Session Four - Strengths Based Counseling (Positive Thinking / Learned Optimism)

You may want to review Strengths Based Counseling Theory and print this sample session on Strengths Based Counseling for easier reading.

For Session Four, Mary arrives early. Joan could see her early since her last client had to leave a little early – but Joan knows if she does this, the message being sent by the counselor is “whenever you get here – that’s fine.” Joan uses these fifteen extra minutes for follow-up calls on other concerns. Then she takes the few minutes needed to make herself comfortable and reads her notes from the last session to make sure she’s on task.


Introduction - The First Ten Minutes

Joan walks with Mary into her office, offers her a chair and the usual array of beverages and snacks. Mary smiles and instead gives Joan a coffee and a muffin – and Mary has this too. In her social work training she was warned against taking gifts from clients – this can make them think you are “in their pocket.”

At the same time, Joan recognizes an apology when she sees it (and eats and drinks it!) and says, “Thank you very much.” Even though Joan is not a coffee drinker, she makes a point of having a sip and telling Mary that it’s very good, and although Joan is wheat-intolerant, she tells Mary she’ll enjoy the muffin at break. She also in a friendly way indicates that next time the treat is on her and points to her array of water, milk, apples and granola bars.

Joan explains how this session will look.

1. They will discuss how the past week(s) have gone with respect to Mary’s concerns.

2. They will review what happened at the past session.

3. They will work on the issue Mary is most concerned about.

4. There will be homework… :-)


Information Gathering - The Next 20 Minutes (or a little less)

Joan asks, “So how have things been going?" She could have made reference to the crying, boyfriend, school, and folks if Mary had been a person inclined to "yak". In such a situation,, Joan would need to provide a framework so that time isn’t used discussing the news, the latest movie, etc. Mary is inclined to be very direct, so framing isn't a concern.

Mary starts, “Believe it or not, the crying has actually gotten better. Once I picked up that prescription – it was like I had really said to myself – ‘I am so done with this!’ Now I know it’s not the drugs, they would take a few weeks to kick it.

But I reviewed my ‘crying chart’ – I only filled it in for a few days, but I could see a pattern. I would sleep in and feel like crap because I’d slept in so I’d have a cry over that. I’d have missed a class so I’d be ticked about that. I’d be ok in the afternoon – going to class, being with friends. And making supper with Andy was ok, as long as we didn’t talk about my problems.

After supper tho, I’d just lump out on the couch watching TV. I felt so alone. Andy would go to bed early because he had to get up for work – and then I’d cry and cry and cry.”

Joan wants to keep Mary talking – this is information gathering time. “So you’re seeing a pattern here?”

Mary: “Yes. The sleeping in is not worth it. I don’t feel more rested, I see less of Andy, I miss class, and then I stay up way too late.”

Joan senses that this is all Mary wants to report about the crying but she still wants Mary to talk and talk and talk. “How about your relationship with Andy?”

Mary: “It reached an all time low about a week after our last appointment. He said, ‘I love you Mary, but I can’t stand this. I feel I cannot make you happy – no matter what I do.’ And that really scared me. I realized that all I did was bitch at him.

So I’m really trying to save my unloading for here and with my friend Sarah. She’s been through something like this before and I listened to her. Now it’s her turn to listen to me.”

Note: Mary is demonstrating strengths based counseling techniques already. Some of her strengths are acuity, determination, and a supportive partner and friend.

Joan feels a little desperate. Mary seems to have everything all sorted out – why does she even need to be here? Oops! It’s not about Joan – it’s about Mary. “Mary, how is it going with the schooling?”

Mary: "Better since I’ve started going to my morning classes. And I really appreciate those info sheets in the goody bag. I didn’t know we had peer tutoring here, and that library tour? Amazing! I have such a phobia about libraries."

Joan: "And that one course, Contemporary Asian History?"

Mary: "I’m still not doing great – I just can’t do all the reading. That’s the one I’m getting the peer tutor for."

Joan at this point could dig a little deeper into the course – but Mary appears not to be too worried about it. “How goes it with your folks?”

Mary: “Awful, just awful. I am such a huge disappointment to them. I wish I had a sibling they could pick on.”

Joan: “Of the challenges you’ve stated so far, would you say this is the one you’d like to address today?”

Mary: “Most definitely.”

Joan: “So tell me more about your folks and your relationship with them?”

Mary: “Well, as you know, I am their only child and a girl. They wanted a boy – no luck. Then they wanted me to be a doctor – but I don’t have a head for math and science. So I decided to try nursing – but it’s math and science heavy too. Plus, I can’t stand the site of blood and the smell of infection and puke and sh*t?! Well you get my point.”

Joan smiles and nods, giving Mary permission to continue.

We'll get the to Strengths Based Counseling part of this shortly.

Mary: “It turns out, I really like history. Love it. Or at least I thought I did. But my marks aren’t good enough to do a four year degree, so I’m doing a three year. So I’m not even going to be able to get into teacher’s college. So here I am, almost four year later, $40,000 in debt and no way to pay it back! I’m so screwed!”

Joan: “So it sounds like what’s bothering you is that your parents have expectations of you that you can meet AND you feel you are hopelessly in debt.”

Mary: “Yeah. And when I think about that I really get upset (eyes are watering), I think Andy will dump me because I’m such a burden. It feels pointless to go to class. I know this sounds dumb, but at least as long as I’m in school, I don’t have to pay back my OSAP.”

Joan: “You aren’t the first person to feel that way…”

Note: Joan has made a note to follow up on addressing Mary's debt concerns. Mary cannot change how her parents feel about her - at least not directly. But she can address her debt problem, and it's a huge problem for her.

Mary: “And my parents have no idea how hard it is to be me. Dad got a job right out of high school; Mom had me within a year of getting married. Then she had to have a hysterectomy – for some reason. And tra-da. This is what they end up with.”

Joan would love to move to discussion right now but really wants Mary to explore her feelings about her parents more.

Joan: “You feel you’ve disappointed them.”

Mary: “Yes. I just plain hate myself.” (Mary is now tearing. That’s OK. Joan makes sure she has access to tissues and water.)

Hmm, Joan does not like where this is going. It’s one thing to have a person express their feelings, but if they are all negative, the person is simply reinforcing their own self-hatred. One of the things Joan learned in school is the strengths-based or positive thinking / learned optimisim approach” – you can only build on strengths and you can learn to project positively.

Delving deeply into parent-child relationships has its place in certain kinds of therapy, but Joan does not have specialized training in psychoanalysis. And Joan sees no reason to refer Mary to a psychologist or psychiatrist.



Discussion - The Next Ten Minutes (plus a little more)

Joan: “Mary, is there anything you like about yourself?”

Mary: “That’s a stupid question. Of course there is.”

Joan: “Name one.”

Mary: “I don’t see what this has to do with my parents.”

Joan: “Trust me on this one. Name one thing.”

Mary is getting ticked, but she’s not being abusive. And Joan remembers that inside, Mary is still feeling pretty badly.

Mary: “I like that I’m not afraid to tell people when they are being stupid.”

Joan could choose to react negatively to that comment or turn it around. She chooses the latter.

Joan: “OK, so you feel comfortable being direct with people, not afraid of confrontation.”

Mary: “Yeah.”

Joan: “Anything else.”

Mary: “I like my hair. It’s thick and takes dye well. Or is that too ridiculous for your list?!”

Joan: “Not at all. What we’re doing here is an exercise called The Ten Things I Like About Me. This little task comes out of something called The Strengths Based Counseling approach and the idea is that you can only build from strengths, not weaknesses.

Anyhoo – you don’t have to stop at ten things you like about yourself. And the 'things' can be anything – you hair, your personality, your hobbies, your quirks.

“For example, I’m an avid gardener – with an interest in sunflowers. Every summer I plant about ten different kinds of sunflowers. Six out of 10 usually make – but it’s a pass!”

Joan is taking a big of a risk here in disclosing personal information - but as long as it's not directing attention toward herself and is helping the flow of Mary's thoughts, that's OK.

Mary: “I have a green enough thumb, but you know what's really cool? ... I can life one eyebrow at a time.”

Joan: “Good, keep going.”

Mary: “This is going to sound stuck-up, but I’m a great singer. Really good. My parents bought me voice and piano lessons, plus I sang at high school in musicals. And I was – and this is embarrassing – part of a group called Tormenting Teens.”

Joan: (Grins and isn't surprised about the tormenting part.) “Great singer! And singing is a good stress reliever too.”

Mary: “You’re telling me! Man, you are a goodie two-shoes. Um…………. That’s about it. How many am I up to?”

Joan looks at her brief notes:

1. Comfortable being direct with people

2. Amazing hair – thick, easily colored

3. Can life one eyebrow at a time

4. Great singer

“You’re at four already. Keep going.”

Mary: “That’s it.”

Joan: “If I was to ask your friend Sarah what some of your positive qualities are, what you can like about yourself – what might she say?”

Mary: Sighs. "I thought this was about me… OK, I’m very loyal. When she was down, I was there."

Joan: “5. Very loyal to friends.”

Mary: “I’m lots of fun at parties. Put the karaoke machine on and I’m there.”

Joan writes down, “6. Lots of fun to be around – especially at parties.” (Mary has run out of steam again.) Joan: “What might Andy say?”

Mary: “You won’t to hear that part!” (Raises eyebrow!)

Joan: “How about 7. Very loving partner?”

Mary: “Sure, cuz I do love him and would never cheat on him.”

Joan: “Very loving, faithful partner! :-)”

Mary: “I’m a wicked Frisbee player. In fact, I’m in a league.”

Joan: “8. Competitive Frisbee player. What might your teachers say?”

Mary: “That’s positive? Not much. Hmm. I can pull an all nighter and still get a B!”

Joan: ”9. A quick-on-the-uptake student!?”

Mary: “Aren’t you going to lecture me about the importance of marks?”

Joan: “Mary, you know that already. Here’s a good one. What might your parents say that’s nice about you?”

Mary: (Snorts.) "That I live far away?!”

Joan: “Nope.”

Mary: “That I never call them?”

Joan: “Times running out… (Grins.)”

Mary: “I don’t hang up on them when they call.”

Joan: “10. Willing to listen to her parents.”

Mary: “I don’t want to - but mom is lonely.”

Joan: “10. Listens to her parents?"

Mary: “I’ll accept that.”

Joan: "Mary I want you to know that you aren’t alone in your struggles with your parents. I’m a daughter too and don’t call home as much as I think I should; and my daughter feels that way about me. OK, so this is a common challenge.”

More self-disclosure from Joan. It would not be a good thing in the initial session, but by now Joan has established credibility in the eyes of Mary.

Mary: "Thank you for saying that. I was beginning to wonder if you were a robot!"

Joan: “May I add one?”(said in a robotic toying tone.)

Mary: “Sure but don’t knock yourself out.”

Joan: “You are feisty as anything. Resilience is one of the best traits any of us can have.”

Mary: “You’re sounding like a counselor.”

Joan: “Guess what. I am a counselor – AND I can point to lots of evidence that you are hardy.”

Mary: “Just not a Hardy BOY!” (Laughs.)

Joan: “You’re too young to know about them. (Laughs too.) OK, we have to start wrapping up right about now. So I’d like to give a recap of what we did today and you feel free to tell me if I’m getting this wrong…” Joan has written two or three word notes along the way.



Conclusion: Ten Minutes

Joan: “You took a break from counseling because you didn’t think it would work – but your doctor and pharmacist encouraged you to give it a try.”

Mary: “That’s party right – but I made the decision when I experienced that one moment of feeling good.”

Joan: “You did a little mood mapping and found that what seemed to be behind the crying was the oversleeping, skipping class, Andy not wanting to hear you talk about your problems, and being alone at night.”

Mary: “You missed the part about my folks.”

Joan: “I’m getting there. Things are getting better with Andy because you are going to bed and getting up at the same time AND you’re not unloading on him all the time.”

Mary: “Yeah. Actually, we actually have made a point of starting to talk about things that are going well. And playing Frisbee instead of watching TV.”

Joan: ”Fab! Things are going better in school because you are attending class. I expect you are doing the readings more too, huh?”

Mary: “Yeah…”

Joan: “But you feel you cannot measure up to your parents expectations. They wanted a boy, a big family, a doctor or at least a nurse. And what they’ve got is a gal, an only child who is doing a 3 year degree in History.”

Mary: “You sure know how to hurt a gal.”

Joan: “Actually, you’re the one who said it. I’m simply making sure I’ve got what you are conveying – correctly. Or close enough.”

Mary: “Close enough.”

Joan: “BUT you are more than a daughter. You are a whole human being with many assets and we listed eleven of them. We could have gone on but time doesn’t permit. (Mary rolls her eyes and starts to tune out. Joan is getting way too preachy.) I’m going to type these up for you and include a picture of something that makes you feel good. What would that be?”

Mary: “Tim Horton’s coffee!”

Joan: “OK, a Timmy's. I’m going to print it off and plasticize it and give you two copies and keep one for your file. And I’m going to ask you to keep one in your backpack and put one on your fridge or your mirror or somewhere where you will be reminded of your good points – everyday.”

Mary: “Sounds pretty Pollyanna-ish to me! So what’s my homework this week teacher?!”

Joan: “I’m a big fan of charting. Would you like to do another week sheet and this time chart positive things that happened within those time frames - 8 am to noon, noon to 3, 3 to 6, 6 to bedtime.”

Mary: “I could say ‘yes’ and you’d feel good, but I know I won’t. Any other ideas?”

Joan: “Journaling – with an eye to the positives?”

Mary: “That I could do. By the way, I really like my flower pen!” As always Joan ended the session by asking about the things her client had to look forward to over the next few days. And there were some.

Joan asked about appointment bookings. Mary had only booked four and had used two and missed two. Mary said she would do that on her way out of student services.

Today, Mary didn’t try to hug Joan. Instead, Mary offered Joan a firm handshake. Mary was feeling more in control!

end of Session Four - Strengths Based Counseling Session



For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else. - Winston Churchill

Miss Kitty Enjoys Flowers
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