Strengths and Mental Illness

Lately, our culture seems to be all about optimizing our strengths. At work, we’ve been taking Strengths Finder and analyzing our strengths up the wazoo. We’re often told how we need to play to what we’re best at. While in the past, we were often told to focus most on what we were worst at to bring it up to speed, we’ve had somewhat of a shift to focusing on how your strengths can help you across the board.

While hearing all of these comments about strengths, and how to optimize myself, I found myself somewhat frustrated. It can be hard to imagine excelling at things when it’s a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. In addition, my strengths in Strengths Finders came up as competition, achievement, input, intellection, and learning. Essentially, all of these things at their root have caused me a great deal of heartache and stress. I can’t imagine I would have the mental illnesses I do without them, particularly without competition and achievement. It was hard for me to see how those could be strengths, how they could help me succeed and flourish in life. I was also frustrated at the idea that we should focus on our strengths and not worry about our weaknesses because we would never excel at them. As someone whose weaknesses are not just a nuisance, but are in fact seriously debilitating, this doesn’t seem far practical to me.

So what can someone with a mental illness learn from these strengths based ideas? Can we use them to our advantage? Can mental health treatment benefit from this movement towards strengths?

The first thing that stuck out to me when contemplating strengths is that I spend a lot of time in the mindset of my strengths. Perhaps too much time. When we were discussing them in my office, we mentioned that one could over rely on one’s strengths: focus too much on one way of doing things, and get lost in that. This can be damaging, and actually turn your strength into a weakness of sorts. As an example, let’s look at competition. This strength is about being able to compare yourself to others, to see where you fit in, to see how others are doing things, and to use that comparison as motivation. When you rely overly hard on it, everything becomes a competition, you start to be extremely hard on yourself if you’re not first at everything, and you can become vicious in your attempts to win at all costs. You don’t focus on the larger picture of how competition is helpful, and instead compete simply for competition’s sake. This happens to me quite often. In this case I’m relying way too hard on one strength to get me through, using it as my sole motivator, and I’m not allowing myself to be balanced.

I am used to looking at my competitive nature as a weakness, as something that needs to be fixed. I’m used to seeing it as the source of many of my problems. I’ve been told not to compare myself to others because it will make me miserable. But truth be told, I feel quite lost when I can’t compare myself to others. If I don’t have a benchmark, I’m not sure where I should be. If I don’t know that I’m getting better, I feel a bit lost about myself and my accomplishments. Having this shift to seeing it not as a weakness, but simply as a strength that I need to be more aware of has been incredibly helpful.

Another way to look at this is to circumvent some of your perceived weaknesses. I’m not so good at a lot of the including, social type skills. Social anxiety and me are best buds. This can make my life harder when it comes to things like making phone calls or doing the customer service portion of my job. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get past this social anxiety. However it might be more helpful for me to put my time and effort into projects that come more naturally to me, or to try to approach social engagements as a way to learn something so as to engage the things I do feel good at. I feel good at explaining things to others, so if I view myself as simply a help desk rather than someone trying to make a deep personal connection, I feel far more comfortable.

However despite how helpful focusing on your strengths can be, there are times when weaknesses require your attention (e.g. when you can’t get out of bed in the morning). This can make focusing on your strengths difficult. This might be a time to think about balance, and to think about how strengths and weaknesses are related to the myths that we carry. In DBT, we like to talk about myths. These are things that you are convinced are true, that were probably helpful coping mechanisms at one point, but are not any longer. They include things like “anger is not acceptable”, or “I can’t ask for help”.

Oftentimes, we internalize myths about what our strengths should be, or about how heavily we should rely on our strengths. To go back to competition, I often tell myself that I need to be the best at everything I do. This is a myth. And it means that I obsess over my competition strength. It may even mean that I force myself into it in situations that I don’t want to use it. Perhaps if I didn’t feel the weight of having to be the best at everything all day long hovering over me from the moment I wake up, I’d have a bit more spring in my step upon waking. Thinking about the values that you assign with your strengths can help illuminate some of those myths and help you understand how pulling back on a few of your strengths may help you with some of your weaknesses.

Perhaps mental health treatment focuses too much on what we can’t do and the ways that our brains hurt us, rather than imagining what we do right and asking us to rely on those things. Perhaps spending some time thinking about what we do well can help us find workarounds for the things we don’t like.

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