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Character Strengths and Adversity: How to Nourish Resilience

By Marjorie Aunos

At 34 years old, I was this hardworking-strong-willed-perfectionistic-career-oriented-psychologist-and-single-mother-by-choice who was grateful for having achieved most of her life goals. But when a severe car accident rendered me paraplegic, I lost all my bearings. As part of my rehabilitation process, I was sent for therapy, but found it detrimental to my recovery. So I “fired” my psychologist and refused to attend my therapy sessions. But I was left with this feeling that things were left unfinished. I needed to understand something to which I could not put words on. I couldn’t see how therapy could help me until I learned about Character Strengths. These notions gave me a new outlook on life and saved my life.

With positive psychology, the focus was NOT on my diagnoses. Not on my depression, GAD or PTSD. The focus was on my own strengths. What I could do. What made me strong and resilient. This what I desperately needed. This is what I would have wanted and expected a psychologist to help me with. I needed to be reminded that I was already resilient, as I had overcome my struggles in the past.

With the study of my Character Strengths, I would first have been reminded of the Love that got me out of that car. Of the Bravery, Discipline and Perseverance I showed in rehab. I could have been told to be real, Honest yet Kind to myself, as I continued to roll forward. Through Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, my eyes would have opened and become mindful of all the little moments of pure awe I was witnessing each day. This would have shown me that life was worth living. I also would have discovered that being a scholar and professional may have given me status, but being a person with a disability was giving me a unique voice. A voice that could resonate louder as it gave me a new perspective on life. This is what a psychologist could have coached me to do, instead of letting me mellow in my darkest thoughts. A psychologist, using character strengths would have rendered me grateful for being alive. But since she did not, I did it all by myself through my Curiosity and Love of learning.

Recognizing my own character strengths (well… I did fill out the questionnaire) gave me a focus, a determination to get better and be better. I didn’t have to learn new skills, which was a relief. Knowing about my Character Strengths empowered me to take purposeful actions, even if my goals were small at first. These tiny steps led me to giant leaps over time. And when things got rough, I could always close my eyes and remind myself to be mindful of the wind on my face, the warmth of the sun on my skin. Those moments would give me peace and allow me to be in a better position to face my fears head on.

There is a place for therapy using conventional methods, with scientifically validated approaches and theoretical orientations. And there are many different ways Character Strengths and positive psychology can be integrated into those conventional methods. I did end up going for therapy to work on my PTSD, depression and GAD. But I was able to do that only after being reminded of the tools that are mine. Knowing and using my Character Strengths purposefully helped me make sense of my whole universe, helped me to get out of the quicksand and helped me focus on what was right.


  • I encourage anyone to identify and reflect on their own strengths and for health care professionals to train in strengths-spotting, so they can easily recognize Character Strengths in your clients.
  • For healthcare professionals, I would also recommend you consider having your clients fill out the questionnaire and get a written profile of your clients’ Character Strengths. Or have your clients self-nominate their Character Strengths by identifying which ones resonate the most for them, from the list of 24 strengths and their definitions.
  • Capitalize on the Character Strengths that were identified. Labeling their strengths will enhance your clients’ ability to use them. Support your clients in identifying events and situations when they used those Character Strengths, to demonstrate how they already have tools to get through tough times.
  • From there, allow time to discuss how they could use their most significant Character Strengths, or how they could develop others, to work on the issues they are currently facing. Being aware of their own strengths will help them thrive.