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.
Next: The rules of flaw hunting