The Dark Side of Character Strengths

Let me start this article by saying how much I love the VIA Character strengths and using them.  They are incredibly positive and empowering.

Our signature strengths come to us easily, so it is easy to use them no matter what the situation.  We go for them immediately – that’s what makes them our signature strengths.  But sometimes we might utilise a strength that may not be appropriate for the situation.  I’ll bet we can all think of a time when we – or another funny person – misused their strength of Humour. I’m sure we can all think of scenarios where jokes are tasteless. The same with honesty – despite the old adage, honesty isn’t always the best policy.  Even self-regulation can be overused at times, when we go overboard and burn ourselves out in order to achieve a goal.

So we need to acknowledge that each strength also has the capacity to become, what Star Wars fans like myself might call a “dark side”… if we misuse overuse it or use it incorrectly.  This is a fairly sophisticated conversation to have, and one I would only recommend with older children and teens, who will be better able to understand how a positive quality can sometimes go so wrong.

Using a Strength at the Wrong Time

As I mentioned earlier, while Humour may be a great way to diffuse many situations I am sure we can all think of scenarios where Humour would feel quite inappropriate!  A funeral perhaps?  In the principal’s office?

And while Humility is a lovely character strength, it perhaps isn’t the best idea for a job interview where you need to promote yourself.  Nor might Bravery be your first go–to response in a dangerous situation where Judgement might be better utilised first.

And we also need to know when to tone down our natural strength of Curiosity, remembering that there may be situations that need to stay confidential.  This could be important to remember if you are in a workplace that involves sensitive information, or when someone is confiding something personal to you but does not appear to want to share all the details.  Rely on Self-Regulation or Social Intelligence instead.

Using a Strength with the Wrong Person

Sometimes we have to judge the person we are interacting with to know which character strengths may be and may not be appropriate at a particular time – and this can be difficult if we do not know a person well.

Sometimes our signature strengths may come into conflict with those that characterise another.  Even though we may be well intentioned and want to congratulate a colleague or friend on something special publicly, using all our Gratitude or Zest, a person who naturally gravitated towards Humility might become rather uncomfortable.  Likewise if you were in the armed services or police or ambulance officer, if you were governed by Judgement and Prudence in a crisis,   you might experience conflict with a partner who relies upon Perseverance and Bravery.  These might lead you to see the same situation in vastly different ways.

Overusing a Strength (Too Much Intensity)

Often when we have a strong emotional reaction, we bring out our strongest character strengths without even thinking about it.  That’s because they feel natural and good when we use them.  But there can be a dark side of too much of anything.  How about too much Forgiveness? Would you be treated poorly for longer than necessary?  Too much Judgement?  Would you not give others chances for redemption? Too much Hope might mean you never really prepare yourself for bad news?  Don’t look at things realistically?

The best thing about being familiar with all the strengths is that you can recognise each and more consciously understand your behaviour and perhaps when you need to choose another.

What About In Books and Movies?

The texts we engage with in our families can provide us with great examples to discuss this.

I have already mentioned earlier in the post that I am a Star Wars fan, and while no big fan of the Prequel Trilogy, Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the Dark Side provides us with an interesting look at the Dark Side of Love, that led him to want to hold on to something too tightly at the risk of others.

In the Harry Potter books, I love his natural Curiosity, but it does manage to get him in trouble regularly!

In the arguably controversial Batman vs Superman, Batman’s sense of Justice put him at odds with Superman even though they should have been allies.  And if you think about Thanos in The Avenger’s Infinity War, here is a character whose sense of Perspective leads him to do horrible things, thinking they are for the greater good.  There are also plenty of examples in these films where Starlord used his strength of Humour inappropriately (much to our delight as an audience!).

Can anyone else comment with a time they have used a strength in the wrong way?  Or used it too intensely?

It’s ok to help young people see that they may have mis-used a quality, or used it on the wrong person.  Often misunderstandings occur when strengths contradict each other – not because they weren’t well-intentioned. Honesty does at times combat with kindness for example – and this can be confusing.

This all provides us with a language and a framework to discuss complex interpersonal relationships.  And to reflect on why we mean well, but sometimes don’t get the outcome we intended!


Photo by Pixabay