“Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.” Aristotle
When we have trouble (for example, negative emotions, suffering, criticism, low performance) with ourselves and with others, it behooves us to look for the culprits. They largely fall into 4 categories: fears, unmet needs, activated traumas.
But wait, I only listed three. That’s because I want to emphasize the area that we rarely attend to. Sometimes our problems are not due to fears, nor to unmet needs, nor to traumas we have experienced. The problem, rather, is an inability to engage personal strengths, gifts, skills, interests – the things that are good about us that energize us.
Based on the work of Dr. Frank Rogers, Jr., we refer to all these culprits with an acronym – FLAGs (fears, longings, aching wounds, gifts (which have been stifled).
When we want to alleviate our own and other’s suffering AND promote well-being, we want to get curious and understanding around what’s happening in terms of FLAGs. When we get more curious and become more understanding, we also naturally become kinder… to ourselves and others, compassionate. That understanding and compassion optimizes our stress (and immune) systems and lays the groundwork for personal and interpersonal healing, resilience, and high performance both individually and collectively.
In our compassion circle last night, we continued to work with identifying our strengths and afterwards we discussed how to ideally use them. One person acknowledged that she had a strength of looking past how others look on the outside. Blue hair, tattoos, nose-rings didn’t keep her from connecting with the humanity of the other person. We searched for a name for that strength. We asked, how about we call you “woman who looks past the outsides of others”? Maybe her gift is a character strength related to kindness or connection or fairness and respect for all or open-mindedness.
Several of us noticed a cluster of strengths in another participant. She had made props, cooked unique food, and involved everyone in a fun and meaningful activity. Maybe we might call her “woman who creates engagement.” It may involve strengths of creativity, playfulness, and leadership. As we described all she had done, she smiled with modesty and said, “It was fun.” That’s a pretty good clue to having used strength well. Others appreciate it and we enjoy using it.
I owned up to having a strength of curiosity – which often results in being “woman who asks questions.”
Now here’s the thing I’ve learned. You might not be able to identify a gift because it’s been stifled. Why? Because you have been criticized when you used it.
In the early years of our marriage, my husband John used to angrily react when I asked him questions. He seemed to feel overwhelmed by what he called my “incessant, probing, intrusion.” In his opinion, it showed a lack of sensitivity and caring. “Sometimes I feel like you are shining a bright light in my eyes and analyzing me.” Some conversations would come to a halt with his hand in the air as he walked away muttering, “Stop interrogating me.”
I was hurt, angry, and at a loss. John thought I needed to work on my lack of sensitivity. That wasn’t it. What I needed to work on was how to properly use the strength of curiosity.
For the rest of our lives, if we want to reap the benefits of using our strengths, we will need to become more aware, wiser and more prudent, about which gift to use, at what time and place, in what way, and in what amount.
My ten-year-old granddaughter, Anna, has the budding strengths of humor and wit. Sometimes, however, how she expresses those gifts looks more to me like sassiness, distastefulness, or disrespect. But she’s getting the idea. After a recent comment, Anna looked at my disapproving face, and asked, “Did I go over the line with that comment?” In the past I would have told Anna that her behavior was sassy or disrespectful or in poor taste. She would have hung her head or run out of the room. Then one day, Anna dried her tears and said, “I was just trying to be funny.” Aha! She, like me, was learning how to better work with her strengths. Now I work harder to help her unstifle her gift. I get her joke books and encourage her to share them. Some people have a wonderful chatty, conversational gift that can be overused so that it becomes excessive. Eventually others stop listening or walk away. When we see that others are not responding well to us, we get our feelings hurt, and decide to teach our friends a lesson. We decide to not talk at all.
Some people have the gift of honesty. But honesty can be misused by dishing out too much at the wrong time and doing it with cruelty rather than caring.
The real answer to how much of our strengths to use is to look to Aristotle. Aristotle taught the value of the Golden Mean. The best amount of our strengths to use is right in the middle – not too much, not too little. Think of how Goldilocks evaluated things in the story of The Three Bears. The chairs could be too high or too low, the soups too hot or too cold, the beds too hard or too soft. She looked for the one that was “just right” – in the middle. If we want others to appreciate our gifts, we need to practice dialing the amount we use to “just right.”
Another rather easy fix is around when and where to use our strengths. It takes a little situational awareness and impulse control before we put our mouths in gear. I remember a man, who clearly had the gift of humor, re-telling a well-crafted story about something funny his wife had said. This story was told during a time-crunched business seminar with a bunch of black suits. The man got an elbow to his side from his wife. The speaker gave a “what-are-you-thinking” look, then moved on. When the man was over, the wife was still angry and the man was shunned by participants. Some people are very thoughtful before they interject their thoughts. Some of us don’t know what we are thinking until we talk. We, of the latter sort, are the ones who need to practice taking a breath, taking stock of where we are, and what’s happening around us before jumping right in.
And, yes, I am still working on this. As I get older, it’s harder for me to hold a thought, or more likely a question. I am learning to curb my impulse by jotting the question down and waiting for the appropriate time to ask it. I bring Goldilocks and Aristotle to mind. We can start looking curiously and compassionately for stifled gifts in ourselves and others. We may find the strength of curiosity in interrogators, the strength of humor in buffoons and sassy kids, and the strength of connection in chatter boxes.
I continue to work with myself. I feel an urge to ask questions…basically nonstop. I don’t have to completely stifle my gift, however. But I remind myself to take a breath and consider… is this the right strength to be using right now? If so, do I need to dial it down a bit so that others don’t feel like I’m interrogating, but rather than I want to understand and connect?
The stifled gift work, the strengths work, is strongly related to self-awareness, self-understanding, self-development which also folds into understanding how our strengths impact others, social awareness. Ultimately our relationships, our general well-being, and success in life are not just related to working with our own and others fears, longings, and aching wounds, but also skillfully unwrapping our gifts.
How might we journey together to the Good Life by learning how to unstifle our gifts?
As a kick-starter for spotting strengths, here are some unique characteristics that are good in us humans (people around the world appreciate them and promote them). From the renowned work of Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Christopher Peterson:
Creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective-taking, bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality (enthusiasm, energy), love, kindness (generosity, care, compassion, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, social responsibility, teamwork, fairness, leadership, forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self-control, awe, wonder, appreciation of beauty and excellence, hope, optimism, humor, purpose
(I'd love to hear about your own strengths spotting and how you have better optimized using your own or others' strengths rather than stifling them, email: firstname.lastname@example.org)