Integrating Imperfection: How My Childhood Weakness Became Adult Strength
The path to self-mastery does not come from changing or removing the aspects of yourself that you feel are negative. Yet, most of our cultural rhetoric around self-improvement would have us believe that we need to stamp out the pieces of our nature that block our path to success. Seek to eliminate bad habits but understand that there are no “bad” traits.
Overcome adversity. Conquer your weaknesses. These sound more like battle cries than encouragement. We do need to maintain a rigid, warrior-like commitment to our path if we are to travel far. However, viewing certain traits as enemies to be vanquished makes the self-love that self-mastery requires quite difficult.
I recently had a moment of deep personal insight of how a struggle I faced as a child has become a driving force for my current passion. I was on a date with a girl studying to be a Speech and Language Pathologist. She works to help people overcome speech impediments of all kinds from children, to stroke victims, to adults wishing to reduce or eliminate their foreign accents. I told her that I had speech issues as a child and attended speech therapy in 2nd and 3rd grade. I never really overcame or eliminated my issue, I simply learned a way around it. Insight struck while I told my story; learning to sidestep my problems forced deep introspection and integrating my issue actually fostered growth toward traits that I now consider some of my greatest attributes.
My Speech Problem
I typically describe my speech impediment as a stutter, more for convenience than accuracy. I never repeated sounds or whole words like most people associate with a stutter. More accurately, I had hitch or a lockup. My mouth and jaw would seize up and become physically incapable of producing certain sounds. Specific words and sounds more frequently gave me trouble, but no clear pattern emerged. It could happen often or infrequently, at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, and seemed to occur at random. The only common factor was nerves or anxiety.
The seemingly random occurrence presented extreme frustration. It also led me to live in fear of when it might happen again, which, undoubtedly made the issue worse.
Working with my speech therapist, Mrs. Cornish, helped tremendously. She was nurturing, compassionate, and helped me to discover as well as value my voice. However, I never solved my issue in the classical sense. I never overcame or conquered the impediment by learning how to stop it from happening. I learned about myself and integrated my issues in my life in a healthy way.
When I was young and hit a hard stop I would pause until I discovered different words to talk my way around the block. I have no idea how long these pauses were but they felt like an eternity, shame and frustration growing with each agonizing second. As I matured my vocabulary grew in parallel with my awareness of the blocks. I developed a stronger sense of when a problematic word or sound was approaching. I cannot fully describe this sense. I can only say that I could feel when a block was coming. I completely believe these blocks to be self-created, but that does not change their arrival or ability to completely halt my speech.
As I learned to see them coming, I learned to subtly re-route my sentences to avoid the roadblocks. What were once hard stops forcing a sharp detour now were slight course adjustments further upstream. This process has grown seamless for me. Most people that I met as an adolescent and young adult would never detect that I ever struggled speaking as a child.
Even though I speak with ease and confidence now, both personally and publicly, I never fully corrected my issue. I still feel the hard stops coming, but I have grown adept at moving around them. I used to view this as a bit of a cop-out, sidestepping the issue rather than confronting it head on.
I now understand that we all have aspects of our nature that we will never completely eliminate. These issues, while frustrating and painful, offer us our greatest opportunities for growth.
Two of my greatest strengths as a coach and writer are born from my early difficulties speaking.
I often receive compliments for the clarity and simplicity with which I explain challenging and technical concepts. I consider this quality to be my greatest strength as a teacher. I honed this ability to articulate during my years teaching calculus, working as an engineer, and coaching. But my initial aptitude grew out of necessity to find multiple ways of expressing the same meaning.
I love the process of crafting language and reading authors who play with their words. I do not consider myself a wordsmith like many of my favorite authors, but I do receive praise for my unique selection of words, metaphor, and analogy. This attribute relates to the first; word selection with apt metaphors, similes, and analogies contribute to my ability to clearly define and teach. These skills are two sides of the same coin and grew from my early struggles with words. I used to take pride in talking my way around a block so smoothly that no one but I could detect it’s presence. Now crafting a fun turn of phrase or unique description offer an extension of this same enjoyment.
I offer this story not to boast but to demonstrate how a struggle that used to bring shame and frustration provided fuel and a launch pad to develop two traits that define my path in life.
I still experience the rare road block. I still freeze up during the occasional stressful situation requiring a long pause and a sharp turn to re-route the sentence. For the most part, I feel the blocks coming a mile away and alter course so subtly that I am hardly consciously aware. I have learned to integrate this part of my nature into a vital piece of how I operate. The process I learned to overcome my speech impediment contributes to my current success.
Integrating Your Imperfections
Think about the parts of your nature that provide a constant source of struggle, frustration, or shame. Do not let your least favorite parts of your nature provide a source of pain. Celebrate these imperfections as well as what they can teach you. How has living with these aspects forced you to grow, forced you to learn, forced a deeper understanding of yourself?
Many of the best coaches were athletes whose passion for their chosen sport far exceeded their natural abilities. They were forced to become dedicated students of their game to reach any significant level of success. Their childhoods were likely filled with frustration as their dedication and hard work still found them on the bench, or worse, in the bleachers. Their struggle to improve gave them unique insights on the craft of the game. Early struggles birthed a highly effective coach.
We all have pieces of ourselves that we wish to eliminate or change. Many traits and patterns can be completely stamped out, but many cannot.
I wager that your unique abilities grew out of your unique struggle.