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How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself

Research shows three ways to use your strengths more effectively.

How you use your personal strengths can make a major difference in your life.

Positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson discovered 24 character strengths common to humankind:

​You can improve your performance in many areas of your life by recognizing your top five strengths and using them to your advantage. Research shows that these strengths influence the way you think, feel, and relate to the world and that using these strengths regularly can make you healthier, happier, and more successful (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

Your top strengths can help you succeed, but if they’re overused or used in the wrong way, you could actually be sabotaging yourself (Niemiec, 2018).

  • Do you know your top character strengths? You can discover them now by taking the short VIA Character Survey, a free online self-assessment.
  • Then review your VIA results to identify your top five strengths.
  • Think of ways you can begin using these strengths in new ways (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

To find out if you’ve been sabotaging yourself with strengths overuse, take time for some personal detective work. Do any of these examples sound familiar?

  • Prudence: being planful, responsible, and conscientious. Overuse: overthinking, obsessive planning that keeps you from taking action. Has obsessive planning kept you from taking action on an important project? If so, what small step can you take to begin moving forward?
  • Curiosity: openness to experience, fascination, novelty seeking. Overuse: nosiness, distraction, digression. Has your curiosity led you to distraction? Do you waste time surfing the Internet or mindlessly checking social media? If so, what can you do to stay focused
  • Perseverance: persistence, industriousness. Overuse: imbalance, not knowing when to stop when you reach a point of diminishing returns. Do you think about your work all the time, neglecting meals, exercise, companionship, and sleep? Overuse of perseverance can undermine your work/life balance and exhaust your brain. Research in the Netherlands has shown that taking breaks may actually lead to more creative insights (Dijksterhuis, & Nordgren, 2006). Can you recognize when you need to take a break? Do you make time for rest and renewal in your days?
  • Zest: vitality, energy, aliveness. Overuse: hyperactive, can’t sit still. Are you so jittery that you have trouble finishing what you start? What can you do to let your energies work for you instead of against you? By making time for regular exercise, you can provide a positive outlet for your energy and improve your health.
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence: esthetic sensitivity, wonder, awe. Overuse: perfectionism, getting stuck, afraid to complete a project because you fear making a mistake. What can you do to remind yourself that life is a learning process, developing what psychologist Carol Dweck (2007) calls a “growth mindset”? Can you reach beyond your fears to affirm a more open-minded learning attitude? Can you recognize the lessons that life brings and use them to improve your performance?


If you’ve been overusing one of your strengths, you can begin breaking this habit by using the “if-then” plan developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen (2014). Think of a positive alternative behavior to help you get back on track and say to yourself, “If I find myself overusing [the strength], then I will shift to [the alternative behavior].” For example:

  • For Prudence: “If I’ve been overplanning, afraid to take action, then I will focusing on one small step I can take to begin moving forward.”
  • For Curiosity: “If I’ve been getting distracted while doing my work, then I will tell myself, ‘I need to focus now.’”
  • For Perseverance: “If I’ve been pushing myself too hard, then I will give myself a break to restore my energy.”
  • For Zest: “If I’ve found it hard to sit still, then I will get up and walk around for a few minutes and find ways to build more exercise into my days.”
  • For Appreciation of beauty and excellence: “If I’ve been feeling stuck, afraid of making mistakes, then I will see my efforts as part of a larger process and remind myself, ‘I’m learning.’”

Now it’s your turn. What are your top strengths? Where have you been overusing a top strength and what’s your “if-then” plan?


This article was originally published on Nov. 7, 2020 in Psychology Today. It is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

CAS, Counseling Psychology, ECP
Illuminate, compassion, conscience, personal growth, psychology
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