When I was a child, my behavior at home might best be characterized as “mild and meek.” My sister, 16 months my senior, was the opposite: outgoing, loud, argumentative, full of zest in every activity. So it came as a surprise to my mother when she attended teacher conferences to hear teachers describe me as talkative, outgoing, engaging…almost to a fault, whereas they had described my sister as quiet and introverted. Were we each operating “out of character” while in school or when we were at home? Which strengths was I using at home as a child … and which ones did I grow while at school?”
As the celebration of costumes and masks looms ahead of us, I want to consider this concept of acting “out of character” by looking through the lens of character strengths. If there are core strengths that we gravitate to repeatedly, what happens if we step outside the norm and seek to use strengths beyond these “signature strengths”? And, are we “putting on a mask” if we do so?
According to the VIA Institute on Character, there are 24 character strengths that are universally valued, are 100% learnable, and which embody our capacity to inspire positive growth in ourselves and others. Although we each possess all of the strengths, we have our own unique “silhouette”, a pattern reflective of how each of us uses different strengths when we’re functioning at our very best. Typically, each of us has 4 – 6 top strengths, or “signature strengths,” — those character strengths that we “own” as authentically true to who we are at our core. In addition, we tend to be energized when using these strengths and are drawn to activities that allow us to exercise them regularly. But what happens with the other 18 – 20 strengths that don’t fall in the “signature” category?
The folks over at Merriam-Webster define “out of character” as “not in accord with a person’s usual qualities or traits.” Based on this definition, are we “putting on a mask” or acting out of character when we attempt to use our middle or lesser strengths? Are we acting “inauthentically” in these cases? Or are we reaching beyond ourselves to stretch into new areas of growth?
In his book Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, Brian Little suggests that different environments have varying priorities which may require that we act in ways that do not reflect our “usual” style. Think of the person who rarely uses “bravery” as a strength, but when faced with striking inequalities at a new job, speaks up for his/her beliefs and becomes a representative for the new cause. Or imagine the mother who typically uses humor and zest in all interactions, yet when faced with a shy child of her own is able to use self-control and social intelligence to interact quietly with her child.
Little goes on to point out that although we may be biologically drawn to certain strength “types,” we are able to override this make-up through the adoption of free-traits which allow us to act in different ways when the situation calls for it. Thus we can repeatedly test ourselves to discover how to use strengths in ever-expanding ways. Far from “putting on a mask,” trying out strengths that are beyond our “top five” can push us to move outside our comfort zone while broadening our engagement, and perhaps performance, in the world around us.
How can we put this idea of “strengths beyond the norm” into practice? One technique that can relieve the initial anxiety that often comes from trying to build a new strength muscle, and to override the feeling of “this isn’t me” is to “act as if.” This practice, a variation of a technique developed by the psychologist, Alfred Adler, encourages individuals to imagine using the strength as if they “owned” it fully. The process asks these venturous souls to pretend, and emphasizes that they are only acting. The purpose of this strategy is to sidestep the potential resistance to change by reducing some of the perceived risk. Acting “as if” gives us the opportunity to try out different ways of being in the world, practicing with different outcomes, and possibly creating avenues for growing increasing numbers of strengths. What would it look like to use this (these) new strength(s) at work, or at home, or in the community? How might others react if this new strength were being used?
It isn’t just Halloween. Life is a performance that occurs on the many stages that we face every day. Building and expanding our strengths gives us an avenue for finding new ways to operate at our best in all of the challenges we face.