Identify and understand your strengths as a path toward self-discovery.
You’ve probably been told at some point in your life that the challenges you face can make you a better person. Sometimes, this is expressed as “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” You may have also been told to embrace the challenges that come your way, to welcome them as a path to self-discovery. There may be truth and good advice in these sayings, but there’s another approach to facing challenges and building resilience. This other approach draws from the reservoir of strengths you have within you and stands in contrast to the more typical approach of bracing yourself with the armor of grit and determination. I discovered this more positive—and effective—approach over ten years ago when I participated in a “dependable strengths” workshop.
The first thing we were asked to do was to draw a picture of the earliest “good experience” we could remember. This exercise set the tone for the rest of the workshop. I quickly noticed how the message embedded in the drawing activity differed from other messages about “learning from your experiences,” which typically ask us to think about a bad experience or a challenging situation.
I recently pulled out the folder I saved from the dependable strengths workshop and was reminded of how what I learned then continues to enrich my life more than a decade later. This workshop gave me a new mindset for evaluating and viewing myself. It helped me identify some of my specific strengths and convinced me that I can depend on these strengths over time—thus, the term “dependable strengths.”
While not everyone can participate in a dependable strengths workshop, there are elements of the process that you can use to discover (or be reminded of) your individual strengths. The dependable strengths approach to self-discovery is based on the understanding that every individual has a unique excellence. An appropriate mantra for this approach could be “know your best self.” The dependable strengths process is also based on the understanding that we can learn about our strengths by reflecting on our good experiences and successes. Too often, self-improvement programs focus on what’s wrong with you and how you can fix it. Some such programs ask you to reflect on bad experiences and lessons learned from such experiences. I found that focusing on good experiences and personal strengths is a much more refreshing and rejuvenating approach.
My drawing of a good experience focused on an early morning bike ride. The drawing—which I still have—shows me riding my bike along a country road near our home. It was summer; the sun was shining; and the leaves on the trees were in full bloom. I remember feeling the breeze and hearing the birds. I also remember feeling exhilarated and free. In sharing my drawing with others in my small group at the workshop, I talked about my how much I enjoyed the trees, the birds, and the feeling of being outdoors. I realized then that one of my strengths was my connections with and appreciation of nature. Other “good experiences” in my life reaffirmed my connections with nature as one of my strengths. Being aware of this strength has helped me over the years in a number of ways. Just thinking about it recharges my zest for life. At times, it’s guided me in making decisions about where to live and what to focus on in my personal and professional life.
A strengths approach to self-discovery leads to a different view of oneself than what a deficit approach can do. I discovered this in myself, but I also discovered it in my work with children with disabilities.
While my work as a special education teacher included addressing the special needs (or weaknesses) of each child, it also involved promoting each child’s strengths. This strengths approach was far more inspirational for me, the child, and the child’s parents than trying to fix what was wrong or deficient. With this strengths approach, we never referred to the student as “a disabled child.” We always used the term “a child with a disability” and made a point of recognizing his or her special abilities and strengths, as well as special needs. We can apply this thinking to ourselves. We all have areas of concern or ways in which we can improve. But is this how we should define ourselves? I don’t think so. I think we’d do much better to define ourselves in relation to our strengths.
To get an idea of how you view yourself, think about how you would finish the sentence, “I am a person who . . .” If you’re tempted to say something like “I am a person who needs to be more focused and productive,” you’re viewing yourself from a deficit versus a strengths identity. Try finishing the sentence by saying something positive about yourself – perhaps something like “I am a person who loves poetry” or “I am a person who has a good sense of humor.”
There are some techniques and resources you can use to help you identify your dependable strengths. An excellent way to start is to reflect on the “good experiences” and successes you’ve had. As Bernard Haldane, the originator of the Dependable Strengths Articulation Process, explains, instead of telling yourself to “find out what you did wrong and never do it again,” tell yourself to “find out what you did right, so you can be sure to do it again.”
The following links will lead you to some excellent resources for discovering your dependable strengths:
Another excellent resource is the book, Articulating Strengths Together (AST): An Interactive Process to Enhance Positivity, by Jerald R. Forster PhD.
Wishing you an exciting path to discovering your individual excellence and living a life based on your best self!