Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What’s a sundial without the sun? -Benjamin Franklin
Just the other day, actually on Election Day, a patient came into my office with a laptop computer. The way he had it open made me wonder if he wanted to show me something. But I also knew we only had the usual 20 minutes to review his medications and complete the EMR.
He quickly told me his medications for ADHD and Dysthymia were working fine. The big problem, as so many other patients have cried to me recently, was that he was still unable to find work after he was laid off months ago. One would have thought he too would be despondent, or advocate for some new politicians to get our economy going (and sure enough, the Republicans had taken over in Wisconsin), but no. He seemed excited and positive. I wondered, was he getting a little hypomanic? Was he taking too many Concertas for his ADHD and getting overstimulated? As it turns out, no and no again.
What he was excited about, and wanted to share with me, was how he was changing his job search strategy. He had concluded that maybe he needed to hone in on his strengths, including personal characteristics. He asked if I was familiar with StrengthFinders 2.0. I wasn’t. He said it was being used more and more by businesses in hiring. Then, he also said that he got Face Book feedback from all his “friends”. He concluded that creativity and humor were his best selling points. We finished – after going overtime with 30 minutes – by his showing me an ideogram of his relative strengths.
Now, I’m not sure if this discussion of strengths was necessarily therapeutic. Certainly, as far as his targeted symptoms, no. However, it definitely expanded my knowledge, sympathy, and empathy about him.
Taking off from the work of Carl Rogers, research has long supported the idea that clinicians who provide patient care with high levels of empathy, warmth, and positive regard correlate significantly with successful patient outcomes, whether psychotherapy and/or some sort of medication was provided. This is not to say that being empathetic is easy, as it requires being in touch with various aspects of ourselves (some of which we’d rather ignore), as well as cross-cultural sensitivity.
Not long before this example, I was also impressed with how focusing on strengths was helping in a different context. In Houston (Harris County MHMRA), there is a Consumer Council that helps monitor, review, and advise administration about all the programs. The leader many years ago had decided that he should look for strengths in patients, besides their symptoms and weaknesses. He had been surprised to see voluminous charts without any mention of patient strengths. So he went on what he called “treasure hunts” and found patients enthusiastic to discuss what they had loved doing, from golfing to making coffee. And, lo and behold, as he paid attention to their strengths, some unexpected improvement in their functioning and self-esteem emerged.
All of this got me wondering. Do we still not pay enough attention to the strengths in those we serve? Is there any item in our paper or electronic records where those should be recorded? If not, should there be? I’ve seen such an item occasionally, such as “Description of Patient Strengths”, but what I then find is a description of strengths only so far as symptoms, such as “She has very good insight into her illness”. I see very little about the treasures in our patients.