When I was a young psychology student I was fortunate to find a mentor in Nathaniel Branden . One day I asked him, “What do you think is the single most important thing that you do with your clients, the one thing that forms the foundation for everything else?”
His answer was simple, but it had a tremendous impact on me. It resonated deeply with core beliefs and values that I held, but didn’t have the words for yet:
“I look for the best within people,” he said, “and I try to speak directly to that part of them. Even if they do not see it themselves, I look for it, and speak to it, and I don’t get thrown off by their negative beliefs about themselves.”
To actually do this is one of the most profound acts of taking purposeful command of your perspective on others and yourself that you can engage in.
What you are doing by seeing the best within someone, including seeing the best within yourself, is to focus on the strengths within them, and within yourself. You are looking for the resources that a person has, keeping your eye on those.
Our consciousness allows us to perform a certain degree of executive functioning. We can choose to focus our attention over here rather than over there; we can choose to take certain actions over other actions; we can take actions that go against our feelings when we decide that is good and necessary; we can decide to suspend our awareness of certain things; we can choose to follow an impulse or not.
We can also choose to focus on our strengths, to begin a process of deliberately using those strengths in new ways, and thus growing the breadth and momentum of the repertoire of our strengths over time. We can help other people to do this as well.
This is not a simple, “New Age-y” play with language, claiming that you can simply change your perspective and all will be wonderful; it is an act of taking charge of your perspective and working over time to move that perspective toward your strengths, and to work over time to bring those strengths into the world through your actions.
We are not just a bucket of parts. We are not a static collection of traits and personality that sums up to our lot in life. We are dynamic, living, growing, learning, choosing, acting agents of our living selves. When I see the best in you, I am not looking at a painting with different colors and choosing to look only at a particular color, like green. I am looking at a creative process of life that is doing his or her life.
When I look at myself and focus on my strengths, I am not deceiving myself by not dwelling on all of the shortcomings and weakness. I am not being dishonest by not bringing into my awareness past blunders, difficulties or tragedies. I am looking for the resources I have within me now, so that I can use those resources to make the most of my actual circumstances now.
Each of us can get caught in a static self-image , one that includes past history, mistakes, shortcomings, weaknesses, hurts, fears, and limitations. This stance can be seen, especially from inside that self-image, as “what is real and true about me.”
Cynics tend to look for the pain, the faults, the weaknesses of a person, and say “That is what is true, that is what is real.” From this perspective, the optimism and hopefulness that comes of looking for strengths is nothing but a Pollyanna-like fantasy.
But your self-image is not real in the sense that a chair or a redwood tree is real; it is a self- image , which is the image and sense that you have of yourself based on your history, your assumptions, the feedback that you have taken in from the world, and your wishes, hopes, fears, desires, ambitions, and feelings.
It is a subjective self-perception that you have created of who you are. This self-perception can be more or less accurate, and it is a perspective that is changeable.
Of course it is also possible to ignore or deny elements of yourself that are genuine limitations. There is no benefit to believing that you are capable of doing something that you are not, nor is there any benefit to pretending that your history is not what it was. Denying gravity does not enable you to fly.
We do have biological limitations, and we do come into this world with particular temperament styles that can make it easier or more difficult to do certain things.
But this is just the raw material that each of us has to work with, to build a life into something about which we can feel good, proud, satisfied, and engaged. The Wright Brothers did not deny gravity; they sought to understand the principles of design that would allow them to use the existing atmosphere to overcome gravity. They found in the air around them a strength that had not yet been mastered, and what they made of that was magnificent.
Just as optimism is actually more realistic and effective than pessimism, living from your strengths is a more realistic and effective stance towards life than focusing on your weaknesses.
I say this not out of belief or wishful thinking; I say this with conviction because we know from research that real people can learn optimism and become more effective and happy and less depressed for real in their lives, and we know that real people can become more effective and happy and less depressed for real through developing the habit of using their strengths in new and different ways each day.
The results are tangible and significant.
There are two perspectives that you can choose to emphasize in your life:
1) You have within yourself stores of raw material that you have not yet identified as useful. You have within yourself strengths that you have only touched briefly. You have within yourself the capacity to use that strength in ways that you have not even considered.
2) You also have shortcomings, troubles in your past, physical and temperamental limitations, and circumstances that limit your possibilities.
By dwelling on one of these perspectives you can overcome the other.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to decide which one you will use to do which.