Sometimes, I just can't control my thoughts
No medication's ever made them stop
All I think about is everything I'm not
Instead of everything I got”
No one is born with negative self-talk. Absolutely no one – and yet I can see how it develops. Our society is wired to teach us our flaws, and almost none of it encourages people to be proud of their strengths – much less to know which ones they have themselves.
Recently I have been reflecting quite heavily on just how things might have manifested. There’s something incredibly heartbreaking about discovering that underneath all of my self-doubt there are innate qualities and strengths that I have had and displayed my entire life, even in those times where I was being traumatised.
Part of the process I am going through for healing from trauma is not only processing the memories you have, but also imagining how life might have been different had the circumstances changed, and recognising the strengths you displayed that you never took credit for because you were not supported correctly or made to think about them meaningfully.
Character Strengths and Values
I am skeptical of psychological science, I am even more skeptical of positive approaches to mental health. Why would focusing on strengths or my values help in a world that was constantly telling me about everything I lacked the capacity to do?
And yet… against expectations. I am slowly being converted. In looking back through my life, I’ve realised that my strengths are what kept me alive – at times where everything seemed hopeless in those worst moments – they shone through to protect me.
I am skeptical of one off tests of personality traits, or strengths, values, or anything similar, but I think taken over time they can be useful. I have used the VIACharacter.org test over a series of five separate occasions giving about 1-2 weeks in between in order to see how they change. Using a weighted average system with a low score of 2, and a high score of 10. [The top 5 strengths were assigned a value of 10, the next 5 were assigned 8, the next 5 were assigned a 6, the next 5 were assigned a 4, the final 4 were assigned a 2].
I have come to a clear picture, and with this discovery I have started rebuilding my identity, after losing it for so many years.
These are the results, and this is how they kept me alive.
Love of Learning (9.5)
The cruel irony of this discovery has been thinking just how much I was discouraged from believing this about myself from an educational perspective. I was expected to be great at a lot of things. In an exam-based school I was subject to exams nearly every term. Slowly but surely they crushed out my belief in my ability to learn. I knew the course content, but I have learning disabilities that made writing and reading difficult, these I have adapted to over the years – mainly thanks to advances in computing.
My school reports were those of so many undiagnosed neurodivergent children – littered with backhanded compliments that made mention of some of my capacity to learn without ever considering that their delivery mechanism was the part that had “potential” it wasn’t living up to, and not me.
This has been my internal motor my entire life – I am intrigued to find out how everything works, and I love sharing this knowledge with other people however I can. The only reason I might have salvaged this strength from the depths of despair, is that in times of need – that was where it showed up most.
I self-diagnosed every difference I have ended up discovering before my doctors. Simply because I knew something was wrong, something had to be. The final piece being – hey it’s not just you, it’s also what was done to you. That one piece of advice I needed to find a lot earlier also – but my love of learning was the engine that ensured I survived.
A love of learning and creativity – what a great combo. When I look back through my life I can see why I chose every career that I did, and I can realise why things started fading, and I realise how creative I had to get in order to hide parts of me that I knew people hated.
Creativity gave me the ability to adapt, appearing like a neurotypical. No one gave me direct advice that I had differences to others, so I had to improvise. I took up acting, I entrenched myself in learning how to display emotion in a way that fostered communication that people could understand. I learned how to display emotions in an acceptable way.
I didn’t do this in any light manner – television I was obsessed with, and I used to study human behaviour and social norms. I spent all my time reading plays, watching facial expressions, taking directions from my acting teachers – unfortunately I also taught myself not to be me.
At some point the masks I was wearing started replacing my identity. I remember feeling so fake all the time, so disconnected from the person I was, but I didn’t know masking was the seed. One when watered with constant negative feedback about my existence grew into a total loss of identity – they fused to me in ways that are hard to explain – but a feeling that I will never be the real me is one I have come to accept I will have to live with.
It turned out my life’s work wasn’t something to be written, or spoken – it was the person I came to be. A living piece of performance art with the world my stage. Unfortunately this adaptation couldn’t fix the underlying issues with the script I was given – and so at times where I revealed I was acting – I was punished heavily.
Where would I be without love? Not here for sure. In order to clarify just how this is a strength, I will quote the VIA website.
Love as a character strength, rather than as an emotion, refers to the degree to which you value close relationships with people, and contribute to that closeness in a warm and genuine way. Where kindness can be a behavioral pattern applied in any relationship, love as a character strength really refers to the way you approach your closest and warmest relationships. Love is reciprocal, referring to both loving others and the willingness to accept love from others.Love as Character Strength
I had every reason in my life not to seek love, and being honest there were times where this faded into the background. For nearly a decade I had decided that I was too broken, too wrong for people to love – I would be a burden to whomever I ended up in a relationship with, and based on my previous relationships that was true.
But my deep need to connect with other people was an engine that drove perseverance through rejection constantly. I wouldn’t give up – even though I lost friends like leaves falling from an autumn tree. Even though most of the friends I had were not friends but instead people who used me as the lowest rung on a totem pole.
Over time this persistence paid off – while there were many errors along the way – finally in my twenties my I found people who were patient with me, direct, and let me know when I made social errors, forgiving me for them too.
I am one of those people who is not hesitant to tell others that I love them, and this need to connect drove the positive social engine of change that allowed me access to a society that more often than not had pleaded for me not to exist.
My belief in love, my love of learning, and my creativity worked together. I spent so many hours researching how to be a better friend, partner, and citizen – I used any source I could find.
This one I am proud of as this is not a strength I had innately – but one that I developed through a love of learning. As I drove myself out of my comfort zone I came to see things in a far different light – I had come to notice that the worldview I was given and the realities of others living in this world did not align.
My need to connect through love drove my need for perspective – and more importantly I needed perspective in order to start healing from the trauma of my past. You see the trauma that happened in me to my life is vast, and you can only see it as a learning opportunity for so long before that layer of armour is stripped from you – and it becomes what it is – meaningless hurt in a cruel world – and you believe that you are doomed to a life of heartbreak.
It never helped knowing that everyone in my life has had it rough as so many counsellors, teachers, and therapists tried to tell me. Minimising the pain I was experiencing and instead telling me just to think positively. It’s impossible to see how to get from A->Z when they start you at the letter Y your first time learning the alphabet.
Contextualising things was a slow process. I had massive areas where I had not spent much time thinking, and instead avoiding thinking about things. It worked, until it didn’t in a huge way. Turns out hiding everything about yourself – especially the pain in your past – has a way of physically and mentally manifesting.
Combining a little love of learning to discover how people may have come to hurt me inadvertently, creativity in filling in the missing pieces of my past, and choosing to look back from the perspective that even the best people sometimes do the wrong things for the right reasons. I came to love again. I restored a strength that had faded from my life.
Most importantly perspective gave me the gift of believing I was capable of being loved, and returning it. I have been with my wife for 8 years. My character strengths combining to ensure I did salvage a future.
I’d not be here without the capacity to laugh. Gallows humor has served me well over the years – sure my sense of humor may be dark at times, but without it there would have been no joy in my life.
I was a weak, scrawny kid. I couldn’t fight other people. I could make them laugh – even if it was at me and not with me (and sometimes the fact I didn’t know the difference protected me too). I became class clown young – a natural jester due to the way I behaved – why not put it to use?
Laughing is good for the soul most of the time, but it also drove me to dark places. Self-deprecating humor only works so long as you believe it’s a joke. When you realise that you have internalised the things you have said, it’s often hard to drop the meaning from your words.
I learned eventually how to use this skill again not at my own detriment. Humor was the thing that made my insufferable existence to others easier for them to accept. I was often a diffuser of tense situations with inappropriate at times, but more often than not needed relief from stressful situations.
The best thing about these five core strengths is how they interact with one another – turns out being a humorous, creative, loving, learned person who has a lot of perspective actually makes you fun to have around most of the time, and people often came to me for advice.
My Almost Core Strengths – Curiosity (8), Fairness (8), Forgiveness (8), Honesty (8), Kindness (8)
These I would say I have at all times too – they are core parts of who I am, but I cannot at times bring these to the front. When I get super depressed, I can rely on my core strengths to alleviate suffering. I definitely can see all the above qualities demonstrated. The skills with a score of 8 are still core – but expressed depending on contexts, and I call them forth, rather than having them sit on the surface.
Curiosity was the spark that drove my love of learning, helped me to gain perspective, made me inquisitive about people who hurt me, and allowed me to laugh.
Fairness was gained from understanding implicitly how it is to be treated incorrectly for reasons you do not understand. The need for fairness, drove my curiosity, which in turn drove my love of learning. All these strengths working together to give me answers.
Forgiveness is a strength I thought I would never have. It’s grown over time, my curiosity driving the love of learning which led me to know why people may have acted the way they did towards me – gaining perspective which restored my capacity to love and be loved – and the final step in the journey with forgiveness was the capacity to forgive myself for what I believed I had allowed to happen to me.
Honesty – This is just kind of innate. I hate lying, and I am terrible at it. If I’ve ever made an error I admit it. I think honesty about myself is the part I needed help with when younger. I’d always cherished this skill, but through repeated trauma it fell away. The biggest problem I have had with my honesty is that people have gaslight me when I was explaining my struggles – leading me to pretend that everything was fine… until it wasn’t in a big way.
Again, in an ironic twist, being honest about how I was struggling with not only people who needed to know but random strangers ended up giving me my greatest joy, but it was a lifetime of learning how to communicate before I could make the hurt and anger from my past coherent.
Kindness – What is the point in not being kind? It frustrates me this a strength to be developed, or held innately and not part of the human experience. I know kindness was never shown to me in times where I needed it, and through my perspective I have come to see that often the people who need it most are the people who have the least.
My Middle Strengths – Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence (7), Judgement (7), Social Intelligence (7), and Humility (7)
All of these are displayed in some capacity, I can call these forth when I need them.
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is displayed every time I venture into nature – each time I see a marvel of human wonder, every time I see a new world created in video games.
Judgement is shown through my logical reasoning, my ability to analyse ideas, opinions and facts. Judgement allows me to critically assess information in a way I needed in order to actually reach the conclusions I did about my health. All of my diagnoses took use of my judgement skill – spending months carefully analysing and disproving the hypothesis about myself if I could. Judgement allowed me the confidence to know I was right.
Social Intelligence is the long game I have been playing my entire life – understanding motives, studying behaviour, realising that some rules make sense and follow structure and others don’t. This is a strength I bring to the front when I venture out into the world – adjusting my level of masking with the changing safety of my situation at all times. I cannot do this without understanding intents.
Humility is also something I like – which when reading back over this blog you may doubt about me – especially if you come from a culture where talking about your strengths makes you a braggart to be taken down (Tall Poppy Culture is strong in New Zealand). Humility has allowed me to understand my limits and to accurately self-assess my achievements.
My Lesser Strengths – Hope (4.5), Leadership (4.5), Spirituality (4.5), Teamwork (4.5), Zest (4.5)
These are strengths I had but have been crushed out of me over time. These are the ones that will be developed through the use of core strengths, and ones that I wish to have going forward. Spirituality is the one I am not really phased about – that could subside. But I’d love to believe in true teamwork, be able to lead when appropriate, have a zest for life, and most importantly have a hope for the future.
My flatlining strengths – Bravery (3), Prudence (3), Gratitude (2.5), Self-Regulation (2.5), and Perseverance (2)
It’s hard to be brave when you’ve been as beaten down as I have – but I still show it when it’s needed. Prudence will always be hard for me due to my impulsive nature so it seems to belong here. Gratitude I am trying to develop – can’t you see? I am grateful for my strengths! Self-regulation is hard for me given all that has happened, but I hope in time it will grow again. Perseverance I disagree with the definition here as it’s thought of as completing a task – if you knew how much I have had to persevere in order just to survive, you’d understand it’s not from a lack of trying – sometimes I’ve needed to quit to survive as well.
The importance of knowing your strengths
I have hope, even though it’s not high on my list. I have gratitude even though it’s not high on my list. The only thing that has given me the capacity to use these things is understanding how they got to be depleted.
For my whole life I have been made to focus on everything that I am not, so much so that I lost sight of the things I had. Over the last few months I’ve been doing work with strengths – it got me through winter relatively unscathed by seasonal depression. In those times where I felt weakest and most distraught I turned to my greatest strength – love of learning to keep moving forward – this ignited a spark in the cold darkness that grew a fire through the cold nights of despair. I had something I could hold onto that depression could not take from me – I knew I had qualities that made me worthy of living.
The spectrum of hope and despair
It’s true what everything says – you are your thoughts – change them and you can change your life. The way this message is delivered is important, and no one ever gave me the instructions on how to purify my thoughts so that I could have them without falling into old patterns.
I ended up working those out for myself. Turns out the first step is just accepting who you are even if you hate that person, even if you think that person doesn’t deserve life. This can’t be done in isolation – the key to accepting yourself comes from the ability to see yourself in others. My advocacy gave me the ability to see myself and accept myself as a multiple-divergence human who had significant challenges.
Next it involved a trauma archaeologist look at my past. Honestly realising that my life was extremely difficult, fraught with bad choices, broken relationships, torment, and heartbreak. There were good times too, but I had to find those from expanding out past all the negative memories I had – finding threads of joy in the weave of sadness and failure.
After acceptance came the discovery of the fact things were not all bad – I had strengths. I had displayed them my whole life. It may have taken a psychology quiz, some skepticism, and a healthy dose of “oh may as well try this”. At first I disagreed with my strengths – except one – love of learning.
In time I have come to see how I display these all the time, and more importantly realised that they were the strengths that were modeled for me by those who treated me well. All the people I admired in life have my strengths – it makes sense that some part of my identity would be tied to the desire to be those I had admired, but more importantly they had admired me because I mirrored their strengths. I was an asset to their character, as they were to mine.
It’s only now I have come to talk about these at length. They are what drives me each day, what help me with my weaknesses, and most importantly – they are what I have come to see in others and have given me joy in life again.
People should know their strengths, because everyone knows their weaknesses.