I’ve been thinking about my final post for 2014. Maybe something useful for the year but also something we can take forward to 2015 and beyond. The topic I’ve settled on is personal strengths. It’s an important facet of life and it’s one that crops up in interviews (tell us about your strengths) and in words of wisdom (always play to your strengths). So, in this post I’m focusing on the importance of understanding strengths, debunking notions about qualities that aren’t necessarily strengths, and learning how best to play to our strengths.
The last point about playing to strengths is especially important because it sustains our psychological wellbeing. Using our strengths decreases stress, increases confidence, increases resilience and ultimately increases happiness and satisfaction with life. With these things in mind let’s begin. . .
There are different definitions but broadly a personal strength refers to those personal qualities that invigorate us. They feel a natural part of us and they boost our lives and daily performance. Now it’s a common misconception that a strength is the same as a skill or competence but it may not be. Many people are highly competent in their job but at the end of the day they feel wrung out, unsatisfied and depleted. A strength is something that energizes us and feels like the real ‘us’. It’s not surprising therefore to find people using their spare time in pursuits that come somewhere towards that goal whether it’s art, music, sports, writing, and so on. But this gives the impression that strengths are activities. Well, they may be, but they may also be hidden or so taken for granted we don’t see them for what they are.
Take listening as an example. It’s easy to assume that everyone is a capable listener but this really isn’t the case. You may be highly attentive when people talk and you retain information that comes your way. Over time you perhaps see contradictions in what is being said, or certain repeated themes that gives you clues as to motives, concerns, and so on. You may also find that you get frustrated with others because they don’t appear to share these qualities. This may be a sign of a personal strength that you’ve taken for granted.
Reflecting on personal strengths isn’t easy and sometimes it can take the views of a close friend or loved one to point out what you may so readily dismiss. The fact you are sensitive to the feelings of others is a strength, but so is love of learning, creativity, being non-judgmental, humor, patience, persistence, being forgiving, friendliness, kindness, modesty, or being socially skilled. You get the picture.
Your strengths are like a personal toolkit so even when things seem to go wrong you can use them to your advantage. For example, you’ve been feeling very stressed at work and so you decide it’s time to visit the doctor. Far from being a sign of weakness you should look to your strengths. In this example we could say you’ve got sufficient insight to take action. You’re marshaling resources by visiting the doctor and utilizing systems available to you. You’re determined to get on top of the situation or at least to a point where you can cope more easily with it. These are all adaptive coping mechanisms - strengths.
It may seem a little odd to sit and reflect on your strengths yet how many of us feel this way when we reflect on our fears, our concerns, our worries and mistakes? Thinking about the negatives seems normal but spending a few minutes considering the positives can feel like a guilty indulgence. It’s a real shame because every single one of us is brimming with personal strengths many of which are only seen by others. So, if you’re looking for an idea for a New Year’s resolution how about bringing those personal strengths to the surface and enjoying them for what they are?
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.