Young child with kite runs across green grass with blue sky beyondPositive psychotherapy, influenced by the humanistic, psychodynamic, and transcultural approaches to treatment, is founded on the premise that human nature is intrinsically good. 

Positive, which stems from the Latin "positum," meaning factual or given, was used by developer Nossrat Peseschkian to emphasize both that mental health issues are not the only things "factual" about a person seeking help and that each individual possesses the qualities necessary to constructively deal with conflict.

Understanding Positive Psychotherapy

Positive psychotherapy uses multicultural stories and metaphors to encourage people in therapy to view their mental health concerns in unique and positive ways. The person in therapy is incorporated into the story to allow them the opportunity to play an active role in the healing process. This interdisciplinary approach incorporates various forms of psychotherapy to help individuals become, in a manner of speaking, their own therapist, best suited to address their particular circumstances, experiences, and environment.

According to positive psychotherapy theory, three main tenets must be addressed in order to achieve a positive outcome.

  • The principle of hope emphasizes the positive conception of humanity. Rather than focusing on eliminating a particular disruption, individuals are encouraged to first examine the disruption fully in order to decipher its positive or actual (given) qualities. The therapist works in this capacity to help people in treatment gain an awareness of the disruption's true purpose and to help them see it in a new perspective. A sleep disturbance may, for instance, be interpreted as the ability to function with little sleep, and a low mood may be seen as the capacity to respond to internal or external conflicts. Symptoms experienced are considered to be signals indicating the need to bring life qualities back into balance.

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  • The principle of balance addresses the conflict dynamic and its contents. According to Peseschkian’s balance model, people may cope with conflict in four areas of life: body/sense, achievement/activities, contact/environment, and fantasy/future. These four ranges are innate to each individual, but people who live in the western hemisphere have been found to tend to focus more on body-oriented and achievement-oriented modes of coping, while individuals living in the eastern hemisphere are often more likely to emphasize relationship-oriented and future-oriented coping mechanisms. People develop their own preferred coping mechanisms, but when these are out of balance, illness and negative symptoms may arise. 
  • According to the principle of consultation, which highlights the five stages of therapy and self-help, challenges or issues must be addressed in five distinct steps: 
    1. Observation, in which a person in therapy provides, often in writing, some indication about situations that are upsetting and situations that are pleasant
    2. Inventory, in which a structured, exploratory interview is conducted for the purpose of highlighting any correlation between the conflict and the actual capabilities
    3. Situational support, in which a person in therapy is encouraged to focus on and encourage the positive traits of a romantic partner or other socially significant persons
    4. Verbalization, or the discussion of relationship issues between partners
    5. The development of goals, which involves looking forward and set achievable positive goals for the future.

Though positive psychology is similar in name, these two approaches are distinct. Positive psychology, developed by Martin Seligman, is a more westernized approached that recognizes the existence and influence of negative experiences and trauma without reframing them positively. 

Techniques Used in Positive Psychotherapy

One distinct feature of positive psychotherapy is the introduction of imagination and intuition into the healing process, seen in the approach's utilization of cultural stories as a means to mediate between the person in therapy and the therapist. This technique may provide a basis of identification for the person in treatment while simultaneously serving as a means of protection. By incorporating the self into the story, individuals in therapy may be better able to speak about the type of person they are, the issues they face, and their personal desires. A therapist can then more accurately address sensitive topics and suggest possible adjustments without seeming to attack the individual’s concepts and desires.

Therapists can also help individuals objectively analyze one-sided ideas, reinterpret them in a positive way, and then build on them. This process requires a therapist to first build a comprehensive overview of possible interpretations of symptoms initially perceived as negative. For example, a woman who believes she is clingy and dependent may be encouraged to view her situation in a more positive light, for example, to consider herself as a woman who loves to be with her husband or as a caring friend who prefers being in the company of others. 

As those in treatment adopt more of a positive interpretation, the issues they experience are generally no longer repeatedly expressed as negative experiences, and they are often able to separate the self from the concerns experienced and examine new possible ways to address any challenges that arise. 

Basic Capabilities and Actual Capabilities

Positive psychotherapy assumes all individuals, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, class, financial standing, or mental health, possess two basic, unconscious capabilities: the capability of perception and the capability of love.

Positive psychotherapy assumes all individuals, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, class, financial standing, or mental health, possess two basic, unconscious capabilities: the capability of perception and the capability of love.The capability of perception is described as what drives a person to try to perceive the connections between different aspects of life, the reasons behind everyday phenomena, and the meaning of existence—why the sun shines, why a tree grows, a person's roots or background, and a person's future or destination. This sense of individuality, coupled with the ability to formulate questions and seek out the answers, develops as knowledge is increased through education. The capability of love is inborn and relates to a person’s emotional sphere and interpersonal relationships. According to Peseschkian, these two basic capabilities give rise to an individual’s actual capabilities. 

Actual capabilities are the attitudes and behaviors consistently called upon and used regularly each day. These include primary and secondary capabilities and arise from a person's basic capabilities as they interact with the body, the environment, and the passage of time. Factors such as culture, religion, and parental care play a significant role in the development of actual capabilities. 

  • Primary capabilities, expressions of the capability of love, belong chiefly in the emotional sphere. Development of the capability of love leads to the emergence of primary capabilities such as patience, doubt, unity, confidence, hope, time, contact, trust, faith, and certainty. 
  • Secondary capabilities, which develop from the capability of cognition and knowledge, are influenced by the environment as well as society’s demands for efficiency as an individual grows up. Secondary capabilities include reliability, cleanliness, orderliness, punctuality, obedience, exactness, politeness, honesty, diligence-achievement, sincerity, thrift economy, justice, fidelity, and conscientiousness.

Actual capabilities are used in all cultures, though their relative meanings and significance are typically more distinctly defined by society. Therefore, an actual capability that is highly prized by one cultural group may be significantly less important to another group. 

Challenges or conflict may arise due to disagreements within the self or with other individuals. These issues might originate due to dissonance between:

  • The primary capabilities, such as when an individual has confidence in other people but lacks self-confidence
  • The secondary capabilities, such as when a person is polite but not honest.
  • Primary and secondary capabilities both, such as when an individual is orderly but not patient.

How Can Positive Psychotherapy Help?

Positive psychotherapy is believed to empower people with the skills they need to achieve a sense of inner balance, relying on all of the resources they possess through body, spirit, mind, and emotion. Many individuals may obtain benefit from the unique therapeutic approaches of positive psychotherapy, particularly individuals experiencing conflict in cross-cultural relationships, those who are emigrating to places with a drastically different culture, families experiencing conflict with cross-cultural relatives, and/or people experiencing issues with people of other cultures.

One study analyzed the three main reasons for migration—work, contact, and future—and the common concerns faced by many who move to a new country, finding that after applying positive psychotherapy techniques, symptoms disappeared completely in two-thirds of the cases and diminished dramatically in the remaining cases.

Limitations and Concerns

While it is utilized in many countries and cultures around the world, positive psychotherapy may not be as effective in societies that promote individualism and independence. Because this approach may seem to ignore the negative aspects of life, some individuals may feel as if their trauma is being trivialized. Others may find it difficult to reframe certain concerns in a positive manner, making this approach less effective. 

Further, as the person in treatment takes on the role of the therapist, individuals in therapy bear responsibility for their recovery. This assumption may result in added pressure on some individuals seeking treatment, and in some cases, this approach may not be recommended.


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