Do Strengths Change? My Story of Empathy

In 2011, I battled breast cancer and won. When I emerged from the cancer fight, it was evident that the functional order of my strengths set shifted. Different strengths of mine started working together in new ways.Perhaps it was for survival, perhaps out of necessity.

To boil it down simply, I often say that chemotherapy killed my empathy. Fortunately, chemotherapy wiped out my fast growing cancer cells, but unfortunately, it also obliterated my hair, eyebrows, and my ability to feel as deeply and broadly as I once did.

As I continue to reflect on how the inconvenient season of suffering shaped me, I believe my strength of Empathy changed its structure at a cellular level.

If strengths point to synaptic connections made in your brain as natural, recurring patterns of thought, behavior, or motivation, then perhaps some the effects of that chemo-brain they talk about, are revealed as a shift in the expression of Empathy.

How Empathy Changed

After my infusion of chemicals, I felt like someone stole my facial expressions. It seemed that my bursts of passion and feeling had been numbed or veiled. My journey continued with a presence of impatience and intolerance for meaningless living. As T.S. Eliot once penned, “I learned to care and not to care.

Because of this, now my Empathy feels more dormant, but from time to time it makes an appearance in surprising ways. Because sometimes the generative nature of other people’s strengths allows for another’s synaptic connections to fire again and reemerge as a familiar stranger.

Recently, during two different Strengths Communicator trainings, my stranger called Empathy surfaced in the form of chills on my arms, tears in my eyes, and stirrings in my heart. Emotion came to the surface. I could really feel the emotional pulse in the room and not just recognize the emotional tenor in the gathering.

As Brian and I led these trainings, there was a woman and a man, each with life-giving Empathy who created emotional safety in their own way. In each experience, I felt as if I were in a bird’s nest, being fed nibbles of those beautiful talents of Empathy. I felt nourished. My latent strength had been rewired.

The Woman with Generative Empathy

During one part of the training, participants present their findings and reflections of one of their one-to-one strengths conversations. The Strengths Communicators in training, had drawn pictures to capture a visual representation of the Top Five themes of strengths that they had seen, heard and observed.

When it was her turn, one woman with Connectedness, Empathy and Developer, humbly and confidently walked up to the front, put her big poster size paper on the easel, and began to present. She described a powerful conversation she had with one of her 12 people.  She had drawn a flowing perennial bleeding heart plant, on a bookshelf filled with books with people drawn all around. She beamed about this person.  She walked us through her person’s strengths. Her Developer walked us through the story step by step.

Her Connectedness connecting dots of the strengths she heard during her conversation intuitively and plainly for all to hear. Her Empathy allowed each person hearing her presentation to feel the nuances of that conversation. She eloquently honored the narrative of her friend. She concluded,

StrengthsFinder gives freedom for people to be who they are.

I can’t recall all the details, but I remember how she made me feel. With great care and as an expression of who this woman with empathy is, she simply awakened my emotional world.

The Man with Generative Empathy

One gentleman in a recent training stirred my Empathy in another way. In his personal introduction, he offered a snapshot of who he was. His voice was strong and sincere. His cadence was melodic. I listened and watched him in wonder. I heard a man comfortable in his own skin. I felt the passion, sincerity, and the joy of being human. He fully invested in the Strengths Communicator process.

His Responsibility, Empathy, and Harmony were alive. During the final steps of the certification process, he was glowing about his learning and his application. He is a natural. He knows who he is, and his Empathy creates an emotional safety that enables people to be okay. He asked if we had heard about the knuckles metaphor of how we best work together as teams and people?

Which one?” I thought.

I listened with wonder and a smile. I heard his calm language. He made a fist. With his other hand he pointed to each of his knuckles, “These are our strengths.” His face beamed with Responsibility as he owned the story and respected the narrative’s of others. Then, he then pointed to the dips between the knuckles and said, “These are our weaknesses.”

I waited for what he would say next. Next, he clasped both of his hands together in a tight lock, slowly covering each dip between the knuckles with each finger. His tightly folded hands expressed true Harmony in how his hands fit and how his fingers wove together.  Finally, he delivered the morale of the story with his profound sense of Empathy. “You see, we are called to cover each others weaknesses and expose each others strengths. This is how I desire to work with my colleagues.”

Tears rolled down my face. I snapped a photo of his beautiful hands, and committed to share his story with everyone.

I am a recipient of the generative application of these individuals’ strengths. One result for me was a call and response of the familiar voice of Empathy.

So, do Strengths Change?

Of course they do. They can change in subtle ways or they can radically shift like in my case. Strengths grow, develop, and mature over time as talents create new combinations to give life to others. For me, I really didn’t lose Empathy, but I experienced the radical transformation of this strength. Where I once wore my emotions on my sleeve, and fearlessly moved forward into emotional terrain.

Now, my language has changed, and my emotions are more guarded. But I still lead with an emotional awareness. I, too, want to join others, hand in hand, as we cover each others weakness and let our strengths shine.

Have you Noticed a Shift in Your Strengths?

Have any of your strengths changed over time? Not a reordering of results if you have taken it more than once. Have you noticed a fundamental shift in the way you are using them in life?