimistic views are likely to be counter-productive for the therapeutic process.

Prioritising self care is essential for therapists to maintain their equilibrium. This can include meditation, exercise, massage, creative endeavours and maintaining boundaries. It needs to include professional supervision - a place where they can discuss their client load, experiences, triggers and self care. If you have a friend who is a therapist, you can contribute to their self care by pausing before asking them to hear your problems - they may already have a brain full of such information.

Suzi Wallis | Apr 2017