As children, we learn about the world by making associations that help us remember words and shapes and names of things. It starts simply enough: We associate the color red with apples, the word “no” with the feeling of disappointment. The ideas of red apples and disappointing two-letter words become cemented in our minds. We might make associations based on the things our family members say: “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. Yet, as we wrestle with this nuance, we often react by trying 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 cabinets, perhaps conflating social anxiety or a bad day with rudeness. We carry this type of defining language into our professional lives, using terms like “office gossip” or “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 people’s needs and desires without them 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 have brought me great joy and success, but I can also lose myself in the mix when that love is left unchecked.
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 as children, our strengths and weaknesses tend to be blended and multifaceted. Embrace every single rough edge because they are all part of who you are; they’ve helped you get where you are.
Time, growth, and maturity have helped me draw thicker lines between the healthy parts of my strengths and the parts 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 my perceived imperfections and weaknesses. Here’s what worked for me:
Shifting your perception of yourself starts with acceptance. I struggled with feeling like a pushover and not learning how to set strong boundaries. I accepted and internalized all the negative connotations of people-pleasing and ignored the empathy, deep connection, and joy that also 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 simply accepting the potentially harmful parts of my strengths 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 ten years. Let go of that, too. Acceptance is learning to accept yourself where you are at this very moment. Only then can you begin to 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. It can be 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 your 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 critics. 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. Your character shouldn’t be hidden or something to be ashamed of. Celebrate your positive qualities; 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 read about online — communication, work ethic, or people skills, for example. You also have to understand your strengths 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 the 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).
The exercises I’ve described here aren’t a one-time thing; they are meant to be revisited often. Not only do these exercises remind us to celebrate ourselves and the strengths (and weaknesses) that make us imperfectly empowered, but they also hold us accountable. You have gifts to offer the world. They were meant to be shared. Are you ready?