In this series of e-letters we have been exploring the dark-side of the ever-popular strengths-approach (leveraging your strengths and managing around your weaknesses in work and life). In my final message, we see how our “strengths” can be a comforting message for our embattled ego – but can also be a limiting approach to developing our most adaptive “best self.”
Our contemporary lives have made the job of the ego almost impossible.
The main role of the ego is keep things in balance. It tries to moderate our impulsive responses and desire for pleasure (just one more bite of waffle) – while keeping the voice of judgment (your not good enough) in check.
Its main concern is protecting the self and acting like a good defense attorney. The question the ego asks is not: “Did you do it?” Rather, the ego asks: “Did anyone see you do it?”
In protecting our self-image and self-esteem, we can also be overly concerned with what the world thinks of us. In fact, much of our psychic energy is spent serving the expectations of our external world (e.g., family, bosses, popular culture, etc.). In the pressure to please, the concept of “best self” loses out to a “managed attempt” to project a positive image to others. In reality, the “self” feels like it is one bad day away from crumbling.
Unfortunately, the “strengths” approach can contribute to this dilemma. Here’s how. We are invited to take one of the popular strengths assessments at our work place. The survey results get tabulated and great news – we’ve got talent! In our fragmented work worlds (with increasing levels of anxiety and vulnerability) – this is welcome news.
We now begin to believe (desperately want to believe) that our best self (represented by a handful of strengths) is something we discover – and has now been codified in professionally reported test results. The neat packaging of our strengths is whole-heartedly accepted by the ego – looking to grasp any firm handhold in a dispassionate, I-don’t-see-you world.
But here’s the deal. Our best self is not something that is discoverable. It is not something that already exists in a measurable state. Our best self is always emerging. Think about it. A premature preference for “analysis” over the “conceptual” doesn’t give us insight into our true self. It is a reflection of our institutional learning and early work history that is totally built around analysis! Let’s get real!
What the world really needs is not one more defense mechanism for the ego to protect (our self-proclaimed strengths). It needs reflective souls who will seek the truth at any cost, are self-adaptive and have a great capacity to be others-oriented. In other words, our best self is better reflected as a state of courageous learning – not comfortable self-promotion.
The world does not need one more person with an illusory sense of who they are. Our best work does not come from a comfortable center but comes from living at the edge of who we are truly called to be.