In part 1 of this series, I talked about “effortless strengths,” strengths that are so natural to you that you might not notice them. In part 3, I will describe strengths you have learned to divert in a way that actually weakens your storytelling.
In this second article of the series, I describe what I call “negatively valued strengths”. These strengths are invisible to us for a different reason: we have come to believe that they are weaknesses.
How did we come to believe such a falsehood? Of course, we may have been given this misinformation recently, by others in the storytelling community. More likely, we were made to feel bad about these potential strengths long before we began formal storytelling.
“We Don’t Do That Here”
Just a few weeks ago, I was chatting with a new teller (let’s call her Gina) as we paused
in the hallway of a storytelling conference. At some point, her hands formed a graceful
shape to illustrate something she was saying. Suddenly, she stopped herself in
mid-sentence and said to me, “I’m sorry.”
I asked, “About what?”
She put her hands behind her back. “About telling with my hands. I’m Italian, and I can’t
In this hurried situation, I wasn’t able to say more than, “Keep it up! Your gestures are
But I wanted to ask what had happened to her, to make her self-conscious about her style
of oral language—a style common among many cultures that stem from places other than
Even more, I wanted to throw my weight against the social forces that had somehow
convinced her that her non-verbal, culturally derived strengths were weaknesses to be
I wanted to encourage her to let her hands do what they knew how to do, to communicate in
the beautiful ways that so many of her people know to communicate.
Holding Back Your Point of View
Some hidden strengths are negatively valued by the dominant culture, like Gina’s expressive hand
gestures. But some criticisms are directed toward highly individual strengths.
Sandy (not her real name) came to several of my multi-day workshops. When I told her what
I liked about her telling, she often appeared uncertain—as though she didn’t quite
comprehend what I was telling her.
One day Sandy told a brilliantly re-imagined version of a traditional folktale. I praised
her ability to view the commonplace “at a slant,” to see something unfamiliar in a very
familiar story. I ended by saying something like, “You look at what everyone else looks
at, but you see something different than we all do.”
Sandy appeared stunned. Then she said, “That’s a strength?”
I nodded yes.
She exclaimed, “But I’ve been getting in trouble for that since I was little!”
I said to Sandy, “What happened when you were little?”
She told of her years in religious school, where she would ask questions like this one:
Noa just took two elephants on board the ark. But what happened to the other elephants?
They hadn’t sinned, had they?
Her teachers, unprepared for such insightful questions, told her not to question such
things. When she persisted, they told her to stop being disruptive.
Learning to Hold Back a Strength
Can you imagine what it’s like to feel that you have to rein in what you perceive, to
avoid being told you are disruptive or bad? To suppress your perceptions of injustice, of
beauty, or of humor?
By the time Sandy began telling stories as an adult, she had developed a habit of
suppressing the expression of this great strength.
Uncovering Your Negatively Valued Strengths
As in my coaching of Sandy, start by getting appreciations of your telling. Tell a story
to one or more helping listeners, then ask what the listeners liked about your story, about the
way you told it, or about the effects on them. Appreciations are a great way to uncover any kind
In the case of strengths that you already value negatively, though—strengths that you
have come to believe are weaknesses—you will need to be alert to your own reactions to
the appreciation. (Or else find a coach who can help you notice them.)
Read the Signs
Here are some possible signs that you just received an appreciation of a strength that you
have learned to value negatively:
- Do you feel especially embarrassed by the appreciation? (That is, do you feel more
embarrassed by hearing this appreciation than by hearing other appreciations?) Do you feel
the urge to hide?
- Do you feel like the appreciation was actually an insult? That what they mentioned can’t
actually be positive?
- Do you find yourself unable to really understand what your listener is saying?
These feelings are not unique to negatively valued strengths: they can show up in other
cases, too. But any one of the reactions should alert you to the possibility that you have
just uncovered a strength of yours—a strength that you have been taught to hide, deny,
Welcome It Back
It can take months or even years to re-value what you’ve learned to de-value. But the
first step is to notice the possibility: could this embarrassing tendency of mine really
be a strength?
In Sandy’s case, we continued to explore this strength in later sessions. If one of her
stories wasn’t working well, I would even suggest, “Is this a case where you can use your
genius at seeing things in new ways?” Over time, she became comfortable using this
strength wherever it might help her achieve her storytelling goals.
By now, I think Sandy would agree that she values this ability positively.
There are many other steps you can take, of course, to notice and become comfortable with
your hidden abilities. Some of them are suggested in the exercises for Issue 14 of the
Storytelling Workshop in a Box, “Claiming Your Strenghths.”
Nonetheless, noticing that you have devalued or hidden a natural strength is the first rip
in the curtain of denial. It is the most important step toward claiming yet another of
your amazing strengths as a storyteller.
Yours in storytelling,