Walking the Tightrope of Change: When Virtue Becomes Vice

By: Laura Berger

I was ‘Structured Laura’ before Glen and I moved to Costa Rica in 2006. I thrived in the corporate environment. So, when we embarked to Central America, I thought to myself, “If I can make it in fast-paced downtown Chicago, paradise will be a piece of cake!” Nonetheless, I prepared for the trip with what I do best–read every tourist guide I could get my hands on, researched extensively, and generated a meticulous daily to-do list to complete the “project” of getting settled as efficiently as possible.

To my dismay, there were heaps of surprises. To name just a couple, the critters were the size of tea saucers and more crawly than I thought, and the downpours were like nothing I had ever seen. But the most unnerving surprise was the slow-moving, carefree way of life for the locals called Ticos. It became quickly clear that jungles aren’t made for rigid and inflexible types like me. You’ve got to be ready for anything and just let misadventures roll off your shoulders. And the more I clamored for control, the more out of control my life became. Then one day, things got so bad that I decided letting go and having no control couldn’t be any worse.

My mantra became, “Let it go.” Realizing the very tendencies that helped me get ahead in the business world were now holding me back, I adopted a more supple, free-flowing mindset. I had to pivot to prevent my virtues from becoming vices.

Not only a mere change of setting or circumstance can force us to examine whether our virtues are working for or against us. Sometimes the stress of day-to-day living can create a dust storm that clouds our connection to our virtues and distorts how they show up in our daily lives. In other cases, one of our virtues might actually be closer to a vice.

• Humility, for example, is just a stone’s throw from insecurity or self-doubt, and, if we’re not careful, can morph into meekness of resignation. Think of an employee who always credits other colleagues for his own successes or who stays quiet rather than celebrating his wins on a big project. Those who remain too quiet or too resigned may miss opportunities for personal or professional growth. If you consider humility one of your personal virtues, know that owning and celebrating your victories is not the same as bragging about them, and be confident in your decision to go after what you want.

• On the flip side of the coin, passion, though beneficial in some settings, can hamper others and compromise relationships if not controlled. If you are an enthusiastic advocate for a humanitarian cause, political ideology, or even your own career, recognize how you come across when voicing your opinions. Now, this doesn’t mean you should never speak up about your viewpoints. In fact, speaking up about what’s morally right is always admirable. However, it’s one thing to objectively stand up to sexism or racism, for example, and another thing to talk politics on a conference call. That said, even in a situation where debate is accepted—say, for example, at a dinner with friends—don’t let your passion overshadow compassion and common human decency. Simply strike a balance between voicing your own perspective and allowing those around you to do the same.

• Lastly, forward thinking, though highly effective in challenging work environments, can otherwise turn into over-planning and rigidity, as it did for me in Costa Rica. While people usually plan and schedule their lives to gain control, the amount of control we truly have is quite limited. As a result, these virtues can foment, rather than assuage, anxiety. While meticulously scheduling, prioritizing and planning tasks might serve you in the workplace, attempting to maintain that structure at home, with your spouse or kids, or on vacation, can freeze spontaneity and the joy that arises from simply enjoying whatever the present moment brings.

While flexibility is what saved me in Costa Rica, embracing versatility can help you no matter what virtue or vice you are dealing with. But, it’s about more than just going with the flow. It’s about attuning your own thoughts and actions to match the situation. This requires an awareness of yourself, the people around you, and your circumstances.

Now that you are aware of the potential dark side of some key virtues, how can you act to channel them in the right way? Check in with yourself regularly, whether through meditation, journaling, or simply stepping away for a moment of reflection. Ask yourself if what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it is still serving you. If the answer is no, know that in releasing a mode of being that no longer serves you, you create space for something new—something better. After all, versatility brings great value to your life. Your ability to adapt to different situations will benefit you no matter where you work, what you do, or who you want to become.

This article originally appeared on www.psychologytoday.com


Featured on ABC News, CNBC, Yahoo Finance, Redbook, Self, and the Miami Herald, Laura Berger is a certified executive coach and co-founder of the Berdeo Group. Her clients include leaders at JP Morgan Chase, The Walt Disney World Company, Financial Solutions Advisory Group, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. She is the co-author of two books: Fall in Love Again Every Day and Radical Sabbatical.

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