An important topic in the field of positive psychology is the study of strengths. The basic idea is that we are all different and have different strengths – thoughts, feelings or behaviours that come naturally to us and give us energy and a sense of satisfaction when we use them. For example, one person may be a great organiser, another might have a talent for creativity, or a great capacity for kindness to others. These strengths are often seen as virtues – desirable behaviours that benefit society. We all have a large number of different things that we can do, but we will have a few ‘top’ strengths that go some way to defining who we are, what we are best at, and linking to what motivates and engages us.
In 2004 Peterson and Seligman published “The Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues” – a book in which they explained their research and expounded the idea that there were 6 categories of virtues that were shared across multiple societies, philosophies and religions over time; wisdom, courage, humanity, transcendence, justice and moderation. Within these categories sit a total of 24 character strengths which are regarded as universally desirable. For example, love, kindness and social intelligence sit under the category of humanity, the strengths of creativity, curiosity, judgement, love of learning and perspective sit under the virtue of wisdom. As part of the research, they developed a survey for people to take to find out which of these strengths were their top strengths, or signature strengths. If you are interested to discover your top strengths, you can take the VIA survey for free online at https://www.viacharacter.org (You can also pay for a more in-depth report, but you don’t need to do this, there is also plenty of information about the different strengths on their site.)
Following in their footsteps, other researchers have taken a broader view of strengths and have identified a greater number of individual strengths which provide a more detailed assessment of our talents and behaviours, often those that are relevant to work as well as generally in life. For example, CAPPfinity’s Strengths profile identifies 60 strengths such as planner, counterpoint, esteem builder or bounce. Again, if you are interested to investigate this further, there’s a free survey online to generate a starter profile to discover your top strengths https://www.strengthsprofile.com/en-GB
What’s so important about Top Strengths?
Research has shown that when we use our top strengths, we feel confident and energised and become more productive. Instead of focusing on what we could do better, which can drain our energy and make us feel inadequate, by focusing on what we do well we can increase our happiness and confidence and allow ourselves to be our authentic best self. Research has shown that consciously using a strength can increase your levels of happiness and subjective wellbeing. For example, if one of your top strengths is kindness, consciously looking for an opportunity every day to do something kind for someone you know, or a stranger, will create a little burst of positivity and wellbeing in your day.
How do I work out my Top Strengths?
If you’ve never thought about this before, take some time to think about it now. What do you do best, and importantly, what do you do that energises you? (Sometimes we are good at things because we’ve had to do them, but they don’t come naturally and are draining. Look for the things that you are good at, love to do that give you a little burst of energy.)
Do you get a buzz out of being kind to others, planning and organising, are you driven by a sense of fairness and justice? Are you good at taking a balanced perspective on things? Or being empathetic? Or full of energy? There are many different ways to describe your strengths, but have a think as to what you think they might be. Another very powerful way to understand your strengths is to ask those close to you who’s judgement you trust – how do they see you? Asking this question can be both enlightening and humbling, as friends often have the capacity to see us at our best, rather than through our own self-critical eyes. And different people will see us in different ways, depending on the context in which they know us. They may use different words, but are there some common threads that come through, a sense of authenticity that this describes you?
There are many ways to describe your strengths – you may find Seligman’s 24 virtues speak to you, or you may find your own words to define your strengths. For example, you may realise that you love bringing people together and drawing new people into your existing circle of friends – I’m not sure there’s a name for this, but if you can’t find a suitable description, you can always make up your own – how about ‘friend-gatherer’?
How does this relate to perfectionism?
For me, the most powerful thing that I learnt about strengths is that I realised that when you accept that everyone has different strengths – and that’s perfectly natural – then by implication, we can’t be good at everything – and that’s OK too. We can start to see ourselves as part of a team, whether it’s at work, in the family, or in a social situation. Some people may have strengths as a leader, but if we don’t, that’s absolutely fine, because we will have strengths that they don’t, like attention to detail, or being good at explaining things to others. Rather than feeling inadequate because we aren’t very good at doing something, we can just say ‘but that’s not my strength’ and find it easier to accept, because by implication, we have other strengths elsewhere.
I have always been a bit of a people-pleaser, and hate confrontation. I also prefer to deal with people face to face rather than on the phone, so when I was at home with children full-time and slightly lacking in confidence, whenever there were any ‘difficult’ telephone calls to be made, I had a tendency to try to get my husband to make the call for me. I used to feel bad about this and inadequate. I felt that I ‘should’ be OK with doing this but I wasn’t. But having studied strengths as part of my positive psychology masters’ course, the next time this happened I had a revelation. When I asked my husband to make a difficult phone call and he gave me that “why can’t you do this?” look I suddenly felt liberated. I spoke out.
“I’m asking you to do this because you’re better at it than me. I could do it, but you are the best person to do it and we’re a team. I am better at other things, but this is your strength.”
Suddenly the stress of feeling inadequate was gone. I didn’t have to be good at everything, because there were other things that were my strengths. We were a team, and it was OK to ask him to step in.
Likewise, I stopped beating myself up for having a less-than-tidy house. My mother was extremely organised and tidy, and our home always looked nice, so as I grew into an adult, I never quite felt that my housekeeping standards were up to scratch, no matter how hard I tried. But again, once I started focusing on my strengths, my feelings about this changed. My strengths include love of learning, and exploration and creativity. When I became a mum I chose to have a messy chaotic household where three children were encouraged to use pens and paint, to bring their friends around, rearrange the furniture to make dens and generally be creative. When I had spare time, I’d do a bit of tidying, but then get distracted by something that was more interesting like signing up for an OU course, or doing a Masters, or writing a blog post. My choices aren’t better than my mother’s, they are just different, because we are different people, with different strengths and priorities. She had a lovely tidy, welcoming house. My house is welcoming, but often messy, but I also have a Masters in Positive Psychology!
Strengths are the things that we are good at that come naturally and bring us energy when we use them. They may change a little over time, and we might use different strengths in different circumstances, but we tend to have a few signature strengths that are part of our personality that endure over time. We are all different, and our own constellation of signature strengths makes us unique. If we play to our strengths, we can achieve more than if we are constantly worrying about what we aren’t so good at. Yes, sometimes we will need to do things that we aren’t so good at, but if we all focus on our strengths and work together as a team, we can achieve so much more than if we are all wasting our time trying to be ‘perfect’ individuals.
Read more about Sarah Cramoysan and her other articles HERE
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