The Overuse, Underuse, and Optimal Use of Character Strengths | VIA Institute

The Overuse, Underuse, and Optimal Use of Character Strengths

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

I’d like to highlight one of the areas of the new VIA Total 24 Report that I’m excited about. It’s the area of underuse, overuse, and optimal use of character strengths. This Report marks only the second time these concepts have ever been used in any VIA report (the creation of VIA reports of different kinds dates back 10 years). And this is the first time a Report has offered the full language of overuse/underuse/optimal-use for all 24 strengths!

Once you look closely at how you bring forth your strengths too strongly (overuse) or not enough (underuse), you’ll find your world opens up. You’ll discover new ways of seeing yourself, seeing others, and handling your troubles. You can apply this thinking in any situation -stressful, boring, or positive situation – of your life.

For example, as I look back at the challenges I’ve faced during COVID-19, I can use strengths overuse/underuse to better understand my struggles. I have 3 young children at home amidst two full-time working parents. I found myself regularly feeling inadequate in my caring or teaching of them due to my own unavailability to be able to go the extra mile to support them or due to my high parenting standards I place upon myself. My wife and I, like so many parents, were inundated with a myriad of learning activities from well-intentioned teachers. Meanwhile, my kids were wanting to take advantage of their newfound extra playtime or figure out how the heck they were going to keep themselves occupied all day, and their parents were simply trying to tread water through it all.

Knowing just that snippet of my story, what character strengths do you suppose I was overusing or underusing?

  • You might say I was underusing fairness and that I need to be fair with myself as I consider not only what I was NOT doing with my kids, but also what I WAS doing with them and for them.

  • Perhaps I was underusing perspective and not reminding myself of the bigger picture of the unprecedented situation all families where suddenly thrusted into?

  • Maybe there was an overuse of my judgment/critical thinking – was I being too critical of myself? Was I desperately needing some personal gentleness and self-compassion?

  • Another angle is perhaps I was underusing prudence or self-regulation? Maybe I needed to “up my game” on planning, organizing, and structuring of the day? Or, if I had some of that in place, had I underused perseverance – not sticking with the plans and structures? Or, had my wife and I been underusing teamwork – not working together closely enough to make the family shine?

  • Was I somehow overplaying love of learning by attempting to deploy too much learning for my kids at this time as opposed to doing “just enough”?

As you can see, we could go on and on with ideas. There is no right or wrong answer. There will be overuses and underuses that are more right or more wrong – heading in the direction of accurate or inaccurate. The approach is to discover what resonates most for you as you explore overuse and underuse in your own stressor or problem. Sometimes, that insight into the overused or underused strength is enough. Other times, further inquiry or action is needed. In this new Report, you’ll also be challenged to consider times you have optimally used one or more character strengths. You’ll be asked to consider questions such as these:

  • Where were you when you optimally used your strengths?
  • What were you doing?
  • Who were you with?

These questions help you go deeper to “get a feel” for what optimal, or balanced, strengths use might be for you. Going back to the examples of overuse and underuse for my COVID situation, I can see some truth in each one. But what resonates the strongest? In other words, what gives me the biggest “ah-ha” or feels the strongest pull in my body?

I feel the underuse of perseverance strongest in my body – like a twisting sensation of disappointment in my center. I made lots of plans and created systems – including work on a family white-board, Excel spreadsheets that were printed as checklists for the kids with rewards, communicated plans with the kids, worked with the teachers, and so on. Thus, I was good with my middle-lower strength of prudence. But, I struggled with carrying it out. I could also work more on the strength of teamwork with my wife.

Looking back now, using this lens of overuse/underuse, I now have a precise strength location where I could target my strengths work in the future. Part of that could involve writing out my perseverance obstacles – what might get in the way and how might I overcome the obstacles (called if-then planning). In addition I might celebrate perseverance successes as they happen (also called if-then planning), and further discussions with my wife and kids about everything.

So, I’ll be ready for the next pandemic! Perhaps that will be a 2nd wave of COVID?

Here are a few tips that are important to remember about overuse/underuse/optimal use as you review your VIA Total 24 Report:

  • Don’t get lost in overuse and underuse lingo! As overuse of character strengths is a provocative topic, it will be tempting to see yourself through this lens in everything you do. But, if that’s all you see – someone who is always underplaying strengths or being a chronic overuser – then you are prioritizing a deficit perspective.

  • Building off the last point, a good principle to follow is “first strengths use, then overuse/underuse.” In other words, first recognize, understand, explore, and appreciate your top strengths. Once you feel strong with those, then turn to overuse/underuse exploration.

  • This applies to others’ strengths too! See and appreciate others’ character strengths before you begin interpreting their overuse and underuse. This is easier said than done. It is a lifelong journey to grow in your overuse/underuse understanding. It’s a journey filled with nuances, curveballs, joys, and struggles.

  • Use strengths overuse and underuse to reinterpret your problems and stressors. See them in a new light. Hyperactivity, procrastination, isolation, anxiety, stubbornness, and overwhelm can be viewed through these strength lenses.

  • Imperfectly pursue optimal strengths use. What is the right amount of strengths use in a particular situation? What does balanced strength use look like when you are with your parent, child, sibling, colleague, or neighbor?

References:

The main journal article on this topic is: Niemiec, R. M. (2019). Finding the golden mean: The overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths. Counselling Psychology Quarterly.

The main book publication on this topic is: Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality

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