Everyone has individual strengths and talents. Children, young people and adults usually get the greatest benefit from investing time, training and education in their strengths; as opposed to focusing on areas of limitations. This is not to say that we should ignore our weaknesses, but the biggest bang for the buck usually comes from investing in our strengths. But sometimes we aren’t fully aware of, or objective about, our strengths. The gap between our ideal self and our actual self may play a role here. So can excessive modesty, or a lack of confidence. Asking for feedback from others can feel like taking a risk, but it can have great reward. And asking the right person about the right area of strength is crucial.
Sometimes qualities about our personality that we consider to be a negative are actually part of the same package that includes our greatest strengths. For example, holding yourself to a high standard may be a primary source of your success, but the shadow of this strength may include being too hard on yourself and others. The shadow of conscientiousness and good attention to detail may be perfectionism. The shadow of spontaneity may be insensitivity or impulsiveness. Understanding how gifts come with shadows may help us have a more enlightened perspective on these qualities. Appreciating that we pay for our gifts by accepting the shadows that come as part of the package can help us anticipate and better manage these shadows. Carl Jung’s theories on personality give rich attention to the duality of human nature, and this observation may be one of his most important contributions to our self-understanding.
There could be no healthy society or well socialized individual without rational guilt. Rational guilt promotes moral behavior, and healing social hurts. But irrational guilt poses a major risk for depression, low self-esteem and general misery. How does one tell the difference? Rational guilt is specific, irrational guilt is global. A test for rational guilt is whether: 1) Its about a specific behavior that hurt someone, or ourself; 2) Most people in our culture would agree the behavior was hurtful; and 3) The feeling of guilt is trying to drive making an amends for that specific behavior. If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then its rational guilt, and an amends is called for; to the other, or to one's self. Conversely, if we feel guilty about who we are or what we think or feel, no one was hurt by our behavior, or there's no obvious repair or amends to make; its probably irrational guilt.
Anxiety is essential for human survival. Without healthy anxiety, you can end up as a large carnivore’s lunch. Anxiety is the way our awareness tries to get our mind’s full attention, and the way our body provides us with extra energy for fight or flight. But sometimes that extra energy isn’t really what we need, nor is fighting or fleeing the solution to a problem. And sometimes our anxiety is an over-reaction caused by overestimating the threat or danger. Sometimes it’s helpful to stop and objectively calculate the odds of the feared event, and objectively assess how competent we are to handle it, or get the help and resources we need to deal with it. And sometimes, we have so much stress that a new anxiety just sends us over the top. Our anxiety is not a reflection of how serious the new threat or problem is, but a reflection of how much stress we were already feeling. Or anxiety may be misplaced. This can happen when we repress awareness of the cause of our anxiety, and then it turns into free-floating anxiety. We feel it, but we don’t know why. Irrational anxiety is readily treatable. A range of evidence-based therapeutic strategies are available to deal with irrational anxieties. Regrettably, people typically wait nine years to seek treatment for anxiety problems, which results in considerable needless suffering.
This may be psychology’s oldest question. But research is giving us answers. Some things we know are nature. Temperament—the style of personality, including how we typically perceive and react to the world, is nature. We are born with our temperament. Shy and cautious, out-going and gregarious, quiet and studious, quick negative emotional reactivity—these are temperamental traits we are born with, and which are stable throughout life. How we learn to manage them and how well our parents and teachers tailor their approach to our temperaments represent how nurture interacts with nature—for better or worse. Nurture is represented in our basic sense of security with others, our values and our beliefs. Risk factors, to health and mental health are often nature. Protective factors and resilience are usually nurture. Nature is something to understand and accept. Nurture is how we chose to think about what we must accept.