Positive Psychology With Male Clients
By Mark S. Kiselica
Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008.
Men and Masculinity—American Psychological Association Psychotherapy
Video Series XI, Item No. 4310863 $99.95
Reviewed by Paul T. P. Wong
Given my own interest in positive psychology and positive psychotherapy, I eagerly anticipated reviewing Positive Psychology With Male Clients, featuring Mark Kiselica. Although Kiselica does not explicitly claim that he is practicing positive psychotherapy, the content of the DVD and the promotional material in the DVD packet make it clear that he indeed practices a strength-focused positive psychotherapy.
One statement from the packet caught my attention: “As the client’s strengths grow over time, these positive traits will displace most dysfunctional behaviors.” Is it ethical to even suggest that if one’s strengths increase, most of the disorders and symptoms will automatically disappear? Is there any empirical support for this broad claim of the efficacy of positive psychotherapy? These concerns demand that I need to examine the larger context of positive psychology and positive psychotherapy.
What Is Positive Psychology?
Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) considered clinical psychology and positive psychology as “two separate endeavors” (p. 410). More recent movement in positive psychology strives to specify how human strengths and human frailties are linked (Gable & Haidt, 2005). The clearest statement of a balanced approach of positive psychology comes from Peterson (2002):
Positive psychology calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed. (para. 1)
In a similar vein, Wong (2007) has contended that only a balanced, mature positive psychology can fully explore the potential of positive psychology interventions for both healing brokenness and attaining personal growth. The challenge is how to achieve both objectives in clinical cases.
What Is Positive Psychotherapy?
On the surface, positive psychotherapy seems a misnomer, a contradiction in terms. How could a psychology devoted to only positive experiences be applied to psychopathology? Seligman, Rashid, and Parks (2006) did several studies to test the hypothesis that positive psychology exercises could reduce depression. They concluded, “Together, these studies suggest that treatments for depression may usefully be supplemented by exercises that explicitly increase positive emotions, engagement, and meaning” (p. 774). Duckworth, Steen, and Seligman (2005) contended “that positive interventions are justifiable in their own right. Positive interventions may also usefully supplement direct attempts to prevent and treat psychopathology, and, indeed, may covertly be a central component of good psychotherapy as it is done now” (p. 629).
At the present stage of development of positive psychotherapy, the consensus is that positive interventions can be used effectively as a supplement to standard clinical practices. My main concerns are the following: What are the boundary conditions within which positive interventions are justifiable in their own rights? Is trying to prove that positive psychology can provide the silver bullet to all psychological and societal ills helpful to professional psychology?
From the perspective of a balanced and integrative positive psychology (Wong, 2007), positive psychotherapy should not limit itself only to interventions designed to enhance happiness or signature strengths; it needs to recognize that negative emotions, human weaknesses, and tragic circumstances of life are a fertile ground for enriching human life and deepening personal growth. A balanced positive psychotherapy will meet with the clients in their dark valleys and use a variety of tools to help the clients overcome, transcend, and transform negatives into positives. Thus, the good life for clients can be best achieved by incorporating both painful struggles to overcome negative conditions and heroic striving to realize one’s dreams and potentials in spite of constraints.
Positives About This Psychotherapy DVD
The format, consisting of an interview with the therapist, a counseling session with an actual client, and an in-depth discussion with the therapist about a few selected segments, is a plus. This format allows an overview of the basic tenets and skills of a particular approach of psychotherapy in a single sitting.
The host, Jon Carlson, comes across as supportive and affable. His mild demeanor and ready smile help put his guest at ease. The viewer does get glimpses of his astute observations and vast knowledge of the therapeutic landscape.
Mark Kiselica is also very likable. He exudes warmth and confidence. He is articulate and very purposeful throughout the session. He is never “stuck” and is able to move the process along in a comfortable and steady pace. Students can learn a lot from his effective use of basic counseling skills, such as summarizing and reflecting.
Given his easygoing and friendly posture, Kiselica is able to establish a good rapport with his client within a few minutes. He gets his client to open up quickly, even though they have met for the first time in an unfamiliar environment under the watchful eyes of staff, glaring studio lights, and video cameras. He is clearly effective in injecting some positive energy into a discouraged and dejected client during the first session.
However, on broader therapeutic issues, I have several reservations about this psychotherapy video.
Too Much Empathy May Sound Patronizing
Both Kiselica and Carlson possess the important qualities of empathy and compassion. However, in an interview situation, one can be guilty of overusing empathy skills. On several occasions, Carlson appears too agreeable, to the point of patronizing. He often asks an important question, but he lets Kiselica off the hook without a follow-up question.
Here is a case in point. In response to Carlson’s question about the theory of positive psychotherapy, Kiselica answers that Seligman has developed an agenda. But a research agenda for positive psychology is not a theory for positive psychotherapy. Again, when Carlson asks about the structure, process, and skills of positive psychotherapy, Kiselica answers that one needs only to just focus on strengths throughout different stages of therapy. I would like to see the follow-up question “Are there any other positive psychology interventions in your tool box?”
By the same token, Kiselica’s frequent self-disclosure may also sound patronizing. Each time the client reveals some personal difficulties, Kiselica says something like, “Me, too.” If I were a client working in a low-paying, backbreaking job such as being a waiter and worrying about finding an affordable place to live, and if Kieslica were to tell me that he had similar worries, I would find his self-disclosure condescending and disingenuous. I would say, “No, Sir. You live in a very different world.”
Too Much Emphasis on Strength May Trivialize a Client’s Struggles
The client is in his late 20s but looks much older. His gaunt and worried look suggests that he is burdened with lots of pressures and problems. Without a good education and marketable skills, he is stuck in a dead-end job waiting on tables.
If I were in that client’s shoes, I surely would not need my therapist to pat me on the back, telling me that I am actually doing a good job as a provider and a father. I would probably hope he would walk with me through the dark valleys of frustration, loneliness, anxiety, and despair. I would like to learn better ways of coping with my financial and relational difficulties. I would want to explore the options and opportunities available. More important, I would need to learn how to discover some meaning and joy in living in spite of my harsh reality.
If the therapist focuses only on the client’s strengths and minimizes the painful struggles, such a one-dimensional approach could have a few possible harmful effects:
- The client may be under the illusion that everything is fine with him and that he does not need to do the difficult task of confronting and working through his predicaments.
- The client may have the illusion that if he simply does positive psychology exercises, his deep-seated psychological disorders will disappear automatically.
- The client may get the wrong idea that negative conditions are to be avoided rather than embraced for the possibility of developing certain strengths such as persistence, resilience, courage, and faith.
Most clients seeking psychotherapy would agree with the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: They know that life is full of complexity and troubles. Positive psychotherapy cannot be effective in moving people from negative to positive territories if it avoids meeting people in their private hell.
Too Much Emphasis on Traditional Masculinity May Limit Personal Growth
Kiselica seems more interested in traditional gender roles than in the client’s uniqueness. He takes an intentional approach to work with male clients as a man and talks about such things as sports, but emphasizing these types of subjects may smack of a lack of genuineness.
Trying to steer the client toward the traditional masculine role may have the adverse effect of stereotyping and limiting personal development. Men need to break free from society’s outdated molds of the masculine ideal. Kimmel (2005) has long advocated a redefinition of masculinity that values nurturing, personal accountability, compassion, and egalitarianism. A balanced approach to masculinity tries to break down the barriers between genders and allows men to be the kind of people who are compatible with their own unique temperament, signature strengths, and personal aspirations.
As far as psychotherapy videos go, Kiselica does offer a helpful positive orientation in working with male clients. I recommend his video for counseling students as an example of strength-focused counseling or coaching, but not as the best example of positive psychotherapy.
- Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629–651.
- Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110.
- Kimmel, M. S. (2005). Manhood in America: A cultural history. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Peterson, C. (2002). Special seminar in psychology: Positive psychology interventions [Lecture notes]. Retrieved from http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/ppsyllabuspeterson.pdf
- Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8), 774–788.
- Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2007). The positive psychology of suffering and tragic optimism. In P. T. P. Wong, L. C. J. Wong, M. J. McDonald, & D. W. Klaassen (Eds.), The positive psychology of meaning and spirituality (pp. 235–256). Abbotsford, BC: INPM Press.
Wong, P. T. P. (2009). The need for a balanced approach to positive psychotherapy and traditional masculinity [Review of the video Positive psychology with male clients]. PsycCRITIQUES, 54(45). doi:10.1037/a0017923