A halo or a noose? How your strengths can be weaknesses

Your strengths can also be your weaknesses. Here’s what I mean.

Upon reading a chapter of my then-unfinished manuscript, one of my peer reviewers remarked to me that she “loved my metaphors and similes.” They’re original, she said, and they really show your abilities as a writer.

Ah, a strength. I need to capitalize on this, I thought, like a broker pounces on lucrative stocks: anything that strengthens my prose is an asset. So I began adding metaphors and similes at every opportunity. People didn’t just move slowly; they moved like molasses on a chilly day in the Arctic. The backstabbing woman didn’t just speak in an overly sweet tone; she spoke like syrupy sweet tea.  Soon they adorned my paragraphs like roses on a blooming bush. In moderation, they were pretty and lovely smelling; in mass quantities, they choked you with their cloying, heavy scent. It was like having an extra set of keys on a piano or wearing an all-animal print outfit or having too many desserts at Thanksgiving dinner.

The problem was that I didn’t realize how focusing too much on this strength actually weakened my writing. Finally I read some advice from an editor. No more than one metaphor a page. Pick the strongest one and cut the others. Ouch. 

I think we all can fall prey to this. Each of us has strengths: leadership ability, intelligence, compassion, beauty or creativity or a multitude of other things. But if we focus on this too much (like I focused on creating beautiful metaphors), then it can lead to our downfall.

I once heard a speaker say it this way:

Don’t stare at your halo too long or it will become your noose.

I’ve seen this happen with pastors who become enamored of their charismatic ability to attract a large congregation and go on a power trip. Alternately, they neglect their family when they put their church/ministry first. We’ve all seen politicians who embody this truth. But it happens in other ways, too.

  • A hard worker becomes a workaholic and destroys her family.
  • A compassionate soul becomes too compassionate and doesn’t set appropriate emotional boundaries between herself and others.
  • An intelligent person begins to believe that he is more intelligent than others and dismisses others’ advice, wisdom and opinions.

And so on. Hard work, compassion and intelligence are good things. But when they become the focus of a person’s life—a halo stared at too long and too hard—then they lead to a fall—a noose hung around their neck.

When I was interviewed for a college scholarship, the interviewers asked me what my greatest strength was. I answered, “Perfectionism.” I’m not sure that was the word I wanted, but it’s a telling one. Perfectionism, to me, signaled that I was diligent in pursuing excellence, almost doggedly so; it also meant that I often pursued perfection when it wasn’t warranted or possible, often at the cost of relationships. My eighteen-year-old self intellectually recognized the negative aspect of it, but didn’t realize how high the cost could be.

Perfectionism and that obsessive need to pursue excellence had a part in my eating disorder and my first nervous breakdown. I couldn’t be as perfect as I wanted to be. None of us can.

Now I’m the same way with my writing and pursuit of publication. This morning my daughters complained, “Mommy, you’re always on the computer!” I write on my laptop, I research agents on the Internet, I tweet and update my status and make contact with other writers and readers. I’m determined; blood, sweat, and tears go into my writing efforts. But at what cost?

  • Has my determination—an admirable trait—become obsession?
  • Has it taken the place of my family and friends?
  • Do I even have friends if I spend all my time on the computer?
  • Am I even a real mother if I hide behind the computer screen and keyboard?

Has a strength become a weakness?

Has a strength ever become a weakness for you?

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8 thoughts on “A halo or a noose? How your strengths can be weaknesses

    1. Good idea, Meg. I’ll need to post a little sign near my computer, too. When I was on the final edit (ha, ha), I wrote down the major points from Self-Editing for Writers and taped it to my computer desk for reference. It’s still there!

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  1. I’m in the same boat, minus the kids. For some people, definitely myself, perfectionism takes its toll where it might just help others a little along the way.

    Metaphors in particular drive me INSANE if they are overdone or used too often. My boyfriend puts everything in a metaphors when he talks and I always ask “Why are you comparing everything??!” Metaphors in writing can be wildly powerful, and I sparely enjoy them 🙂 I will say they are not my strong point so kudos to you.

    Great post, we ALWAYS need to be reminded of these things!

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    1. Hi, Sara–

      It’s interesting how I never notice how much I overdo my metaphors at first; I’ll think, oh, look how clever I am! Each sentence is part of a loooonnnngggg extended metaphor! Then I read it later and realize how much I’ve compared one thing to another until nothing stands on its own, and I look rather obsessed with my own ideas. I guess that’s why there’s the “delete” key, right?

      For me, I’ve read over and over, “You have to get this book as perfect as possible before you send it to an agent.” And being a perfectionist, I tried to make it absolutely 100% perfect, got scared that it isn’t perfect enough, and worked on yet another polish. And that didn’t include working on the query letter, which of course, I had to make as perfect as possible. Definitely insanity-inducing behavior.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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