The Strengths Thing

Yesterday at therapy, the topic of my strengths came up. A touchy subject, because one of the reasons I’m in therapy is because I’ve got a very loud internal voice telling me I don’t have any. In fact, during the session, my Inner Negative Voice actually got channeled and became my literal outside voice for a brief moment. As it (as I) spoke, I was able to notice that I shifted my posture, I used more forceful hand gestures, and my tone of voice deepened and became louder. It was an act, though. The Inner Negative Voice is definitely me, just a part of me.

Even when I allow myself to think of what my strengths might be, even if I can direct my attention at myself long enough to list some off, the Inner Negative Voice is there to critique and denigrate them. It’s not letting me write anything down, even now. That’s how strong a hold it has on my actions.

I don’t think of myself as particularly attractive. I’m short, bald, old, fat. Those are descriptors and they do describe how I look. I’m hard-pressed to think of more positive adjectives for those attributes. I am what I am. So in an effort to be more positive, I try to think of things I can do that may be more attractive. Actions, over physical appearance. Choices I can make that would make me a valued friend, co-worker, citizen. Those things I have far more control over than the number on a scale or a measuring stick.

So I can honestly say I work towards compassion. I try to be kind to others. I strive to see value in others, in their lived experiences, and I do what small steps I can to make space for marginalized people, to amplify their voices. These are choices, and while the world as a whole may not 100% agree that these choices make someone valuable, it is enough to me that these would all be strengths in the eyes of the kinds of people I want to be around. They would attract people I find attractive.

And then in comes the criticism, like a nuclear-tipped missile aimed right at my metaphorical heart: compassion and kindness are not inherent traits. They’re not who you are, they’re things you give to others. They’re services you do for other people. You’re just giving a gift and hoping they will return the favor. You’re buying their attention. How crass. How commercial. How very capitalist of you.

Kindness is a strength, though. Compassion is a strength. It may be like a muscle that needs exercise to improve, but it’s still something that is inherent to me. And the value in it is there regardless of the amount of return I get on it. I may never see the returns from it, but putting more empathy out into the world is making the world a better place, even in my small corner of it.

Another strength I would like to claim is intelligence. But here, too, I can pick it apart. I know a little bit about a lot of things. I’m a whiz at trivia, which is the most Straight White Man party skill ever. Tidbits of facts, factoids about the world, about politics, about science, economics, philosophy, pop culture, geography, you name it, I can… um… name it.

I have even been known to integrate and sort through and make odd connections between those topics. They don’t all just exist separately; they’re in a matrix and it all falls into place, each topic supporting conclusions in other areas, making an overall philosophy of life and the world.

Where the Inner Negative Voice finds a crack into which it can drive a wedge is in the application. I don’t always put that web of knowledge into practice, in my own life. In short, I often make dumb mistakes, for someone who is seen by others as so smart. Why is that? Why can’t I take this well-crafted model of the universe and use it to make a place for myself in the world? Where’s the disconnect between knowledge and praxis? The Voice hammers away at me.

Is it just that the Voice is the one holding me back? The Inner Negative Voice is there as a defense mechanism. Sometimes, defense is required. At one point, it had a use, and it helped get me and my psyche through tough times; I was a sensitive child and required mental armor and a way to hide.

I don’t necessarily need that now. Now that I’m in a better place, I can hopefully choose when I need defense and when I can relax my guard and let a little bit of me shine out. Scary thought but I’m going to be OK.

I hope.