I've been going to therapy since I was nine years old. Now, at 23 (and still in therapy), I'd say I have a good handle on what a job interviewer might refer to as my "strengths and weaknesses." I also think I can identify and talk about my deepest, darkest idiosyncrasies, emotional triggers, relationship foibles and more. In short, I like to think that the self-awareness I've cultivated over the years has helped me on my road to become a more productive, ambitious, compassionate (etcetera) person.
So am I right in thinking this? I'm not sure, to be honest.
While I'm still in therapy, my opinions about it changed recently — particularly when my mom decided to train to become certified as a life-coach. During her process of learning the life-coach methodology, she emphasized the importance of learning to STOP telling yourself too many "stories" about yourself, what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, and so on and so forth. It keeps you stuck: repeating all the things you "know" about yourself might be a trap. So does that mean therapy might be a trap? I thought.
Not necessarily. But I did learn that devoting myself wholly to nit-picking all my negative qualities wasn't going to get me to reach enlightenment, or whatever my end goal is. Instead, I learned there exist a whole host of practical tools for self-inquiry and self-improvement we can use to figure out what our tendencies are, figure out the good ones, figure out the bad ones, and then make changes accordingly. (I'll note that my mom, too, is in therapy. I don't think life-coaching and therapy are mutually exclusive).
Anyway, all of this thinking led me to the question: when should you be self-accepting, and when should you challenge yourself to change? Or is it all a matter of perspective?
Well, I have a few more answers, or at least musings, in the wake of reading a new study that's come out: the paper (published online this week and to appear in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) interrogates the so-called "silver lining" of those personality traits we tend to think of as "negative." You know the pattern: "I'm too indecisive," "I'm too opinionated," I'm too loud," "I'm too messy," and so on and so forth. Specifically, the study suggests that if we associate our "negative traits" with a particular positive quality, we may find ourselves making improvements in our lives in that particular area. Now onto the details…
In one experiment, the researchers told a set of subjects that they could be characterized by the trait "impulsive." How? The researchers gave the subjects fake "high scores" on an "impulsiveness test." Then, they gave the participants a fake article touting the "scientifically-backed" link between impulsiveness and creativity. To conclude, the participants were given a set amount of time to perform a task to test their creativity. Those in the group who had been told they were impulsive (and that impulsiveness is linked to creativity) generated more ideas. In other words, they proved themselves to be more creative.
So what? Well, for one, those who were made to think their negative trait of impulsiveness had a benefit were completely rerouted away from a very common way most of us deal with our negative traits: self-loathing. When we dwell and dwell and dwell on a particular quality we have that we think is "bad," we often tend to waste our time stewing in negative energy and feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame that we don't get anything done. And then we keep the cycle going: we don't get anything done, we doubt ourselves more, the cycle continues.
This is a huge insight. If we can learn to accept our qualities, whether we choose to identify them as conventionally "positive" or "negative," we will be happier and more productive. It's just plain old true: if we waste less energy hating ourselves (it takes energy to hate yourself, people!), we have more energy for other things.
I don't, however, think this study should be thought of as validation for laziness, a desire to dupe ourselves into thinking our negative qualities are actually good because why not?! Odds are, most of us actually have qualities that are not-the-best, and that we should work on. This does not mean we should identify all of our negative qualities and hop on the train to negative self-esteem land. Nor does it mean we should try to see the good in certain aspects of our weaknesses.
As always, perhaps, the key here is mindfulness, self-awareness and awareness (of others, of the world), self-acceptance and acceptance (of others, of the world — once again), and, above all, a desire to know what it is that you want to bring into the world. When you think of it in those simple, elemental terms, it becomes clearer what qualities are serving you, and what qualities are hurting you.
These "labels" may change, depending on the environment you're in. Being "indecisive" or prone to long, back-and-forth conversations may be great if you're working on a small team at work. But being headstrong, and maybe even stubborn, could serve another person who is working in a leadership role in a particularly aggressive workplace. These are hypotheticals, and nothing more, but the point is that our qualities, and whether they are "good" or "bad" is context dependent.
So there's our answer, I guess: self-awareness and awareness of context, the two keys to the balancing act of self-acceptance and self-challenge. (Oh, and mindfulness, duh).