The Fatal Flaw
Is there something you do in life—without knowing it—that keeps you from moving forward? Columnist Leigh Newman figures out a way to identify it…and change it.
Last fall, I was innocently standing on a train platform in upstate New York when I ran into an old coworker who casually mentioned to me how happy he was for our mutual friend, Bobby, now that Bobby was moving out of his neighborhood.
“Oh,” I said, which is what you say when you receive hugely upsetting news that you’re supposed to know already, except that you don’t.
Bobby was not only my neighbor, he was also my best friend. I knew what I was supposed to do—gather my composure, call Bobby and say: “I’m hurt that you didn’t tell me you were moving. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me or like me—or, quite honestly, like you don’t want me to know where you live, because you’re afraid I’ll come over with my dented station wagon and my loud mouth and even louder kids, who will drink all of your fancy-pants pomegranate-flavored seltzer water!”
But the truth was, I could list 26 times in the past 20 years that Bobby has been inexplicably secretive for no reason—and not just with me. Companies had “let him go” due to this issue (he failed to disclose a second job). Boyfriends had dumped him (he didn’t tell them where he was going—just “out”). And now this. What is a friendship, I wondered, if one of you shares and the other doesn’t?
Bobby and I had survived boyfriends, jobs, graduate schools, two recessions, my poorly planned DIY wedding and—by far, the most challenging—his mother and her relentless imaginary cancers. Secrecy, however, still messed us up. Secrecy still messed him up, and yet he couldn’t seem to recognize it. It undercut every single area of his life. It was his fatal flaw. Except that it wasn’t “fatal.” Bobby would go on living, but living a life that was limited in its scope and possibility, one that didn’t fully reflect his talents or aspirations.
He wasn’t alone, I suddenly realized. Take a sampling of my other friends: Catherine (normally ambitious and strong, but weak-willed around men), Felicity (makes all her decisions based on anxiety), Darin (falls in love with sexy fools). In each case, the flaw was obvious, except to the one who possessed it. Everyone referred to it again and again, not with name perhaps, but with an observation along the lines of, “There goes Darin, trying to pick up a 47-year-old woman with a Hello Kitty backpack again.” Or “Oh, that’s just Bobby, omitting the fact he moved to a whole new zip code. Hah, hah, hah.”
Then a door in my brain flung open and a flood of horrible understanding rushed in. I was 40. I worked hard. I’d felt for a long while that if I just kept trying and trying and trying, I’d get to some honey-scented stage of existence where I’d spend the majority of my days doing things I loved and I’d be reasonably rewarded for them, but that hadn’t happened—and it didn’t appear as though it was going to happen. My life had been in the same place for years: scramble, scramble, put the kids to bed, scramble.
I had a flaw too—an ugly, life-stunting one that only I couldn’t see.
I had to find out what it was. Of course, I didn’t want to find it out. But I knew it was either identify and possibly remove the jagged emotional splinter of my existence or keep limping on through the next 40 years. The process of figuring it out—accomplished over a few, very long weeks—was sometimes painful. Thanks to a certain understanding expert, though, I was not only able to eventually identify the shortcoming, I was also able to start dealing with it. Here’s what I learned.
1. Whatever You Think the Flaw Is, It So, So, So Isn’t
So many of us live with debilitating Gregorian chants in our heads, a voice that sing-songs over and over, in a deep, spooky, doomsday voice what’s so unfixably wrong with us. (Mine, in fact, is playing along right now: You’re selfishselfishselfish.)
A few people can flashback to that moment in time when the chant began—say, when some misguided, limited teacher or relative told them that they were “lazy” or “not quite sharp enough to make the cut.” But for most, the origin remains a mystery—a lack of information that paradoxically makes the chant seem even more reliable, because we assume it’s our inner voice telling us what’s wrong.
When looking for a fatal flaw, of course, we want to take the fastest route to the truth and check our own brain. The chant, as usual, is droning on in there about all our major faults. But if the chant were in any way correct, we wouldn’t be stuck, would we? The chant would have identified the key issue and kept us free and clear of it. But it didn’t and it can’t, because the chant is just some random sentence said by somebody who didn’t know you and didn’t see you, which you memorized a long time ago on accident. It’s the emotional equivalent of reciting the Pledge of the Allegiance to the Gag.
The first step in figuring out your flaw is dismissing misinformation. Please wrap up this bit of ancient criticism in newspaper and place it on the highest, darkest shelf of your mind (right next to the box of ill-conceived Halloween costumes such as Sexy Baked Potato).
2. Find an Outside Authority
Now it’s time to call in someone else, someone who I’ve nicknamed the Outside Authority (capitals optional). Doing this makes you just about as vulnerable as a human being can be. You’re allowing somebody to name—in broad daylight—the thing that’s keeping you stuck, which due to its nature can’t possibly be uplifting or flattering. What is this person going to do with that power? Throw a brick at your life? Or hand you a piece of carefully worded, much-needed insight?
It could go either way, which is why you’ve got to be ruthless about choosing an Outside Authority. As with most things, the process goes so much faster if you figure out who not to ask. The people who blindly love us go at the top of this list, including Dad, Mom, Auntie Minnie, kids under 7, dogs, Girls Scout troop leaders and Memaw. These are the people who give you candy just for sitting on their couch. They stop frequently and just look at you, their face going glazed and golden as if a sunset is taking place in their brains. These people may see the flaw. But they can’t articulate it. In fact, they may discount it very cleverly, acknowledging that you are a little overbearing, okay, but only when you’re tired.
Other people to avoid: People that will let you walk out of the house with that thing on your head (the pom-pom hat), that stuff on your face (concealer applied in low lighting) or that bleeding, broken heart on your sleeve. Not to mention, the ones who vanish when courage—not intelligence, jokes, flattery or red wine—is required.
Once these folks have been eliminated, a more nuanced search begins. Consider asking: (1) Someone who knows you well, preferably for five years or more, who has witnessed you make mistakes. (2) Someone who you can trust (e.g., the person you’d let visit you in the hospital after a facelift). (3) Someone who listens. (4) Someone who will not just recognize what they’ve seen you do (again and again and again), but also can articulate it, which requires an ability to talk about feelings—a skill that not all of us have.
After crossing off just about everybody on earth I knew, I was left with two contenders. Both were long-term friends. One I knew would recognize my flaw but would never be able to bear to telling me, because she just can’t stand confrontation of any kind. The other? She is smart, kind, giving and forgiving. Her name is Joan. She has her flaw too, but it’s not anything that would keep her from being an excellent Outside Authority.
3. Protect Yourself (Please!)
Now that you know who you’re asking, consider the question you’re really bringing up. You don’t want to know why you have this flaw. Your Outside Authority is not a psychologist, sister or telepath. If, say, she (or he) explains that the reason you have a meltdown when under pressure is because your father screamed at you to achieve in high school and your mother was an alcoholic whose own failure instilled in you a terror of not being perfect, you’ll probably feel dissected, invaded and ultimately defensive. You’ll end up rejecting her analysis, even if it’s correct.
You also don’t want to know how to fix it. Only you can find a way around this the flaw; only you know how you work best when confronted by an obstacle (leap over it; chip away at it; watch reruns of “Beverly Hills 90210” over and over on Netflix until you’re stupefied into a state of calm that allows you to effectively strategize?). All you need is the information: You have a meltdown under pressure—frequently, far more so than other person. This is an observation from the Outside Authority, not an interpretation. So be exceptionally clear. You wish to know is what the flaw is (in this particular person’s opinion), when specifically the she has seen it in action, and how she thinks it affects the events of your life. That’s it, thank you.
4. Wait for an Exquisite Wince
The day of my big, fat invisible-flaw conversation, I called Joan on my lunch break, which meant that I was doing laps around my office building, gusts of winds crackling and sputtering through our chat, until I relocated to the aisles of CVS. Here is what happened.
Me: So what do you think is my flaw?
Joan: Do I really have to answer this? Do you really want to know?
Me: Yes. Whatever you say, I won’t be mad.
Joan: Can I have a minute?
Me: Of course.
Joan: More Silence.
Me: I’ve got it. I know I asked you but I’ve got it. I’m selfish! I’m narcissist. I’m self-involved.
Her: Hmm…You’re the woman who delivered 29 home-cooked meals to Katie in the hospital, right after the birth of your second child and while you still had pneumonia. You’re the girl that listened to me talk about my horrible married lover for an hour a night, for a year.
Me: I’ve got it now! I’m careless and sloppy.
Her: Yes. But that’s not the flaw. Can you give me a minute? I’m not sure what it is, but—
Me: I’m brusque and outspoken.
Her: Yes. But that’s not—
Me: I cut off people who move away and never talk to them again. I don’t exercise. I lose my temper with telemarketers. I bully my kids into playing the violin.
Her: Please stop talking. Because I think I know what your flaw is and I’m pretty sure it relates to what is going on right this minute.
Me and Her: Silence.
Her: Here’s what I think, honey, and I’m only telling you because you’re asking. I think you’re a little high strung. You get all this energy going, and if it goes in the wrong directions—for example, 1993, 1994, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2009—you really suck yourself dry. Everything is a huge crisis, do or die. You exhaust yourself…and, well, you exhaust other people sometimes.
Her: Are you okay?
Me: A few deep breaths. A nod. And then…an exquisite wince, which is an experience not unlike when you eat a green apple and the joint in the corner of your jaw spasms with a butterfly of pain and delight. Except this was happening all over my inner being.
Because Joan was correct. Living constantly on the edge of a flip out was absolutely and totally my flaw. I had evidence that predated even her: All those conversations in which people had called me “intense” or “hardcore,” every situation I had wailed my way through instead of just waiting, thinking and seeing; every project I had gotten so worked up and nervous about that I couldn’t discuss it without exclamation points. Being high-strung had cost me friends and put a strain on my marriage and stalled my career and cost me a lot of emotional energy, distracting me from plain old calm things in life. Like happiness and sleep.
Further, she had been the right person to ask. I didn’t feel attacked or defensive. I felt grateful. I knew what the problem was! I could do something about it! I didn’t have to fix it or cut it out. That would be impossible. The burning energy that was my flaw was also my strength. It motivated me. It rode me into doing the impossible sometimes, by brute panic, fire and force. It was part of me. But if I could just find a way to control and guide it with yoga, meditation or something else, I would discover later, my days could be different, bigger, richer.
Not perfect, of course. We all have plenty of other smaller qualities that get in our way, not to mention the unexpected, catastrophic events that derail us, ones we have no control over. And yet, a few weeks after having gone on my quest, I felt a small, blinky, newborn sense of direction. I had a way to shape and influence my days. I explained to a few friends over dinner what I’d done. They looked at me as if I was nutso, their mouths agape. My old college roommate said, “Boy, I’d love to know what my flaw is.” I looked at her and said in very quiet voice, “If you really mean it, you can call me.”
She never did, and I understand. There are so many things that I, too, want to know and want not to know: Who is monitoring our nation’s nuclear plants, what exactly went on in my parents long-over marriage, what is the white liquid stuff that so isn’t milk that goes into soft-serve ice cream? These kind of questions, like the flaw one, are scary, not due to the information we might find out, but because of the choice we face once we know the answer: To change or not change. This is why they come up again and again, waiting for that opportunity when—due to a confluence of past experiences, plus some recent wackadoo dash of fate—we’re not only ready to address them, but we actually pursue them wherever they lead us, which is almost always into a place of newfound possibility.