In my work with young people, we often talk about their ideas of personal strengths and weaknesses.
One of the exercises we begin with asks the students to think about one of their best friends or someone they admire, and to write a list of all the personal strengths they believe this person has. Then they are asked to write a list of their weaknesses.
Almost every time, the strengths list is long and full of wonderful sentiments and statements, while the weakness list usually contains one or two things, or nothing at all.
Then we flip the exercise. Students are asked to repeat the same task, but this time write a list of personal strengths and weaknesses they feel they have. The results? The strengths list is minimal, while the weakness lists are double the length.
I’ve found that this isn’t something that goes away as we become adults and further develop our experiences and personal knowledge. So, how do we better acknowledge our personal strengths versus our personal weaknesses? And what is the importance of doing so?
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This Article Contains:
- Personal Strengths Defined
- Personal Weaknesses Defined
- Why Our Personal Strengths and Weaknesses Matter: The Research
- 5 Symbols of Mental Strength
- Fortitude of Character
- 5 Benefits of Listing Your Strengths and Weaknesses
- 3 Tools for Measuring Your Personal Strengths
- Professional Strengths: ‘The Big Four’ for Work
- List of 92 Strengths for Resumes & Cover Letters
- A Take-Home Message
Personal Strengths Defined
One of the key contributions positive psychology has made is supporting individuals to reflect on, consider, and identify their core strengths to utilize them to lead a flourishing life (Boniwell, 2006).
Within positive psychology, personal strengths are defined as our built-in capacities for particular ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving (Linley, 2008). We all possess distinct character strengths that are associated with the six virtues of positive psychology theory (Seligman, 2002):
- Love of learning
- Social intelligence
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
Over three years, Peterson and Seligman (2004) explored what personal strengths might look like and came up with the above list of 24 core strengths. They referred to these as character strengths and concluded the following:
- These 24 strengths are evident across human history and world cultures.
- Each of the 24 strengths exists in all of us to varying degrees.
Positive psychology helps us to acknowledge that we may be stronger in some areas and weaker in others, and that’s okay. It’s what makes us all unique. The point is to identify your pattern of strengths so that you can tap into these to live a more fulfilling life.
Personal Weaknesses Defined
One of the other purposes of positive psychology is to bring our ideas of strengths and weaknesses into balance. Positive psychology traditionally took the stance that other areas of psychology have placed too much emphasis on pain, trauma, and negative emotions and experiences (Seligman, 2002).
With that in mind, positive psychology considers a weakness to be one of the 24 character strengths that you are lower in, rather than a full deficit of a strength in particular. Peterson and Seligman (2004) believe we each hold all of the character strengths within us, and understanding how each sits within our personal capacity allows us to respond and behave in more positive ways.
Positive psychology does not see weaknesses as ‘unfixable’ areas, and we can work to improve some of our less-developed character strengths if we wish to, through various positive psychology techniques and tools.
Why Our Personal Strengths and Weaknesses Matter: The Research
Understanding our strengths and weaknesses is important within positive psychology, as it forms the foundation for much of the theory and therapeutic work.
Encouraging children to become aware of their strengths helps them to develop more self-confidence and self-awareness, as well as a deeper appreciation and value for how each of us is different (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Further research has backed up the positive impact of encouraging individuals to explore and understand their character strengths.
- The process of identifying and utilizing your strengths in everyday life has been linked to an elevated sense of vitality and motivation (Clifton & Anderson, 2001), increased probability of achieving goals, and a stronger sense of life direction (Hodges & Clifton, 2004). It has also been linked to higher self-confidence, engagement, and productivity (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
- Rust, Diessner, and Reade (2013) found that students who were encouraged to focus on identifying their character strengths over 12 weeks reported higher gains on the Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larson, & Griffin, 1985) compared with a control group.
- Identifying strengths has also been linked to benefits beyond the individual. Focusing on employee strengths during performance reviews was shown to increase workplace productivity by up to 34% (Corporate Leadership Council, 2002).
- Using strengths-based interventions in the workplace also led to a lower turnover of staff by up to 14% (Asplund, Lopez, Hodges, & Harter, 2009).
Understanding our strengths has been shown to have extensive positive benefits across our life. Still, research has gone one step further and acknowledged that alongside knowing our strengths, knowing when to use them is equally important. Understanding which strengths are optimal in which contexts allows us to further navigate our understanding of ourselves and achieve goals (Ryan, 2009; Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006).
5 Symbols of Mental Strength
Another positive psychology concept worth exploring in relation to personal strengths is the concept of mental strength, sometimes referred to as mental toughness.
Mental strength is the capacity to deal with various stressors or challenges when they arise and still perform to the best of your ability and personal strengths (Clough, Earle, & Sewell, 2002). Mental strength is another core foundation of positive psychology and something that can be built and developed over time with purpose and practice.
Positive psychology defines mental strength through the following attributes:
With personal strengths comes the balance of personal weaknesses, and the same is true with mental strength. If not practiced in alignment with personal strengths or without purpose, mental strength may change into its negative counterpart:
- Adaptability can become fickleness.
- Endurance may lead to martyrdom or victimization.
- Steadfastness can turn to inflexibility.
- Dependability can become predictability.
- Effectiveness may lead to laziness or taking shortcuts.
Being aware of this can help you to adjust where you notice an imbalance. Just as you might go to the gym to build physical muscle and give up bad habits to meet personal fitness goals, you can develop better mental strength through the right mix of behaviors and thoughts (Morin, 2017).
Fortitude of Character
- strength and firmness of mind; resolute endurance
- the strength to bear misfortune, pain, etc. calmly and patiently; firm courage
Collins Dictionary, 2020
Another term you might come across when exploring personal strengths within positive psychology is ‘fortitude of character,’ sometimes referred to as ‘strength of character.’
Similar to building mental strength, fortitude of character is the process of identifying, focusing on, and building your innate strengths over time. Alongside your strengths, fortitude of character advises focusing on the character strengths that assist you in overcoming challenging situations that you might be weaker in (Corbett, 2018). This could be assertiveness, courage, confidence, or justice.
This process does not happen overnight, and a purposeful, conscious practice is needed to regularly identify small daily actions that can lead to you building your fortitude of character. Each day will present new scenarios or situations in which you can practice.
5 Benefits of Listing Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Referring back to my example from the start of this article about how I get my students to list their strengths and weaknesses, one of the biggest resistances to this exercise is that it ‘is narcissistic.’ But that is entirely untrue.
Listing your strengths and weaknesses is a beneficial exercise that helps to motivate a range of positive cognitive and behavioral changes. Here are five to get you started:
1. Builds your self-awareness
Self-awareness is crucial in a variety of personal and interpersonal settings. When you spend time reflecting on and identifying your strengths and weaknesses, it allows you to consider the various situations where you shine and where you don’t.
This level of awareness means you can play to your strengths and seek support in situations where you are weakest.
2. Helps you understand other perspectives
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses also enables you to understand others’ strengths and weaknesses and increases your capacity for empathy (Abbate, Boca, & Gendolla, 2016).
Better self-awareness increases your confidence in your capabilities, resulting in reduced self-seeking and self-gratifying mentalities (Stephenson & Wicklund, 1983), freeing you up to listen to others and understand their perspectives.
3. Allows you to identify areas for improvement
Sometimes we might know intuitively where we need to improve, but never actually go one step further to proactively make those changes. Actively and creatively reflecting and problem solving around your strengths and weaknesses can motivate you to pursue improvements.
The process of writing these things down can instigate the identification of the micro-actions that can create the positive changes you might want to see.
4. Increases your positive vocabulary and positive self-talk
Another benefit of actively writing down your strengths is that it allows you to flex your vocabulary muscles and develop the language needed to talk positively about yourself. Self-talk is vital for our overall feelings of contentment. Positive self-talk has been linked to effective positive cognitive and behavioral changes (Tod, Oliver, & Hardy, 2011).
5. Greater appreciation for areas you may have previously undervalued
How do you know which aspects of yourself to value if you’re unsure what they are? Sometimes we view particular behaviors as negative or ‘weird’ when, in fact, they are linked to personal strengths.
Identifying your strengths and weaknesses also allows you to begin connecting them to specific behaviors and habits. In doing so, you can begin to decide which ones are beneficial and contribute to who you want to be, and which ones aren’t.
This process of listing your strengths and weaknesses isn’t a one-time exercise. Make sure you revisit your list often to review your progress. Your ideas of your strengths and weaknesses will almost certainly fluctuate over time, so this exercise can be great to see what direction you’re heading in.
3 Tools for Measuring Your Personal Strengths
Exploring your strengths can be an exciting endeavor if this is the first time you’ve considered them. Positive psychology has presented us with several valuable tools we can use to begin painting the picture of our strengths and weaknesses.
Here are three to get you started:
1. The VIA Character Strengths Inventory
Developed by Peterson and Seligman (2004), the VIA Character Strengths Inventory is one of the most popular and fundamental ways to measure your personal strengths.
It is based on their 24 character strengths, around the six virtues. You can complete a short questionnaire, responding to a series of statements. Your results then rank the character strengths, from strongest to weakest.
It’s an excellent starting point and can be quite enlightening and surprising.
2. The Big Five Personality Test
The Big Five Personality Test is another excellent questionnaire to begin exploring your personal strengths.
Free to access and complete, it provides you with a series of statements and asks you to rank them from inaccurate to accurate as you feel they relate to you. The results then provide you with a score for the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
It is shorter than the VIA Survey and should only take around 10 minutes to complete.
3. The 300-Question Personality Traits Inventory
If you’re seeking to go in depth, this could be the questionnaire for you!
Consisting of 300 statements, this inventory asks you to rate your responses to each one from inaccurate to accurate as you feel it relates to you personally. The results then provide you with a detailed overview of your core character traits.
This inventory takes around 30 minutes to complete.
Professional Strengths: ‘The Big Four’ for Work
Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on your strengths, you might also begin to consider your professional strengths.
Many of our strengths can be translated well to the workplace and professional contexts, but it’s how we translate them and the language we use that transitions them from ‘personal’ to ‘professional.’
|Personal strength||Professional strength|
|Love of learning||Commitment to professional development|
|Perspective||Strong team player|
|Bravery||Able to deliver on tough projects|
This reflection can be especially helpful when you’re considering which jobs might be right for you. Once you know your personal and professional strengths, you can start to reflect on job roles in this context and find ones that are the best match for you.
When applying for jobs where you feel unsure about which strengths to focus on, try asking yourself these four questions:
1. Is it relevant for the job?
This one is crucial. We often have a list of strengths and skills, but we don’t hone them down for relevance.
When weighing up whether to include a specific skillset, reflect on the job role itself and review the job description. Is the skill mentioned in the job posting? Will it be required for the role or add value?
If it is not relevant, do not include it.
2. Is it accurate and true?
Many employers state that one of their biggest annoyances is when candidates list skills that they don’t have. I often experience this with the students I work with, where they list a skill they know is relevant to the industry, but have little or no experience with themselves.
Make sure everything you list is accurate about you and provides a true reflection of your skill level. You will be asked about it!
3. Is it adaptable?
There will be certain skills we pick up in one role that are fully relevant and adaptable to another.
If you identify some skills that fit this profile, make sure you detail how the skill can be adapted to the new role or industry you’re applying to. Years working in a retail job will give you excellent communication and teamwork skills, which could adapt well to an office or administrative environment.
4. Can you provide examples?
Linked back to question number two, make sure that any skill you list comes with tangible examples of when you have used or developed it. This is especially important if it is a skill listed in the job posting, as you will likely be asked about it in the interview.
One of the best ways to structure an example that focuses on a specific skill is the STAR technique. Here’s what that looks like:
Situation: Set the scene for your example, describing where you were working and what your role was.
Task: Provide details of what you were asked to do that demonstrates the skill you are seeking to describe.
Action: Paint the picture of what you did to meet the demands of the task and show your skill.
Result: Detail what happened as a result of your actions and skill.
List of 92 Strengths for Resumes & Cover Letters
Anyone who has ever had to write an application, resume, or cover letter knows that listing your strengths is crucial to demonstrate a personal and professional match for the role.
Most of us, however, get stuck at knowing how to articulate these strengths.
One of the core ways to begin identifying which strengths you should list or focus on is to read the job posting carefully, highlighting any keywords that stand out and particularly focusing on those that relate to the personal and professional requirements of the job itself.
Once you have this list, you can begin to create your own list that aligns as closely as possible. Having the language to do this helps a lot. We’ve compiled a list of 92 key personal and professional strengths that can be used for resume and cover letter purposes (List of Personality Traits, n.d.; Positive Personality Adjectives, n.d.; 638 Primary Personality Traits, n.d.):
A Take-Home Message
Exploring and understanding our personal strengths and weaknesses can be a fulfilling experience. I know that when my students start working on this, I see a noticeable improvement in their confidence and the positive ways they begin to talk about themselves. They also acknowledge each other’s strengths, and this, in turn, creates a great classroom environment where we support each other.
I hope after reading this article, you’ll have found a starting point or a continuation for the ways in which you can explore your personal and professional strengths. If there’s one key message I’d like you to take away from this, it’s that this process is in no way narcissistic and can lead to some wonderful moments of self-discovery and growth.
I’ve seen my strengths and weaknesses develop over even a short amount of time as I focus on the ones I want to work on and improve.
After reading this, I hope you feel a renewed motivation to check in on your strengths more frequently.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.
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