Therapist Column: What Can Therapy Do? By Douglas Newton, LMFT

The Idea:  Map Your Strengths to Moments That Cause Anxiety

How can we use our strengths to help us?  When you stop to think about it, are you clear on what your strengths are?  When you identify strengths you already have, you become more aware of what is working well in your life (perhaps shifting your focus from what you feel isn’t working).  Your strengths represent tools already available to you–not new habits that you have to learn to deal with stress and pressure when it comes.  To quote Rick Hansen, “Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is not.”

Awareness is the ocean and thoughts are the fish.

When you list your strengths, you are inviting them forward into your awareness where you can call them into service.  Are you often generous?  Can you step into a room with confidence?  Is your mind creative enough to help you contemplate different facets of a situation or problem?  Perhaps you are deliberate, or loyal, or strong-willed.

How to identify and leverage your strengths

To identify your strengths, take a sheet of paper and number one to five on the left side, with a few lines of space in between.  Then list five qualities that describe your character.  If this seems daunting, imagine laying this out in a job interview. Once you have identified five, enrich your understanding of your strengths by adding aspects that magnetically adhere to those core qualities.  For example, you might write “detail oriented.”  Next to that, list other strengths that nourish your capacity to be detail oriented.  This might include “deliberate” or “able to sustain focused attention” or “methodical.”

Keep asking yourself questions like this until your strengths feel more defined and authentic.  (Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of how others see us and how we interpret that for another time).   Onward.

On the right side of the page, list five situations that typically cause you to feel stress or anxiety.  They could be general, such as “social situations,” or specific, such as “presenting research conclusions to my colleagues,”  or “talking with my in-laws about whether my partner and I are planning to start a family.”

Once you have populated your page with strengths and situational stressors, you can start exploring how strengths you already possess can be applied to specific situations to support you and lower your stress and anxiety level.

This may feel awkward or inexact at first.  That means you’re a human.  It’s okay to add items to your list or recall other strengths that may have been off your radar and add them later.  It’s not a test of urgency or recall.  Expanding your list over time is up to you, according to how broadly you can elaborate your onboard support system.

What’s the difference between my strengths and areas of growth?

How does using your already existing strengths contrast with adding “coping skills” that may feel novel or hard to adopt?  It feels organic–less of a stretch–to use strengths you already have.

The act of writing down your strengths plants these ideas into your awareness.  Stay with me on this one.  If you are aware of a strength and clearly identify it as such on paper, you feel an increased sense of ownership.   You can use your strengths intentionally, with activated, conscious thinking.  While you may have to get used to calling your strengths into action at first, repeated efforts to do so in trying moments becomes easier over time.  Practice makes progress. . .

If you already have a therapist to help you enrich your experience and unpack what you have learned, you can gather other insights in session.  Was it difficult to own your strengths?  Anything holding you back?  Were there surprises writing things down on paper?  A therapist can help you articulate your success to own your increased sense of control over stress and anxiety.  Your therapist can add context and help expand your insights and point to how to leverage your strengths elsewhere in your life.

If you don’t yet have a therapist, consider employing the experts at SF Stress & Anxiety Center.  Clear the fog.  Find and expand your center. Get the help that makes a concrete difference in your life and how you relate to yourself, others and the world.  Click the button below to schedule a time to speak to a Care-Coordinator.


By: Douglas Newton, LMFT

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