Janet Burr Talks Positive Psychology

Written by Janet Burr and Lisa Heidle

Positive Psychology ImageJanet Burr joined the Art It Out Therapy Center team in 2013. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Kennesaw State University, where she is now on faculty as an Instructor of Psychology, and her Master’s degree in Clinical Counseling Psychology from Brenau University. Janet’s clinical experience includes working with children, teens and adults in a variety of settings providing individual, couples, family and group counseling; treatment intervention; and psychological testing. In this interview, Janet explains the principles of Positive Psychology and why it’s so important when working with children, and she gives advice to those who are interested in becoming a therapist and to recent graduates seeking job placement.
Lisa Heidle: Your practice focuses on Positive Psychology. Can you explain what that means and how it benefits clients?

Janet Burr: Psychology traditionally focuses on the negative. What’s wrong with a client and how can we fix it. Positive Psychology likes to focus on what’s right with a person and how can we embrace it. When I work with clients from a Positive Psychology perspective, I find out what their strengths are verses what their weaknesses are. For example, if somebody has anxiety, we generally know what the majority of triggers are for most people. But what we might not spend time figuring out, is how they can help themselves. If the client is really good at drawing, maybe that can be used as a stress reliever. Maybe the client is really good at distracting himself, which can be a healthy coping strategy. Positive Psychology focuses on those things and helps the person develop them more. We acknowledge what the person is doing well and we identify and develop those strengths as coping strategies.

LH: Can you give some examples of triggers for anxiety?

JB: It depends on the client, but most people have intrinsic or extrinsic triggers. It could be something like an intrinsic insecurity or low self-concept or self-esteem. Those triggers could be such things as a friendship goes badly or a relationship ends. Even something like traffic can make a person feel anxious, nervous or unsettled. For some people, identifying those triggers are certainly important but in Positive Psychology the research shifts. We know that people are depressed, we know they’re anxious, we have all of these “disorders” but what about the other side? We know what makes people unhappy, but what makes them happy? It’s quite a shift in the field. If you go back to early theorists, for example, Alfred Adler, his theories are really based in Positive Psychology but he never used that term. Rather than focusing on what’s wrong, we ask clients what makes them happy? What are they good at?

I really enjoy talking about Positive Psychology and how important it is when working with chronic and terminal illness, but it’s also important when working with children. It’s not a place that research is focused. Children have so much pressure on them in school and at home to be just one thing, to fit in, to follow rules. It’s a very structured lifestyle, at least for most children. Even for those children who don’t have a structured lifestyle, finding their positive qualities and their strengths, what they’re good at, even if it doesn’t fit the box that everyone thinks they should fit in, is so empowering. I use that approach much more than I thought I would with children. It all goes back to behaviorism, rewards and punishment. We know that reward is much more impactful than punishment. For example, I was spending time with friends recently and there was a two-year-old and a three-year-old with us. The two-year-old was still learning about sharing and he kept taking a blue truck from the other child who would then get upset. One of the adults gave the three-year-old a yellow truck and encouraged the child to see if he could trade the blue truck for the yellow one. “You can teach him how to share,” the adult said. The children ended up swapping trucks. The adult said to the three-year-old, “Great job! Give me a high-five!” The child got so excited to be giving a high-five that for the rest of the day he shared like a pro. And he was doing it on purpose! He would look to see if we were watching and say to the younger child, “Hey, you want to share?” It was a perfect example of reward for children. A high-five and good job was such a powerful technique for the child. He felt good about himself, he felt confident and excited. That’s a real world example when using the theory with children. Instead of pointing out what they’re doing wrong, praise them for what they’re doing right and they’ll want to do it more.

LH: What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a therapist?

JB: Number one, find a graduate program that fits you best. That will be different for everyone. My graduate program had a concentration in counseling but also a concentration in clinical work. I wanted to be able to do both sides of the profession. That’s not true for everybody. It’s important that the program you are applying to and participating in is the right program for you. Also, be open to something that you feel is not a fit for you. When I was beginning my internships, we had to prioritize our populations. Number one was who we most wanted to work with through number ten, those who we least wanted to work with. I ended up getting my nine and ten for my internship placement—children and substance abuse—and I ended up loving it. At the time, I hadn’t considered working with children and I definitely didn’t want to work with substance abuse and it’s become my career. I’m glad that I was pushed and I’m glad that I was open to trying something different that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Ultimately, when you work in a helping field you need to want to help people. Longevity in the field is based on that genuine need to help somebody so it takes a lot of personal exploration and personal growth. When you’re working with children, you can see tangible results by helping them meet their goals such as making eye-contact or sharing during group. The reward working in this field is a personal gain of knowing that you are helping somebody.

LH: What would you tell recent graduates who are looking for job placement?

JB: It’s important to surround yourself with other like-minded professionals that you can grow from and they can grow from you. When I was working in the hospital setting, I was the only oncology therapist for the entire oncology center. There was a social worker who did very different work but our licensing overlapped a little so we were able to talk and process cases minimally. It was tough. I felt like I was on an island by myself. If I’d had a team of therapists to sit and meet with weekly or bi-weekly it would have been tremendous for me personally and professionally and, of course, my clients would have benefitted. Art It Out Therapy Center has that by far. It’s the only place that I’ve ever experienced such a level of support to this degree or quality.

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