When a Strength is not a strength

Discovering and using your Signature Strengths is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.

What Is A “Strength”?

The VIA Character Strengths originated from a group headed by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and Dr. Chris Peterson, a distinguished researcher and scientist. The task they set for themselves was to define and classify human strengths, similar to the way the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies and defines mental disorders. They envisioned a method to identify the traits that enable people to flourish just as the DSM allowed professionals to identify the traits of mental disorders in order to treat them successfully. [Seligman]

Seligman, Peterson and their team began by surveying all the wisdom literature: Aristotle and Plato, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, the Quran, Confucius, Buddha, the Tao, Benjamin Franklin — about 200 “virtue catalogs” altogether. [Seligman]

They found “To our surprise, almost every single one of these traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues.” [Seligman] These 6 virtues are wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality. These 6 virtues can be further classified into 24 strengths of character, which we all have in varying degrees. The VIA Character Strengths Test lets you see how these 24 strengths are displayed in your unique personality.

An Unused Strength Is Not A Strength

Knowing your strengths is the 1st step in putting them to use in your life. Using your strengths is the foundation for well-being and flourishing. These are key concepts — knowing and using.

As it has been said before, the person who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the person who can’t read them. Similarly, a person who has a strength and doesn’t use it is no different from the person who doesn’t have the strength. (To clarify, we all have all 24 of the strengths in some measure, but some of any individual’s strengths are “stronger” than others — these are called the Signature Strengths.)

It is possible, too, that you may have one or more unrealized strengths – potential strengths lying dormant because you have not yet tapped into them. Taking the VIA Strengths Survey could identify any dormant strength that you might have. If you don’t know about a strength you have, it isn’t a strength.

You have certain signature strengths that are your “go to” strengths. When you use them, you are more engaged in your life, you feel energized and competent. But if you don’t intentionally plan to make use of these strengths, you may not be using them to their full advantage. If you aren’t using a strength, it isn’t a strength.

An Overused Strength Can Become A Weakness

“But in every leader, in every person, there is at least one strong tendency that carries with it the risk of being too strong as well as the secondary risk of rendering the opposing tendency too weak. When this insidious lopsidedness takes hold . . . it can become chronic, deeply habitual, and in the worse cases virulent.” ~ Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser, Fear Your Strengths

While not using a strength is like not having it, using a strength too much can turn the strength into a weakness.

How can you use a strength too much? When a strength works well in one situation, you may become a one-trick pony, going to that strength in other situations where this particular strength may not work or doesn’t work as well as another strength you have.

One of my Signature Strengths is Perspective, or wisdom. One aspect of this strength is that I can be a good listener and offer helpful advice. But advice is only helpful when a person asks for it (and sometimes not even then). You can see that if I leaned too heavily on this strength, offering advice in any and all situations to any and everybody . . . it wouldn’t be too long until people dreaded to see me coming and would begin avoiding me and my “advice”. My Strength would become a weakness.

Another trouble with overusing a strength is that it becomes less effective. For example, suppose Gratitude is one of your strengths. Studies show that keeping a “gratitude journal” where you write down things you are grateful for can boost your positivity. However, this practice is more effective when you do it once a week rather than once a day. Using the strength too frequently dilutes its positive effects.

Don’t Turn Your Strengths To Weakness

On the Leadership Freak blog, Dan Rockwell tells us that “Your greatest strength is your weakness“. He isn’t referring specifically to the VIA Character Signature Strengths, but the caution is the same. Dan’s perspective is that we have the tendency to overuse any strength which turns it into a weakness.

Dan says,

“If you are a great talker, you talk too much. Listen more.
If you are a great listener, you listen too much. Talk more.
If you are great at execution, you rely too much on getting things done. Dream more.
If you are a dreamer, you launch too quickly. Execute more.
If you are great at encouraging, people walk all over you. Confront more.
If you are great at discernment, you walk over others. Comfort more.
If you are great at organization, you’re inflexible. Adapt more.
If you are creative, you’re scatterbrained. Ask more questions.
If you are a detail person, you’re rigid. Try things more.”

Apply this same idea to your strengths, to ensure you are not depending too much on one or two, thereby turning them into weaknesses.

Action Items

1. If you haven’t already done so, take the VIA Strengths Survey. The survey is free but you do have to register. You get a free strengths profile and, for a nominal sum, you can get a complete report that contains in-depth information about using your top 6 Signature Strengths, plus additional information on your “middle” strengths and your “lesser” strengths. (Note that we all have all 24 of the strengths, but in greater or lesser degrees.)

2. Once you know your Signature Strengths, develop a plan to begin using your strengths, or using them more. If you purchase the report from the VIA website, it contains suggestions for putting each strength into action. You can also find free information on the web for using your Signature Strengths.

3. Select a problem or obstacle you are facing. Decide how you can use one of more of your Signature Strengths to address the issue. Additionally, consider if overusing a strength has contributed to the problem.

Play To Your Strengths

Increasingly, research shows that knowing and using your strengths daily contributes to your well-being in a number of ways. Your resilience grows, making you better able to rebound from setbacks. You have higher levels of positive energy and lower levels of stress. You get a boost to your self-esteem and self-confidence. [Grenville-Cleave]

When is a Strength not a strength? We’ve looked at different examples, failure to use and overuse. Of the two, failure to use a strength is the most likely culprit and the easiest to rectify. Find out your Signature Strengths then put them to work improving your positivity and well-being. That is embracing the Excelerated Life!

Grenville-Cleave, Bridget. Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide. New York: MJF Books. 2012

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002

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