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  • Psychology Today

Strength-Based Therapy

Updated: Jan 20

Strength-based therapy is a type of positive psychotherapy and counseling that focuses on your internal strengths and resourcefulness, rather than on your weaknesses, failures, and shortcomings. The tenet is that this focus sets up a positive mindset that helps you build on your best qualities, find your strengths, improve resilience, and change your worldview to one that is more positive. Practitioners believe the main reason to discuss a patient’s problems is to discover the inner strengths clients can tap into in order to build solutions.


The technique was developed in the 1950s and subsequently refined by professor and psychologist Donald Clifton. The American Psychological Association has called Clifton “the father of strength-based therapy and the grandfather of positive psychology.”


In the ensuing decades, strength-based therapy evolved from the work of people in various disciplines, including social work, counseling psychology, positive psychology, solution-focused therapy, and narrative therapy.


Strength-based therapy stands apart from other treatments in its use of client involvement. While practitioners should have a robust background in traditional theoretical models of treatment, practitioners of strength-based therapy believe that treatment should be individualized, with solutions coming from clients themselves, guided by a therapist’s expertise.


One criticism of strength-based therapy has been that it assumes people have everything they need within them to solve any problem. Proponents of the therapy would say that, while some problems are tremendously complex, therapists can and do still bring their own expertise to bear.


When It's Used

Strength-based therapy is widely used and can fit into many other treatment modalities. It can be useful for:


Anyone with poor self-esteem, or who has emotional issues resulting from an abusive relationship with a parent or partner.

People with serious mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

With couples and families seeking to help relationships.

Those with an aversion to the idea of “therapy,” and looking for help focused not on pathologizing them, but on working with them to help them solve on their own difficulties.

The effectiveness of strength-based therapy differs from other treatments in that it views an improved quality of life and well-being to be of paramount importance as much as it does the remission of particular psychiatric diagnoses.


Many proponents of strength-based therapy do not benefit from a deep analysis of their troubles, and respond better to the bond they build with a therapist by discussing how past positive experiences and personal strengths can be guideposts for a treatment plan.


What to Expect

Strength-based therapy is talk therapy that guides you toward a retelling of your personal history of traumas, stressors, and pain with more emphasis on yourself as a survivor than as a victim, and more emphasis on your strengths and survival skills than on your weakness. The goal is for you to recognize that you may already have the skills and strength to cope with tough situations, if you are able to use them effectively.


A strength-based clinician may or may not diagnose you with a psychiatric condition, but one of the core goals of the treatment is to allow you to view these conditions as just one part of your identity, rather than a defining characteristic.


Strength-based therapy has shown promising results in clinical trials compared with other therapy types, but it may not work for everyone. For some difficulties, the elimination of symptoms should, in fact, take precedence over the cultivation of strengths. For patients with narcissistic tendencies, the focus on their strengths may make them too comfortable, and less likely to examine the challenges that brought them to seek help in the first place, for example.


How It Works

The first step in strength-based therapy is the task of gathering information about who you are. A therapist will ask questions of you and you to help identify where your strengths lie and when you’ve achieved success over significant challenges in the past.


The therapist will also ask questions about what you hope to achieve in the future, and what progress would look like for you. From here, both patient and therapist will work on a plan to use the strengths you have to make incremental changes in your life to help get you to the place you want to be. Drawing attention to your successes can remind you of your inner strength and give you hope and confidence to tackle the plan in front of you.


The strength-based therapy approach treats you as an expert on yourself, and so is client-specific, with treatment plans emerging from the individual more so than from the therapist or from theoretical frameworks that teach how to treat particular problems. Feedback between you and the therapist on what’s working and what isn’t is of the utmost importance for this reason.


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