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How Character Strengths Help Us Through Trying Times

By Fatima Doman

"Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don't fight them. Just find a different way to stand."

―Oprah Winfrey

Imagine you found a flower bud in your garden – you see the bud but are unsure what flower will unfold from it. If you have a pre-determined expectation for it to be one vs. another, such as wanting a tulip to be a rose, you will be disappointed when the “wrong” one unfolds. You will focus on what’s “wrong” with it. In so doing you may harm it and prevent it from reaching its potential. It will wither.

Unfortunately, the world is full of withered and withering people who are not connected to their own authenticity, who feel overwhelmed and discouraged. When we experience turbulent times, as we are now, these feelings can be magnified. People are stretched to their limits, losing sight of their innate character strengths—temporarily blind to their uniqueness. Often, the loud inner critic joins in the game by suppressing one’s confidence—amplifying fear instead. During this pandemic, we see, hear and sense fear all around us like never before.

What if we could learn how to see and appreciate our and others’ strengths rather than being debilitated by a weakness focus? How would that positively impact resilience, well-being, achievement, and life satisfaction? How might that help us rise to the challenges we face? Truly wise people—individuals, parents, teachers, coaches, and leaders—create the conditions for themselves and others to genuinely flourish. Developing an awareness of these strengths helps us to focus on “what’s strong” instead of on “what’s wrong.”

Leveraging the science of positive psychology, we now can identify the strengths that define who we are at our best –the qualities that, when nurtured, can improve all areas of our lives. As decades of research and hundreds of studies have now shown, people who express their character strengths tend to be less stressed, more engaged, energized, and happier. In my twenty years of coaching, I have yet to encounter a more powerful tool than character strengths for increasing resilience, well-being and productivity. I have witnessed dramatic, positive change when people come to understand and leverage their strengths, while appreciating the strengths in others. All of this creates a positive upward spiral, rather than a negative, debilitating downward spiral.

Understanding Character Strengths

Character strengths are those aspects of our personality that define what is best in us. Collectively, they are responsible for our greatest achievements and fulfillment. Scientists have identified 24 strengths that are the basic building blocks defining our individuality, psychologically speaking. We each possess all 24 of these strengths in different degrees and combinations. These strengths are universally valued – in the East and in the West—across the world’s diverse cultures. Positive psychologists define them as positive traits that are beneficial to self and others. They lead us to positive emotions and relationships, greater vitality, and meaningful life activities. We flourish when we identify and flex our strengths.

If we want to build up any of these strengths, we can learn to do so. We aren’t born missing key character strengths – we just may not have focused on exercising a particular strength, perhaps causing it to atrophy. The key is developing an awareness of our strengths and how to optimally use them, in order to boost our resilience and well-being. If we are conscious of our own strengths, we are more likely to recognize strengths in others, leading to more harmonious relationships which are especially needed during these challenging times. Once we know what our best qualities are, they open up a vital pathway to engagement—at work, at school, in relationships, and through the peaks and valleys of life. Due to the science of positive psychology which focuses on what’s strong about a person, versus a problem-focused approach, people can learn to design their own future powered by their strong suits. For example, the single mother who having been laid off from work, uses her strengths of perseverance and hope as she diligently applies for new jobs. Or the teenager who doesn’t complain about cleaning the kitchen after a family meal, expressing his strength of gratitude for the food that was on the table.

The 24-character strengths (such as teamwork, honesty, leadership, kindness, creativity, forgiveness, etc.) are categorized into six virtue categories as follows:

• Wisdom: Cognitive strengths for the acquisition and use of knowledge

• Courage: Emotional strengths that exercise will to accomplish goals in opposition

• Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others

• Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life

• Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess

• Transcendence: Strengths connected to a larger universe and that provide meaning

Research is continually shedding light on our understanding of character strengths and the following are four key characteristics:

• First, character strengths are positive traits all humans possess.

• Second, they are universally valued, meaning that they are valued in all cultures.

• Third, they are expressed in varying degrees, or at different levels. For example, one person may be very high in expressing their strength of hope, whereas another person may be more moderate in their use of hope.

• And fourth, they are learnable! The exciting news is that anyone can learn how to express any of the 24-character strengths more fully at any time!

Discover Your Unique Strengths Profile

You can discover your own unique strengths profile and download it for free here. The VIA character strengths survey is a scientifically valid, peer-reviewed tool that helps you to focus on what’s strong, instead of on what’s wrong. For example, in your VIA report, you will find a ranking of your 24-character strengths with your most used strengths at the top, and your less-used strengths toward the bottom. By the way, all 24-character strengths matter—no one strength is more important than another.

Your Top Strengths

Some strengths are more strongly represented in us, are core to our identity, and to what we value. These are called our “signature strengths” or “top strengths.” Top strengths are like a fingerprint—they define our uniqueness and represent our authentic selves. Our top strengths are those that feel almost as essential to us as breathing. They come naturally, and we feel energized and satisfied when we are expressing them. And when others see them in us, we feel understood in a significant way. If we are unable to express these parts of ourselves for some reason, we might feel like we are suffocating or dying inside. That’s why focusing on our top strengths and how to put them into play—especially during difficult times like those we face now—is so important. Our top strengths bring meaning into our lives, which is a powerful coping tool in the midst of this pandemic.

As you look at your strengths survey results in your VIA report, in particular your top strengths, ask yourself these questions to determine whether a strength is truly a top strength for you:

• Is it authentic?

• Does it show up often?

• Do others notice it?

• Does using it energize me?

• If unable to express it, would I feel empty?

Interestingly, because we care so much about our top strengths, we tend to expect others to value those particular strengths as much as we do—and can become upset when they do not. Take, for example, the character strength of fairness. A person high in fairness may tend to become upset whenever they see instances of unfair treatment. In other words, our top strengths are also our hot buttons – that emotional trigger that fires when others act in contradiction of our valued strengths. We can learn to turn these potential clashes into collaborations, however, through developing an appreciation and respect for the strengths in others. This has never been more needed.

Strengths You Tend to Combine

Character strengths rarely exist alone—they often occur in combinations. Like a well-tuned orchestra of many diverse instruments, the right combinations of strengths can amplify their effect, complementing one another. Think of a person who combines their strength of creativity with their strength of prudence to ensure that their project is innovative, complete and on time. Another example is someone who uses their strength of leadership while balancing it with their strength of teamwork, considering the input of their team before making decisions. Or recall a time someone has been honest with you on a sensitive subject yet balanced their strength of honesty with their strength of kindness toward you in how they approached the topic.

Your Situational Strengths

Another category of strengths is called “situational strengths.” These are strengths we call forth when we need to. For example, a man shared with me that although he has an aversion to public speaking and was terrified to speak at a community meeting, he was able to do so because his family was impacted by this meeting, and that was very important to him. So, he called forth some of his less-used strengths—bravery and leadership—which were best suited to the situation to help get him through the public speaking. However, because these were lesser strengths for him, it was draining to do it. So, people can “step up” and invoke any strength when needed—even if they find it daunting.

Situational strengths, unlike top strengths, are not as crucial in defining who we are. The difference between situational strengths and top strengths is that people need to express top strengths to feel whole and energized, but they are comfortable expressing situational strengths only when they are needed. Therefore, you may feel more energy after expressing a top strength and less energy after expressing a strength lower on your strengths report.

During this pandemic, most of us are having to call forth strengths we haven’t used much in the past. Learning to combine our less-used strengths with our top strengths to infuse more energy into our actions, is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to get us through hardships. For example, I’ve talked with many people who, while quarantined, called forth their strengths of hope, social intelligence, perseverance, kindness, creativity, bravery, humor, etc. The more you use any character strength, your comfort level with that strength will increase and you may experience more energy with it over time—genuinely building that strength.

You Can Build Your Strengths

There may be times in your life where you want to build strengths that you previously have not focused much energy or attention on. Most likely this will emerge after a life event that changes your motivation to use a strength that was dormant in the past. Perhaps during this pandemic, you have new demands, or find a need for a greater expression of a particular strength. Or, you may be at a point where you are interested in growth and this includes growing your repertoire of “go-to” strengths. The strengths you choose to build are most likely those strengths that you feel would help you most in some aspect of your life. It can be to encouraging target such strengths that you want to build. Let me share a note with you from an inspiring woman named Ally, who during a time of personal growth, was able to build a strength with great success:

“Of my top strengths, two of them are curiosity and love of learning, while one of my lowest ranked strengths is perseverance. All of a sudden, I realized why I am constantly beginning new projects, and never completing them. I abandon the old idea because I get excited about learning about a new one; and with little perseverance, it’s a perfect storm for never finishing anything. In fact, I had become so discouraged that I was to the point of not even starting anything – assuming I wouldn’t finish! I always assumed these were character flaws that were an unchangeable part of my personality. Then I realized that my strengths ranking wasn’t set in stone. I have all 24 strengths and I can build upon my lesser strengths! I may have been neglecting some of them, but they’re all at my disposal! This idea was really motivating, and perseverance has taken on tremendous importance for me – I now truly care about finishing what I start. I even keep a list by my desk of everything I finish. Projects big and small that never made it past the good idea stage are now making the list of accomplishments – everything from planting a rose in honor of my mother to web-publishing past speeches - and each thing I complete returns the energy of accomplishment rather than the dejection of unfinished failure.”

Your Strengths Snapshot

Learning all of this great information will not make much difference in your life unless you use it! It’s helpful to create a “snapshot” of your strengths in order to have them front and center as a reminder. A strengths snapshot allows you to reflect on your top strengths, which are most often the top listed 5 strengths from your strengths report. Write down the ones that truly feel authentic to you.

Next, write down your most common strengths combinations, which are the strengths you tend to combine for best effect. For example, I often combine my strengths of social intelligence and teamwork for greater expression of each of these strengths.

And lastly, think of a strength(s) you would like to build, like Ally shared in her note above, and write this in your strengths snapshot as well.

Bringing Your Strengths to Life During Adversity

So, what are some ways you can consistently bring your top strengths forward for greater energy and engagement in the midst of this pandemic? What strengths have you used optimally in past successes that would be beneficial in your current circumstances? What strengths can you call forth when visualizing a positive outcome to the challenges you are facing? What strengths can you combine together for increased energy and better outcomes? These are all important questions that can open up a new, and empowering trajectory for you during these trying times. Stay safe and healthy as you bring out the best in yourself and in those you seek to positively influence! In the words of Dr. Ryan Niemiec, “Character strengths serve as those crucial influencers that help us embrace the positive, endure the mundane, and navigate and manage the struggles.”


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