Bringing Positive Psychology to LGBT Therapy

What is positive psychology?

The field of positive psychology originated with Dr. Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania and a former president of APA.  

Seligman is concerned with the field's tendency to focus on pathology, or what's wrong with people and thinks it's time to open our eyes towards what is good, healthy, and positive about human psychology.

 Photo by  Leio McLaren  on  Unsplash

Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash

Psychologists and psychotherapists widely use concepts derived from positive psychology to help people lead happier, healthier, and more meaningful lives. 

In a recent edition of The Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, several researchers looked at ways that positive psychology can be applied specifically to work and research with the LGBTQ community.  

Rather than approaching sexual orientation from issues of minority stress, bullying, or exclusion, the authors instead focused specifically on strengths and capabilities that are unique to the LGBTQ community.  

Emphasizing strengths in counseling and psychotherapy helps gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clients recognize the things that make them strong.

You can then learn leverage those strengths when dealing with life's challenges and opportunities.

In this article I will focus on Vaughan and Rodriguez's article "LGBT Strengths: Incorporating Positive Psychology Into Theory Research, Training, and Practice."


The Three Pillars of Positive Psychology

The field of positive psychology classifies strengths using three pillars (p. 326):

1) Positive Subjective Experiences.  

The first pillar is intended to capture positive emotional experiences in life, moments of subjective well-being, psychological resilience (how we bounce back from disappointments or setbacks) and our ability to grow and learn after facing periods of stress.  

2) Virtues and Character Strengths.

While personality psychologists focus on categories like introversion, extraversion, and neuroticism, positive psychologists are interested in classifying peoples strengths and sources of motivation.  

You can learn more about your specific strengths via several online tests.  Just do a search on "VIA Strengths" on your favorite search engine and several free tests will show up.  

Use these tests to identify your particular gifts, and then look for opportunities to use these gifts in your daily life and work.

3) Positive institutions/organizations.  

 Photo by  Matheus Ferrero  on  Unsplash

This area of positive psychology focuses on how different organizations, like universities, schools, and workplaces support LGBT members and allow them to thrive.

Examples of research in this field includes studies of healthcare organizations where gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals feel safe discussing their lives with the professionals who provide care.

It also includes studies of workplaces to see if they provide opportunities for LGBT individuals to grow and be accepted  by peers.


Using Positive Psychology in Gay Affirmative Counseling Practices

So, how can lessons from positive psychology be used in the therapist's office? Here are some suggestions from the study. 

Help Clients Identify Positive subjective experiences: 

The authors report that gay, lesbian, and transgender people develop unique and helpful skills in terms of buildings communities of choice where we find comfort and support.  

Even with all the connections available on the internet, seeking out supportive and like-minded groups of friends can be challenge.

Learning to quickly identify people who will be supportive and encouraging is a survival skill that LGBT become stronger and stronger at developing over the course of life. 

It's difficult to deal with situations where friends and family reject (or only partially accept) us.  

Learning to develop supportive communities is a strength that the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities should help one another learn to foster. 

Vaughn and Rodriguez also offer the idea that the LGBTQ community can draw particular strength from flexibility regarding gender roles.

The ability to take on non-gender conforming roles might at first glance seem like something that separated us from our peers as kids, it can actually be an asset in adulthood. 

For example, if a spouse ends up in the hospital or takes a trip to visit family, members of the LGBT community may be more able to help themselves with problems like dinner and house repairs that a gender conforming couple might find challenging. 

Highlight Virtues and Character Strengths. 

The article identifies several VIA strengths that can be developed as sources of strength for LGBT people. I will highlight the ones that stood out to me as most interesting or unexpected. 

- Courage

Contrary to stereotypes, being an out gay, lesbian, or transgender person requires building an enormous amount of courage.

Even the step of saying, "I'm gay" out loud to the first friend or parent you confide in requires psychological motivation and preparation.  

Once out, challenges like discrimination and micro-aggressions, require the LGBT person to learn to stand strong.  

Therapists can help LGBT clients by reminding them of the courage they already possess and help them use the skills they learned in coming out and day-to-day life as advantages in navigating other challenging situations. 

- Authenticity 

I was also struck by the value of authenticity listed in the article.  

"Representing the desire to be honest and genuine both intrapersonally and interpersonally, the process by which individuals address this need is central to the process of LG identity development . . . . the process of exploring one's identities and seeking coherent answers may result in more integrated, complex, and.or multifaceted answers to the questions 'Who am I? What does that mean for my life?'" 

In other words, LGBT people go through an internal process of coming out to themselves. Part of that process is taking a deep look at who you really are. 

This inner search is something many people don't have to undertake until mid-life or after a personal crisis. LGBT kids usually start figuring out who they are in pre-teen or teenage years. 

The coming out process itself is a brave act of trying to be authentic in the world at large. 

- Social Intelligence:

Finally, although being gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender can sometimes feel isolating and lonely. 

In judging and testing the acceptance of our environment, LGBT people are learning valuable skills concerning social intelligence,  or "skills related to perceiving and using emotional information - both from self and others - to make decisions regarding social interactions."  

As noted above, being able to quickly judge an environment as friendly or hostile and determining an appropriate way to engage or avoid that environment is in fact a valuable skill in life. 


As I read the article I was struck not only by re-evaluations of my own life.

Thinking of situations that were challenging at the time, I can use hindsight to realize they taught skills and strengths that I can use to my advantage today. 

I was also reminded of many clients who are learning to rise to difficult challenges that their heterosexual peers never have to face.  

I imagine ways they can use existing strengths to face current problems and find encouragement in know that the skills being used in tough times will help clients more easily adapt to or conquer future life challenges.