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 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 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 people. This is an observation from the Outside Authority, not an interpretation. So be exceptionally clear. You wish to know what the flaw is (in this particular person's opinion), when specifically she has seen it in action, and how she thinks it affects the events of your life. That's it, thank you.
Next: The final lesson (plus, what it feels like to find your flaw)