It’s a typical Sunday when my boyfriend is happy to relax and laze about in the hammock in my back patio — and I join him for about 15 minutes before I get restless and ask what we’re going to do next. This ability to easily relax and enjoy leisure is what I call his “vacation brain.” Very little upsets him; he is generally calm and almost never defensive. There is a flipside to this enviable quality, though. His relaxed demeanor means a certain detachment. He prefers to avoid difficult things and easily puts them out of mind (sometimes to my annoyance).
These opposing traits are two sides of the same coin, or, what I think of as a Janus face. Janus is the Roman god of motion and transitions. Since these concepts are complementary in nature – starting one thing means ending another, arriving in one place requires leaving somewhere else — Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, one looking to the future, and one to the past. Similarly, our greatest strengths are typically the inverse of our biggest weaknesses.
We all have qualities that express themselves as positive strengths that, in different contexts, can be infuriating to others. For example, someone that is really well organized and plans ahead, might not be very spontaneous and can come across as rigid. Someone who is kind and accommodating might be happy to please others, but find it hard to express opinions or know their own mind. Or- the opposite- someone who is very self-sufficient and independent, might be unwilling to compromise or accept help.
I find it useful to see these two sides of a person as parts of the same whole. It helps me accept frustrating traits in others when I recognize that they stem from the same place as a trait I love deeply– almost as too much of a good thing.
At work, I can easily see that my boss is great with ideas. I enjoy meeting with her to brainstorm about projects and the direction of our group, but she does not dig into the details and I can get frustrated by what feels like a lack of support. This combination of ability to see the big picture but not focus on details is my Janus face too. I am quick to pick things up, love big ideas and brainstorming new ways of doing things, and doing my job quickly and efficiently….but don’t ask me to proofread anything, or dig too far in the details. I can, but it’s not a strength of mine. If I’m being honest, it’s decidedly a weakness.
Examples of my Janus face feel weightier in my personal life, where cultivating close relationships both sustains me and, at times, enervates me. I’m a very loving and caring friend, and thrive on being helpful to others. As I try to please the many people in my life, however, I easily overcommit and end up scrambling from one thing to the next. Sometimes I find myself feeling grouchy when I feel like other people’s demands and priorities are ruling my life.
These opposing combinations I see in myself– of my helpfulness/overextension, my strong big picture/weak details—this is my Janus face. The good and bad that together makes me me. It’s the things most likely infuriate my friends and family, but also that makes them love me.
Looking at these tendencies as two sides of the same fundamental characteristic helps me accept the parts that feel like weaknesses. I no longer just berate myself for typos or feel terrible when I don’t have the head for details that other people do. These still feel like weaknesses, and they are. I have to compensate for them: I ask for help, I spend more time and effort on details, I horde time to myself. Instead of feeling like these qualities are deep personal failings, however, I now recognize that my strengths are held up by the same foundation that created these flaws. This allows me to see both qualities as essential and valuable; they are the mix that make the whole.
And perhaps each side does truly serve an important purpose. When I feel overextended, for example, and tendrils of resentment creep in, I try to see it as a message that I need more balance. I need to slow down a bit, and take better care of myself, Janus face and all.
Readers– what is your Janus face? I think it helps to start with something you think is a real strength and then ask: does this have a dark side?
Image: Three details from “Gwynne” by Chuck Close (1982), image from B.S. Wise (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)