How do we know when we are using our strengths? It is when we are feeling energised when a task is easy and enjoyable to complete. It is when time passes quickly when we look up and think where did those two hours go. It is when we have a feeling of satisfaction in the task itself, not just in the end product.

Research on strengths repeatedly shows that using our strengths is good for our well-being. We experience more positive emotions like joy, serenity and inspiration. Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions explains how this can improve our resilience as these positive emotions have a buffering effect, protecting us at times of stress,  enabling us to deal with the stressful situation in a more controlled way.

Overplaying Our Strengths

This buffering effect is wonderful and much needed, however, there can be a dark side to using our strengths. This is when we use them too much when we do not have balance in our life. Here’s an example, take the strength of loyalty. This is a quality that many of us value, we want our friends to be loyal, employers want their employees to be loyal, we want our partners to be loyal. It all sounds good until that loyalty is overplayed, it can have a detrimental effect on the person whose strength it is. Remaining loyal to a partner who does not value and undermines you can have a dreadful effect on well-being. It can lower our confidence, create poor self-image and eventually disable us.

Similarly, remaining loyal to an employer who has poor working conditions, who pays poorly and who sees you as dispensable can also impact our well-being negatively. Sometimes we have no choice but to take jobs like that, but loyalty must not prevent us from trying to get a better job where we are more valued.

Underplaying Our Strengths

Sometimes we have unrealised strengths, these are traits that are a core part of us, but we don’t put recognise or put them into action. It may be that we were told as a child that this strength is not valued, or that it is not appropriate for our gender. By leaving this strength dormant we are wasting so much untapped talent and are preventing ourselves from reaching our full potential. So how can we develop our unrealised strengths?

Well, the first thing to do is to identify them, they may be qualities that we admire in other people, they may be things that we have a yearning to do, but do not do. We may need to enlist the help of others to tell us when they have seen us at our best. Once we have identified them then we can deliberately seek out activities to build them into our life.

Volume Control

Alex Linley, in his book Average to A+, suggests that we can develop the ability to dial-up and dial-down our strengths in the same way that we use a volume control. This may take practice, but it can stop things that are a strength in one situation becoming a flaw in another. For example, leadership may be one of our top strengths, but if we overplay it, we can lead from a place of arrogance, which has the potential to derail our leadership role.

Try it out for yourself. Practice becoming aware of which strengths you use, and see if you notice situations where they may be more effective if they are dialled up or down.

You can also seek out unrealised strengths and start enjoying using them.

Let me know how you get on.


Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The Role Of Positive Emotions In Positive Psychology: The Broaden And Build Theory Of Positive Emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 3, 218-226.

Linley, A. ((2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP Press.

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