Positive Psychology turning “victims”into “survivors”

The world breaks everyone and afterward some are strong at the broken

places.”  E. Hemmingway. (1929)

This paper highlights a specific area where Positive Psychology could benefit society in changing the “victim” attitude towards trauma. Any experience can be defined as traumatic, from the 9/11 attack   to failing exams. What is imperative is that people get the opportunity to realise that everyone experiences this feeling in their lifetime and that it is not a reason to detach from living life fully.  There are many positive experiences hidden in the traumatic experience and this fact needs further emphasis so people will avail of appropriate healing methods that do not involve drug therapy. The benefits of detaching and engaging in learned helplessness will be highlighted as well as the positive affect a therapeutic encounter would provide and an alternative to learned helplessness.     

 Gillham (2000) highlights essays written by Martin Seligman. In these essays Seligman discusses his theory on Victimology or learned helplessness.  He begins by highlighting the fact that the youth in America are experiencing an epidemic of depression, pessimism and sadness. In investigating this further he see’s the epidemic as partially caused by the negativity involved with the social sciences and psychology.  The social sciences perspective on human virtues such as altruism and honesty see’s them as illusions but yet human weakness such as greed and fear are considered authentic.    In the last 30 years (Myers, 2000) discovered that there have been 46,000 papers published on depression and only 400 on joy. Social scientists highlight authoritarianism, religion and child discipline and report on the negative consequences of these but over look the positive aspects of the human experience. Psychology since World War 2 has highlighted the negative effects of trauma, abuse and illness but failed to highlight the fact that such experiences often produce growth, strength and creativity. Our society has become focused on “isms” racism, sexism, alcoholism but has excluded the notion of personal responsibility, decision-making and free-will. People can be viewed as mere external stimuli in an environment. All of these factors contribute to Victimology and do not serve our society. There have been some benefits to advances in thinking around the victim theory and many costs; these are highlighted by (Seligman, 2000).

 In the pre-1930’s era the stigma attached to alcoholism involved words such as evil or sinners. In 1953 the civil rights movement changed the bias towards African people from lazy, stupid and unemployable to a people experiencing severe discrimination. These have been positive steps towards reducing prejudice within society but the costs seem to outweigh the benefits.  (Seligman, 2000) highlights three costs of Victimology.  

The first is that one can temporarily feel good in indulging in the victim role but it is not sustainable due to the fact that the causes of the pain have not been investigated. The second cost is that some people are classed as victims of a situation when in fact it is not the disease causing the negativity but the individual themselves. Victimology erodes any sense of responsibility on the individual and induces learned helplessness. When people feel no control over their lives they act as if they are helpless (Seligman, 2008).  We are a society of people who are running away from dysphoria. Dysphoria is classified as an unpleasant mood which is a result of life events. Grief, loss, trauma and sadness are integral to living and yet when encountered with these emotions we look to avoid. (Seligman, 2000) highlights that people need to experience these feelings and realise that they can overcome them, and that it is through overcoming these experience that individuals grow and learn.

 We are missing out on the positive experience of trauma (Linley, 2000).  Gross (2009) states that research conducted by Calhoun and Tedeschi (1999) on survivors of trauma uncovered the fact that 30-90 per cent of them report experiencing positive changes as a result of the experience. Individuals can change their approach to living as a result of trauma and this amazing human quality is not focused on enough.

 In a paper by Fosha (2002) the writer highlights that when helping people overcome trauma, the aim is to help people get stronger in broken places. What is amazing is that through this treatment clients often discover amazing places within themselves that have always been strong. When faced with the worst we can find our best. Also Fosha (2002) highlights that through trauma others become strong and trauma can awaken extraordinary capacities that would otherwise lie dormant. Without the trauma these discoveries may never be uncovered.  In the face of trauma people connect to one another, help strangers and on some level have the desire to transform them selves. People become heroic and extraordinary kindness is visible. It is in the aftermath that the risk arises, when the adrenaline decreases. People can look to trivialise, totally detach and continue. It is this dissociation that the causes traumatic side-effects. The need for discussion with a therapist or loved on is vital for individuals to have their heroic acts highlighted, recognised and praised. This serves to provide the individual with a sense of purpose and meaning and decreases the risk of the person detaching fully and then subconsciously drawing further traumatic events into their lives. Positive Psychology would provide them with this opportunity without the risk of diagnosing PSTD or prescribing drug therapy to them instead.  We must live as fully functioning people, not semi-functioning, semi-drugged people. Societies “quick fix” method of treatment is not effective and is promoting drug use.  People need to realise that the triumph in the face of traumatic experiences is in the healing as it provides an opportunity to reclaim the self.

Fosha (2002) highlights the need for therapists to help clients to tolerate and accept feeling good, feeling joyful and feeling loved. Traumatic experiences can cause people to feel unworthy of such feelings. She advocates for therapists to embrace their own fear in fully meeting a client with love and acceptance. The positive psychology movement would be hugely beneficial in helping those who view themselves as “victims” of trauma to seeing themselves as “survivors”.

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer”.  Frankl  (1969).


E. Hemmingway, (1929). A Farewell to Arms. US author & journalist (1899 – 1961)

Frankl, (1969).Man’s Search For Meaning. Simon and Schuster Inc. NY

Fosha, (2002). Trauma reveals the roots of resilience. Constructivism in the human sciences. 6(1+2) 7-15.

Gross (2009). Themes Issues and Debates in Psychology.3rd Edition. Hodder Education. Oxon.

Gillham (2000). The Science of Optimism and Hope. Templeton Foundation Press. London


~ by niamh27 on April 22, 2010.

2 Responses to “Positive Psychology turning “victims”into “survivors””

  1. I definitely agree with your proposed benefits of the positive psychology movements. However, I think that now it is time for psychologists and scientists to shift their focus from the benefits of positive psychology. Clearly, the use of positive psychology is justified, so the next step is working on the recognition of positive psychology as a viable new paradigm. Any theories and research that show the benefits of positive psychology will be time and effort wasted unless clinical psychology moves away from the illness ideology. A first step in doing this, in my opinion, is what Maddux (2005) names as the ‘deconstruction’ of the DSM. I think positive psychology’s future is definitely at stake if the most powerful tool in clinical psychology continues to view humour, altruism, affiliation and so on as ‘defence mechanisms’.

    Maddux., J.E. (2005) Stopping the ‘Madness’: Positive Psychology and the Deconstruction of the Illness Ideology and the DSM. In Snyder, C.R., & Lopez, S.J. (Eds) Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

  2. E. Hemmingway also stated: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector.”

    Here is why I think Positive Psychology is nonsense:
    1. The variables included in the ‘scientific’ positive psychological methods include happiness, possible the most subjective and unquantifiable variables in existence.
    2. claims that positive psychology can ‘cure’ cancer or strengthen the immune system sufficiently for patients to make benefits so great that they outshine cancer patients who do not engage with positive psychology is completely scientifically unfounded (Coyne & Tennen 2010 was the most recent article I could find, simply search Google scholar for others).
    3. Claims of positive psychology producing incredible benefits for patients supports cultural beliefs and values with a clear influence on media portrayals of attitude and illness.
    4. There is nothing wrong or maladaptive about being sad sometimes.
    5. A clear lack of scientific evidence, and scientific evidence accused of being bias and flawed and lacking validity.
    6. Positive psychologists clearly misunderstanding what what ‘benefit finding’ is (Tennen and Affleck, 2002).
    7. Positive psychologists have been indifferent to the scientific evidence and have applied inadequate methods and designs.
    8. Coyne and Tennen (2010) asks positive psychologists to rededicate themselves to a positive psychology based on scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking.

    The only positive thing I have to say on positive psychology is that for some people, with some illnesses, thinking positively produces temporary benefits. However ironically it seems that their world comes crashing down when something bad happens that they cannot see the positive side to.
    I think that pressuring people to adopt particular coping styles to improve their illness and telling them that they are insufficiently doing so if they do not reek the benefits is clearly flawed, especially when there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the approach in the first place.

    Positive psychology is wishful thinking and what is worse: psychologists themselves are buying into it

    Coyne and Tennen (2010) Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine. Annals of Behaviour Medicine
    Tennen H, Affleck G. Benefit finding and benefit-reminding. In:
    Snyder CR, Lopez SJ, eds. Handbook of positive psychology. New
    York: Oxford University Press; 2002: 584–597.

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