Quite a Character

How to understand your own and others' personality traits

Weeding for Character

Do our deep-rooted strengths sometimes crowd out other people?

This morning I awoke to a brisk sunny day with a blanket of dew on the ground. I took my dogs outside in my backyard and, as their souls awakened with the fresh smells, I began noticing weeds. As I noticed one I found another until all I could see was weeds, weeds, weeds! I knew the moisture from the dew created a perfect opportunity to begin pulling them from their earthen mooring, and so I spent 30 minutes or so on the ground grabbing as closely to the roots as I could get and gently wiggling the weeds loose. My mind wandered, and, as you might guess given my unabashed public exposure of my obsession with understanding character, I began thinking of character.

Why, among all of the plant life around me, was I targeting these poor weeds with my death grip? What is it about weeds that make them unwanted? It's because, if left to their own devices, they spread wildly and crowd out everything else. The groundcover gets crowded out. The decorative garden rocks get blanketed. I guess they are basically selfish.

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As it applies to character, do any of us tend to play our own strengths so loudly as to drown out others? Do we make room for others or simply focus on expressing our own satisfaction?

I thought of a family I saw in therapy that had a child who was very angry and made his family miserable with it. I helped the child and his family to see him as someone with an exquisite sense of fairness and rather unbridled curiosity. These traits were responding to perceived unfairness in the family and various temptations from peers (vandalism, drugs), and thus they expressed themselves in anger and juvenile delinquency. His core strengths of character had turned into weeds! And, it was also obvious that these "weeds" were crowding out the deep and richly textured love from his parents and siblings. My work with them was to identify their abiding strengths and help them appreciate each others' strengths. The parents acknowledged unfair aspects of their behavior and the child acknowledged the lost love. It was not long before the family was finished with my services.

Newton figured out that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We need to understand that when we express our own strengths that there is an impact on how others express theirs. Sometimes strengths beget strengths, as when a loving response draws a reciprocal response of love. This is the upward spiral of expressing signature strengths of character. There are other times, however, when overplaying strengths squelches expression of others. Think about how you use your strengths of character.

Character traits are things of beauty. Don't turn them into weeds by over-using them and crowding out the beauty of others.

Neal Mayerson, Ph.D., is the founder and Chairman of the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character.

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