It’s an odd way to think about virtues. You don’t usually think of them as possibly defective, but isn’t it true that any good thing can be taken too far and become a bad thing?
Think of the person with leadership qualities. His role is to take charge, but he can be overbearing if he can’t take the back seat when it’s needed. Perhaps you know this guy or you’ve worked with him on a project where he absolutely had to be top dog even if someone else was actually in charge!
Think, too, of the frugal person who tips the scale toward miserliness, the sensitive person that can’t be decisive or proactive, or the parent running the lives of adult children who need (and want!!!) to be on their own. Moderateness in financial management is wise, and sensitivity is as vital as attentive parenting, but at times, a necessary boundary gets crossed. That’s when a virtue reveals its defective shadow side.
I’ll relate a personal experience that’s relevant here. Several years ago I worked in an agency that was divided internally between two factions. The first was an old guard that had run the agency for years before the second, a newer group with more current ideas, was hired on. Some kind of clash was probably unavoidable.
Just possibly, the situation could have been worked out. Other established agencies had been invigorated with a shot of new blood from the outside, and the right leadership could have guided us away from the backstabbing, covert agendas and nastiness that ended up happening.
A bad situation grew worse in time and eventually it was obvious that some sort of shake-up was needed. Hard truths had to be spoken and reckoned with, but there was one huge obstacle in the way – the leaders seemed virtually allergic to talking truth and getting real.
Fortunately for me, I left before things hit rock bottom, but I left angry about the avoidance, the futility, the embarrassing failures, and the enervating tension we’d all lived with. I did take away one lesson. That is that sometimes someone needs to risk it, be “inappropriate”, and speak the hard truth that nobody else is willing to utter.
That’s when one of my virtues, the tendency to be direct, got dangerously close to becoming a defect. Reasoning that if silence and evasion could be that lethal, I decided that the best way to correct this was with openness and candor. There’s a degree of logic to that, but what I decided to do was to say exactly what I felt and believed – and to not think about any of the consequences.
The reality of this was that I cared less and less about how I might make people feel, even if I was blunt to the point of rudeness. I got so self-righteous that any sensitivity and moderation seemed like weakness and lack of resolution, as if softening the blow to any degree would mean muting the message. But it wasn’t that I was going to dare to be confrontational; I took it as my duty to do so.
At the time, I could only see that my “forthrightness” was needed and even beneficial. Had I been less sanctimonious, I might have been able to be more objective. I might have seen that I was totally overreacting to what I’d just been through, and that I was driven more by hurt, anger and frustration than by a real concern to set things right (although a degree of that was there). Fortunately, the wise words of an older man helped me to turn the corner before I really did any damage, but I was definitely headed in that direction.
So often it’s these emotional things that twist our better natures past the point where they are adaptive to where they become a liability. Have you considered how this could be a part of difficulties you are facing? Is there some situation in your life where something right has gone wrong? That’s where you might moderate your own reactions and utilize the adaptive part of your skill.