Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder
Another new and very effective approach to overcoming–at least to stabilizing–in the wake of the trauma of abuse is an approach in use by many of the social services being offered to victims of human trafficking and domestic violence.
This strength-based approach is challenging traditional psychotherapists to employ a more balanced approach. Typically, therapy looks backward for clues and insights. This process remains a very important. Integrating the past with the present is critical. We go through many slow and gentle processes, like unlearning the lies about ourselves we are taught by abusers.
However, a past-focused therapeutic model can fall short when seeking to help a survivor build a new life beyond that point. Experiences vary. Many survivors can feel stuck, even mired in the past. The question remains for the therapist and survivor…. how to build anew?
The strength-base approach to therapy focuses on present issues, that is, the need to change, the habits and behaviors that need to change, and what needs to be established for a healthy life to take root and grow.
The usefulness of this approach is relatively easy to understand where survivors of human trafficking or domestic violence are just recently emerging from the abuse. It’s quite obvious they do need to land on their feet, or stabilize, and do need to function and take care of their own basic needs — and of the needs of those who depend on them.
Then again, survivors hitting a wall with the “first impact” of emotions after decades of suppression can experience very similar challenges. It can be very much like emerging from the moments of abuse.
The strength-based approach takes into consideration the reduced cognitive bandwidth such a person has. The lack of self-esteem. The shame. The crippling self-recrimination. In some cases, social service provider and survivors work together on plans and talking through daily choices and activities. What needs to be done? Can daunting tasks be broken down to smaller tasks?
In traditional therapy, looking beyond the work needed to integrate past with present, such an added approach (if begun early) can also set the groundwork for the “new build,” for the new life by tapping (at the start) into strengths, talents and accomplishments.
The strength-based focus is not on the past and memories but on the here and now. Its goal is to identify what a survivor can build on — what interests, what abilities and what talents. The process cultivates confidence and a learning approach, even exploration, even as healing proceeds.
The strength-based approach focuses very quickly, too, on the future hopes and needs of a survivor. Does he or she want a certain job, want a certain living arrangement, a skill? What is the dream for a well life a survivor has in the here and now?
Strictly speaking, the strengths-based approach may include little or no discussion of why someone has been abused or harmed. The primary goal is to identify, support and develop the talents, strengths and dreams in a person. What follows may or may not include a return to the past, after someone has stabilized to a degree they seek. This varies among the many circumstances and programs. There is not, however, an automatic continuum or blend.
This idea may seem shocking to some. It may not be helpful for all, but it works for people. Yet, many survivors from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds find “talk therapy” not possible at the start — or ever. Some survivors may by disposition respond better in “doing” than “remembering” scenarios. These may find occupational or art … or strengths-based … therapies easier at first.
This article is not to challenge the critical importance of traditional therapy, not at all. Many adult survivors of child abuse and their therapists can attest that this approach will not work with someone who has “hit a wall” and is facing for the first time that “first impact” of feelings that emerge after decades of suppression. There’s no doubt that is true.
However, the strength-based approach, despite its relative newness, is showing significant success working with survivors of abuse and trauma in the States and around the world. What therapists who have used traditional approaches note is that, by using a more balanced approach between traditional and strength-based approaches, survivors may be able to avoid or reduce the impasses many of us encounter, when integrating memories and advancing in self-understanding no longer pays (for want of a better phrase) the same dividend.
As an option in overall therapy, the strength-based approach might be exactly what can help in the next step, or the final transition. Beyond the hardest work, how can therapy best help survivors get to a point where our lives feel renewed, strong and … like we are not just surviving but also thriving. Independently of therapy.
Several survivors who have used Strengths Finder 2.0 (see below) in therapy or in mutual support groups tell me that they feel like the concept challenged them, having been patients for so long, to see themselves not just as victims, or even as abuse survivors, but also as people with potential to build new and happy lives–happy in part because the past was no longer haunting them, and in part because their new lives were based on their real strengths…. not on efforts to avoid the past.
A summary of how the strength-based approach is fairly broadly used in stabilizing and creating new and well lives for victims of human-trafficking may be found in this basic summary, with citations you may follow if you wish to know more. You may see the link to the Catholic and Christian view of the human person; I sure did.
The bestselling work which popularized this approach sells to the general audience as a self-help or self-development book. It’s used in corporate training for executives and also in mutual support groups. It has been used, as well, as part of therapy for people who are trying to rediscover the person lost in trauma and abuse. (The Healing Voices Magazine makes no commission or has no other benefit featuring this book, nor does any founder.)