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Old 09-16-2003, 01:55 PM
  # 6 (permalink)  
Morning Glory
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Give yourself (and others) credit for what you and they have gone through and overcome–and especially for whatever was used to do it! Even if you (or someone you love) currently faces a terrible problem, suspend focusing there, and take some time to thoroughly assess and appreciate what has already been accomplished. Then, ask of yourself or another: How can these strengths be used to overcome current life challenges?

This is a powerful approach. A school counselor told me recently how she applied it. A high school student, Sandy, was referred to this counselor because she was failing in two subjects, math and science. Normally, the counselor told me, she would immediately confront a student with the problem–in this case two failing grades–after making some brief small talk. Instead, after the small talk, she opened her session with this question: "Sandy, I have learned a little about your life. Tell me, how have you managed to do as well as you have done?" Sandy, the counselor reported, immediately burst into tears. "Never in all my years has anyone acknowledged what it has taken just to get to school," she said. Most of the rest of the session was spent identifying all the strengths Sandy had used to "do as well as she had done." Towards the end of the session, the counselor said, "Let's talk about how you can use all these strengths you have shared to bring your grades up in math and science."

The third step is to expand the list of resiliency-builders–ways we've overcome life's challenges--to include other strengths. "What are my strengths? How can I capitalize on them? What one, two, or three things can I do better than 10,000 other people?" are additional questions we should ask or help someone else ask. (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001).

This composite list of resiliency builders and other qualities, talents, skills, and aptitudes paint the most important, but most often overlooked and undervalued, picture of who we are.

For the last 30 years The Gallup Organization has been conducting research into the best way to maximize a person's potential. Two of the findings are "each person's talents are enduring and unique," and "each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength." One of the conclusions of this research is: "The real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn't have enough strengths, it's that we fail to use the ones we have"(Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). I would add another tragedy, connected to the first: We obsess about and overestimate the power of weakness, and we fail to recognize and underestimate the power of strengths.

Admittedly, using the resiliency route described here is not always easy to do. We live a culture obsessed with "what is wrong"–with our bodies, our homes, our leaders, our financial status, our material accumulation, our children. And we are very specific in naming all that is wrong: "My thighs are too fat," "My carpets are dirty," "My income is too low," or "You are too lazy," "Your room is too messy." Rarely are we as constant and specific in giving ourselves or others the credit that is due. This approach does not mean ignoring real problems–such as alcoholism, other self-destructive behavior, or an abusive, violent temper. But it does mean:

1. Giving ourselves and others credit for all we have overcome, all the ways we have demonstrated resiliency. And naming these accomplishments and the strengths we used in securing them as specifically as possible.

2. Spending time focusing on "how we (or others) have done as well as we've done", suspending the common obsession with what hasn't yet been accomplished.

3. Identifying other strengths–important lessons learned, virtues, talents, skills and capabilities, how we help or serve others, all the best things about being who we are.

4. Maximizing these strengths as the best path to success, and using them to solve current life problems.

The final step on "the resiliency route to authentic self-esteem and life success" is finding ways to live our strengths, to use them to the utmost as much as possible. "Too many individuals hide their ‘sundials in the shade'" conclude the authors of the Gallup research (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). Rather than obsessing about correcting all our weaknesses, we should put our strengths to work for us, they advise. "Become an expert at finding and describing and applying and practicing and refining your strengths."

The happiest and most productive individuals are those who do just this, states Martin Seligman (2001), past president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a leading resiliency researcher. Dr. Seligman and several colleagues are spearheading a shift in psychology based on a recognition of the power and importance of human strengths. They have recently formed a new branch of psychology within the APA to create "a science of human strength to compliment the science of healing" (Seligman, 1998).

Ironically, social scientists are finding that achieving healing is more likely to occur through employing a focus on clients' strengths. People dealing with the serious problems mentioned above have historically struggled in therapies and programs that ignored their strengths. Fortunately, "the strength approach" to helping people heal is gaining greater acceptance as a more powerful and successful approach.

"People are more motivated to change when their strengths are supported," concludes Dennis Saleebey (2001), editor of The Strengths Perspective in
Social Work Practice. People I have interviewed who have left gangs, recovered from alcohol and other drug addiction, made it successfully through college despite a childhood of abuse, or overcome other significant traumas have told me the same thing. "The people who helped me the most were the ones who told me ‘what is right with you is more powerful than anything that is wrong with you,'" a young man who successfully completed college despite a childhood of living in one foster home after another told me (Henderson, 1991).

That is the most important message to give ourselves as well as we take "the resiliency route to authentic self-esteem and life success."