International Stress Awareness Week - Day 5:
Use your strengths!

“I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values – and follow my own moral compass – then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

Michelle Obama

When stressed in the moment:

Remind yourself of what in life is important to you and allow your conviction to carry you through challenging times with a clear mind.

What’s happening? It is a natural part of being human to want to know what is happening around us. Our emotional-thinking brain is doing its best to keep us alive, and so predicting the future and planning to take action to keep ahead of the game brings with it survival advantages.

This need for meaning – and the autonomy to choose what meaning to make of what goes on around us – is one of our basic emotional needs. Along with that, the need to feel in control and to believe that we are able to do something that will make a difference (self-efficacy) all contribute to the sense of identity, of being someone. They form part of our ego.

Who are you? Perhaps this is a thought that the little voice inside your head starts to chant, like the home fans at a football match, with an air of disbelief, derision and even hostility that you should even dare to be in the room. It’s called Imposter Syndrome or phoneyism.

To be stressed is to believe that the perceived demands made of you exceed your perceived ability to cope…and that, as a consequence of that imbalance, something unpleasant, unrewarding, painful will occur. These unpleasant outcomes at an emotional level relate to the basic emotional needs being violated or left unfulfilled.

Along with the needs for meaning and for control comes the need to belong (to be loved and to love in return). When the need to belong is violated, we experience fear of rejection. When the need for meaning is left unsatisfied, then it is fear of the unknown that disturbs us. When something goes wrong, or we think it will, and there’s nothing we can do about it, the fear of failure makes us angry.

In the heat of a challenging moment, our brain is working hard to stay in control, to know not only what is going on, but also to predict accurately what will happen next, and to stay in with the in-crowd and be liked. We fear making a mistake, letting people down and being cold-shouldered and left out of the loop as a result.

We all vary individually in how strong our emotional needs are. Knowing what matters to you – what your personal needs are – is important for managing your emotions (and stress) in the moment.

For me, fear of failure (of being incompetent or others thinking I am) is stronger than my need to be liked. Following that is my need to know (and to know right now!). I find it emotionally more challenging for someone to disagree politely with me and be unwilling to discuss openly each other’s point of view, than for someone to assert their point of view and be impolite in the process. At least in the latter case, I’m striving to keep alive the opportunity to learn something, even if it reveals that I am wrong: if I am, I’m now better-informed and can grow as a result.

Knowing what is right for you and why gives you a little more certainty – of who you are – that helps satisfy the need for meaning. When you know what is right or wrong for you, then you can find meaning in challenging situations and understand why you feel the way you do.

With self-knowledge comes strength. The expectations you need to live up to are your own: don’t worry what others may think or say.

How to make the most of this technique? Using your character strengths in the workplace has been shown to help build resilience – the antidote to stress. NB. This is not to suggest that you simply should be more resilient in order to cope. Don’t take it as another demand to make of yourself. Self-knowledge and acceptance remain the cornerstones of well-being.

By understanding what is important to you – what you value, what your values are – and acting in accordance with those values helps to strengthen your sense of identity and self-efficacy: your belief in being able to act effectively and responsibly in accordance with your interpretation of the world around you. With that stronger sense of self, your confidence grows.

With growing confidence, challenging situations can begin to lose their emotional power. This is not to say that all things you consider to be unpleasant suddenly become pleasurable, but that you recognize your ability to tolerate the discomfort for longer than before. Your need for gratification – to feel OK – is delayed. You can hack it, more or less.

People and personalities are complex entities to define. Our experiences in life and the meanings we attribute to them are unique to us. ‘Walking a mile in another person’s moccasins’ will only get me so far in understanding someone else’s experiences (OK, yes, a mile!); the feet inside those shoes will be mine and not the other person’s, so my understanding can only be partial.

However, our experiences, memories, and the words we use to describe ourselves are all influenced by the meaning society places on them, and so we can use that commonality to start to define and explore our values and character strengths. The world-renowned psychologist Professor Martin Seligman’s decades of work in the area of positive psychology has helped to identify a set of ‘values in action’ (VIA or character strengths) that are linked to happiness and flourishing in work and life, including building resilience to handle stress more effectively.

In his work, which began in 1998 and involved 50 scientists across the globe, Professor Seligman has identified a list of 24 character strengths, appreciated all over the world. An online survey measuring these strengths has to date involved over 8 million users (see to take the survey and find out your own set of character strengths).

Each human being possesses each of the 24 character strengths to a greater or lesser degree, but some may shape who we are more than others. These are called our ‘signature strengths’ and Seligman’s research suggests that we have about five of them. The online survey will rank the 24 in order of strength. In the spirit of sharing, my top 5 signature strengths are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Fairness, equity, and justice
  3. Curiosity and interest in the world
  4. Bravery and valour
  5. Humour and playfulness


Signature strengths feel like an essential part of who we are. It feels effortless to work with them, creating a sense of flow. Using signature strengths gives us energy, creating positive emotions and leaving us feeling satisfied. Use your strengths and the energy they create to help you navigate the stormy seas of challenge in your everyday lives.

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