1. Teacher Life

The Importance of Dwelling on Strengths

Think of a time you received a compliment from a stranger, an acquaintance, or someone you know well.  

What was your reaction, and how long did it last?

Did it give you a jolt of pride that quickly faded away, or was it something that stuck in your head and heart for an entire day or longer?

Now, let’s consider the opposite.

Think of when you received criticism from a stranger, an acquaintance, or someone you know well.  

What was your reaction, and how long did it last?

Did it give you a jolt of negative feelings that quickly faded away, or was it something that stuck in your head and heart for an entire day or longer?

For me, I can dwell on criticism for a long time but can be somewhat dismissive of compliments.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t like hearing compliments, but it is easy to get stuck in a negative thought pattern. 

This is actually something that has been referred to as “negativity bias,” and according to this article titled, “What Is the Negativity Bias?” they discuss how this is a common occurrence:

Research has shown that across a wide array of psychological events, people tend to focus more on the negative as they try to make sense of the world.

We tend to…

  • Pay more attention to negative events than positive ones.
  • Learn more from negative outcomes and experiences.
  • Make decisions based on negative information more than positive data.

So how do we deal with this?  In the same article, they share the following:

The negativity bias can take a toll on your mental health, causing you to:

  • Dwell on dark thoughts.
  • Hurt your relationships with loved ones.
  • Make it difficult to maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to change your thinking and fight the tendency toward negative thinking, including:

Stop Negative Self-Talk

Start paying attention to the type of thoughts that run through your mind. After an event takes place, you might find yourself thinking things like “I shouldn’t have done that.” This negative self-talk shapes how you think about yourself and others.

A better tactic is to stop those thoughts whenever they begin. Instead of fixating on past mistakes that cannot be changed, consider what you have learned and how you might apply that in the future.

Reframe the Situation

How you talk to yourself about events, experiences, and people plays a large role in shaping how you interpret events. When you find yourself interpreting something in a negative way, or only focusing on the bad aspect of the situation, look for ways to reframe the events in a more positive light.

This doesn’t mean ignoring potential dangers or wearing rose-colored glasses—it simply means refocusing so that you give fair and equal weight to good events.

Establish New Patterns

When you find yourself ruminating on things, look for an uplifting activity to pull yourself out of this negative mindset. For example, if you find yourself mentally reviewing some unpleasant event or outcome, consciously try to redirect your attention elsewhere and engage in an activity that brings you joy.

A few more ideas to get your mind off negative thoughts:

  • Go for a walk.
  • Listen to upbeat music.
  • Read a good book.

Savor Positive Moments

Because it takes more for positive experiences to be remembered, it is important to give extra attention to good things that happen. Where negative things might be quickly transferred and stored in your long-term memory, you need to make more of an effort to get the same effect from happy moments.

So when something great happens, take a moment to really focus on it. Replay the moment several times in your memory and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes.

A couple of things.

I think it is an important skill to be “solution-focused,” but it doesn’t mean that all criticism is destructive.  In this article from Psychology Today titled “The 30 Most Common Reasons People Might Criticize You,” they share several questions to consider. The first three offered really resonated.

  1. Does this person seem to be coming from a genuine place? 
  2. Is any part of their criticism legitimate? What was your contribution?
  3. Are they trying to be helpful?

Years ago, I received an email from someone who sent me a very complimentary email but gave me a criticism that honestly made a lot of sense and was delivered from a place where they genuinely seemed as if they wanted to help. That criticism made me better, and I remember it being delivered with humor and humility.  I have often said that the delivery of a message is often as important as the message itself.

But the other thing that I am considering is the importance of dwelling on those positive comments.  Focusing on what you are doing right is not only about an “ego boost” but can actually lead to more success.  For example, a focus on strengths can lead to improved performance.  I wrote the following in “The Innovator’s Mindset“:

We cannot forgo a focus on our strengths for the sake of only emphasizing the areas where we struggle. But that’s what happens time and again. The deficit model compels administrators and educators to overcompensate in the areas that need to be “fixed.” When that occurs, all the great things that are already happening are quickly forgotten. The bottom line is: an environment where the message is always “we are not good enough” can be demoralizing and counterproductive for all stakeholders.

Author and human behavior researcher Tom Rath notes in his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, that, “[P]eople who do have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.” Clearly we need to make sure our educators and students have ample opportunity to explore and practice in areas which they thrive.

I think it is important that we spend more time dwelling on our strengths.  It doesn’t mean that we ignore our weaknesses and where we need to grow, but it means that we start at a place where people (including ourselves) feel valued. If you feel valued, you will do a lot better to deal with criticism positively. I am a big believer in the idea that we can learn from our failures, but that success breeds success. We can learn from both compliments and criticism, but we have to be able to sit with those positive comments and see that is also a form of feedback.  

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