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When strengths can backfire

While it is imperative that we identify and nurture our strengths, psychologists caution us that we must exercise them in moderation, lest they turn into liabilities.  

Right from a young age, Parul was commended for her fearlessness. When a fierce dog pounced on her, she barely flinched. When the van driver failed to show up, she put her group into an auto and dropped each one off before heading home herself. As a teenager, she would yell at sleazy men who tried to brush against her on the bus. Growing up, she kept hearing how plucky she was.

But, as she entered adulthood, her courage wasn’t necessarily admirable. She zoomed around on a motorbike without a helmet, gave cutting rejoinders when her professors pulled her up for tardiness, and ignored any limits her parents tried to impose. Parul’s bravery had morphed into brazenness.

Moderation matters

Everyone has a unique constellation of character strengths. While one person may be persistent, creative and open-minded, another may be more forgiving, appreciative of beauty and humorous. In fact, positive psychology pioneers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have compiled a handbook of common character strengths and virtues valued across cultures the world over. While it is imperative that we identify and nurture our strengths, psychologists caution that we must exercise them in moderation, lest they turn into liabilities.

In his book, Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression, Dan Tomasulo argues that over- or under-using our strengths can spur interpersonal conflict and impede well-being. To reap their benefits, we must exercise our strengths judiciously. Too much of a good thing can actually turn out to be not such a good thing after all. So, a virtue like curiosity, which is essential for creativity and continual learning, can be recast as nosiness or intrusiveness if overdone. Similarly, a person who perseveres when the odds are against them has a greater likelihood of succeeding. However, if the person continues to exhibit tenacity, even when it is more prudent to change course, they are likely to remain in a rut.

Thus, virtues can turn into impediments if they over-utilised. Bravery can transmogrify into recklessness, honesty into bluntness, a zest for life into hyperactivity and creativity into eccentricity. So, we need to strike a balance to ensure that we are utilising our strengths optimally. Even if we are good at something, overextending ourselves can hurt us. Whenever we deploy our strengths, we have to be sensitive to contextual aspects so that our strengths help a situation as opposed to harming it.

In their book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, psychologists Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe point out that many situations in life involve balancing conflicting aims. For example, doctors are obligated to divulge the truth about a patient’s diagnosis. But everyone is more comfortable with a humane doctor who is able to convey hope even in the face of despair. Thus, doctors have to balance the competing aims of honesty and compassion. A doctor who is forthright may have to cultivate the art of conveying information sensitively, whereas a more compassionate doctor may have to curb a tendency to hedge when communicating bad news. Understanding our individual cocktail of strengths and weaknesses and the peculiarities of different situations enables us to be better doctors, lawyers, teachers, colleagues, peers, parents or partners.

In How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, behavioural scientist Katy Milkman describes how tennis legend Andre Agassi had to recalibrate his strengths in order to rebound from a dispiriting career slump. Though he made his debut in professional tennis at age 16 to much acclaim, within a decade, he reached the nadir of his career.

Brad Gilbert, who had studied Agassi’s poor performance and agreed to coach him, told the star that he was squandering his talents by overusing them. That Agassi was trying to “hit a winner on every ball” was actually his undoing. Because he was failing to meet his own unrealistic expectations time and again, his confidence was ebbing. Only then did Agassi realise that his perfectionist streak, which he believed to be an asset, was actually hampering his performance. Gilbert then advised Agassi to focus on his opponent’s weaknesses instead of his own self. When he stopped playing to what he had perceived were his strengths, Agassi’s career graph spiked again.

While you may foster your talents and nourish your gifts, remember to wield them sagaciously, being mindful of contextual forces, so that they work for as opposed to against you.

The writer blogs at www.arunasankaranaryanan.com and is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know (Rupa Publications).


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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 3:51:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/when-strengths-can-backfire/article35115410.ece

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