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Character Strengths Trump Challenges: Find your Strengths, Enhance Mental Health

We all have strengths, and we can use them to increase mental health and well-being.

Character strengths. Strength. It’s a word so often associated with humanity. We refer to people as strong, and we admire them for it. We encourage each other to be strong in the face of adversity. And, almost without exception, we all want to be strong. Whether we are facing physical health challenges, mental health challenges (the two aren’t actually mutually exclusive), relationship challenges, situational life challenges, or any combination of these very human struggles, we do want to be strong.

So often, though, we fear that we aren’t, can’t be, strong because we are living with these challenges. I say malarkey! Inherent in each and every human being is strength–the ability to be mentally, emotionally, and even physically strong (okay, so I would never qualify to watch a weight-lifting competition, much less enter one, but I can carry my groceries into the house).

We All Have Strengths Within

Also inherent in each and every one of us are strengths–aspects of our character and our inner selves that both give us our fortitude and allow us to function in and contribute positively to our inner and outer worlds. Positive psychologists spend a great deal of time and energy researching and figuring out just what makes us human and just what it is that allow us to live well and to thrive. Positive psychology seeks to go beyond mere problem management top help people help themselves thrive.

Yes, mental illness exists. Disease exists. Problems and struggles exist. Yet these don’t define who we are, and they don’t have to severely limit our lives. Wellness doesn’t mean the absence of illness. Experiencing mental health and well-being means making a life worth living.

Inspirational? Absolutely. Desirable? A resounding yes. Easy? Not so much. Possible? Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yes. Yes. How? There are multiple, ongoing paths to crafting a life worth living and thriving despite challenges. A major component of positive psychology involves concentrating on and developing character strengths. We all have strengths within us (the six main categories of positive psychology’s character strengths are wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence), and we can all seek to act on those strengths to bring more meaning into our lives, increase our sense of purpose, increase well-being and mental health, and create that life worth living.

You Can Live Your Strengths Before You Feel Them

To be strong and to develop our strengths go hand in hand. When I was in graduate school for counseling, one of my professors emphasized the importance of believing in people. All people have within them the strength and the capability of healing. That discussion had a profound impact on my outlook, both toward others and toward myself. Starting about a decade ago in the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury, I spent time in a behavioral health hospital five different times over the course of several years. At the time, it seemed as though I had no inner strength whatsoever, and when my psychologist insisted time and again that I had what it took to thrive, I didn’t really believe him. Yet part of me did. Deep down, I did believe in people’s strength, their ability to start each day anew and to draw on their character strengths that day and the next day and the next.

I began to act on this concept that I wasn’t so sure applied to me, a fake-it-till-you-make-it sort of approach.  Lo and behold, like exercising an atrophied muscle group after the removal of a cast, I began to feel strong. So I acted more. And I felt better.  And the upward cycle continued. Years later, I returned to that behavioral health hospital to speak about mental health, the hospital from a consumer’s perspective, my novel Leave of Absence and its setting in a behavioral health hospital. My former psychologist attended my presentation, and afterward, he approached me, shook, my hand, and said that he was not all surprised that I was now a novelist, columnist, and mental health speaker. Why? Because he believed in the power of human strength.

We all have strengths, and we can use them to get through challenges and enhance mental health. In Leave of Absence, Oliver Graham is a patient in Airhaven Behavioral Health Center. At one point, one of the helpers there, a man named Matt, says to Oliver, “I do believe you’re capable of getting through this, you know.” Oliver didn’t know. He couldn’t yet. Feeling strong, developing the strengths we have, and acting strong can be a challenge in itself when we’re living with illness physical, mental, or both. Yet it is possible. Act as if you already have strength (because you do), and soon it won’t feel phony. Remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (who happens to have an important part in Leave of Absence):

With a new day comes new strengths and new thoughts.

Wake up. Focus on your strength and your strengths, and make not just a life but a life worth living.

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