Strengths-based approaches have taken center stage as of late, and as a positive psychology coach, the topic of strengths is often at the core of my work with clients. Research shows there are significant benefits to using our signature strengths with intention and regularity, including increased happiness and decreased depression, improved self-esteem and greater life-satisfaction.
Sounds like an ideal pathway to greater wellbeing, right?
But what happens when we overuse our strengths? Is it possible that at a certain point, we tip the strengths scale from beneficial to harmful? It turns out there’s a darker side to using strengths that rarely gets addressed. It’s called the shadow side. Like most things, when taken to the extreme, strengths shift from being positively self-serving to painfully self-defeating.
For example, imagine the girl whose signature strength is self-regulation. She does a great job of staying on task, mitigating procrastination and following through on homework assignments. But in another area of her life– food and eating– her extreme self-control wreaks havoc on her life. She restricts her food intake and meticulously counts calories to control her weight. She pushes herself to exercise, even when she is exhausted or in pain, because feels obligated to stick to her workout schedule. Over time, her strength of self-regulation begins to manifest as a full-blown eating disorder.
Or consider the girl whose signature strength is empathy. She is able to support her friends when they are struggling and often knows what to say in a difficult moment. When taken to the extreme, however, she becomes the emotional dumping ground for her friends. She is always giving, giving, giving but never gets support in return. She winds up feeling depleted and taken advantage of on a regular basis. When she has a problem herself, she doesn’t feel like anyone really “gets” her and so she suffers in silence.
And what about the girl whose signature strength is achievement? She has a remarkable work ethic and has an impressive resumé of awards and accolades. But, when her entire identity is rooted in achievement, she becomes overly competitive, perfectionistic and never feels satisfied by her accomplishments. She will never feel like she is “enough” and will always try to fill that internal void with another accomplishment— no matter the sacrifice or consequence to her wellbeing.
So what can we do to prevent our greatest strengths from becoming our greatest weaknesses?
As usual, the first step is self-awareness. To determine your signature strengths, take the free, psychometrically valid survey and get your strengths profile at: ViaCharacter.org. Once you become aware of your signature strengths, take some time to reflect on how you engage those strengths on a regular basis. Ask yourself some simple questions:
- In what situations do my strengths naturally play out?
- In what ways can you leverage your strengths by applying them to new situations?
- How does using your strengths contribute to your wellbeing?
- How does using your strengths in extremes undermine your success?
- Where in your life do you take your strengths to extremes that cause pain or suffering?
- What would it look like to use your strengths in healthy and fulfilling ways?
Ultimately, the key to successfully engaging your strengths is finding balance by determining how you can better align your everyday actions to support your wellbeing.
Alexandre Dumas said it best: “Any virtue carried to an extreme can become a crime.” And so it is with our strengths. Take the time to assess your strengths today, and make sure that they are facilitating, not crippling, your success.