A few weeks ago I had an experience with a new client that illustrated a challenge that many people face. As always, personal details have been significantly altered in order to protect confidentiality, and I’ll simply share key elements of what unfolded.
This client, like many of the people I work with, was looking to transition into a more fulfilling line of work that aligned with his passions and unique gifts. He was a corporate executive but secretly wanted to do something much more creative and community-oriented. He wanted to get more clarity about his overarching life purpose, and wanted life to feel more meaningful in general. I love to help people uncover their answers to such wonderful life questions - it’s what gives my life meaning.
In our first session, we discussed these areas in depth, and together came up with some action steps and homework exercises for him to complete before our next session. A few days after our session, I received an anxious email from my client. He had already done the assignments that had been assigned to him, and had done them in a great amount of depth and detail.
From the tone and content of his email, I could see that his entire being was focused on finding out the answers to these life questions, to the point that he was becoming overwhelmed and stressed. He had spent hours on this. He had investigated so many possibilities, and found out so much about each, that he was feeling confused and anxious about all his options.
“I don’t think I’ll ever find my purpose,” he wrote, doubt and fear leaping out at me from the screen.
I was a bit concerned by what was unfolding, as people usually feel reassured and encouraged by our process together. I keep an eye on anything that seems out of the ordinary, as in addition to my work as a coach I’m a physician trained in diagnosing anxiety and other mental health disorders. I’m careful to keep my coaching practice totally distinct from any medical work; I send people to their doctors and put any coaching on hold, if there seem to be any significant mental health issues going on. This didn’t feel like pure anxiety to me, though, so I suspected something else was happening.
I figured out what it was when we had our second phone session.
I’m a huge fan of positive psychology and base my coaching techniques on related principles. I frequently ask clients to complete the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Character Strengths that’s available on www.AuthenticHappiness.org, the flagship website of Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the field of positive psychology itself.
This client had completed the survey, of course, and a giant “a-ha!” surged through me as I reviewed his top five strengths (quotes in parentheses are excerpts from the expanded descriptors of each strength as provided in the results of the survey):
1) Zest, enthusiasm and energy (“you never do anything halfway or half-heartedly”)
2) Love of learning (“anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn”)
3) Bravery and valor (“does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain”)
4) Curiosity and interest in the world (“you are curious about everything...you like exploration and discovery”)
5) Creativity, ingenuity and originality (“you are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible”)
I laughed out loud as we went through these, as suddenly it all seemed so clear.
“I think I know why you’ve been so overwhelmed,” I told my client. “It looks to me like the stress and confusion you’re experiencing is a result of letting your strengths run unbridled. They’re dragging you around by your hair to the point where you feel lost and worn out.”
My clients voice broke on the other end of the phone.
“I’ve always known that I somehow keep getting in my own way,” he said. “I lose myself for hours in all kinds of projects and interests. I never seem to be able to really focus or accomplish anything. I just always thought that something was wrong with me, that I’d spend the rest of my life wearing myself out, running in circles. I was really starting to think I was beyond hope.”
Here he’d thought that his boundless enthusiasm and energy, passion for research and absorbing new information, commitment to deep exploration, and seemingly limitless creativity were personality flaws that would eternally hold him back. He’d never understood, until doing this survey, that the things that drove him crazy about himself were actually his greatest assets.
If he could find a balanced, productive way to apply them toward achieving his goals, that is.
(Note: the challenges he describes could also point to a type of attention deficit disorder, but that's beyond the scope of this post so I'm not going to get into it)
“Now that you’re aware of your unique strengths and have names to put to the characteristics that drive you, it’s time to learn how to optimally harness them,” I told him. “You can see how if you let these drive you excessively, you can get way out of balance and they actually become a liability.”
“That’s what I’ve experienced my whole life,” he said.
I'd like to point out that I'm simply sharing an interesting connection that I've observed time and again. His challenges weren’t solved instantly with this one revelation and one conversation, but it was a huge a-ha for him that what he had always thought were personality flaws were actually his greatest strengths.
He felt greatly encouraged by the fact that he could very likely enjoy more success if he learned how to consciously control and direct these strengths, versus them controlling him. The primary gift he got out of this process was a new awareness of what previously had been unconscious and poorly understood.
I found this to be true of my “Character Strengths” as well. My top strength is “Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith”, which is bang on. However, if I let this strength totally run my life (which is tempting sometimes), I’d spend all my time meditating, praying, reading spiritual books and generally blissing out, and might forget to actually connect with and contribute to the lives of other people.
I also score high on “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence”. I love to be in beautiful and inspiring places, and one of my greatest passions is travel. I could spend my life visiting places like Florence, which bursts with exquisite scenery, great architecture, delectable food and art everywhere. As a result of this passion, I have admittedly spent too much money and time visiting gorgeous places and had to recently dial back. Under control, this passion/strength of mine gives me deep joy. Out of control, it puts my financial future at risk. These days I’m finding just the right balance.
Consider taking the VIA Survey, and let me know what you discovered. (And keep in mind, the point I’m making here in this post is simply something I’ve anecdotally observed, it isn’t based on any conclusions that the Survey’s creators have drawn about its application – at least as far as I’m aware)
Have you, too, observed that your strengths can get you in trouble if you let them run the show? How might you choose to express and experience them, so that your strengths bring you the greatest joy and the best results possible?
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.
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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013