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No one has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind. In fact, my guiding principle has always been that everyone's entitled to my opinion. This never went over well with bosses, boyfriends, family members -- pretty much the world at large. As a newspaper reporter my knuckles were rapped repeatedly for a certain...lack of objectivity? Both of my husbands and most of my boyfriends appreciated my hotheaded nature even less. (If I had a dollar for every time I heard "why do you have to make such a federal case of this?" I'd have far more money in my IRA.) Even my friendships suffered. But how was I supposed to say I liked a friend's new guy when he was clearly a jerk?
In hindsight I can see that I was sometimes -- okay, perhaps often -- unpleasant to be around. Stung by all the criticism, I tried to become more objective in my work and more easygoing with the people I loved. But being opinionated was still part of my nature. And eventually I got the chance to turn that flaw into a marketable skill when my boss offered me the opportunity to become a Sunday columnist, talking about my life, loves -- and opinions. Channeled into that appropriate place, my big mouth and endless pontificating turned out to be a huge plus. My career took off.
The details of my story are unique, but my struggle is universal, because every one has flaws. I'm talking about our annoying foibles, vices, and weaknesses. We're chronically late, or we lose our temper over inconsequential things or we're too shy to speak up for ourselves. Our flaws are frustrating to friends, families, bosses -- and perhaps most frustrating to ourselves.
But here's a novel idea: Take a breather from beating yourself up and have another look at those so-called bad traits. "You shouldn't be so quick to dismiss your flaws as completely negative," says Greg Hicks, coauthor of How We Choose to Be Happy. "Sometimes your greatest flaw is the key to your greatest strength."
Consider that there is a kinder, gentler side to being nitpicky (you pay attention to important details) or being a drama queen (you feel things deeply and are empathetic). Sure, you procrastinate -- but that's because you want everything to be perfect.
"Maybe you're frustrated that you never get enough done when you're at home during the day because you're so busy talking or e-mailing," says Hicks. "Stop a moment and think, what is the strength in that? You love people and have amazing, high-trust relationships and at the end of the day those are more important than dusting."
This doesn't mean that you should stop trying to improve yourself. But you can work more effectively on diminishing the negative aspect of your flaws when you celebrate the positive. Here are three steps you can take to help turn your flaws into assets.
"Recognize that there's usually a good reason why you have this trait," says psychologist Leonard Felder, PhD, author of Fitting In Is Overrated. "Maybe it's a strength when used correctly or a survival skill that helped you earlier in life," he suggests. Do you tend to be stubborn and defiant? "Perhaps you had very judgmental parents and your stubbornness kept you creative, unique, and positive," Dr. Felder says. "That's great. But if it keeps you saying 'no one can tell me what to do' regardless of the situation, then it's a problem."
Lateness is almost always seen as a flaw. Still, there's an upside, says Dr. Felder: People who tend to be late are often spontaneous. "My wife, who is chronically late, takes me on fascinating detours I wouldn't have experienced with my vigilant, planning brain," he says. "I've learned to insist that we drive separately if I feel I need to be on time, but left to my own devices I'd miss out on enjoying the moment."
Even pessimism can potentially be a plus. Express your negative outlook every day and you're a Debbie Downer, he concedes, but if you're surrounded by relentless optimists, voicing a more skeptical take once or twice a month may just be a good reality check.
Looking for the upside of your weaknesses doesn't mean that you should simply accept your negative traits or behaviors. "If your flaw has caused harm to you or someone else, it's okay to feel bad -- but that's not the place to stop," says psychiatrist Louis Tartaglia, MD, author of the self-help book Flawless! Instead of getting stuck in frustration, see your uncomfortable feelings as a catalyst for change.
"The happiest people seize the opportunity to examine their faults," says Hicks. "And then they keep the positive aspects of them while working to improve the aspects that hold them back. When you do that you feel in greater control of your life."
Of course, self-improvement is easier said than done. "There's a neurological basis for personality," says psychologist Travis Bradberry, PhD, coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. "If you have a particular personality trait, you're kind of stuck with it." What you can change is how you deal with that trait and how you relate to others.
But start with self-awareness. Dr. Bradberry recommends that you take a standardized personality test. Once you're aware of your challenges, you need to actively work on your emotional intelligence by paying close attention to how your flaws affect others -- that is, when they're useful as opposed to when they're destructive.
For example, do you tend to be a total perfectionist? Having an eye for what's wrong can be positive if you're an artist or an accountant, Dr. Felder says, but it can be a relationship killer. The solution? Pick when to be vigilant and make a conscious effort not to be vigilant in other areas of your life.
Once you've identified your flaw's upside, put those qualities to good use at the appropriate time. And consider an activity or career that takes positive advantage of your potentially negative trait. If you think you're too passionate in relationships, volunteer for a cause you care about. If you're introverted, consider a hobby that allows you lots of quality time by yourself -- a poetry workshop or a painting class. Do your constant wisecracks annoy friends? Try the open-mic night at your local comedy club. Before you know it you might discover -- hidden in your flaw -- a talent you can feel good about.
Dr. Bradberry takes this idea even further by suggesting that you structure your life around your personality type as much as possible. "Most people end up beating their head against a wall by trying to live up to some expectation that isn't right for them," he says. "But once you're aware of what you bring to the table there are a lot of excellent ways to apply your abilities."
My daughter, Erin, now 31, is a case in point. As a child she was sensitive to a fault and often upset at the perceived injustices in the world. She cried easily. But once she started volunteering at school -- in a soup kitchen, on beach cleanups -- she was able to channel that seemingly weak aspect of her temperament in a way that was productive. Today she's an environmental lawyer, which allows her to express her deep sensitivity in a powerful and empowering way
The bottom line? Take control of your negative traits without being too self-critical. We're all works in progress, and apparently even saints aren't saintly 24/7. Consider Mother Teresa: In the course of the Vatican's investigation of her life to determine whether she's a good candidate for canonization, some of the priests who worked with her reportedly described her as stubborn, controlling, and difficult to work with. But that same no-nonsense, demanding nature enabled her to move mountains when helping the poor.
What's the moral of the story, according to Dr. Tartaglia? "There's always a virtue underlying a flaw," he says, "if you're using it with love."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.