The first time I took the VIA character strength Survey was in 2011. I was reading the book Authentic Happiness and I’ve always loved assessments, evaluations, and really anything that promotes insight. Flying through the survey questions on instinct as instructed, I completed the test and held my breath for the results.
Looking through my signature strengths, I saw no surprises- creativity, love of learning. Cool. Then I scrolled to the bottom to see what my weakest “strengths” were, an oxymoron that should have warned me that this was a bad idea. So this will tell me what I need to work on, I thought.
It wasn’t pretty. Perseverance. Ouch, I’d heard that was important. Do I really need to work on that? I mean, I stick with the stuff that interests me. In fact, I only quit stuff that I don’t want to do. Or I’m not that great at it. Or when I lose interest.
Second-to-last entry: humility. I can’t really argue with that. Social anxiety has led me to obsessively self-evaluate and I’m painfully aware of my weaknesses, but also my strengths. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good therapist, looked at how others practice and how I practice. I read about a lot of different approaches and attend trainings in evidence based practices. Plus I rely on a lot of external feedback, which is more reliable than self-assessment. So I know that I’m good. And I think it’s important for clients to know that, so do I really want to change this one? I was feeling ambivalent.
So I continued reading Authentic Happiness. Don’t look at the bottom of the list, says Dr. Seligman. This is about your strengths. Use them to achieve your highest self and incorporate them into your existing work. Oops.
This is so counter intuitive. My whole life I have been conditioned to find my mistakes and fix them, to identify errors and correct them. See where I’m wanting and get better, deliver more. Our education system runs on this model. Here’s your test back, I’ve marked the ones you’ve gotten wrong. Here are the concepts you haven’t learned properly. There’s a real lack of emphasis on identifying strengths and building on those. In fact, I only remember getting feedback that I was “good” when the results were perfect.
And so began my descent into what shame researcher Brené Brown calls “pleasing and performing and perfecting.” We spend a lot of time trying to be good enough, as defined by the results of our efforts. And the problem with this definition of good enough is that perfection doesn’t exist and the need for more is relentless: more effort with the family, higher performance at work, a cleaner house, a better diet. And because things can always be better and we can always be better, life becomes a scramble to catch up and to make up for what we lack.
So the idea of character strengths was pretty radical to me. The thought that I can focus on what I’m good at, on what I already have to offer, feels really refreshing. It’s liberating to think that I have gifts that I can offer the world and it’s okay to think about them, maybe even to talk about them.
Another aspect of character strengths that is counter-intuitive is that I don’t have to qualify for them. They’re not achievements-based. I have the right to say that I am highly creative and I don’t have to produce anything to prove. Instead, I get to think about how to be a good steward of this gift and how it can help me find more meaning in the way I engage with the world. But no matter the result, the signature strengths are already inside of me. I am already enough.
VIA Contributor: Sarah Staggs
Sara Staggs, LICSW, MSW, MPH is the Senior Trauma Therapist at the DC Rape Crisis Center, where she provides individual and group therapy to adult survivors of sexual violence. She also supervises several graduate students and provides trainings on working with survivors of sexual violence in the DC metro area. She is EMDR-trained, and has trained and studied in several evidence-based practices, including Positive Psychology. She has experience working with adults who have complex PTSD, severe mental illness and addictions. She is the author of After Trauma, a blog on PsychCentral.