“Mindfulness opens the door to potential self-improvement and growth
while character strengths use is often the growth itself.”
-Niemiec, R.M. (2014)
In life, there are times that feel joyful, spacious, and heartwarming. There are other times that feel depleting and heartbreaking. It’s during the difficult times that clients often ask me an important question: How do I access my strengths in the midst of caring for someone who is gravely ill, picking up the pieces after job loss, and other energy-draining situations?
During times of difficulty, your strengths might be the last thing on your mind.Ironic as it is, however, these are the times when your character strengths might help you the most. Tapping into your strengths is necessary and entirely possible.
The key is learning to take a small step back and become mindful of the thoughts, emotions, and actions that arise when you face a difficult situation. Once you’re aware, you can make a conscious choice to shift into the strengths that are most helpful.
Find out more about creating this shift, below.
Recently, a close friend passed away. May she rest in peace. It’s devastating to those of us who know and love her. In my grief process, I find my emotions ebbing and flowing, being triggered by the strangest things sometimes.
In the past I might have been overly judgmental and stuffed these feelings down. Or lacked the curiosity to explore what triggered them. Ultimately, when unacknowledged, these feelings intensified.
Becoming more mindful of my thoughts, feelings, and actions helps me become open to, curious about, even accepting of the difficult feelings. It marks the beginning of moving through them and toward the strengths that might be most helpful.
Love and kindness to acknowledge my own suffering. Social intelligence to hear others’ pain. Mindfully shifting into my strengths reminds me of the internal resources that give me strength and help me navigate the loss in a more healthful way.
This doesn’t necessarily happen instantaneously. It’s a practice that sometimes requires the passage of time, journaling, talking with a trusted friend, or other helpful processes.
Research confirms that turning from mindless to mindful can help us shift into our strengths.There are many definitions of the term “mindfulness” but the scientific definition is based on the work of mindfulness scholars and researchers:
“…the self-regulation of attention with the use of an attitude of openness,
and acceptance to the present moment experience.”
– Bishop, et al, (2004)
In one word, mindfulness is about awareness. It’s not about relaxation or stress reduction, although these benefits might result from your mindfulness practices.
The opposite of mindful is mindless. Habits of thought, action, and emotion naturally occur on their own and have a mindless component. Often, these automatic habits serve us well. People automatically brush their teeth twice a day. Families have meals together when possible.
However, they don’t always serve us well. Have you ever been driving and suddenly you’re farther along and wonder how you got there? You don’t remember passing the signs or streets leading to this point? It’s not exactly an example of safe driving!
When in difficult situations or with difficult people, are you aware of what’s happening within and around you? Are you open to and accepting of the difficulty? Can you choose an effective response rather than react in frustration or anger?
It’s not easy to take a step back in these situations, but you can practice becoming more mindful and walking a strength-based path.
The practice below will help you.
Think of a daily situation you’re struggling with. Start small before attempting something bigger. Some people choose waking up too late, arguing with someone you’re close to, drinking too much wine with dinner, and the like.
The next time you find yourself in this situation, consider your level of mindfulness. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What are you doing? How aware are you of these things? Are they serving you well in the moment? At first, just practice bringing more mindfulness to this daily situation. Notice and see what you can learn in the moment.
Next, try adding a signature strength to the equation. What strength will help you in the present moment? If you’re constantly arguing, perhaps tap into curiosity to ask more questions for understanding. Or try a bit more humility to just listen. If you’re drinking too much wine, try self-regulation to curb yourself. Or prudence to plan a switch to sparkling water or tea after one glass.
*Based on Character Strengths Intervention 68 – From Mindless to Mindful, Niemiec, R.M. (2018).
Becoming more mindful and then shifting into a signature strength, I was able to ________________________.
What did you learn? How were you different in this challenging situation? How did the outcome change?
You can practice responding mindfully and from a position of strength. In even the most depleting or heartbreaking situations, this practice will serve you well.