Skip to content

How to Turn Your Worst Traits Into Your Best Assets

New thinking reveals there is an upside to your dark side. So instead of hiding your bad traits, learn how to turn your weakness into strength

A woman holds two masks of her face with happy and sad expressions

Cultura RM Exclusive/Liam Norris/Getty Images

Discover how to turn your worst trait into a force that moves you forward.

If you claim you have no “worst” trait, you can probably add dishonesty to the list; almost everyone has wrestled with at least one challenging characteristic—think Barbra Streisand (debilitating stage fright), Robert De Niro and Kim Basinger (painful shyness), Sean Penn (temper), and Richard Branson (dyslexia). The good news is that—as many superstars have discovered—the bad traits we fear will hold us back can become the unlikely engine that propels us forward.

Keeping Your Bad Side Balanced

So just how do you learn to love your least favorite traits? Judy Smith, author of Good Self, Bad Self, whose crisis management business was the inspiration for the hit TV show Scandal, has identified seven chief traits that comprise our personalities, all of them dual in nature. The first three—ego, ambition and accommodation—are what Smith calls “personality definers, traits that motivate us to action.” The others—fear, denial, indulgence and patience—are typically responses to the situations we find ourselves in. “These qualities are neither perfect nor imperfect; they just are,” she says. “Whether they work for you or against you, is up to you.” And Smith should know: When stuff hits the fan, she’s the 911 call for some of the highest-profile celebrities, politicians and corporations in the world.

Case in point: Sony reportedly called in Smith for advice on how to deal with the North Korean hacking scandal surrounding the release of their film, The Interview. Recently, Smith talked to AARP about how to avoid a scandal of your own making. 

While Smith is tight-lipped about her clientele, she will say this: Most people get into trouble when one or more of the seven traits are off kilter. Knowing that we all have qualities that can swing either way, Smith says, requires us to focus on maintaining balance. To do that, she recommends using her P.O.W.E.R. approach to achieve that elusive equilibrium.

Judy Smith, author of Good Self, Bad Self, sitting on a bench in a park

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Longtime D.C. insider Judy Smith is now one of the nation’s top crisis managers and basis of the ABC drama ”Scandal.”

To illustrate how the approach works, Smith takes the ego trait and examines it through the P.O.W.E.R. lens. The dark side of ego is that it encourages an overblown sense of entitlement; foolish risk taking; doing anything to be validated; over-reacting and catastrophizing; and failing to own mistakes. Here’s how P.O.W.E.R. gets ego back in balance:

Pinpoint. Take a good, hard look at the egotism in your life.

Own it. Without ego, you’d be sitting quietly in the corner like a dishrag. You’d never take risks, stand up for yourself, or feel pride in your accomplishments.

Work it through. Realize that if you’re afraid to ask for what you want and to accept and promote your own work and desires, then you aren’t permitting your ego to help you become the person you could be. But if your ego has become hubris, and you’re using it to domineer and demean, then you’re not letting your ego help you become the person you should be.

Explore it. If ego isn’t in balance, whether that means you have too much or too little, you’ll benefit from greater self-analysis (perhaps with the help of a good therapist or friend who is a great listener) to figure out how to make your ego work for you.

Rein it in. Learn techniques for listening instead of talking and for taking in more perspectives than you own.

Judy says, “A healthy ego leads to accomplishment, joy, healthy relationships and work-life balance. If you do the work of regaining equilibrium, you can avoid the arrogance that is a hallmark of fragile, high self-esteem and become your authentic, healthy-ego-possessing self.”

Laughing at Life’s Lemons

This sounds good in theory, but does it work in practice, in the real world where life goes haywire despite our best planning? Cliff Cash is proof that it does. Like a lot of comedians, Cash’s personality has been shaped by some decidedly unfunny influences, including a lifetime struggle with attention deficit disorder and what he jokingly refers to as “undiagnosed insanity.” His struggles could have sentenced him to a lifetime fight against his inherent bad traits. Instead, they fueled him.

In 2011, Cash walked into an open mic night at Nutt Street Comedy Room because he needed to laugh. His dad had just finished chemo after cancer forced him to retire; his sister had nearly died after enduring undiagnosed medical issues. Cash had just ended a long-term relationship and was in the throes of near-bankruptcy after losing everything he’d worked hard for in the real estate crash. “I’d never felt as lost or alone, pretty broken and pretty defeated,” he says. “Coming to the comedy club, I thought I needed to laugh, and I did. But I realized that maybe what I needed was to make other people laugh.” Cliff went onstage, and—using the upside of his disorders—found his calling.

Comedian Cliff Cash on stage during nightclub performance

Bryce Lafoon

During a rough patch, Cliff Cash realized that what he needed was to make other people laugh. He found is calling as a comedian.

Shining a Light on Your Dark Side

For those of us who need a formula for success in the pursuit of balancing our good and bad traits, apparently there is one. According to Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, co-authors of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, it’s an 80/20 propositionWhile mindfulness, kindness and positivity can take us far, they say, they cannot take us all the way. Emotions like anger, anxiety or doubt might be uncomfortable, but it turns out that they are also incredibly useful. For instance, anger fuels creativity; guilt sparks improvement; self-doubt enhances performance; selfishness increases courage; and mindlessness leads to better decisions. Really?

Yes, really. And this is where the 80/20 equation comes in. The authors make a compelling argument that every emotion is useful, even the ones we think of as negative, such as anger. “People who are able to use the whole range of their own natural psychological gifts—those folks who are comfortable with being both positive and negative, and can therefore draw from the whole range of human emotions—are the healthiest and, often, the most successful.”  As for the 80/20 rule, it works this way: People who are able to shift to the upside or the downside to get the best possible outcomes in a given situation tend to be happier, more successful, and enjoy a deeper sense of well-being. The authors call this the “20 percent edge” because not everyone can do it. 

In the benign context of a theory, this all sounds sensible and encouraging. But can validating our dark-side emotions open the floodgates for really bad behavior? Here’s what the authors have to say about that:

Q: Knowing that we can (and should) use the emotions we try so hard to suppress feels incredibly liberating. But it also feels dangerous. What’s to stop us from using anger in every situation, especially when we see how effective it can be when we want to get our way?

A: Many people are skeptical of anger. There is an assumption that it is like a tidal wave that will go out of control and destroy everything in its path. For most folks a simple walk down memory lane will argue against this idea. All of us have a long history of feeling irritated, frustrated and even downright mad without any violent outbursts. What's more, research shows that people who can differentiate between emotions are less likely to act out even when they are feeling angry. That means that people who treat anger as if it is a broad category (i.e., "I feel bad") have less self-control than do people who are able to intelligently parse apart irritation from frustration. The bottom line is that anger is functional. It prepares people to take risks, to take action, and to protect their resources and their loved ones in the face of a threat. Imagine trying to advocate for your child or face an injustice if you lacked the capacity to get angry.

Q: Why is balancing your good side with your bad side an 80/20 proposition? Why not 50/50 or 60/40?

A: In our research we find that people experience pleasant emotions the majority of the time and negative feelings the minority of the time. The 80/20 rule is an approximation of those findings, but for some people it will be 70/30 or 75/25. You want to be able to feel badly as circumstances dictate: when you cannot find a parking spot, when you lose your car keys, when your spouse criticizes you. But in the absence of these occasional downtimes, it is beneficial to feel good. Positive attitudes are related to better health, being more curious and sociable, and even being more creative. Researchers have also found that if there is not an actual problem or threat—when life is just sort of chugging along at neutral—people are inclined to interpret that middle-of-the-road state as positive. We call this the "positivity bias." It is an evolutionary advantage to feel positive attitudes the majority of the time.

Q: In the movie Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon’s character says, “The world is made for those who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” There’s some truth to that. Any words of wisdom to help us get a better handle on how we can better recognize and manage our good and bad selves?

A: It is true that people whose natural psychological dial is turned a little more toward the negative are better at seeing detail. This is why you can spot tiny changes in facial expressions when you are arguing with your partner and shout, "I saw that look! Why did you give me that look?" This detail focus can also be advantageous: We always say that you want negative, critical people rather than optimists working in air traffic control. Happier people, by contrast, tend to be a little more gullible, a little more self-deceptive, and even unrealistic. On the upside, this is what allows some people—like entrepreneurs—to pursue their dreams. The ultimate tool is to learn how to shift flexibly between these two states, to use happiness when you need to create a vision for the feature but to use critical emotions when you need to focus on details of that plan.

The evidence is pretty clear: Unless you are Walter White or Cruella de Vil, you should not banish your dark side. To try to do so silences the full narrative of a rich and real life. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say this: “Do not repress, ignore or hide the darker gifts. Be aware of them, appreciate them, and when you’re ready, harness them. When you do this you’ll find that you’ve gained greater access to well-being. To do otherwise is to be enslaved by fear, to set an artificial limit on what you experience and accomplish in this, the one and only life we know for sure that you’ll have. Make the most of it. Become whole.”

More on Personal Transformation