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.

Hi! I’m Olivia. I’m Afraid Of People

I spent a lot of this morning trying to explain to a friend what it’s like to be an introvert and have some social anxiety. It was a little frustrating, but I think helpful for me to clarify what it was that I liked and disliked about social interactions. However I think that many times extroverts tend to think that everyone wants to be social more, and that everyone feels the same benefits of being social that they do, especially because when I mention that I have a hard time socializing, people often try to give me advice about what to do differently or about how to change my behaviors to get more friends and be happier.


So first of all, that’s major things #1 to not say to an introvert. It’s also important not to assume that they have the same goals in socializing as you do. Many introverts are probably already aware that people have a variety of different goals when they try to socialize, because the predominant social experience is not necessarily friendly towards introverts and so they’re learned from experience that other people approach social interactions differently from the way they do. I’ve seen lots of lists of what it’s like to be an introvert or how to interact with an introvert, but I don’t think I’ve really ever seen an in-depth first person perspective on what it’s like to have social anxiety, be awkward, and have difficulty socializing. I’d like to try to put it into words so that those people that I’m friends with, and those people who want to be friend with me (or other introverts) can have some conception of what it’s like and perhaps not give suggestions that sound terrifying and horrible to us.


It’s been said before many, many times but it bears repeating: for introverts or those who are a bit socially awkward, we need time to recharge our batteries. Constant socializing sounds like a nightmare to us. People take energy. Now I didn’t think this required more explanation than that, but it might. WHY do people take energy? Well when you’re around other people you have to be spending a lot of your brain power trying to make sure you’re following proper social conventions, not stepping on any toes, censoring yourself appropriately, and adjusting how you behave to whoever you’re around. Some people are very good at doing this naturally with no thought. For those of us who aren’t, it’s exhausting and really fairly stressful.


In addition, for myself and probably for other introverts, social experiences can be anxiety provoking. I tend to take responsibility for all the happenings in my relationships. If something goes wrong, I think that it is my fault. This means that when I’m trying to talk to people (particularly people I don’t know well) I continually feel like I’m screwing up, making mistakes, and making myself look like a fool. Add in to this the fact that I’m kind of nerdy, a little weird (even odd looking: I have a buzz cut and only one ear pierced as well as a fairly odd sense of fashion), very intense about subjects I care about, very bad at small talk, and fairly intellectual, and I spend most of my basic social interactions feeling like a freak.


Another element of being somewhat socially anxious is that I have very different aims in socializing than a lot of people do. I often don’t just want to shoot the breeze with people. I am an extremely intellectual person, and in general I want relationships that allow for extreme emotional openness and good conversations. This is really off-putting to a lot of people. It significantly limits the number of people that I actually enjoy socializing with, and limits the types of interactions that I enjoy. This is REALLY different from a lot of other people. While many people might enjoy getting a few beers with a group of friends and just chatting, that sounds relatively horrible to me unless I know these people fairly well. When I’m just starting to get to know people, I want to be in a quiet and calm environment with something else going on so that conversation is not the only focus. I want there to be someone that I know very well around so that I feel like I have something to fall back on. Traditional avenues of socializing are not often open to me, and so I have to work doubly hard to find places that I actually want to be.


My interests are also not common. Trying to find someone you can engage in a conversation about the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not easy. Many times I have to feign interest in what others are talking about despite really not giving a rip. This is not very fun, I only do it to be polite or to try to invest in relationships that I care about. I do try to be interested in things that my friends are interested in, but that’s not easy either. And so overall, I often like being on my own a lot better. I get to set my own activities, think and write about the things that I like, be in control of my own schedule and setting, I don’t have to try to anticipate someone else’s needs or wants or figure out any social rules or expectations, and I don’t have to make sure I’m continually pulling myself out of my own head. I like having control over my own schedule and my own actions, and this becomes significantly harder with others around. Yes, I get lonely. Yes I like to see people. But oftentimes the negatives of socializing outweigh the potential benefits. Often I’d rather be lonely, at least until I get to know people well.


None of this means that I don’t want to get to know you. None of this means I don’t want to see you. It means that it’s hard and it’s scary and it’s difficult and I am not always good at fighting against those things. It means that if you do a little more of the work on the front end of a relationship to get to know me, you’ll probably get a lot of bang for your buck. And it also means that when you try to tell me to adjust how I socialize by just brushing off bad interactions or by talking to more people or by seeking out people with similar interests, you’re telling me things I’ve either already tried, or things that are nearly impossible for me due to anxiety. It has taken me years of practicing skills to get to the point where I can have a proper conversation with someone I don’t know well. Telling me that if I simply try harder or adjust my attitude or smile more things would be easier is ignoring all of the hard work that I’ve already put in and ignores the needs that I have of my social interactions.


When I mention that I’m feeling lonely or having a hard time, there are great actions that you can take. You can offer to hang out with me one on one (if I know you well). You can offer to organize a small-ish gather of people I already know. You can just listen. You can text me or contact me online, where I feel more comfortable. You can ask if anything’s on my mind (because likely something is). You can suggest that we do something comforting and chill, like going to the humane society to play with animals, or taking a walk around the conservatory, or if you’re far away then google hangout. But if you’re friends with an introvert, the best advice I can give to you is to listen. We all have our reasons for shying away from people, and they’re all probably a little different. We all need different things, different amounts of space, different types of care. Ask us what we need. Ask us to hang out. Listen. I want to be your friend, but I might be a little more high maintenance sometimes. In return, you get a whole lot of thoughts and a whole lot of care, as well as a shit ton of loyalty. See the lovely lady in the featured pic? We took that picture 4 years ago. Since then I went to college and got a new job and dated a bunch of people, and she’s still my bestie and now we live together. I’ve known her for 15+ years. I like to keep my friends around 🙂