By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes our strengths are weaknesses in disguise.
One recent morning, I woke early with an idea in my head for a new story. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. It was still dark outside and a cool breezed huffed in through the open windows, shushing me back to sleep. Yet a clear picture arose in my mind of a man and two singular aspects of his life, and these ideas hummed themselves together into a beautiful sentence. My sleepy self insisted the ideas would hold together, the words would cling in my heart like syrup to fingers. I told myself it was okay to go back to sleep.
But whoever remembers such things? The words or dreams we want to stay with us evaporate the more we want them to remain. I sat up and turned on a light. After a trip to the kitchen to warm up yesterday’s coffee, I did something I hadn’t done in a while, and wrote in bed. It was chilly enough that I donned the sweater linked by sensory memory to writing – I wore it almost daily at the writing retreat I attended in Vermont in the spring. As I flipped open my laptop I relished the sweet perfection of feeling at once cozy and creative and content. I began to write in that cherished, blissful way, where it all flows, and there is no thought or judgment about it, just all the words becoming themselves.
One of the reasons writing something new like this feels so freeing is that nothing about it is centered on thinking. When I’m working this way, the process is about throwing open doors and windows and letting everything that needs to get out get out, and letting everything that needs to get in get in. John Greenleaf Whittier says in one of his poems, “All the windows of my heart / I open to the day.” It’s like that.
When I write, my heart does the heavy lifting and my brain offers vocabulary, some structural tools, a bit of philosophy here and there. Most days though, my heart and brain team up differently. My heart is feeling and my brain is thinking and they feed off of each other, but it is more like a relay race and less like the very intimate dance of writing.
This interplay of thoughts and feelings has led me to consider why I have often been the subject of two observations: you think too much and you feel too much. The more familiar variants are: you’re overthinking this and you’re too sensitive. I have recently – through much thinking and feeling on the matter – come to a new understanding on the topic: I am thinking and feeling exactly the right amount for me. However, I am reacting far too quickly.
How overwhelming this must be for other people, considering how overwhelming it is for me! Friends and loved ones have often looked at me, bewildered at best, and frustrated, annoyed, or angry at worst, because my reactions seem out of sync with their understanding of a situation. And while my thoughts and feelings may not be out of sync, my outward reactions admittedly have been at times.
Realizing this, I have begun to explore a new-to-me idea. Mouth shut, heart and mind open. This is the part where I observe my heart and mind doing what they do best, without trying to interpret everything in the moment, with words that have not yet had a chance to catch up to meaning. I’m learning to take time and space to allow a process to occur, rather than rushing into speaking about things I have not yet had a chance to make sense of. It’s unfair to everyone and processes take time.
Yet it is important to note the following: the things we feel hypersensitive to or want to overthink about are the things our hearts and brains are signaling as significant. Heart bucking and full of ache? Thoughts galloping in all directions? These are clues. These are frantic, arm-waving events where we are trying to tell ourselves Pay attention! This is what and whom you care about the most and we are trying to tell you why and how it all matters! We owe it to ourselves to be contemplative about such things; we owe it to the people in our lives to consider how to react.
We all have these perceived weaknesses, characteristics that we’ve been told are flaws but don’t feel that way to us, yet still, they trip us up. It’s confusing, and difficult to untangle, when you get the sense that you are too something, or not enough of something else. We internalize these messages. External criticism of misunderstood qualities becomes internal self-censure, and over the years we accumulate a misunderstanding of ourselves. But maybe our weaknesses are strengths we have not yet learned to harness. Maybe they are clues to a higher level of understanding or way of being that we have not yet caught up to.
Perhaps my over-thinking and super-sensitivity can provide me sustained guidance in a way they haven’t before, now that I’ve begun to pay attention to them in a new way. Perhaps I can do more than catch glimpses of insight, a flash of inspiration. Maybe I can cultivate intuition and wisdom. Maybe I can hold on to it.
It isn’t easy, turning away from reacting and ruminating and toward contemplation. It takes sustained effort, and flexing muscles we may not be used to. I’m hopeful that as I practice this way of feeling and thinking, I’ll learn more about myself, about how to know when a situation is about quietly healing past wounds – self-inflicted or otherwise – and when it is about an ongoing external situation.
How many times have we been surprised to find our emotions running high, not knowing what brought them on, and how many times do we assume a situational trigger is at work, rather than an internal struggle we’d prefer to ignore because we don’t fully understand it? Sometimes when we are urgently trying to make connections between thoughts and feelings and words, we make mistakes, connect dots and form inaccurate pictures, and in doing so, we do more harm than good to the connections we share with the people we care about.
I am hopeful that the rewards of revaluing the characteristics perceived as weaknesses will be as sweet and as satisfying as the golden rush of new writing. All of it comes from the same source. The unfiltered flow of a new story is not much different from the unfiltered outpouring of deeply felt emotions and so many scattered thoughts. Perhaps, just as the process of revision shapes a story, so too will contemplation crystalize overwrought thoughts and overwhelming feelings into insights that can be savored, and when desired, shared.
Maybe, too, we can begin to consider the ways in which the perceived weaknesses of others might be regarded in a new light. Let’s be patient with one another; we all have powers we don’t yet know how to wield.