As children, we learn about the world by making associations to remember words and shapes and names of things. It helps us make sense of our environment. It starts simply enough: We associate the color red with apples or the word “no” with the feeling of disappointment. The idea of red apples and disappointing two-letter words becomes cemented in our minds. We might hear associations made about us from family members. “Debbie always shares her toys. What a sweet girl.” We hear a parent call a sibling “a goofball.” From then on, Debbie is sweet and her sister is silly. It’s harmless, until it isn’t.
As we age, the world feels more complex. We learn that not all apples are red and “no” certainly doesn’t have to mean disappointment. We learn that being sweet doesn’t always equate with generosity. The more layers of nuance, the more we try to simplify things. We blanket an increasingly multifaceted world with overly simplified associations. It helps us keep our footing and makes us feel in control.
A popular student is rude to us in high school. We dub them “rude” in our mental filing cabinet, perhaps conflating social anxiety or a bad day with “rude.” We carry this type of defining language into our professional lives, using terms like the “office gossip” or the “brown-noser.”
Me? I’m a people pleaser.
I spent more than 20 years building a successful real estate career. In so many ways, my outgoing, bubbly nature has served me well. I can connect with people from different walks of life. I can empathize with both sides of a tense situation, helping others see perspectives they couldn’t before. I can identify needs and desires without people having to tell me explicitly. But I can also lose myself in the service of others. I can forgo family weekends on the Pacific Northwest waters to appease a needy client. I can skip my morning workout to make the sale and ensure another client is happy with me. I can pull long hours—sacrificing my mental and physical health—because it means my son will be financially secure, a luxury I didn’t have as a child.
See where I’m going here? My love and service of others has brought me great joy and success, but when left unchecked, it has the power for me to get lost in the mix. Like most things in life, the things you’d like to change about yourself are some of the greatest aspects of your identity. Unlike the simple associations we learned to make about ourselves and others, these strengths and weaknesses are blended, multifaceted and contain every color of the rainbow. Embrace every single rough edge, because it’s who you are, and it’s what has helped you get here.
Time, growth and maturity have helped me draw a thicker line between the healthier parts of my strengths and the ones I need to keep an eye on. I know how to say “no” and I know that the endless work of my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health is priority No. 1. If I don’t take care of myself, how can I expect to help others?
I’d like to save you the years it took me to work through these perceived imperfections and weaknesses. After all, isn’t that what your tribe is about? Finding and connecting with people who have walked similar but completely unique paths, and learning and growing from them.
Here’s what’s worked for me.
Shifting your perception starts with acceptance. I struggled with feeling like a pushover and not learning how to set strong boundaries earlier. I accepted and internalized all the negative connotations that come with people-pleasing and ignored the empathy, deep connection and joy that came with it.
Acceptance means being at peace with yourself and who you are. I love people. I love helping people and bringing smiles to their faces. I love connection and stories and learning about people’s backgrounds. I can’t and don’t want to change that about myself. I empowered myself by not only accepting the potentially harmful parts of my strength, but actually embracing them. I am imperfectly empowered.
Acceptance also means releasing the reins and letting go of the control you thought you had. You probably have an idea in your mind about who you are and who you want to be in five or 10 years. Let go of that too. Acceptance is learning to accept yourself where you are at this very moment. Only then can you begin the work on identifying your strengths and using them to empower yourself and impact the world.
Identify your strengths.
This will take some soul-searching. Enjoy that process because it’s wonderfully eye-opening.
1. Journal every day for a month.
But be specific. In those 30 days, write about what you accomplished, what you’re proud of, what you excelled at. Next to that, list the related strengths. At the end of the month, you’ll start to see patterns emerge from that list. You’ll also notice that you’re slowly training your brain to see the positives. This is a crucial skill.
2. Start a compliment folder.
We’re almost always our own worst critic. If you’re having trouble finding positives about yourself, look in your email and at past recognitions. It could be the employee of the month award you received three months in a row. It could be the raving review a client wrote about you after a big deal. It could be a coworker dropping a “Thank you for taking the lead on that project no one wanted” sticky note on your desk. Start a physical or virtual folder and save these little tidbits in there. It might not seem like much at the moment, but as with the journaling exercise, you’ll start to see patterns.
3. Ask trusted family members and friends.
Did you visibly cringe at this one? Good. It’s hard for many of us to receive unsolicited compliments, let alone seek them out. But it’s important. The qualities of your character and personality shouldn’t be hidden or something to be ashamed of. Celebrate them; talk about them; share them with loved ones and encourage them to share their own.
Understand the elements of a strength.
It’s not enough to know the “typical” strengths you can read about online—communication, work ethic or people skills, for example—but you also have to understand them in relation to your life and the world around you. Having strong communication skills is great, but what if you enjoy working with animals? That strength doesn’t serve you in that case. Start by outlining your strengths with these thoughts in mind:
- I’m good at this or I have potential to be good at it.
- It brings me energy, joy and fulfillment.
- It has a place in the world (i.e., it helps my community in some way).
These exercises aren’t a one-time thing, but something to revisit often. Not only does it serve as a reminder to celebrate ourselves and the strengths (and weaknesses) that make us imperfectly empowered, but it also holds us accountable. You have gifts to offer the world. They were meant to be shared. Are you ready?
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