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.

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. 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.

30 replies
  1. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    IT would be interesting to see how you found out about this “weakness”. I find out about weaknesses when I am actually doing something. If I never do anything that will uncover a weakness I would be in the same boat you are. I think our minds are like our senses…if one sense is gone the others step up. If subcontiously we have a weakness, our strengths step up. I could be wrong – which has, believe it or not, happened quite a bit. But it all comes back to knowledge. Knowing what you have to offer, what you have to work on, and where you fit best in the mix is invaluable.

  2. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    God works in mysterious ways. When we’re given great weaknesses, we area also given great strengths. Although you may suffer, in other area’s you excel.

  3. Corvida
    Corvida says:

    Incredible and I must say, it puts you in a role-model type of light (which is good). Very positive story though, and I thank you for sharing it. I don’t think I’d have the guts to be as positive as you are if I were in your shoes.

  4. Curmudgeon
    Curmudgeon says:

    Hi Penelope – You talked about compensating, which is a great strategy for dealing with weaknesses in general, but you also mentioned overcoming. In face blindness, would training in recognizing faces, such as consciously noting eye color, nose shape, etc. and associating those sets of characteristics with specific individuals help you overcome?

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “But to me, it's a relief to show the weakness because then I don't need to spend energy hiding it.”
    I always thought women were the stronger sex. It was Clint Eastwood who said – A man has got to know his limitations. I guess that’s a start.

  6. Jo L
    Jo L says:

    Have you looked at the faceblind group on yahoo? Lots of information there about how to cope with this particular weakness

  7. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    "But to me, it's a relief to show the weakness because then I don't need to spend energy hiding it."

    This is the sign of a cool person.

  8. sifi
    sifi says:

    What a fascinating condition. I am very visual (although not a visual learner) and I rarely forget a face. I have had to learn to NOT speak to strangers just because I know their faces. In most cases it causes people to feel flustered and self-conscious. Many times on “meeting” people I pretend I have never seen them before. My twin is a visual artist. When we were younger we would go shopping and pick out people who looked like the subjects in Old Master Paintings, such as Rembrandt’s.

  9. Mary Baum
    Mary Baum says:

    Very interesting. I’ve always remembered people for years, even after sometimes meeting them just once or twice — it used to blow people away.

    But the idea of noticing people’s breathing and voices in meetings to build rapport — a common technique in neurolinguistic programming — still throws me if I don’t know them or my material well. I’m way too wrapped up in the content to have any idea of what’s happening with anyone else — another kind of can’t-see, I suppose, that’s gotten me into all kinds of trouble for 25 years.

  10. Andrew Weaver
    Andrew Weaver says:

    Very, very interesting. I had never heard of this condition. I really like where you went with this article, and how you look at this “weakness”. Very inspiring.

  11. Dan Geiger
    Dan Geiger says:

    This was personal and revealing. It makes me think that it would be better if I were to admit weaknesses right away in relationships rather than trying to compensate or hide from them. What do we have to lose? The older I get, I realize that there are less and less reasons for us to not be so authentic!

  12. Adam Kamerer - JoyChaser.com
    Adam Kamerer - JoyChaser.com says:

    I really loved this post. It’s a great example of working around your problems, rather than wasting energy trying to fix something that can’t be fixed. It’s a bit like when someone loses their eyesight, and their hearing becomes more sensitive to compensate.

  13. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Sometimes, however, what is perceived to be a weakness may not really be so and instead a blessing.

    For instance, in the discussion area of your last thread, I mentioned my lack of “social skills” and my preference for writing as opposed to talking. I further indicated that this may have been a result of my slight hearing loss. Some, if not, most people would consider that a “weakness,” but I’m still not entirely certain that this is even correct.

    In what way is a lack of verbal social skills considered a weakness? Most of the time, people don’t even THINK before they speak. If people spoke as slowly as they write, bars and nightclubs would turn into discussion groups and literary circles. Even if we make an assumption that people are going to talk like they have a half of a brain when they’re in a bar, there’s always our good friend, alcohol, which some people use to help them say things they wouldn’t otherwise. Do I really want to hang out with such people? Is this the great adventure of “socializing” that we’re promised? If we go to a church, we’re able to express a part of ourselves in the social hour after services, but even in the so-called liberal and open-minded churches, it’s still only a part of ourselves. At work, we are mostly limited to work-related matters. Yet, if there are other parts of our social being which need nurtured after the bars, work and church, such as my penchant for political and economic concerns, then there are always groups which specialize in that sort of thing.

    So we have to go to different places to have different needs met and anyone who doesn’t agree with that has a “lack of social skills?” Just because I don’t want to talk to a drunk, a religious extremist, my boss, or political activists who I feel are using the wrong strategy, then that makes me “anti-social?”

    This is why I love the internet. It lets me select the kind of groups I want to participate in and better still, through the fact that I have to, for the most part, write to communicate on the internet, it allows me to be objective to people who welcome that sort of objectivity. I can craft every word towards a specific individual or to a group such as this one.

    Every individual has a unique set of interests and with the internet, spatial and temporal differences are truly a non-issue. There may be only two people in your town of 750,000 that feel exactly the way you do about a particular subject, but with the internet, there may very well be a discussion group out there that allows you to connect with millions across the globe that share your particular interest.

    So, it’s not that I have a lack of social skills. It’s just that I have a set of specialized interests which may not be capable of being immediately met in my physical surroundings, thus forcing me to use my writing skills through the medium that allows me to connect with people who do share my interests. This way, I don’t have to compromise my identity just to get along with the yayhoos in my neighborhood.

  14. Karl Goldfield
    Karl Goldfield says:

    Nothing has brought me closer to understanding my weaknesses than marriage. My wife is my mirror and now that I have helped her work through the fear of hurting me, she keeps me in check. It is great to have her there to tell when I am not listening, or have become overbearing. She is the brakes on this rail car and has hepled me mature immensely.

    When I look back at how much I have changed, the thought often crosses my mind that many of these defects of character were unknown to me. Through caring about what someone close to me thinks, and having her candor has been amazing.

  15. john
    john says:

    If you have not already, read the classic essay called “Compensation” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Addresses brilliantly the same subject, as you did also I might add.

  16. Todd Schultz
    Todd Schultz says:

    Focusing on your strengths is a great way to work, because it increases productivity. It minimizes the time we spend worrying about what we can’t do and increases the time we spend doing something.
    Great Post.

  17. MJ
    MJ says:

    Now we just have to get our educational and work cultures to change – the MO still seems to be “beat the weakness to death, and if you destroy the strength in the process, oh well.”

    How much productivity do we waste ignoring natural strengths to agonize over a weakness counting for about 1% of our productivity>

  18. Rick
    Rick says:

    MJ and Todd raise good points on this issue. You need to recognize and rely on your strengths when you need them. But what if you have a glaring (at least to you) weakness that gets in the way of your career advancement or healthier relationships? Are you introspective enough to recognize that weakness and become mentally “locked in” to overcoming it? That personal discipline, plus the degree of importance you place on overcoming that weakness, can help you overcome it. (That’s why I also like PT’s post last week on social skills.)

    Our society, unfortunately, tends to dwell too much on someone’s “negatives,” or weaknesses, rather than on his or her strengths (Does politics come to mind, anyone?). And it takes a lot of work to overcome those weaknesses and turn them into strengths. You need discipline and self awareness.

  19. MsKim
    MsKim says:

    Thanks for the post! I have this condition as well and absolutely no one I know can understand how I can meet someone and then see them the next day and not recognize them. It’s nice to see how others deal with this condition. Thanks for putting a postive spin on this :)

  20. Music Site
    Music Site says:

    (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.)

    You have said well, that was wonderful, I wouldn’t say better, you worth lots of credit for this saying.

    Keep the good work up.

    Thank you,
    Regards.

  21. Tony Tallent
    Tony Tallent says:

    I think you’re right-on here. Have you noticed that often people don’t quite know how to take it when you just say, “by the way I know XYZ about myself…” Does it generally make others uncomfortable when we are ourselves?
    Tony

  22. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    PBS had a series once about the early Christians. As a result I came across a letter by a guy who signed his name as Leo, Sinner.

    My first impression was that this declaration is a big relief because if you acknowledge your weaknesses right off the bat, you don’t have to worry about hiding them.

    The same sort of thing takes place at AA meetings when people introduce themselves by saying “I’m so and so and I’m an alcoholic.”

    But while the acknowledgement of limitations will free you from the need to defend your faults it won’t free you from the need to defend your competence. Because although you are imperfect you still need to be recognized for the things you can do. And once you admit a limitation, there are going to be people who will try to use it to disqualify you from responsibilities you are still fit to handle.

  23. Antoine Clarke
    Antoine Clarke says:

    Your weakness in one context could actually be remarkably useful in an other. If you compensate by focussing on how people move, you would make a phenomenal spotter of disguises. Every casino and not a few security agencies would like to meet you.

    And if someone can make software analyse video footage the way you work, there’s a big law enforecement/security market.

  24. Spanish Fork Mechanic
    Spanish Fork Mechanic says:

    I beileve God gives us weakness so that we might be humble. Trusting in him is sufficient to overcome any weakness. I think you have the right attitude, congrats on overcoming a challenge.

  25. Jean
    Jean says:

    Fascinating – sorry for being a year and a half late on this, but I think I might have the same problem. I can have a two-hour lunch with a person, have a great conversation, and then not recognize them the next day if I see them out of context. It usually takes me several meetings before I can recognize a person as someone I’ve met before, though if they remind me of our connection, or of a piece of our conversation, then I know exactly who they are. This is very interesting: I didn’t know this was an actual disorder. I guess I just assumed I’m not a “visual person.” I also have trouble with spacial awareness, though my aural memory is nearly verbatim.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. In this case, you’re honesty really helped me. I’ve apparently got some research to do.

  26. Diane Dawson
    Diane Dawson says:

    Oh wow. It has a name? I have this too. My whole life, I’ve wondered why I can see friends and colleagues out of context – in the supermarket – and have NO idea who they are. I worked in The Business in LA for a while and was constantly saying something dumb to some celeb I didn’t recognize. I thought I was just not paying enough attention. Yay for diagnoses!

  27. Damocles
    Damocles says:

    I understand that there’s an ophthalmology in Ireland who
    invented a pair of specs that can overcome this problem.
    Perhaps you can check that out.

  28. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    If I remember correctly, this was the first post I read on this blog. I found it (and the comments) to be so intriguing that I decided to keep reading. I just re-read it and the lesson is a good reminder.
    Anyways, last night I watched CBS’s 60 Minutes and they had a segment titled “Face Blindness: When everyone is a stranger” – http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57399118/face-blindness-when-everyone-is-a-stranger/ . The video link is located in the column on the same page. There’s also web extra links on the page.
    We have flight simulators. I’ve always thought the world would be a better place if we had “human condition” simulators – just so that it would be possible for each one of us to experience for even a short period of time what’s it’s like to experience what other people do.

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