Cupids Health

Avoid the Trap of “Oppressive Positivity” in Therapy

Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash

It’s about the healthy adult, not the “helpy” adult.

Source: Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash

Do you ever feel like therapy just isn’t connecting and wonder why? Does self-help culture make you feel bad about yourself?

A pitfall can open up in therapy when the therapeutic relationship drifts into a kind of falseness, where the client is trying to perform the way they believe they are “supposed to” and the therapist is supportive in a way that may sound good, but somehow falls flat. This feels inauthentic and unfulfilling for all involved. I call this “helpy” rather than helpful.

Helpy therapy or helpy self-help culture feels one-dimensional, somehow not alive, like a dose of cliches. So how does it go wrong?

When you come to therapy, you’re striving to be a better person in one way or another: you may have symptoms you want to overcome, so you can “get better”. Similarly, you may feel there are behaviors or habits you would like to change so you can be a “better” person, be your “best self,” or live your “best life.”

The Dark Side of Getting Help

These notions of being better have a dark side, however: they can be invalidating and oppressive and move people away from being compassionate and accepting of themselves and others. For example, if you have symptoms of depression, the picture in your mind of that “better” version of you—without depression—can make you feel inadequate and flawed. The “better self” becomes a figure taunting you: “If only you tried harder, maybe you could be me—stop being so lazy!”

There is a more subtle version of the “better self” who doesn’t blatantly make you feel less-than, but rather kills you with kindness. Relentlessly positive, oppressively productive, and always ready with a motivational catchphrase, this more positive better self can be just as damaging to self-esteem.

In essence, these supposedly positive experiences drown out our authentic difficult feelings, and it becomes hard to accept ourselves with honesty, which is a key component to authentic help and recovery.

In my experience, as soon as a client starts to hold back their negative feelings for the sake of “doing well at therapy,” they fall into flatness. Maybe you’re feeling anger, frustration, depression… or maybe you’re just in a lousy mood. We’ve all been there, and we fall into the habit of trying to tough it out and be “productive”—especially if we are paying for our therapy session, right?

Some clients even worry about “failing” at therapy.

Similarly, therapists also want to do a good job and have the session go well and may fall into overlooking those non-verbal messages from the negative feelings in the session.

What’s the Solution?

The solution is remembering to accept the yucky stuff. These are natural, human reactions and we are all vulnerable to them.

The challenge here is: How to hold on to a picture of improvement for yourself, without losing your dignity and self-esteem? It’s always a balancing act in psychotherapy between having therapy as a supportive space for vulnerable sharing and validation, as well as a place where you may be nudged into getting out of your comfort zone.

There are two aspects of a solution to helpy therapy.

  1. First, hold on to truthful attunement with yourself, what you feel and need, however difficult or inconvenient or “unproductive” that may be.
  2. Second, prioritize self-compassion. It’s not optional.

The Healthy Adult, not the Helpy Adult

In schema therapy, we nurture what we call a client’s “healthy adult mode,” that part of the self who is aware of our different moods and mindsets and is able to manage them with care and compassion, as well as limit setting.

The healthy adult mode is a lot like “best self.” The healthy adult mode is like a placeholder in your mind for the self who takes good care of you.

Here’s how it works: if you realize you are being punitive with yourself and you want to stop, where do you go? You have to imagine taking up a more compassionate position toward yourself. “What would my healthy adult mode do here?” The healthy adult mode is aware of the kind of damage punitiveness does to our self-esteem; when we are punitive to ourselves, there is another part on the receiving end of that mean, punitive tone that just makes us feel worse. Often, it’s an inner child mode feeling badly as a result. So the healthy adult mode cares for that inner child like a good parent—which is part of why we say healthy adult. There’s always a child part of us to attend to.

The helpy challenge applies to schema therapists too. When we tell a client about the healthy adult mode, they may hear the term as “better version of you” or “perfect you.” People often feel that self-help pressure when they hear “healthy adult” and imagine the healthy adult as some high functioning professional who has kids and a perfect marriage and great sex life and wakes up at 5 am to go on their Peloton, then write their novel, then make homemade oat bars, then do Zoom catch-up with family and friends around the country, then nail that presentation at the office, then take the kids to soccer practice. In other words, a walking anxiety attack.

Schema therapists have to make sure their clients know that the healthy adult mode is about compassion and kindness as much as it’s about limit setting. It’s really like a good parent who knows how to be emotionally nurturing, fun, but also realistic and attends to what needs to get done.

The healthy adult mode is still you, with all your negative thoughts and feelings and tough times. It’s healthy to be you and stress out, lose your patience, feel overwhelmed, confused, bored, or sad, angry, depressed, or anxious. It’s not about making tough feelings go away, but how we handle them by seeing them, validating them, and trying not to be triggered by them in unhealthy ways, and sometimes failing. We need deep, low notes as part of the overall song we’re hearing.

It’s about the healthy adult, not the “helpy” adult.

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