by Denise Riebman

The Assist Virus has reached epidemic levels. While highly contagious among young professionals, it has also been known to infect seasoned workers. Symptoms include temporary hearing loss when being praised, blindness to strengths, and constant fidgeting when asked about accomplishments. As a career coach, I diagnose it all the time, on resumes covered with “assisted on …” and “aided with …”; in caveats such as, “I only helped with that project,” and “I just supported my boss”; and in statements like, “I guess I kind of know how to do that,” and “I think I’m pretty good.”

While there is a time, place, and need to collaborate, support, partner, and assist, far too often people battling the Assist Virus are failing to see their strengths, gifts, and talents. That’s when it’s time for some education about prevention, drawn from positive psychology.

Frequent Hand Washing
We often don’t notice the germs—the false beliefs—that attach themselves to us every day. Your boss doesn’t mention a major contract you landed; a colleague doesn’t ask you to collaborate on a grant proposal; a client turns down an idea you proposed. It’s the mind’s natural reaction to interpret this as not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough—and those negative ideas have a way of sticking.

When you notice that you’re getting infected by “false belief germs,” Byron Katie suggests asking four simple yet powerful questions that can help you stay healthy:

  • 1. Is it true?
  • 2. Can I absolutely know that this true?
  • 3. What happens when I think this?
  • 4. Who would I be without this thought?

Take Vitamin SEE
The Assist Virus breeds on our inability to see our strengths. While some of my clients worry about crossing over into arrogance by taking credit for professional success, it’s actually not such a fine line between haughtiness and meekness. Rather, it’s a vast expanse that has lots of room for us to own our strengths and accept others’ praise for a job well done.

One of my graduate students was recently telling me about several conferences presentations she’d delivered. “The first one wasn’t good, but the others were much stronger,” she said. “I’m usually great at presenting, but I was in a slump and needed to learn what I wasn’t doing well so I could be better.” By taking Vitamin SEE, she was simultaneously recognizing her strengths and discerning growth areas, while still being proud of her accomplishment.

Strengthen Your Immune System
Re-patterning the habit of diminishing your value requires not just knowing your strengths, but also noticing when you’re flexing them. When you experience a professional success, big or small, verbally share it with others or spend a few minutes writing about it for your own reflection. This isn’t about bragging—it’s about appreciating what you have achieved.

In his book Hardwired for Happiness, Rick Hanson writes about five major factors needed to enrich a positive experience: duration, intensity, multimodality, novelty, and personal relevance. Through internal and external reflection on our strengths, we deepen connection and concentration, and build immunity against future moments of feeling diminished. I recently asked a career client, who has a personal and professional history of being diminished, to write about times when she has felt lit up—and to see if she could also experience what that aliveness felt like in her body. By internalizing and embodying her thoughts and feelings, she can build immunity against value diminishment.

Clean Your House
Toxic environments—an unsupportive boss, a negative colleague, destructive work teams—impact both short- and long-term immunity against Assist Virus. Emotional contagiousness, positive and negative, has very real and proven impacts in all areas of our lives. I’ve seen talented professionals caught in unhealthy workplaces question their competencies due to abusive bosses, minimize their successes to keep from provoking resentful colleagues, and hide their upbeat personalities to avoid mocking by teammates. At one highly negative workplace, I even stopped tossing out corny puns—definitely not a good sign for those who know my love of a bad joke!

It’s unrealistic to think we can avoid all toxic work environments and colleagues, but there are things we can do to help:

  • Take your “emotional contagion temperature.” Use the Emotional Contagion Scale to measure how prone you are to catching emotions and to identify situations in which you are most vulnerable.
  • Minimize contact with unhealthy people. I have clients first identify work interactions and estimate the percentages of time they’re spending with different types of colleagues. Then we identify realistic coping tools for toxic relationships and ways to boost healthy relationships. (You can read more about relational crafting in Amy Wrzesniewki’s research on job crafting.) Years ago, a verbally abusive supervisor was questioning my knowledge of youth development (a field I had worked in for years). As she was shaking her finger in front of my face, I had an aha moment: I pictured myself inside a giant Bubble Ball. I could still hear her voice, but it was muddled, and the bubble protected me from absorbing her negative energy, something I’m very prone to do.

No matter how hard we work to prevent it, sometimes we still get knocked out by the Assist Virus. If that happens, my best advice is to curl up on your couch with a good performance review or your e-mail Feedback Folder (everyone should have one of these, where they save appreciative messages) and drink a warm cup of strengths tea. The Assist Virus will soon pass and you’ll be back to your usual strong self, knowing that your gifts and talents deserve to shine.

Click here to learn more about the Certificate in Positive Psychology.

Denise Riebman is a career development specialist who applies a strength-based, positive psychology framework toward inspiring individuals to find career happiness. She is Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School, and founder of Denise holds a Certificate in Positive Psychology and additional certification from Global Career Development Facilitation, Presence-Based Coaching, and The Coaches Institute.