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Positive Awareness

December 15, 2015 by ·

awarenessWhen looking at the history of clinical and coaching psychology, one must conclude that a lot of time and effort has been invested in the development of interventions to boost human well-being. Interestingly, despite of all the differences between these interventions and treatment programs, there is one key component that is shared by most, if not all of them: awareness.

Obviously, this is no coincidence: without awareness, change is becomes extremely difficult. In terms of a metaphor, awareness can be compared to a flashlight: it sheds light on behavioral patterns and thoughts that were previously buried in the darkness of the unconscious. Once automatic and  unconscious patterns are exposed to the light of awareness, the first seed for change has been planted.

In clinical practice, awareness is often used to illuminate problematic thoughts and behavior. Undoubtedly, this is an essential step in the process of personal growth: it allows individuals to start coping more effectively with challenges in life. With the introduction of positive psychology, the flashlight of awareness has also increasingly been used to free positive patterns from the darkness of the unconscious. “Is this really necessary?” you may ask.

I believe so. In my work with clients, I am often surprised how difficult it is for them to answer questions like: “What are your personal strengths?”, “What are your most important values in life?”. In a similar vein, in my work as a university professor, I have noticed that many students have no clear answer to questions like: “What kind of professional career would you like to pursue?” or “How would you really like spending your (working) days?”. In order to truthfully answer the above mentioned questions, one needs to be aware of strengths, positive attributes, goals, dreams and so on. “Positive awareness” seems easier said that done.

Thankfully, research in the field positive psychology has offered many different tools to enhance awareness of these positive attributes. The VIA strength approach is a powerful example. By offering a well defined vocabulary of positive human characteristics, it allows individuals to look at themselves through a positive lens.

However, although positive awareness requires an inward focus, it does not mean that it can only emerge from introspection and self-reflection. The social environment can be an important starting point for positive awareness as well. In fact, I believe that the value of the VIA approach becomes even more apparent when the social environment is involved. Asking others to identify the name and expression of one’s strengths, can have a strong impact on positive awareness. For instance, by comparing the different viewpoints of others on one’s strengths, one may not only become aware of one’s signature strengths (our highest strengths and those that are most likely identified by people in our social environment), but also of blind spots; strengths that others see in us, but were covered in the darkness of our unconscious. In these cases, others have collectively shed a positive light on us and offered a starting point to look at ourselves from a different angle. In addition, it may also become clear that there is a discrepancy between the strengths that we believe we possess, and the strengths that our environment sees in us. If so, we may need to adjust our view on ourselves or more deliberately focus on living in line with the strengths we believe we possess. In either case, it can be an important starting point for change.

The flashlight of awareness can be pointed at ourselves, but to our environment as well. One’s we have learned to look at ourselves with positive awareness, it becomes easier to perceive others through the lens of this awareness as well. Becoming more aware of personal experiences that underlie strength use (e.g. increased energy, motivation and sense of purpose), is likely to facilitate awareness of other’s strengths, simply because we recognize the other person’s experience. Moreover, familiarizing ourselves with the VIA strength vocabulary can help to communicate our observations to others and promote positive awareness in them as well. In sum, using the VIA strength approach can help to promote positive awareness both at a private and public level.

In addition to VIA strengths assessment, other “positive awareness tools” have been developed and tested during the past 15 years. These and other tools have not only been found to increase positive awareness, but also enhance autonomy and subjective wellbeing. Our aim at positive psychology program (www.positivepsychologyprogram.com) is to inform people about the latest developments and practical possibilities of the field. For the latter purpose we recently developed a practical toolkit database (www.positivepsychologyprogram.com/signup). With regular updates we aim to assist helping professionals to help others, using the wide arrange of practical tools that positive psychology has delivered. We sincerely hope that the many flashlights in this toolkit this will help others to find the answers to the questions that matter.

by Hugo Alberts & Seph Fontane Pennock

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