I have a confession to make. I am a recovering perfectionist.
What I once considered to be a bright, shining star in the constellation of my character has gradually become a large, weighted anchor in my life, bringing my ship of dreams to a slow and agonizing crawl. I watched my hopes and ambitions recede far into the distance while I remained moored to the sandy bottom, wondering why I was sinking faster than Indiana Jones in quicksand.
Maybe you’ve met someone who has described themselves as a perfectionist, and you thought to yourself, “Wow, this person really has their sh*t together”. Or perhaps you’ve interviewed for a job and thought you’d ‘nailed it’ when you described yourself as a “perfectionist with a great attention to detail”. I once bought into this idea – hook, line and sinker – praying for this turn of phrase from any interviewee perched across from my desk, priding myself on my own exhaustive work ethic, that strove for total immunity from human error.
Or maybe you’ve experienced the flip side of this same coin? You’ve encountered someone who believed that their perfectionism made them superior to everyone else, and you’ve felt a healthy dose of disdain for this individual and their inflated sense of self. After all, who really wants to hang out with the cast of “The Perfect and the Flawless”? Probably no one. That would be a recipe for a perfect storm of self-hatred and self-doubt…..likely sashaying towards you in the buffed, bronzed and botoxed body of the latest Victoria Secret model.
The truth is this. Perfectionism is ugly disguised as beautiful.
Beneath its scented and varnished veneer, it stinks every which way to Sunday. A rotting corpse hiding under the emperor’s new clothes, upheld by the collective need to protect the status quo. Perfectionism masks our deepest insecurities – fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of being found unworthy. We are terrified that we will never be ‘special’, as though it was ordained by the Gods that we all should be. We are worried that no one will love and cherish and adore us in spite of our imperfections, despite our obvious flaws.
It’s an insidious dis-ease……we are ill at ease and poorly equipped for the venerable task of living a fully open and human existence. We are fallible. There is no easy ride, no money back guarantee, no 30-day return policy for our questionable choices. Life can be patently unfair, unjustly complicated and fraught with peril. Sometimes the risks we take pan out brilliantly, and other times we ‘choke’ spectacularly. And somewhere along our journey, we are programmed to understand that failure is not an option. We are shamed when we stumble, misstep, or require a course correction. We are expected to get everything right the first time.
We perfectionists are raw in the tender places. We lack resilience. We were not given the iron will and the mettle we needed to forge our shields of self-protection. Our egos remained vulnerable, exposed and defenseless when they should have been scabbed and healed a hundred times over. We ought to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not dodged the wounds and scars that would have given us a thicker skin. We kept jumping through hoops, waltzing through life unscathed by the sharp blade of disappointment. Who decided it was in our best interests to insulate us so thoroughly that we remained delicate, flimsy and fragile?
So we spend our whole lives attempting to earn those gold stars. Nothing less is expected, nothing less is tolerated. Get straight A’s, get into college. Stay away from booze and drugs and boys (girls). Keep your head on straight. Get a good job….not the one that ‘calls’ to you of course, but the one that pays the bills, the one that secures your future. Don’t waste time on frivolities: arts and sports and extracurricular activities. Learn early……be the best or don’t even try…..don’t waste time, don’t squander resources. Maintain appearances, whatever the cost.
Perfectionists feel shame very acutely, even the ones who appear to exude the most self-confidence. They are well versed in hiding their true feelings, but there’s a tsunami of emotion going on behind the scenes. I feel embarrassment physically coursing through my body. I feel heated, my face flushes, blood pressure rises. Adrenaline flows. Oh how I hate to be wrong…….I despise making mistakes, failing at tasks, especially with an audience. And I really dread the feeling of mortification….of being caught, busted, immobilized like a cat in a trap. The harder I struggle, the more the chains wraps themselves around me. Even the recollection of such a moment invites back the physical sensations that accompanied it. The brain is a force to be reckoned with. Not unlike a long-forgotten fragrance, memory dredges up everything, including feelings of red-hot shame and bitter disgrace. So I learned to live small. Keep the peace. Keep quiet. Didn’t raise my hand, didn’t ask to be counted. Maintained my distance from people and experiences and opportunities that might have broken me out of my shell. Better to stay intact and unblemished: whole and pristine. Who wants to be broken, right?
But then, if you’re like me, you wake up one day and realize that you allowed yourself to live out someone else’s dreams, succumb to someone else’s fears. You said no to meaningful moments that could have been magical moments. You said no to the longings of your heart because you were filled with terror and you didn’t ‘buy’ that failure could be shrugged off, maybe even laughed off. It never occurred to you that you could simply dust yourself off and try again, or abandon one course of action for another. You consistently chose the safe route because anything else was discouraged. Think about that for a moment…….someone in your life, probably someone that loved you, actually tried to ‘de-courage’ you because it made them more comfortable. You were groomed to grow where you were planted. No one wanted you to find your wings.
So I’ve decided to part ways with Miss Perfectionism. I’m giving her back – return to sender. I’ve carried her weight long enough. Someone else can bear the burden for a while. She has not served me well. Let someone else follow the lure of her siren’s song. That track is so played out for me. She wants nothing more than to shatter my ship of dreams on her craggy shores. And I want freedom: to learn and grow, to stretch my wings and reach for the sky. I want to learn to laugh at myself and let others laugh with me……maybe even at me! I want to let new experiences in and old grievances out. I want to shatter my shell and let it be filled with sun and sand and sea, friends and family and adventures, every worthwhile thing that makes life worth living. And when I’m gone, I hope they gather up the tiny fragments that are left of me, from every corner of the globe, and imagine the grand and wonderful life I’ve had before sending me into the flames.
So, is this easy? Not a chance!!
I am always going to struggle. Every attempt to ‘share’ launches a deep and desperate shame spiral in me. The moment I hit ‘send’, my cheeks unwittingly flush with heat and I am utterly convinced that I will be publicly exposed as a hack with an obvious lack of talent, devoid of any ability to construct an intelligent sentence. My greatest fear is that people will think something I have written is insipid and dull, and that my photographs are soulless empty frames where compelling moments ought to be. Am I overly precious about my creations? Most probably. I feel like I’m chipping off pieces of my soul and hoping someone finds them deserving and beautiful. I’m a work in progress. But at least I’m inching out of the shadows, toward the warmth of the sun.
I know when I post this, I will have gone over it a hundred times, tweaking this, fixing that. And when I read it again in two weeks, I will find something else to be dissatisfied about. And if I should scroll back over it in a year, I will groan with embarrassed misery over some other misstep that no one else will probably ever notice. Because we are harder on ourselves than anyone else ever could be. We are our own worst enemy.
And that’s the thing……there are no guarantees that our words or photographs or paintings or music or whatever……will ever resonate with anyone. The response could be anything or it could be nothing. It could be glory or it could be gut-wrenching. But it’s not a reason not to try.
And then you release it to the universe.
And you let it be what it will be.