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What Stops You From Tapping Into Your Inner Strength?

Can you be vulnerable and strong at the same time?

Key points

  • It's important in life to recognize your mistakes, but it's also important to recognize your strengths.
  • As Brené Brown writes, “We will all struggle and fail; we will all know what it means to be both brave and broken-hearted.”
  • The hardest but most important thing to do is recognize your strengths and weaknesses at the same time.

“I keep making the same stupid mistake,” Sandra* said to me for what might have been the hundredth time since we began working together. Sandra was a lovely and thoughtful woman with a delightful sense of humor, but despite being successful at her work and in her personal life, she had a lot of self-esteem issues. The statement about making the same mistake seemed to me to be another one of the many ways that she had of putting herself down on a regular basis.

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes about recovering from rejection in a way that finds your strength even while you’re still feeling vulnerable. She writes, “We will all struggle and fail; we will all know what it means to be both brave and broken-hearted.”

I knew that Sandra had experienced many hurts in her life and often felt like a failure, but she was an amazing woman who kept putting herself out there, who, to quote Brown again, “wanted to show up and to be seen.”

A preoccupation with faults

One of the ways that Sandra protected herself from further hurt and rejection was to put herself down. It was as if she tried to make sure that she was taking the wind out of the sails of anyone who might criticize or reject her with her negative statements about herself. As if she was saying, “Oh, you can’t say anything to hurt me. I already beat you to it.”

But the problem was that she was hurting herself anyway. Sandra took no pleasure from her positive qualities because she was so busy looking at her failures.

We had talked about some of the reasons why she was so self-critical. She had grown up in a family of demanding and competitive individuals and had taken on and expanded some of the family expectations, but she was also a perfectionist who was never satisfied with her own performance because it was never as good as she expected it to be. We had talked about her feeling that she could not live up to her siblings and her sense that her parents were never satisfied with her accomplishments.

But one day, as I was listening to her, I had a very different thought. From my perspective, Sandra was a woman who had any number of strengths. She was loved by her friends, for instance, and seemed to be appreciated and admired at her job. She had a boyfriend who sounded like a good man and a good potential partner. I found myself thinking about why she didn’t see these things about herself.

“Do you ever pay attention to your strengths?” I asked her.

“My strengths?” she asked.

Focusing on strengths instead

I realized that Sandra, like many other people I know who have high expectations for themselves, always paid attention to her weaknesses and her failings, but almost never to her strengths and her successes. Yet, by focusing on her mistakes and the things she believed she did wrong, she made it really hard for herself to ever enjoy what she did right. Even though she did plenty of things that actually were right.

As a psychotherapist, I know that just recognizing a pattern like this doesn’t make it change. In my experience, consciously focusing on what you like and admire about yourself can help, but it’s often not enough to change a lifelong pattern of self-criticism and low self-esteem. For one thing, if you are very critical of yourself, you might not even be able to recognize your own strengths.

This is especially true if you are using your self-criticism as a kind of protection from the criticism you expect from others, as Sandra was doing. But there was something else that was going on for Sandra that I think goes on for many of us. Sandra was trying to protect herself from bad feelings, with the hope that she could feel better as a result. But I believe that the real way to feel better is not to settle into one image of ourselves.

Sandra, like all of us, had strengths and weaknesses. She did make mistakes. She also made some great moves and had some incredible strengths. When she began to allow herself to own the mix, she started to feel better, even when someone else put her down for something she’d done wrong.

I think that one of the reasons that Brené Brown is so very popular is that she understands so well the damage that we can do by taking only one side of any experience. As she writes, again in Rising Strong, “I believe that vulnerability—the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy.” There is a downside to taking this path, though, she tells us. “You’re going to stumble, fall, and get your ass kicked.”

Brown goes on to say that she believes that this path is worth taking, but she also admits that when she has taken a fall herself, she’s not so enthusiastic. She says, “vulnerability is still uncomfortable and falling still hurts.”

There are many important lessons in Brown’s work, but the one I’m focusing on here is the one that tells us that good feelings don’t come without bad ones, and bad ones can give way to good ones. We all have strengths and weaknesses and pointing out one side of that coin while trying to make sure people don’t see the other side can backfire, as it did with Sandra. Paying attention to your strengths and your weaknesses, and owning both, will make you a lot happier—and in the end, probably a lot more successful at anything that you do—than trying to ignore either aspect of yourself.

*Names and identifying info changed for privacy.

Copyright @FDBarth 2021


Brown, B. (2017) Rising Strong. Random House Publishers.