the practical buddhist : essentials

ask baz #2: our greatest weaknesses

Can our greatest strengths suddenly become our greatest weaknesses?

L: It has been suggested that our strengths can become our weaknesses. I’m not sure how that works. If you perceive your strengths to be a positive part of your personality, how can they then turn on you suddenly and make you doubt what you have leaned on for so long? And what is the corrective action?

Baz’ Response

First of all, thank you Lucretia for asking this question. It’s an interesting one. In my thinking our strengths are those talents and abilities that we are naturally equipped with and coded for by our DNA. They explain how Paul McCartney can play nearly any musical instrument and how Einstein theorized complex equations that explain the universe. They were each born with the aptitude to excel at what later became their most meaningful work.

In my experience, we often confuse habitual patterns of beneficial behavior with strengths. In doing so, we can build a life on these patterns and then suddenly be surprised when we no longer experience the positive outcomes they previously guaranteed.

Let’s say a Lynn is used to being a strong, directive type of manager at work. Her habitual pattern of keeping a business type of distance from her employees has always served her well. Now let’s imagine that one of here relatives is hired as this approach is not only difficult but nearly impossible if the new employee is her son or daughter.

Let’s imagine a second scenario. Larry is a strong, silent type who rarely allows people to get near him emotionally. He’s spent his adult years building a wall around himself so no one can hurt him. Then, without warning he falls hard for a woman – hook, line, and sinker. Suddenly he feels like he’s in freefall and his ability to repair the wall is beyond his control.

What’s the Buddha’s approach to these situations? We can imagine that the Buddha, who was not only married, but a father and a respected Prince in his adult life before his enlightenment, could relate to both of these scenarios.

The Buddha might remind us that suffering arises from attachment to desire and aversion: attaching ourselves to how we think things should be and pushing away those issues we don’t want to deal with. In both of these scenarios I described above, both Lynn and Larry have become attached to their behavioral patterns. Lynn probably perceived her management style as a strength and Larry most likely thought of his emotional wall as a positive defense against harm.

In their own way, both Lynn and Larry experienced a catastrophic failure in what they thought were their greatest strengths. We might say that their greatest strengths became their greatest weaknesses….if we want to attach ourselves to these new concepts.

In Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is, she asks the following question of clients in response to hearing of troubling situations and the thoughts they think in response to them:

“Who would you be without that thought?”

Let’s look again at your original question: “If you perceive your strengths to be a positive part of your personality, how can they then turn on you suddenly and make you doubt what you have leaned on for so long?”

Who would you be if you no longer thought that your strengths were a positive part of your personality and simply habitual patterns of behavior? With that change of perspective, does addressing the issue seem more doable? Is the thought that your strengths have turned on you might not be valid after all.

Perhaps the corrective action is to examine your behavior pattern and look at news ways to deal with the current situation. Life changes daily, but we often don’t. Instead we become mired in patterns of behavior, speech, that worked well for a long time, but no longer do. Instead of labeling ourselves as weakened, look at how better to respond to the changing reality with a better behavior.

I’ll close with this: all of our behaviors are simply responses to stimuli. They aren’t strengths or weaknesses, only human responses. Oh, yeah…we’re human, remember? And as such we are prone to making mistakes. But by extending some compassion toward ourselves (hard to do for some, but an essential skills for all of us to cultivate), we can get past the initial trauma of a perceived weakness and begin formulating more effective responses.