I truly believe strengths—possessed by one person, a family, community, company or nation as a whole—can be overused. And as a result, they then become our greatest weaknesses.
Let’s focus on our individual strengths. We all have them. Don’t be shy. Think about them. Write them down.
If I think of the strengths I have learned to develop or have been gifted with, I would say I possess the following:
I was born with willpower and self-assuredness. Ever since I can remember, I never questioned the choices I made in social circumstances, I never doubted my feelings and regardless of the possible outcomes, I never questioned speaking my mind. For instance, when I was in fourth grade, there was a kid named Jeremy in my homeroom who was designated as the geek to be picked on. Jeremy was in the midst of being bullied by two other boys, Don and Brad when I walked into the room. Let me note that the bullying was thankfully not the type of bullying that has been occurring in today’s classrooms. But it certainly was not a situation where these boys looked like they were having a nice chat. It was evident that Don and Brad decided to gang up against Jeremy for some reason and Jeremy didn’t know how to stick up for himself.
Disturbed by what I had seen, I walked my little 4’8” body right over to Don and Brad and said, “Don’t be so obnoxious. Leave him alone!”
All the other students in the room looked at me askance. Don and Brad stopped and walked away from Jeremy. And Jeremy seemed relieved.
For the remainder of the year, no one bullied Jeremy.
I have utilized my willpower and self-assuredness to achieve many more goals over the past 15 years. On several occasions, though, my willpower and self-assuredness morphed into pure stupid stubbornness, and I’d find myself frustrated, defeated—embarrassed. Even to this day, I need to check in with myself and determine whether my willpower and self-assuredness are working for or against me. It is forever a learning process.
In my practice, I have asked clients to think of their strengths and write them down. If the client were willing to share what she has written, we would then engage in a dialogue about how she discovered those strengths and how she has been able to capitalize on them.
Some clients claimed they discovered their strengths in school or at work through their excellent academic and job performances. Other clients discovered their strengths at home, tending to their children’s needs, organizing agendas for the family or keeping up with their daily mommy blogging schedules—on very little sleep.
I have often wondered if these uber moms were surreptitiously taking stimulants to keep up with such hectic lifestyles. But then again, I had to remind myself they were in my office because they too, realized they might have overused their strengths.
When my clients ponder how their strengths could be overused and potentially become hazardous to their physical and mental health, they begin to realize their weaknesses are in fact not “weaknesses,” but rather symptoms of over-used strengths. For example, one client named *Jane (*her name has been changed for privacy) had taken pride in her excellent work ethic, one that’s carried her through high school, college, law school and eventually at one of the top law firms in Los Angeles. One day, though, she came to my office after experiencing acute anxiety attacks and a decreased sense of pleasure in the activities she once enjoyed.
Jane had decided to come to therapy with the intention of resolving her “weaknesses” in just a few sessions. But after discovering that her commitment to excellence led her to drive herself that much harder—to the point where her body could no longer bear the physiological and psychological stress (hence the anxiety attacks and lessened sense of pleasure), she recognized the need for continued therapy.
How about our weaknesses?
We all have them. If we didn’t, we certainly would be the most devolved living creatures on earth. So how do we see our weaknesses (whether they are mental or physical) and find ways to take advantage of them? How do we find a way to sincerely celebrate them rather than let our shame about them consume us?
One particular weakness of mine is (literally) physical: I have scoliosis (curvature of my spine) and it was the bane of my existence for many years.
I was diagnosed at the age of 13 at the school nurse’s office. All of the students were asked to bend over and touch their feet and have the nurse detect any curvature in the spine.
I recall walking into the office nonchalantly, bending down and naively thinking I was fine. I was thinking there was no way, no way I’d be like Deenie, the beautiful all-American character in Judy Blume’s book, Deenie. The fictional teen struggled with having to wear a back brace to cure her scoliosis and dealing with the emotional pain of having other students discover her “physical deformation.”
I remember the nurse instructed me to stand back up, and see my doctor immediately after school. She didn’t tell me why. Nor did I ask. Perhaps I didn’t want to know. But I did heed her instructions.
I recall meeting my mother at the pediatric clinic where Dr. Murphy had me bend over once again. He evaluated my spine, and confirmed what my nurse had detected: S-shaped scoliosis.
The following week I was sent to Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts where apparently, one of the best pediatric spine specialists, Dr. Hall reigned. I was told by Dr. Hall, (as the medical students stared at my 13-year-old adolescent back and poked my pelvis and ribs) that I had a 38-degree curve that would potentially worsen if I did not wear a brace. In other words, I had no choice but to be ensconced in an ill-fitting, claustrophobic girdle for 23 hours a day until I had stopped growing, which was estimated to happen when I turned 15.
For four torturous years, though, I wore the brace and I hated it. Every second of it. But in hindsight, being diagnosed with this skeletal disease made me all the more conscious of my body and gave me that much more purpose to keep myself strong and healthy. I knew that I didn’t want surgery and I knew I didn’t want to have two metal rods placed on either side of my spine.
Now, 29 years later, I am in great physical shape. Taking care of my body and paying that much more attention to my back has kept me from having surgery. Yes, I still have a 38-degree curve and yes, I experience moments of discomfort. But I have run three marathons, competed in six triathlons and rock climbed on the greatest peaks. I also recently committed myself to surfing and of course to yoga. So scoliosis—my weakness—has ironically become my greatest strength.
Now it’s your turn. Take a moment to think about your strengths and your weaknesses, and perhaps you will view them quite differently.