Until I became familiar with my own character strengths, I truly was only aware of my weaknesses. I worry a lot, I am oversensitive, I find it hard to adjust to life changes and I overthink. I believe I am not alone in this focus on weaknesses, regardless of having a diagnosable mental illness. All us humans have an innate evolutionary negativity bias after all with which we magnify our own flaws. The problem comes when this blinds us to our strengths.
Following on from my first post about how PP has helped me personally see another side to myself, I have become more and more familiar with my strengths. Only when I identified them could I see them at work daily in my thoughts, reactions and behaviour and this has helped put my weaknesses, and my anxiety in an important context.
Strengths or weaknesses?
I now see how my strengths as contributing positively to my character and life experiences and have researched how I can develop them through PPIs. But I also know from experience that fundamentally these same strengths or positive qualities in myself also underpin a lot of my negative thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
For example, having a combination of Social Intelligence, Prudence, Love and Honesty as signature, or top, strengths have led to the best experiences in my life for sure and they make me who I am. However, I can see them at play as fuelling anxious and pessimistic cognitions, painful over-analysing of other’s motivations and behaviours, groundless feelings of dread and the relentless self-examination which leads to chronic worry. Given, I also see how my anxiety is pushed into disorder by roots of a neurotic personality as seen in my lesser strengths of Self-Regulation, Hope and Gratitude but my signature strengths don’t help me at times.
In ‘Chris Peterson’s unfinished masterwork: The real mental illness’ (2015), Martin Seligman explains that ‘whilst strengths are the good of the person, their absence their opposite, and their excesses are the ‘ill’ in a person’’ and this really resonates with me. Indeed, it seems my character is made up of strengths all of which have the potential to act positively as well as detrimentally for my wellbeing, either by their overuse or absence.
Certainly, the idea of some kind of dynamic strengths balance or tug-o-war as the optimum for long lasting wellbeing (Schwarz & Sharpe 2006) seems important here. Maybe it is our relative strengths balance that it would be useful to identify, engage with and adjust in particular in cases like mine where signature strength development may be off-kilter and causing more harm than good.
In an ideal world
A strengths balance investigation on an individual level for those with clinical anxiety could help us build understanding beyond DSM categorisation and symptom relief. As I do not have a clinical background (my experience is as a ‘service user’ not a therapist) I am yet to understand if this approach is taken by those who practice Positive Therapy (see Joseph 2006, 2015). I imagine that through assessing strengths balance we could examine how PPIs can help develop or moderate individual strengths and observe if and how this affects cognitions and emotions. In an ideal world we could identify how, within each individual, changes in prioritization of strengths use and development impact wellbeing in different contexts of their life, and even discover how developing one strength correlates with changes in other strengths.
May there be certain key qualities that are under- or over-developed within those with ‘anxiety in disorder’, as I like to call it, that could be leveraged to produce better strengths balance and an overall increase in psychological wellbeing?
Acknowledging that it is strengths we are talking about here, a focus on things we enjoy doing, that come naturally and that we are good at, whether they be out of balance, overplayed or lying low, sets a completely different tone to an approach to managing wellbeing for those with diagnosable mental illnesses.
The notion that we all have some kind of strengths profile regardless of our level of mental health also lends a positive vocabulary to our sense of self which I feel is of be of key importance to those at risk of developing mental illness and those already suffering from mental illness who are able to help themselves.
Bringing positivity to anxiety prevention and treatment
So, given the state of public funding for national health and a particular squeeze on mental health quality and quantity of provision, the challenge seems to how to bring the language and potential of strengths to the groups in society most in need.
The concept of working towards more of a balance in our character strengths could provide both the framework and the means with which to approach the challenge of anxiety as a self-fulfilling wellbeing deficiency. From my experience, and from the limited studies I have found on the unique impact of strengths balance on wellbeing, this may be a real opportunity to help others eventually self-manage stress related conditions like anxiety and depression.
The idea of dynamic or flexible strengths balance could be very powerful in the hands of community psychology, facilitated group therapy settings, addiction recovery and positive psychology coaching.
Importantly there is also potential for self-administered interventions throughout the many peer support groups which are springing up all over the country in response to increased acceptance that mental health and wellbeing is important to all.
I would add that knowing your strengths and seeking balance be a necessary path towards the self-insight and self- acceptance that is needed to become who you want to be.
Do you know your own strengths? Try one of the following, you might be surprised by the results:
VIA Character Strengths Survey – http://www.viacharacter.org
Strengths Profile – https://strengthsprofile.com
About the author: Lena Britnell