Taking the VIA Survey and getting your rank order list of strengths is a great first step in becoming more self-aware. But rich, deep personal growth happens when you take time to explore how these strengths impact your thoughts, affect your emotions and play out in your behaviors.
Here are some tips to help you explore your character strengths profile:
1. Acknowledge Your Strengths as Strengths
After you take the free VIA Survey, sit quietly and ask yourself, “Does this feel like me?” Sometimes you may take your strengths for granted and fail to acknowledge that what comes naturally to you may not be as easy or natural for others. Identifying your top strengths has been found to increase happiness because it feels like a “win,” and it validates your best qualities to yourself. This is why it is so important to take some time to honor who you are and acknowledge that your best strengths bring you important benefits that make a difference to others, too.
2. Think of a Time When You Used All Your Strengths in a Positive, Proactive Way
The first assignment I received during my year in the first MAPP (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) program at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005-2006 was to write an essay about a time when I’d used all of my character strengths in a positive, proactive way that had brought out my best self.
In a flash, I realized that many of my proudest moments in life had involved the commingling of my top strengths – love, creativity, zest, bravery and wisdom – including when I wrote my first book, My Name is Caroline (Doubleday 1988) (which is my autobiographical account of how I overcame bulimia at a time when it was rarely discussed publicly and recovery was elusive.)
The reason why this exercise is so powerful is because it gives you an example of how you can use your top strengths in the right dose and in the right setting to be purposeful and powerful. This blueprint can guide you in avoiding the overuse/underuse of your strengths in other settings.
3. Identify the Dark Side of Your Strengths
Challenge yourself to think of times when your strengths have gotten in your way. For example, when someone leans too heavily on their “Judgment & Critical Thinking” strength, they can overthink decisions while failing to take action, and also become overly critical and judgmental of themselves or others. Kindness is also a lovely trait that turns into obsequiousness when we feel compelled to over-give to others, possibly in an attempt to be liked.
Identifying ways that you may have overused a character strength in a situation can help you avoid that behavior in the future.
4. Determine Areas of Underuse
Just as you can overuse a strength, you can underuse your strengths, as well, in a variety of ways. It might be helpful to look at how you express your strengths along two dimensions: interpersonally (with others) and intrapersonally (within yourself). For example, one way you can underuse the strength of Love of Learning is by taking courses and reading books about something you’re passionate about, but failing to apply the same lens on yourself when you need to learn about something that needs to be addressed in your behavior.
5. Are You Offended by The Absence of a Strength in Someone Else?
One interesting way to think about your strengths is that people are often deeply offended by the absence of one of their top strengths in someone else. For example, someone with honesty as a top strength will be more impacted by the dishonesty of people or organizations they experience or hear about, and people with curiosity as a top strength will be unable to understand, or even tolerate, people who display no curiosity about themselves, others, or the world.
6. Identify Your Favorite Super Hero, Cartoon Character or Hero from History
One fun way to think about your strengths is through an exercise Chris Peterson, the co-creator of the VIA, taught us during my year at Penn. He suggested that we identify our favorite characters from plays, literature, movies, comic books or even history and describe that character’s top traits. He said that we are often fascinated by and admiring of characters who match our top five strengths. For example, someone who loves Wonder Woman probably has the strength of bravery, and an admirer of Gandhi might have humility as a top five strength.
As you approach any new endeavor with grit, and an appreciation for the impact your best self can have on the world, make sure you take advantage of the many ways that your strengths can amplify your efforts, and be aware that too much of a good thing might not be what’s called for.
Recently I recorded a 30-minute Facebook Live session where I explained how the VIA came to be, why I like it so much, and what types of learnings we can get from using it.