Home All What Strengths Traps Can Teach Us about Our Strengths

What Strengths Traps Can Teach Us about Our Strengths

written by Denise Quinlan 8 April 2009

Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

Have you ever found that you react a certain defensive way when your back is against the wall?  We can sometimes fall into “thinking traps” that can blind our thinking, according to Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in The Resilience Factor.  We may go to a thinking trap – for example, go to downplaying the importance of a colleague’s words – because it feels safe or routine or typical.

Strengths Traps

What about strengths traps?  When pinned against the wall, could our strengths fire up in ways we may not want? For example, instead of behaving kindly, I can find myself feeling and acting in a mean-spirited or resentful way, or instead of feeling hopeful in certain situations, I can find myself despairing. There may be certain contexts or relationships where, instead of acting on a strength, I flip into its absence, opposite, or an exaggerated version of it. For the lesser strengths, that may happen more frequently and across more domains.  Let’s continue to look at strengths through the Values-in-Action Strengths Inventory.

What is the strengths-trap or “flipped” version of a strength?  For example, according to Christopher Peterson, if my strength is curiosity, then having none of this strength is disinterest, having the opposite is boredom, and having an exaggerated amount of curiosity can be nosiness. (For the full list, see book preview at Google books).

Lessons from Strengths Traps

The problem with strength traps is that they don’t come with a tag saying “aberration of gratitude, curiosity, etc.” They don’t provide a direction to help us work our way out of that behavior. By linking strength traps to their strengths, we give ourselves a homing signal or goal for our behavior.

Strong Arms

Strong Arms in Balance

Fiona Parashar describes life balance as a dynamic zone, with each of us having things that tip us out of or restore us to balance. Likewise, we could think of each of our strengths as having a dynamic zone with some things that tip us out of our strength zone and others that restore us to our strength zone.


If we become more familiar with our strength “tippers and restorers,” as Parashar calls them, we may find it easier to get out of those “strength traps” and back to our strengths. This may be focusing on weakness, but it’s using strength as a ‘true north’ to draw us back into strength-based behavior.

An Exercise

Peterson hypothesizes that our real pathologies may stem from these strength disorders. Below the level of pathology, the question I’ve been mulling over is, “Can we develop a strength by paying attention to the times when we display its absence, opposite or exaggeration? Is it possible that by looking at the occasions when we display the ‘disordered’ version of our strengths, we may learn how to broaden our understanding of our strength, and develop our ability to stay more often in the healthy expression of that strength?”

If you’re curious to learn more about your strengths traps, tippers and restorers, here’s an approach you could try that I developed recently:

  1. Highlight your Top 5 and Bottom 5 strengths on the table and circle the “strength traps” or disorders of these strengths you often fall into. For example, if love is a strength of yours but you often feel lonely (opposite of love) or you know persistence is a strength but you feel helpless (opposite) in some situations, then circle those words. The most analytical person might notice patterns between top and bottom 5, but the key is just to notice which unhelpful expressions of a strength you often display.
  2. Ask yourself, “What tips me out of strength mode and into these states?” It might be certain people or situations, or be as simple as lack of sleep, food or exercise. It may be that one or two key things will affect several strengths.
  3. Label these “strength traps.” Having a name for this state makes it easier to notice it when it arises, e.g. “it’s my ‘no hope’” or “hello impulsivity!” (opposite of self-regulation). Whether you call this mindfulness practice or cognitive defusion or “naming your stories” (Harris, 2007) doesn’t matter. What counts is that it gives you that sliver of distance from the experience which makes you more likely to be able to take action.
  4. Ask yourself, “What restores me to strength mode?” For me, a walk, connection with someone close to me, or anything that helps me access compassion all help. When you’re aware enough to realize what’s going on, heat-of-the-moment questions can help direct you back on your strength path, such as, “How do I move from helpless to persistence?”
  5. Create your own critical questions which re-connect you with your strength. These are the questions you can ask yourself that will help you move out of the “strength trap” and back into strength behavior. Once you’ve labeled what’s going on, e.g. “it’s helplessness,” you can ask strength-focused questions, e.g. “Where have I been most persistent in my life?”, “What’s my persistence high point memory?”, or “What helps me grow my feeling of persistence?” If a particular memory or phrase lifts you out of the trap, then use it.

We all have strengths. We all fall into strengths traps. Perhaps our strengths can teach us how to get out of the traps and back into the strengths zone.



Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Australia: Exisle Publishing.

Parashar, F. (2003). The Balancing Act: Work Life Solutions for Busy People. UK: Simon & Schuster.

Peterson, C. (2006). The values-in-action classification of strengths. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi, (Eds.), A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology (Series in Positive Psychology). USA: Oxford University Press US.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

What does this button do? courtesy of | spoon |
Balance courtesy of liber
Balance courtesy of liber
Bloom where you’re planted courtesy of James Jordan

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Amanda Horne 8 April 2009 - 6:51 pm

Hi Denise

This is a wonderful perspective, great questions we should all reflect on. The ‘opposites and absence’ table from Chris Peterson’s article in the Csikszentmihalyis’ really helps with the deeper thought and analysis. And bringing in the strengths-based, appreciative inquiry questions to find times when the strength has been displayed, is a good way to move people out of the ‘trap’.

You mention balance “tip us out of or restore us to balance”: when reading your article, what comes to mind is Loehr and Schwartz’s energy management work i.e. how to strengthen our spirit, mind, body and emotions. I like the image of coming back to centre, which is a little like balance (if we’re off-centre, we lose our balance).

I’ve been really interested to hear clients who talk about their mood when completing the VIA. When in a bad/sad/negative mood, they rate themselves lower on the questions. One client did the VIA two months apart: when in her normal mood, the other time when tired, upset. The latter did not reveal the ‘real her’. This relates to emotional energy, broaden and build and how this impacts our strengths.

My final point: New Zealand, what a beautiful country! You must feel blessed. Enjoy.

Amanda Horne

Scott 8 April 2009 - 8:10 pm

Thank you. When I read most of the articles in PPND I am reading them for application and use with others. This one touched me personally as well. I’ve often wondered what pulls me out of my strengths and even while reading your article I identified some strength traps. I loved that you gave it a fresh thought; tapping Reivich and using her constructs with a Peterson twist. Nicely thought out and nicely done. Personally I plan on spending time with this to identify my strength traps. Professionally, I am speaking on strengths very soon and I’ll quote you about strength traps. Thanks for taking the time to think differently about this.

Denise Quinlan 8 April 2009 - 8:58 pm

Hi Amanda,
thanks for your comments. I like Loehr and Schwartz’ work – I’m a fan of managing energy rather than time and I agree that whether we’re coming back to centre or balance doesn’t matter. The key is knowing where that centre is and how we can best stay there.

It makes sense that if your client was feeling off-balance or away from her strength zone, then her results reflected exactly that. It’s an interesting point – should we do inventories like the VIA when we’ve been primed to feel at our best?

And glad to see you’re a neighbour! Will you be at teh Positive Education Symposium in Sydney on 9 May by any chance?

Denise Quinlan 8 April 2009 - 8:59 pm

Hi Scott,
thanks for that! I look forward to hearing how you get on – for yourself and with clients.
Thanks for responding – and see you in Philly!


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