Positive Psychology - The Shadow Side of Character Strengths

Each of our character strengths also has a shadow side. When used rigidly, regardless of context, at the wrong time, or perhaps with the wrong person, a trait that is generally a strength, can actually cause harm rather than good, bring sorrow, rather than any sense of well being, both to ourselves and others.

For example the character strength of judgement, which involves thinking things through, weighing everything up, as well as being able to change one’s mind, may become a burden if one can never arrive at, or stick to a decision. Likewise honesty can become rudeness when not combined with one of the temperance strengths. However for each shadow side, the antidote lies within a compatible strength, like courage combined with prudence, judgement combined with courage, or perhaps love combined with perspective.

This Week’s Activity

After reading the story below, find someone to discuss the following ideas with.
In the story below, each of the characters have strengths, including Harvard’s president.
Which strengths would you attribute to each character?
What might the shadow side to these strengths be?
What are the shadow strengths that may be behind the behaviour of the president?
What might the shadow side of my own top five be?
What other strength may provide me with an antidote.

We can use the table at the end of the story to help organise, or record our thinking.

The Gingham Dress

A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston, and walked timidly without an appointment into the Harvard University President's outer office.

The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard and probably didn't even deserve to be in Cambridge.

'We'd like to see the president,' the man said softly.

'He'll be busy all day,' the secretary snapped.

'We'll wait,' the lady replied.

For hours the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. They didn't, and the secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the President, even though it was a chore she always regretted.

'Maybe if you see them for a few minutes, they'll leave,' she said to him!

He sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn't have the time to spend with them, and he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office.

The President, stern faced and with dignity, strutted toward the couple. The lady told him, 'We had a son who attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.'

The president wasn't touched. He was shocked. 'Madam,' he said, gruffly, 'we can't put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery.'

'Oh, no,' the lady explained quickly. 'We don't want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.'

The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, then exclaimed, 'A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical buildings here at Harvard.'

For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. Maybe he could get rid of them now.

The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a university? Why don't we just start our own?”

Her husband nodded. The president's face wilted in confusion and bewilderment. Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford got up and walked away, travelling to Palo Alto, California where they established the university that bears their name, Stanford University, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.


Strength          |         Shadow Side          |         Antidote


May we all continue to develop a greater awareness of our own strengths and the strengths of those around us. May we also be aware of the shadow side of our strengths and realise we already have the antidote to any shadows within us. We already have everything we need.