“Wow, that’s a strength? It all makes sense now. That’s incredible!”
I’ll never forget this reaction from a freshman at a local university in Cincinnati, after he discovered his highest strength of character was appreciation of beauty and excellence.
He went on to say:
“I’ve lived my life from this strength. It’s part of everything I do yet I’d never applied this strength to who I am. But it is how I see the world. I just naturally look for beauty all around me. Sometimes my friends even tease me because I love to marvel at the little things like an anthill, a crack in the sidewalk, or a solitary tree swaying in the wind. I can spend endless hours staring at the sky and I’m in awe at the precision and skill of anyone who composes beautiful music. I even use this strength to deal with my personal problems. Because when I get upset, I always look around me and discover the beauty that is there or the beauty that is within the person I’m arguing with. And that gives me quiet. It makes me remember what is important in life.”
For this student, having a positive label to describe his identity made a real difference in his life. It was a catalyst…an opening for new discoveries and possibilities. He had never labeled himself as having this strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence. While he had been using the strength most of his life, the use had always been outside of his awareness.
Labeling can pack a powerful punch. Many of us are accomplished at labeling our bad qualities and problems, the medical illnesses we have, our addictions and our disorders.
People get lost in their labels. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of good that can come of this, for example, proper diagnosis (label) can lead to treatment, recovery and healing. Labeling can also be motivating for people to take action and make real change in their life.
But, I’ve seen many people get carried away with negative labeling. They become their label and the label becomes their identity. They don’t know where the label ends and where they, the human being, begins.
At the same time, it’s rare that people get caught up in positive labeling. Many times, individuals are unable to come up with a single positive label for themselves. I can recall many clients over the years who were unable to give a response when I asked them, “What are your good qualities or strengths?” They just stared at me blankly or shook their head and peered to the floor.
This is deeply saddening. But, part of the answer is simple. In addition to what’s wrong about you, label what is strong. Learn what your top strengths are. Here are some steps to engage in positive labeling:
- When you are doing an act of goodness for someone, label the strength(s) you are using.
- When you observe someone doing something positive or functioning at a high level, label the strengths you observe in them.
- Consider your greatest successes and your happiest moments. Relive these positive experiences and label the strengths you were using at the time.
- Take the VIA Survey. Memorize and label all of your highest strengths that you feel are most core to who you are (signature strengths).
- When you watch a movie or TV program or read a book, label the strengths you observe.
- Give you family, friends, and co-workers a list of the 24 VIA strengths and ask them to label you with the strengths they see as most core to who you are.
Can we go overboard with positive labeling? Of course, everything has its limits. But don’t let this fact pull you away from the exercise. It is far more likely that you could use a boost to your strength labeling than to start finding ways to limit your strengths.
There is an adage that says, “To name is not to know.” Words do have their limitations. But, words can also be empowering, enlivening and freeing. Go ahead, label yourself!
- To measure your character strengths and discover your signature strengths, go to www.viame.org
- To apply character strengths in your practice and life, go to www.viapros.org