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Could The Problem Be a Stifled "Gift"?

“The meaning of life is to find your gift...." Pablo Picasso

A couple of days ago, we shared one strength with each other in our compassion circle. People were quite shy about doing it. Reluctant. One person said that in her culture such an activity would be frowned on. One would be accused of “lifting you own chair.”

The idea evidently is that we should wait to have someone else “lift our chair.”

Dr. Frank Rogers, Jr. who was our compassion mentor used the acronym FLAG when trying to dig down deep to understand ourselves and each other. F – Fear, L – Longing, A- Aching Wound, G – gifts (especially those that might be “stifled’). If we are trying to understand what undergirds our motivations, our emotions, and behaviors, and decipher what might be going on around fears, longings, aching wounds, and gifts that are being stopped up, look for FLAGs.

No one seems to need to explain to us that we can act out and feel upset when we are in a fearful state, or when a need is not being met, or when a trauma is triggered, but we rarely think about what can happen if are gifts, our strengths, our talents do not have an outlet.

And we are reluctant to say out loud, or maybe even to consider in the privacy of our own minds what our gifts might be. If we said our strengths out loud it might be interpreted as “tooting our own horns” as we say in English. However, the issue with understanding our strengths and sharing them is a different situation when we are working to understand each other and ourselves. And if we want to perform well, be happy, live a good life.

Researchers are encouraging us to figure out our strengths, learn to use them well, and wield them collectively to make the world a better place. We age better, we are healthier, we are more joyful when we can appropriately use our strengths. (Strengths can be misused, more about that later.)

With all the societal pressure not to consider our strengths, it may be hard to figure out what they are. There are many systems available like questionnaires, books, interviewing protocols. They can be useful sometimes. With a few exceptions, however, I have found them to be cumbersome, unenlightening, and worst of all, no fun.

But what are strengths? I think it’s best to keep it simple. Strengths includes all the attributes that we (and probably others too) think are cool – certain personality traits, specific talents and gifts that almost seem in-born, useful things we have learned to do with our brains and bodies which we may refer to as our skills. Strengths even include our character traits like being compassionate toward the suffering of others. We can spot these strengths everywhere including in the physical domain, the intellectual or cognitive domain, the psychological domain, the emotional domain, interpersonal, environmental, and spiritual domain.

With that meaning for strengths in mind, here are the two easy questions I am fiddling with to identify my own and others’ strengths.

1) What’s good about you/me? What are the compliments we have received that really resonate. Our generosity, our kindness, our willingness to help or lead a project, our cheerfulness, our love of reading, our humor, our stimulating conversation, our loyalty, our love of animals and nature – it all counts. Eventually we might think further about what we are good at (rather than what’s good about us) but asking that question (which usually gets at our skills) first, seems to block identifying many other, more widely focused strengths.

One thing I have done before when I am searching around for an answer to that what’s good about me question is to drag out old birthday and thank you cards or letters (sure, I keep them if they seem sincere and on target). On my past birthday, my oldest son and his family listed things about me to total my age and posted them around my mirror. I’ve kept those!

Also, there’s nothing stopping you and me from straight out asking our family and friends, “What’s good about me?” They might need some think time (we all are usually focused on what’s wrong) so send an email. Tell them it might seem weird to ask, but it’s some homework you’ve been given to complete.

2) What energizes you/me? Do we feel ourselves perk up if someone mentions a good book, wants us to go on a hike, asks us to teach a class, talks about a trip, encourages us to volunteer to help serve meals? Think of all the strengths that could be undergirding that energy.

We can attune our brains to catching strengths and naming what’s good in ourselves and others. We can also totally make up your own labels for strengths we spot.

A strengths-professional once told me that he had the strength of “spot-lighting.” When I asked more about what that was, he explained that he was energized and did his best in front of a group – when the spot-light was on him.

My husband, John, gets energized, believe it or not, by the whole adventure of thinking about what supplies we need, going to Costco, bringing home the loot, and re-stocking. Just say the word, “Costco” and his eyes light up. I call the strength that fuels that energy, the skill of “quarter-mastering.” I have had no worry, like many others, that we will run out of toilet paper during the pandemic. I am most thankful for that quarter-mastering in him.

When our fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Sierra, was about two, she did her first puzzle. It was very hard for her. Afterwards Sierra stood up and hopped around for a couple of minutes. Then she tore the puzzle up, did it again, and resumed hopping. Sierra still gets excited by achieving something challenging. How might we label her strength?

For useful and good fun this week, I am going to be on the lookout for my own and others’ strengths. I’m going to try to capture them with a name. I’m going to be looking for what’s good in me and in others…look for what seems to energize us.

John, as we speak, is getting ready to go with friends on a fishing trip. Though it seemed obvious, I asked him if he was excited. “Yes!”

I was expecting that answer, but then I asked what exactly was exciting him. He said, the road trip, the people, being outside in nature, catching fish. There could be strengths of adventure, sociality, curiosity, nature-lover, expertise intertwining. I have spotted those all in him before, but something new might be lurking around waiting to be spotted.

When we can’t use our strengths, problems can happen. Like for example, we can get depressed and anxious. I remember reading a chapter in a book by a famous psychologist. He was asked by a friend to do what he could for his wealthy aunt who had everything money could buy, but could not shake her depression.

The psychologist visited her, noticed all the closed drapes, her lack of energy and joie de vivre. As he was looking around, he noticed that she had some African violets. He urged her to grow a few to give to people when they were celebrating an occasion – a birthday or anniversary.

A long story made short is that the woman’s whole life turned around. She grew loads of African violets. She perked up with increased purpose. When she died some years later, the obituary noted her legacy as the African Violet Lady.

I used to think that once we figured out our strengths and used them more, live would be good like for the African Violet Lady. But I have found it’s more complicated for me and for others.

But that’s for another day. For now, I am working on strengths spotting. And I do know one more way to spot strengths, saving that one – it’s fun too. I’m sticking with the easy first two methods – noticing what’s good about me and others; where’s the energy….

Could we (and others) be “testy,” depressed, anxious, and not living the good life because we don’t know and and can't use our strengths properly? A good and compassionate approach could include strengths spotting.

How might we journey together to the good life by discovering our own and others' gifts so we can “un-stifle” them?


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