The Beautiful Gift of Your Dysfunction

This Zoom call isn't like the others. 

I’m looking for a dragon.

Costumed three-year-olds wander in a haphazard circle as a perky witch shoos the occasional stray from the laptop screen. 

There's a Captain America, a Minnie Mouse, and a couple of Spider-Mans. But that's not why I'm here. 

The awkward parade continues for what feels like forever.

"Where is he?" 

My wife and I are laughing. 

"I need proof of life!"

Then, from the bottom of the screen rise two orange horns and a pair of googly white eyes perched atop a stubby, electric-green snout. It's a dragon, our dragon, sitting at the edge of the herd alone. One character, apart from the rest. 

His face appears on the camera for a moment. Has he been crying? It’s hard to tell with the pixelated preschool wifi.

One thing is certain. My dragon is shy, painfully so. When it strikes, the physical sensation makes him want to curl up like an armadillo. It comes from extreme sensitivity. 

I should know. I’m the same way.

That was me sitting at the edge of the crowd while everyone else danced and played. That was me burying my head into my mother’s leg and crying the moment a stranger bent down to say “hello.” That was me struggling to make friends in a world where “fun” is designed for extroverts. And while that may sound all “Awww, cutesy,” the reality is it sucked. It still sucks.

Your children are going to inherit your dysfunction. We should make that clear right now. Nature vs. nurture makes for fun navel-gazing when you're young and looking to blame your parents for why you're a basket-case. But then, one day, you have children of your own and those debates are settled.

They’re just like you, flaws and all.

Seeing the things we don’t like about ourselves manifest in our children is a harsh trip. The mirror we use for self-reflection is more akin to that of a carnival funhouse than reality. You spend a lifetime staring into that warped image searching for answers until, one day, a three-year-old is staring back at you.

Their life story plays out in the horror cinema of your mind. Familiar scenes of public rejection and private struggle appear in vivid, high definition. You realize you’ve cursed them. The feelings of guilt and shame are overwhelming.

This is all my fault. 

I’ve spent my entire life adapting to a world not made for me. Our lives, our very culture, are stitched together by personal relationships. Whether it’s your love life or your career, success is highly correlated with the ability to attract people into our orbit and keep them there. For people like me and my son, that’s like asking a painter to go race in the Indianapolis 500.

Through my own journey though, I’ve learned something. The same sensitivity that made life challenging is also a source of tremendous strength.

My sensitivity makes me highly attuned to the emotions of others. I pick up on people’s feelings quickly. When a colleague or loved one is uncomfortable, I sense it. This makes me a better partner, a better leader, a better friend.

That sensitivity has also provided me with unusually strong visual-spatial awareness. I can look at a design and quickly identify when something seems out of place, or click through a user interface and immediately sense when something feels off. It’s a skill that translates extraordinarily well to my occupation as a product manager. It’s my superpower.

There’s a line of thinking that goes something like this: Your greatest strengths, taken to their extremes, become weaknesses. Well, I’m here to tell you that the opposite is also true. Hidden within your greatest flaws is phenomenal strength. If you’ve made it this far, and assuming you’ve been able to avoid more self-destructive coping mechanisms, you’ve learned some degree of control over your demons. And anything you can control, you can use.

The occupational benefits of my social anxiety would have been a happy enough ending before I had kids. I made it through. I have an amazing wife and a great career. I wrestled the monster and won. Or so I thought.

Now, as a father, I see things a bit differently. I see that my own experience will serve a far higher calling, helping my boy navigate a world that isn’t made for him.

I can let him know that it’s ok to keep to yourself. I can remind him that it’s good to feel big feelings. I can teach him that he’ll find people who love him, regardless. I can show him how his sensitivity is a beautiful gift.

Have feedback or a question? DM me on Twitter @DMBrowers.