As I ask people around the world to talk about their character strengths, it is not uncommon for me to hear people comment—“I can’t talk about my strengths. That would be immodest.”
Another common response is—“we don’t do that in our culture.”
These statements, while not completely untrue, are usually avoidance tactics. In Part 1, I discuss reasons why many individuals offer these excuses and in Part 2, I share several reasons why it is important to challenge and offer counterpoint in the context of strengths sharing.
Avoidance and non-avoidance
Avoidance is at the core of many human problems. It is almost always, by definition, a contributing factor to anxiety- and fear-based disorders. If you are terribly afraid of something—public speaking, elevators, eating in restaurants, talking to someone—most likely you avoid it completely or as much as you can. When you avoid that fear stimulus, you do not get the opportunity to face the fear, use your coping skills, challenge yourself, or overcome the fear. Instead, the anxiety/fear builds. This is why the strongest evidence-based treatment for anxiety disorders (in vivo exposure and response prevention) has the management of avoidance at its core. It is also why mindfulness practice—which, in many ways is the practice of non-avoidance (curiously and openly facing the reality of the present moment)—is beneficial for many anxiety problems.
When it comes to strengths, all people have some level of strengths blindness and survey research shows that the majority of people do not have a meaningful awareness of their strengths. Thus, it is only natural for many individuals to attempt to avoid the topic because they don’t have a substantive understanding of what is meant by strengths or a working knowledge of their own strengths. It is much easier to attempt to avoid the discomfort that comes from sharing something new or that comes from worry about how others perceive them.
One workshop participant explained it this way: “If I tell people about my strengths, they will think I am cocky and narcissistic. They will see me as different, but different in a bad way. Then, they will not include me in their regular social outings after work.”
It’s not a cultural issue, it’s part of being human
Some may say that this reaction to strengths sharing is cultural. Yes, it is true that some cultures are less likely to self-disclose as a whole and it is true that there is groupthink at play toward those who do talk about themselves in a one-dimensionally positive way. Many argue that people from certain countries are more likely to play this “humility card” than others, such as people from many Asian countries; people in Scandinavian countries where the Law of Jante is ever-present; and those in Australia where tall poppy syndrome is an underlying phenomenon. I, too, have encountered these responses in each of those regions of the world. However, at the same time, I’ve also heard the same comments from people in every Western city I have presented strengths to. Playing the “humility card” seems to be more of a gut reaction that is universal than something that is solely culturally-based.
For those less familiar with phenomena such as the Law of Jante and tall poppy syndrome, generally speaking, these refer to the approach that people who attempt to rise above others should be resented, attacked, or “brought down” to everyone else’s level. Indeed, this thinking can pervade the consciousness, customs, and behaviors of a large number of people. The renowned Brazilian author Paulo Coelho comments the Law of Jante and his belief of its universality; he shares his belief that it underlies mediocrity in his blog post here. Coelho actually argues for an anti-Law of Jante that would be something as follows:
“You are worth far more than you think. Your work and presence on this Earth are important, even though you may not think so.”
Coelho’s “revision” is a perspective that embodies the expression and encouragement of each individual’s unique character strengths. Everybody has a contribution to make. Each person has a unique constellation of character strengths that can bring benefit to oneself and others. Each person can humbly share these strengths and express them in the world.
Want to hear more? Continue reading as I dig into Part 2 where I discuss eight reasons it is important to counter the humility guise (by the way, I’m a huge proponent of “true humility” and explain more about this in that post as well).
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VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)
VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)
VIA Survey (the research-validated test)