I have a disorder called prosopagnosia, more commonly called face blindness. It means that I have a hard time ‘seeing’ faces.
It took me about a month to know what each of my babies looked like. I remember thinking how it’s a miracle that the human race survived when it is so difficult to remember what your baby looks like. And it took me three months of dating my husband before I could imagine what he looked like when I wasn’t with him. In the beginning, each time we had another date, I would think, "I sure hope I’m attracted to him. I think I am. I was the last time."
When I played professional volleyball, I knew if I was playing someone with a tough serve, or a hard cut shot. I recognized opponents during a match. But away from the beach, many times I didn’t recognize those same players. They were always surprised. And I always said, "I don’t recognize you with clothes on."
What I meant was, "I keep track of people by how their bodies move, and it’s easiest for me if you are wearing a bikini." I thought everyone kept track this way. I thought I was just stating the obvious. I thought I was normal.
But now that I know it’s a deficit, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I play games with myself – can I recall someone one minute later? One hour later? Can I recall someone I had two lunches with? It used to be incredible to me that anyone remembered a face. Now it’s incredible to me that I have walked around with this disorder my whole life and not known.
Bringing Strengths to Bear
Today, I read a lot about catering to our strengths. The research instructs us to focus on using our natural strengths and not worry about our weaknesses. It’s tough advice to follow, though. Because once we know our weaknesses, they become a source of embarrassment and we want to fix them.
A weakness, after all, is a potential vulnerability, and we feel like we will appear stronger if we make sure to hide our weaknesses. It’s one reason why people are shocked when I blog about getting fired, or not being able to contain my own jealousy. But to me, it’s a relief to show the weakness because then I don’t need to spend energy hiding it.
And the faceblindness is such a good example of how to ignore a weakness. I am very in tune with bodies – I can identify people by how they walk and how they carry themselves. Especially in a bikini. I never stopped to think about how weird I am in the world because I can’t remember faces – because I didn’t know. Instead, all those years, I practiced remembering everyone’s voice and gait, instead of stewing over the fact that I couldn’t remember their faces.
It’s a great model for how to operate with any weakness. It’s an extreme example of not focusing on fixing a weakness, but compensating with strengths.
If you say, "I’m disappointed that I have this weakness. I wish I were born differently," then there’s nothing you can do to see things more optimistically. But if you say, "There are pluses and minuses to this situation, and I do get to have a different perspective on the world that is interesting," then there is room not to live with such regret.
Focusing on how to overcome a problem, instead of focusing on the problem itself, is a healthy thing to do, of course, but it’s nice to know that there’s research to back this up. Thinking about how I compensated for faceblindness gives me confidence that I could do that for other skills where I am aware of a weakness.